Cameroon is known as Africa in Miniature, 'because of its geological, linguistic (275 languages) and cultural diversity'. It straddles West Africa and Central Africa, so is categorized as being in both camps and its geography is said to include beaches, deserts, mountains, rainforests, and savannas. I'm hopeful of sampling much of this, as we're crossing the country west to east, to visit Lobeke National Park and the Central African Republic (CAR) and back again.
It's a very typically African experience. I arrive bleary eyed, at one in the morning, at Yaoundé, the political capital. Everyone on the plane is corralled into a nursing bay, to be Covid tested immediately. Fortunately, there not a huge number of us. Most of the passengers got off at Doula, Yaoundé’s bigger sister and economic capital, on the coast. We're expelled after 15 minutes, with no explanation or results. Immigration is straightforward (the visa was too) and I'm not hassled in customs - they're all too sleepy - and I'm just waved on. I'm lucky, others in the group report demands for money, for imagined offences, at this stage.
I’m met by guide Ben. Our tour group for our Central African Odyssey is Russian American, Olga, and her husband Dave, who's a commercial pilot, and Andrew, Ben’s father, a professor of zoology at Cambridge. Ben is also a zoologist. Rupert, another zoologist and eminent virologist is yet to join us, in CAR. I'm in very eminent company.
Ben reports that local tour manager Jude is punctual and polite and organised. That’s a good start. So, I’ve arranged for him to take me on an afternoon sightseeing tour of Yaoundé. But he’s a no show for that. He’s also a no show for our first group dinner. He’s busy preparing for out tour. One of his three cars is sickly. I’ve decided to dub him Jude the Obscure.
I devise my own tour of Yaoundé, using Google. Cameroon became a German colony in 1884 known as Kamerun. German explorers founded an outpost between the Nyong and Sanaga rivers at the northern edge of the area's forests in 1887. It was used as a trading base for rubber and ivory and known as Epsumb or Jeundo. A military garrison enabled further colonization. After Germany's defeat in World War I, France was awarded control of eastern Cameroon and chose this town, now known as Yaoundé, as the capital of their colony in 1922. A strip running along the northern border, came under British control (North and South Cameroons) and was administered from Nigeria. Despite Douala's continuing domination economically, Yaoundé continued as the seat of government for the Republic of Cameroon when it became independent in 1960.
Yaoundé is a network of streets, leading in all manner of angles, as its extremely hilly (lush and green in parts and 750 metres above sea level). In fact it's known as La Ville aux Sept Collines (City of Seven Hills). I'm pretty sure I've heard that somewhere before......Anyway, I manage to get lost and end up in the huge central market, which spills over numerous adjoining streets. I’m not really comfortable out on my own. The people are not entirely welcoming. Wary – not exactly hostile, but definitely cautious. Some stallholders respond to my bad French, when I ask my way, but I don’t understand the reply and instead follow their pointing fingers.
I take in the town hall and its park (no way through, the gates are all locked), Independence Square, with its bank tower blocks, surrounding government buildings, the modern Our Lady of Victories Cathedral and the I Love My Country Monument, in-between losing my way and trying to hurry back before night falls. I've been warned not to walk on my own after dusk.
We eat in the (United) hotel restaurant, after waiting fruitlessly for Jude’s arrival. Its surprisingly good food. The menu covers all eventualities from local dishes- Catfish and huge prawns (the name Cameroon derives from shrimp found in the local river, which was originally called Rio dos Camarões by Portuguese explorers), to pork chop with mustard sauce. I can testify that the latter is delicious. (As was the astoundingly fluffy breakfast omelette). Before dinner we’re entertained watching fruit bats streak across the hills of Yaoundé and the Palais de Congres (conference centre), against a backdrop of lightning. There are several palaces in Yaoundé it seems. There’s been an event going on in the Yaoundé Sports Palace, just across the way and the band is still playing, as people stream in and out.
Paul Biya, the president, lives in the Yaoundé Unity Palace, across town. He's the second president, since independence. Ahmadou Ahidjo, served as Cameroon’s first president from 1960 until his resignation in 1982. Biya was his hand-picked successor and is the second-longest-ruling president in Africa (after Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea). He is the absolute head of state and de facto head of government of the country.
Talking of rulers, the hotel dining room is deserted, except for a king who is being entertained by a group of dressed to the nines dignitaries, who troop in and out, whilst he eats, bearing gifts and making speeches. I don’t think he’s best pleased that we are there. They are all studiously avoiding eye contact. I suspect we only got served as we were already on the terrace.
When Nigeria became independent, in 1961, a UN-administered plebiscite was agreed to to decide the fate of the British Cameroons. The Muslim-majority Northern Area opted for union with Nigeria, and the Southern Area voted to federate to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. Since that time the Cameroon has not had an easy passage. There has been too much poverty, due to economic mismanagement, corruption and cronyism. Boko Haram have infiltrated and been defeated. And there has been ongoing unrest and conflict from the ex South Cameroons, due to the imposition of the French language and perceptions of segregation and lack of representation. There have been ongoing demands for greater autonomy, and the Southern Cameroons National Council has advocated complete secession as the Republic of Ambazonia. Terrorist attacks are ongoing and have led to an upsurge in Boko Haram as the Cameroonian army battles on two fronts.
Jude, it transpires, is very decidedly Anglophone. As is Yvonne the cook, and Ken, one of the drivers. Ken's attire of choice is shorts and a baseball cap (worn backwards, of course.) Jude has his own car (the sickly one which smells of diesel), which is a land cruiser. Affable Ken has a rented land cruiser and third driver, Romeo, has a rented Toyota People Carrier. He professes to only speak French. Romeo sports a series of chic outfits, natty jackets, tapered trousers and grandad collar shirts. He also disappears frequently, so his epithet is 'Wherefore art thou?' He doesn’t get the joke, but he does refer to me as Juliet.
Romeo's car has a union jack steering wheel though and the number plate says Good Luck to reinforce the point. Though I hope we wont need it. Cameroon is famous for its music and Romeo has a selection of African bands on his USB stick. He croons along and dances too, taking his hands off the steering wheel, to tap the rhythm, or clap his hands. The player is set to repeat tracks and he’s happy to play the same tune many times over. I turn it off when he gets out of the car. He doesn’t always notice.
We finally get to set off, early, on our adventure. First stop is the Santa Lucia supermarché, on the outskirts of Yaoundé. It’s really crowded, with a bustling local market outside and tic tac men to guide cars in and out of parking bays, waving red and green table tennis bats.
The roads are better than in Chad. Generally smooth, for the first day at least, through the cleared rainforest, The towns are more affluent too. Pavement cafes, plate glass shops. In the villages, cuboid houses with pitched roofs. Tiled, corrugated or thatched. Wood or timber lath with mud, occasionally painted. A scattering of brick. Large numbers of Cameroonians live as subsistence farmers and we see more agriculture, as we travel east. The odd goat in town. Bananas and pineapple plantations.
Romeo collects a speeding fine, after being caught by a trap, hidden on a motor cycle with a wheel missing. Lunch is very late despite the good roads. Jude's car is showing signs of wear and tear and has to be examined regularly. We’ve also had to stop for drivers' breakfast. Whilst they're eating, we visit the local market. I'm cajoled into buying a pair of second hand Crocs, for wading through mud and rivers in the forest.
We’re partaking at La Petite Pygmy, which seems both politically incorrect and tautological to me. Jude can't find the restaurant and flags down a motor cycle guide. But the food is good - capitaine fish. So a very late arrival to Hotel Komandour in Batouri. It's the best in the area, but the itinerary description of 'basic' is a little too kind. No light in the bathroom and sockets hanging off the wall. But there is a.c. and my toilet flushes. It's even got two swimming pools, covered in green slime.
Today, a very bumpy dirt road through the forest, after a more than delayed start. The clutch is being repaired on Jude’s car. Romeo has disappeared again. In the back seat, I'm bombarded with pineapples. A volley of grenades and then back packs spilling over them. Jude’s battery is playing up now. It was wedged in with a shoe sole and it's come apart. It’s stuck down with slabs of stone and sticking tape. Adjusting it becomes a recurrent theme during the day, as we fly past strings of villages in a cloud of dust. Everything inside the vehicles is now covered in a rusty red film.
Increasing police hassle also slows progress. We are stopped several times to have our passports examined, along with yellow fever certificates and covid vaccination records. As slowly and languorously as possible. As if the immigration officers didn't check the first time. The police security chief in the area has had to be invited for a drink in the Little Pygmy, while we eat our fish. Good job the food was already ordered when he arrived.
Then we stop at Yokadouma (I’m sure this place ought to be in Japan) for fuel and for Ken’s exhaust and fenders to be welded. Both are flapping. Five minutes down the road and Ken decides that his oil should have been topped up too. So we halt again to do that.
Night falls very fast on the football games which seem to be taking place at dusk in every village. Soccer is a national pastime and Cameroon has one of the best teams in Africa. It's scary driving now. We can't see the road edges or the bumps. Romeo seems unperturbed.
We're staying in the ‘basic but comfortable’ World Wildlife Fund (WWF) compound on the outskirts of Lobeke National Park. I'm now a little apprehensive about what basic might mean, but I'm not going to find out. The WWF have commandeered our accommodation for themselves, at the last minute, we're told. So now we're in the guest house, which doesn't run to electricity or running water. That doesn't stop the staff gossiping loudly till well after midnight as they clear up. Then there’s a very loud thunderstorm and a deluge. I've been promised a lie in till 8 30 a.m., but the group are outside my window talking loudly before 7 a.m. So that hits the dust too.
The next three days are to be spent wild camping in Lobeke National Park. Readers of this column will know that I am not a happy camper and I'm not looking forward to this at all. I'm hoping for rare wildlife sightings to compensate. Cameroon is said to be home to at least 9,000 plant species, approximately 900 bird species, and around 320 mammals. It's a four wheel drive ride and then an eight kilometre walk to the first camp site at Petite Savane.
I've been told that my wheelie bag will be carried into the rainforest. All belongings, no problem. But that's clearly not going to happen, so I'm emptying what I need into a sack. Collecting the porters and sorting what is to be carried into the forest is as chaotic as Africa gets. The rain has created rivulets and bright orange pools and thick red mud is coating everything and everyone.
Next, we have to wait while the porters go to say goodbye bye to their families and give them their advance wages. It’s a sad time to be parting they say. We're informed they will be away 20 minutes, so I double it, in my head. Andrew and Ben are happy. There are monkeys and birds in the trees. We finally set off at noon.
It's a hair raising ride, hurtling down an ever narrowing track and skidding across huge ruts and ruddy puddles, as branches catapult us through. The driver wrestles with the wheel and, towards the end, orders some of the porters hitching a ride to descend. He removes some of the larger branches impeding our path and we rally on. A rare bongo (the largest forest antelope) stands on the road ahead of us, conspicuous by his black and white muzzle. That's a good start (our zoologists are ecstatic) and we're now 10 kilometres into the forest.
From a small bridge, the old logging road becomes a track that we slither along, on foot, for another 8 kilometres, avoiding tree stumps and roots, heaps of duiker and elephant dung. It rains the whole way. Black and white colobus and hornbills call. We've been warned that there will be wading involved, but happily there is none and my Crocs stay in their bag. The guides and porters sensibly all wear wellingtons or plastic beach shoes.
I'm happy to reach the clearing (or bai) that is Petite Savane without incident. Only to fall off the slippery planks surrounding the viewing platform. It is surrounded by muddy pools and approached by dilapidated planking, which is collapsing into the water. It's only too easy to slide sideways into the ooze. My boots are soaked.
The savane is prettily green, framed by palms, but there is little happening in the bai itself, other than a pair of woolly necked storks wandering. The twitchers are still happy. There is birdlife aplenty at a distance. Green Pigeons and African grey parrots flock overhead, discernible through binoculars.
Fifteen minutes away is the campsite. And it’s horrible. It’s in a very small clearing, crowded with tents. all under one corrugated roof. There’s a National Geographic research team alongside us and our porters. The occupants are watching videos on their phones. There’s a long drop toilet, with no privacy at all, the end of a very long path, so anyone can appear. 'Qui es la?' you have to declaim. It's an especially long way in the blackness of night.
Flying ants appear whenever a light is turned on, pouring off the adjacent trees, into my clothes and onto my hair. They’re crawling all over my dinner. Extra protein. There are the other, ordinary biting ants too, micro and large. There are also shining horsefly like flies, that sneak up your trousers and deliver a tsetse like hot needle sting. I daren’t have a drink, in case I need the loo at night.
To add to my woes, the porters have lost my sack. No sleeping bag, washbag, blankets or pillows. It finally arrives at 10 pm. For some reason, It's been decanted into another one, with holes in it. Perhaps someone liked the look of my intact one. All my stuff is wringing wet.
I spend the whole night picking ants out every orifice. One or two have the temerity to sting me. All to the accompaniment of mobile phones and not so muted conversations. Sleep is virtually non existent. This exceeds my worst expectations. It's what hell would look like.
Next day, the others go onto Grande Savane, a larger clearing, thankfully, together with the occupants of the tents. I've opted to stay at Petite Savane, in the hopes of a quieter night. Park ranger, Mr Bock, tour manager Jude, and cook Yvonne are all delegated to stay with me. So now it’s not entirely peaceful, but better. It’s roasting hot in my tent, but if I open the zip, flies swoop in by the hundred. I've taken most of my clothes off. All my spares are wet anyway.
Yvonne delivers me plates of fresh pineapple. It's not my idea of cooking, but the fruit is sweet and refreshing. Jude rigs me up a hot shower using a bucket and a showerhead. That definitely is welcome. They've even sent a guide to the bai to look out for animals and fetch us if anything appears. It doesn't.
Up at six, the next morning, when there s a gap in the snoring, to see if there is any more activity on the bai. The jungle is atmospherically misty, but there's little happening in the clearing. Pigeons wheel over head and colobus monkeys scoot down a tree. A couple of ducks drift across the pool in the centre of the reeds. One sitatunga darts through swiftly. Blink and you've missed her. Certainly not long enough for a Kit Kat break. The guide says that some gorillas slept in the trees and are foraging in the undergrowth but they are not venturing into the savane.
An AK 47 comes too, along with Mr Bock. He’s a kind and very serious man. He refuses to tell me his Christian name. but he wears a Paris St Germain shirt. Mr Bock says Real Madrid are his team, but the shirt was a present. He has his head shaved by one of the porters and dons a woolly hat. Just what you need in the steamy jungle.
I’m a little worried about my diet. Other than pineapple, it's mainly already (over) cooked chicken, increasingly old and kept in a Tupperware style box in the jungle heat, and chips ( Irish potatoes as the Africans call them ) or fried plantain.
My tent now looks like a war zone. It's unbearably hot and stuffy inside. Absolutely everything is covered in red mud. The floor is littered with insect bodies. Whenever I go outside a cloud of flies hover round my head. My body is covered in wheals and bites. One eye has swollen up as my lid has been bitten and I've a bloody cheek across my face from a serrated leaf. The rainforest protects itself very well. And outside the flies lurk. Thousands of them.
There’s lemongrass growing in clumps, so I suggest turning it into tea. It’s delicious, with a squirt of lemon. The others have returned from Grande Savane, reporting sightings of forest buffalo and lots more pigeons. I don't feel deprived. Andrew is competing on the injury front. He has been wearing wellingtons and has huge blisters on his shins. He's called the largest Mr Blobby. The porters are back too, with their tents and outdoor mosquito cages. They have their own cook, Adeline. She prepares bushmeat - duiker mixed with sardines and tomato paste and manioc mashed into a puree. I'm getting some duiker from Yvonne for dinner and eggs and plantain again for breakfast. They are cooking on small fires, but Yvonne has a primus stove, as back up.
My last night camping ever - I hope.
And now it's raining again, as we tramp the two hours through the forest, back to the vehicles. Finally, once more at the WWF. we have to wait for the porters to be lined up and presented with their tips. Then, a return to the guest house. We're presented with chairs outside,whilst the manager cleans the rooms. It seems that little is pre-planned here. But huzzah. Electricity this time. And hot water in a bucket.
Romeo springs into action, helps with the cleaning and even takes our boots way to clean. Though they emerge sodden with the sole flapping. And I've collected an additional crop of insect bites that itch ferociously. There's even one on the sole of my foot.
Romeo's car has a flat tyre, but that's quickly sorted and the logging road, through the park, is the best surface so far. Smooth and gravelled for the most part. It's needed to service the extraordinary amount of timber, that is, surprisingly, being removed from the park. The wood is transported on trailers, the trunks so gigantic, that only three or four can be carried at a time. It's stashed in a huge compound outside Limbongo on the Sangha River. We reach this border town surprisingly quickly. Fixers greet us and they’re swiftly given their cut. A commissioner is summoned and we are on our way to the Central African Republic (CAR), across the water.
Jude and his crew are waiting at the riverside, on time, to greet us when we return seven days later. They seem overjoyed to see us (they've had nothing to do except hang out in Limbongo) and leap about taking photographs. Immigration is smooth again. This time part of the deal for a smooth passage is a lift for the police commissioner - all the way to Bertoua (on tomorrow's itinerary). He's travelling in Jude's car, up front.
The humour doesn't last long. Ken's window won't wind up and it's raining. It's also going to be very dusty, when it does stop raining. It takes half an hour for mechanic Romeo to fix it. Now I know what the workings inside a car door look like. Though I'm not sure that they usually involve so much tape. We set off again, but there are trees down across the road. Romeo to the rescue again, with his saw. The downpour has turned the mud road into a bog, with a skating rink on top. The cars slide and zig zag along it, agonizingly slowly. It seems that the four wheel drive on Jude's dream machine doesn't work. And he eventually skids right off the road into the undergrowth. (Hey Jude, don't make it bad.)
Ken is deputed to haul him out and is unsuccessful. Until it's pointed out that his four wheel drive does work and it might be a good idea to use it. We eat lunch while we're waiting. Grilled catfish and fermented manioc in banana leaf batons. My intestines protest for the rest of the day.
Off again (this really is the long and winding road), hugging the border with CAR. Our Google blue spot moves worryingly slowly across the map. Romeo's is the only car that hasn't had any incidents, though his windows are a trifle idiosyncratic. Sometimes they slide, sometimes they jerk and sometimes they're just plain obstinate. His driving is superb. One hand constantly wiggling the wheel left and right as the wheels attempt to skid and the other continually shifting gear. He spoils it slightly by insisting that we refer to him as Chauffeur Numero Uno. But he's right.
This area is inhabited by the Baka (once known as pygmies) peoples. Eastern Cameroon is much poorer and much friendlier. Smiles and waves here (like in CAR). Finally, Yokadouma once more. Ken's bumper is hanging off now and needs tying back on. We stop to do that and refuel. Ten minutes up the road, Jude halts again. He's got a rattle. And again, half an hour later. Ben and Jude have words.
We finally roll into Hotel Kommandour, in Batouri, at 12.30, desperate for sleep. But no, there's a birthday party in full swing, with disco and speakers at full blast. No electricity in the bathroom again and no towel either, this time.
Ben informs us that we should leave, next day, at seven, as the state of our vehicles is unpredictable and I have a flight to catch at midnight. Jude snorts and says his cars are perfectly fine. I don't know which criteria he's using. The hotel has been requested to provide breakfast. but nothing arrives. The staff are still recovering from the night before. And Ben declares that we wouldn't want breakfast anyway, if we could see the state of the kitchen.
Jude has become obscure again. Ken and Romeo appear at 7.30 and Jude finally arrives on the back of a motor bike, just before eight. There's no explanation. He's probably sulking, after yesterday's dressing down.
Bertoua, to drop off our commissioner and for breakfast - a supermarket with a boulangerie. We're moving into more monied Cameroun again. Fifteen minutes up the road and we have to stop. The wheel nuts on Jude's car need tightening. But there's a ongoing spectacle to keep us amused. It's Eid and the Muslim community (about one third of Cameroon's population in all) are out in their finery.
Olga has metamorphosed into a really unpleasant person over the course of this trip. She insists that everything is done her way, she eats what she wants. regardless of the needs of others, she always goes first, she interrupts and bosses poor Dave continuously. though he still calls her Sweetie all the time. She took an instant dislike to me, with sly digs and insinuations, before she decided that she would just pretend I wasn't there. Which to be frank, is much easier. But she won't speak to Andrew or Ben either (unless she is demanding something from Ben) and they are the most inoffensive and charming people you could wish to meet. I'm now calling her Obnoxious Olga.
Olga has been travelling with good natured Ken most of the time, his being the most comfortable car. But she has heard us lauding Romeo's driving, so she has insisted on travelling with him today. We run into trouble with the police and customs next. The police checks have become oppressive again, since we lost our commissioner. Then, it was salutes and 'Please pass through'. A customs official at one village takes one look at us and decides to be awkward. In fact, the whole place feels very antagonistic and there is some cat-calling. We try to keep out of the way. But Ken's licence is confiscated, 'to be 'verified'. Jude's follows. And we are held for two hours, whilst the officials wait for a reply from Yaoundé, they say. It's Sunday. They're not even interested in bribes.
Romeo is the only driver who's car has not been impounded and it begins to look as if the other cars will be here all day. It's still six hours or more to Yaoundé, so Ben decrees that he and I should set off in Romeo's car, whilst the others wait. Olga and Dave are staying in Cameroun another two days, so there is no urgency for them. But, predictably, OO refuses to get out of the car. She also stipulates that Dave must have the front seat for his back. 'I love and care for my husband'. Pah! He's been travelling in the back all the time in Ken's car and I get travel sick, as well as having a bad back.
Andrew, understandably, refuses to be left on his own, so it is now decided we will all five travel with Romeo. Olga promptly boots Dave out of the front seat, leaving the four of us squashed in the back seat, with our day packs. (So much for caring for her husband.) We travel for six hours. She inspects her toe nail polish in stony silence. We giggle behind, and Romeo plays the same track over and over again.
Romeo is a really good driver. We arrive in Yaoundé at seven. There's even time for more of those prawns and a shower. I can't scrub this red mud off my skin. Now I know what they make fake sun tan cream from. It sticks to the bath and refuses to clean off. My hair looks like Old Man's Beard and my clothes and bags are all streaked with red. I don't think I'm in line for an upgrade. I shall be lucky if they let me on the plane home.
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