We didn’t head to the border with Cameroon as planned. There had been a power cut overnight and the fan and air-con in our tiny room stopped making it too hot and sweaty for me to sleep. Add to that, that it was raining heavy in the morning and I just couldn’t be bothered to go anywhere. Power cuts are common in Africa but they have been way more frequent in Nigeria than anywhere else. At Emmy’s place in Lagos, the local authorities ration the power between different districts by only giving them electricity on certain days. We moved to a nicer hotel that had a back up generator and used the extra time to further get to know the city. Calabar is completely different to any of the other cities we have seen in Nigeria. Its roads are pretty much all sealed, in good condition, in lots of places they are illuminated and the people drive in an orderly fashion. The curator of a local museum on the slave trade explained to us that the previous governor had done a really good job on developing the city. Me and Laas enjoyed riding around the city, at times it was like riding in Europe!
After a good nights sleep we got ready for another long days ride to the border. There are two roads shown on the map that go to the border. I had opted to take the southern route which is on Google maps as opposed to the road to Ekok, which isn’t. However, I changed my mind when several people told us that regardless of whatever the maps are saying, it is Ekok that is the main border. We guestimated that it would be about 150 km to the border (was more like 250 km). It was raining hard again in Calabar, harder than it had been raining the previous day, but I was determined to make a move. We donned our waterproofs and after breakfast we road through water logged streets (sometimes over a foot deep) out of the town. The rain quickly stopped and the road to Ikom was mostly good, except for heavy traffic from a quarry and some potholes near Ikom. At Ikom we turned east and found that the road that isn’t shown on Google maps is in fact, a fantastic brand new sealed road that goes the whole 20 km to the border at Mfum. It was an very easy border to cross, with all the officials being polite and friendly and nobody asked for a ‘dash’ (Nigerian slang for a bribe) on either side. I was asked for my carnet de Passage again on the Cameroon side without the option to get a Laissez Passer.
We crossed the bridge into Ekok on the Cameroon side of the border. Some money changers offered their services but I already had lots currency (or so I thought). I had heard the road from Ekok to the nearest town, Mamfe being described as ‘a horrible piste’ and ‘one of the most difficult roads in Africa’. True, it was a unsealed dirt road for about 70 km, with some very deep muddy pools for us to ride through, but we thoroughly enjoyed it, and we had been lucky that it hadn’t been raining too hard (would have been a nightmare otherwise). It was only the first 20 km or so that was really that bad.
A Chinese construction company is currently developing the road and the rest was relatively flat and dry (but dusty). We even had to stop while a Chinese guy in an earth mover actually built the road in front of us.
At Mamfe, we very quickly found a hotel and had a few beers to get the dust out our throats and a very helpful guy from the hotel washed the mud off our bikes for a reasonable fee. Although Mamfe is a very small town, it seemed to be very alive and we went out to get some food further into the town. I had expected to have to speak French in Cameroon, but so far everyone I met spoke excellent English. We found a little bar surrounded by people selling various food, and we had grilled fish and beef served in an excellent spicy sauce. It turns out that the CFA that I had brought with me from Cotonou is not the same money that they use here. From Senegal through to Benin, it is the West African Franc and from Cameroon onwards its the Central African Franc, but both are called CFA and strangely are both exactly the same value against the euro. Weird. Any explanations anyone?
We stayed in Mamfe an extra day, as the comfortable hotel and easily available food made it hard to leave. I used the extra day to wash my riding clothes which hadn’t been cleaned since leaving Liverpool. We had to buy some insurance for the bikes because as with the money, Central Africa has a different insurance scheme to West Africa and our Western ‘carte brunes’ that we bought in Cotonou were not valid, but we could purchase ‘carte rose’ insurance that would cover us up to Congo. The problem was that being a small town, Mamfe only had one insurance company and they would only sell insurance for 12 months. We had read on the net that it is possible to get less than that for international riders but the woman in the shop was having none of it. We even went as far as phoning her head office in Douala before finally giving in and buying it for a year. Later I saw a rider from Spain who decided to do without until he got to a bigger city. We had considered this too but if we got stopped by the police, the cost of bribes would have made it even more expensive, but if any riders are reading this, I’ve never been asked for insurance by the police in Cameroon.
We really enjoyed sitting around in Mamfe. There are a couple of bars were we could sit relatively unnoticed, although we had a funny episode when the town mayor came over to say hello to us. He was smartly dressed and had his entourage with him. It turned out that he just wanted to know if our bikes were for sale!
We left the next day to go to Bamenda, one of the major cities in the north west of Cameroon and the starting point for investigating the ‘Ring Road’- a 370 km loop that passes through the lakes and mountains of the north west. I had intended to ride through this area later but it is only about 150 km from Mamfe so I decided to do it first. The road to Bamenda was mostly sealed and in good condition, however like Ekok, there was a lot of road building going on and we had to ride for about 20 km through some more piste around earth-movers and Chinese foremen.
We arrived in Bamenda and after looking around for a place to stay we finally settled on the Ex-servicmen’s Guest House. There was a party going on for the teachers at a local school and within minutes of arriving we had loads of locals coming to say hello. We were chatting to several groups of people who were all competing with each other to show us around the city. The next day would be the National Youth day and we were told that we should definitely stay around to see the day’s events. The problem was that neither I nor Laas had a working phone number and it wasn’t possible to arrange anything. Still we went out for some food and drinks were one group and I had some hilarious conversations with one guy, Kingsley, who couldn’t understand that the Queen of England has no actual power and that her position is symbolic. He was a big believer that Lady Diana had been murdered because she was pregnant with Dodi’s child. We went to a popular cabaret bar where the music started off as bad copies of English music but then took on a better African vibe. I was tired though so I went home. Kingsley showed me the way back and he was so drunk I wandered how he would ride his motorbike home.
It was funny listening to the local dialects. In Nigeria, everyone speaks English or Pidgin English which, sounds a bit like Jamaican English and I could mostly understand it. There were also the local languages (Yoruba, Ebu, etc…), however in Cameroon so far I’ve only heard people speaking English, French or Pidgin. The boys explained to me that the common speaking of the the native languages finished many years ago and now everyone speaks Pidgin, although the Pidgin English in Cameroon is very different and I can only understand a fraction of it. Perhaps the native languages live on in pidgin? I’ve since found out that there are hundreds of native languages. Cameroon was at one point a German protectorate and was divided between France and Britain after world war one resulting in part of the country speaking English and the majority speaking French, thus explaining why everyone I’d met so far spoke excellent English. The English speaking population (Anglophone) complain of being discriminated by the Francophone elite who run the country.
The next day, me and Laas went for a wander around the town and got involved in the Youth day festivities, which basically meant doing a load of afternoon drinking with the teachers in the various bars. Walking around Bamenda we would constantly have people trying to start conversations with us. Some would ask for our contact details after only a few seconds, if not immediately! I’ve had this before elsewhere in Africa but here it was non-stop. Sometimes I was half-tempted to just say no, but its so much easier to just give out a bogus email address. We met up with a friend of Laas’ friend who has lived and worked in Bamenda. Saidou used to teach IT but now he sells jewellery because it makes better money. It was a welcome change chatting to him as he is a very relaxed character. He has lots of foreign friends so was fairly chilled out around us, definitely not as intense as other Africans we had met. We had a couple beers and went for an early night so we could ride out early the next day.
The start of the ‘Ring Road’, the road out of Bamenda towards Ndop was exactly as the guide books had promised. The scenery went from mountainous jungle to grassy mountains as the road went higher. The road was sealed for the first 50 km or so with the odd sections of dusty piste where new roads were being constructed. About 15 Km outside of the town of Jakiri, the road become very difficult to ride with red dust about a foot deep in places. I lost momentum and fell off the bike while riding slowly behind some cars that were also having trouble with the dust. Laas had the same problem and fell off his bike further down the road. I reckoned that we needed to wait for other traffic to pass before attempting to pass these sections so that we could keep momentum. The dust is a lot like very fine sand, with the added problem that the road isn’t level, there are rocks underneath it and unless you are in front, it becomes very difficult to see anything. I suspected that the roads are also under construction and have yet to be steamrollered, but the locals told us that it has been like that for years. We reached tarmac again and we stopped for food and to check the bikes. All the locals came out to see us and we were surrounded by about 20 men, who were all drinking palm wine. They told us that we had passed through the worst of the road but when we approached another small town, the deep dust was there again. Laas sensibly pulled over to let some air out of his tyres for better traction but I saw the open road ahead of me and decided to plough through it. I was doing really well and was bouncing over bumps, with the front wheel moving around a bit but holding its course. I had just thought to myself that perhaps I should slow down when the front wheel lost grip and me and the bike planted into the dust, hard. Pain shot up my right leg and I tried to get up to make sure that nothing was broken. I was able to stand and hobble about but I couldn’t pick my bike up. Laas and some locals arrived to help. With the bike upright again I could see that I had broken an indicator and the fairing that I had repaired in Bobo Dialousso had broken off again. More worryingly, one of my panniers had broken its mounting and had completely ripped along the bottom edge and spare parts were falling into the dust. We had to move everything further up the road because every time another vehicle drove past we couldn’t see anything through the dust cloud for about 15 seconds. I managed to bodge the pannier back together with some spare ratchet straps and I remounted it upside-down to stop bits falling out. We got ready to ride on through the dust again. My leg was hurting really bad and it took me a while to get on the bike and Laas had to help me get it off its side-stand once I was on it. I rode for about 3 meters before noticing that the handlebars were not straight and that my rear brake lever had been bent to the point that one press locked the brake on and I couldn’t move. I painfully got back off the bike and attacked the brake lever with a rock until it disengaged and rode on with crooked handlebars and no rear brake the last 2-3 km through dust and rocks to a small hotel in the next town. I was knackered and in pain when I got there. I had a shower and spent the rest of the day on the bed with my leg up on a chair, drinking Guinness to take the edge off. It looked like I had sprained my knee. It had swollen to twice the size and developed heavy bruising just above the knee. I knew that I needed more rest. I could probably ride on in a day or two but if I had another fall on that side I could risk permanent damage. We had only done about one third of the Ring Road if that, and although we had heard that the rest was better with the last third potentially sealed, that still left about 150 km of road in a dubious condition to ride through. I had considered just riding back the way that we had come, in a sort of ‘better the devil you know’ way of thinking. Riding the Ring Road was not an essential journey, and the accident had made me think a lot about where I will ride as getting from Britain to Cape Town would be difficult enough without adding scenic detours through difficult terrain.
I rested at the hotel for a couple of days. My knee had turned black but I could walk on it. The climate up the mountain was great and I slept really well, but there was no restaurant and limited food available in the area and I had consumed all their Guinness supply on the first day (FYI – Guinness Smooth, brewed in Cameroon is like Guinness original in UK, nothing like that 7.5% Nigerian loopy-juice!). Laas did all the running around while I was laid up, which I’m very grateful for, and he was happy to sit around listening to music for the rest of the time. Even though we were now off the road, the red dust continued to be a problem. It gets into everything, passes through zips and I was sneezing a red-brown mess out of my nose for days. Everything except the contents of my waterproof bag (which, by the way, isn’t waterproof anymore!) is covered in red dust. Its even a pain writing this on the computer as the dust settles onto the keys. I have no idea how the locals deal with it. You can’t even wash it off easily and me and Laas looked like we’d been using fake tan!
After two days of inactivity I had decided to move on. I’d brace my knee with my kidney belt and ride with extreme caution. I’d hammered the brake lever into a usable shape and managed to straighten the handlebars with a bit of brute force. All other cleaning and repairs could wait until I was in a city again. I just hoped I would’t fall off again and that my leg will be okay for a relaxed climb up Mount Cameroon (4000 m) when I get there in a week or so time.
Riding turned out to be a bad idea as I fell off the bike another 3 times on the same bad section of road near Jakiri. Maybe I wasn’t going fast enough to get through the really dusty bits, I was certainly riding with a lot of apprehension. My right foot got pinned under the bike a couple of times, which wouldn’t have been a problem under normal conditions but I didn’t want to twist my already twisted leg to free myself and I waited for Laas to come and free me. I have just found out from two other riders I’ve met that this ection that we road through twice was in fact the worst part and I would have been better continuing instead, Oh well! – They fell off too in case you were wondering.
We got back to Bamenda and I took a room at the Presbyterian Centre, which besides all the Christian propaganda on the walls, turned out to be a very pleasant place to stay, with loads of grassy gardens full of friendly students. Laas went to stay at Saidou’s place and we had an amazing meal there cooked for us by his wife. I spent the next three days chilling out, resting my leg and getting repairs done to my bike and bags. We hung out with Saidou and another friend, Linda most evenings and had a really good laugh with them.
Laas wanted to stay in Bamenda for much longer than I did and it was time again for us to go our separate ways. Riding with Laas has been a real good laugh and I certainly appreciated him being there during the difficult riding on the Ring Road, but we are completely different people, with very different opinions and ways of doing things. This sometimes resulted in us arguing with each other like a married couple, which for most of time was pretty funny and kept us both amused. The biggest pain for me though was that Laas is a very slow traveler. By that I mean that he takes his time with everything except the riding (he rides as fast as me and is much faster off-road), and constantly waiting for him to be ready all the time made me feel very frustrated and definitely not feeling the ‘freedom of the road’. It doesn’t matter now, because as before, we have gone our separate ways naturally, although Laas changes his mind as often as his socks so I wouldn’t rule out bumping into him again!
All in all, the fiasco of riding the Ring Road has been a massive knock to my confidence in riding off road and I was getting quite worried about my journey further into Central Africa were off-road riding would be the norm. Looking back at all the off-road that I have done up to this point does little to alleviate my concerns, especially with the new factor of my dodgy leg. The rainy season had started in Bamenda adding to this problem. Some locals had told me that the roads by Jakiri are easier to ride in the wet but I’d also read that similar roads in the Congo being described as ‘like riding on soap’ and I’ve seen photos of other travellers passing through water-logged tracks through the middle of fields. I decided to get a move on and start to plan my route. I’ve decided to pass through Gabon, which is a pretty expensive country but I think that I can ride on pretty good roads all the way to southern Congo, then it may be possible to get a multiple-entry Angolan visa at Dolisie so that I can pass through the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC) and Angola via the relatively good roads near the coast. The main problem with this being the infernal questions of visas that is always a problem in West Africa. The Angolan visa is very difficult to get and frequently travellers have to double-back on themselves to find where they are being issued or have to completely skip Angola by shipping their vehicles to Namibia. The DRC is no picnic either, and is a notorious place to travel, although I have read some favourable reports on the net.
Before putting my plan into action, I decided to go and see Limbe and Mount Cameroon, although I hadn’t a chance in hell of climbing it. The road from Bamenda to Limbe was very good and sealed, as is most of the Cameroonian network, and there were spectacular mountain views, especially when heading south out of Dschang. The view of Mt Cameroon was amazing as I approached Limbe making me really envious for anyone climbing it. Limbe itself is a very pretty town on the coast, with loads of beaches, restaurants and places to stay.
I arrived at a hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet and found a large yellow truck full of tourists that I may have passed a few times on my journey. There were quite a lot of Brits on board and I couldn’t help having one too many beers with them. I got to rest my leg a bit in Limbe, but I fell in a ditch during a night time walk along the promenade and banged both knees against concrete, not what I needed!. After 3 days chilling at Limbe I headed for the capitol, Yaounde. I set off very early as the route took me through the financial capitol city of Douala and I had heard that traffic could be bad. At parts on the west of Douala the roads were jammed and it reminded me of Lagos, except nowhere is that bad! Elsewhere, roads were occasionally as good as those in Europe with, new dual carriageways and signposts – a rarity in Africa.
At Yaounde I stayed at another place recommended by the Lonely Planet, another Presbyterian-related home, which is actuality is just someone’s house that has spare rooms a huge garden for travellers. Yaounde is quite a nice city, with a good road system (although with lots of traffic jams) and a mellow climate. Yaounde is definitely Francophone, and it is now very noticeable that my French has regressed over the month of speaking English in Nigeria and Anglophone Cameroon. I arrived early enough to go visa-shopping and I went and applied for my Congolese visa which at 70000 CFA, is very steep for 15 days and had me thinking that the official had inflated the price somewhat, but the next day the visa was given without problems. I went to the UK embassy to get some documentation sorted to aid with my Angolan visa. It was the first time I’ve ever been to a UK embassy and it was nice chatting to the vice consul, who sorted my docs for me quickly. Later I went to try to change the West African CFA that I had been carrying with me since Cotonou. I went to two banks but neither of them wanted to know, which is ridiculous because they are the same banks which gave me the money in the first place (especially Ecobank, which describes itself as the ‘Pan-African bank’!). A helpful gentleman told me that I could change it at the casino in town but as I was walking through town to get there, some thieving bastard took the money out of my backpack. I had no idea what was going on. The first I knew anything was afoot was when I saw a policeman chasing two blokes across the road. This is the first time I’ve ever been robbed in all my time travelling and I had been taking great care to ensure that things like this couldn’t happen. My ‘real’ money, Euros etc are always stashed out of site, as are my passports, and I have two wallets. The one I carry is a dummy wallet with only little local cash and expired cards so that I cannot be taken to rinse out my account at an ATM. It was very lucky for the thief that my riding suit was drying on a line and I had stuffed the cash into the bag this time. I pondered over the whole unpleasant experience, but I got over it pretty quickly. When you consider that he could have gotten my mobile phone and my ‘real’ wallet too, then I have been very lucky indeed. I wasn’t sure if I could change the 50000 west african CFA anyway (about £65), and I hope he gets a really shit exchange rate! Anyway, an expensive lesson learned with no real harm done.
I applied for the Gabonese visa, and managed to dodge paying a spurious extra 20000 CFA which made me feel a bit better about the other money. The visa wouldn’t be ready for 3 days so I chilled out again and did some further research into my trip. There is an Embassy for the DRC in Yaounde, but they told me that I couldn’t have a visa because I was not a resident. I had heard that this could be a problem, but there are also embassies in Libreville (Gabon) and Brazzaville (Congo) for me to try. I will try to find a contact in the DRC to write me an invite.
All in all, I’ve liked Cameroon a lot and I would definitely recommend traveling here. I’m going to ride on to Gabon on Saturday, and will be crossing into the southern hemisphere by Sunday. See you all southside!