Friday, 22 May 2009

26: Yaoundé Redux

On the Ring Road

I'm suffering from a rare strain of tropical blogger's block here in Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon. Yesterday I attempted to write a post on the highlights and lowlights of the past three weeks of pedaling through Cameroon, but I wasn't satisfied. Waking up with renewed enthusiasm this morning and fuelled by some of the finest pastries this side of the Cameroon highlands, I thought I'd make another stab at an update...

A lot of tea

After our weekend sabbatical in Nkambe, where we recovered from the Great Trek across the Nigeria/Cameroon border, it was hoped that progress might improve. It remained rather pedestrian, however, as we headed south along the eastern section of Cameroon's Ring Road - a 340 kilometre track, at times passable, that dips, bends, and more often than not rises its way around the western highlands. By the evening of day one out of Nkambe, we'd covered a bumpy 37 kilometres to the small town of Ndu, home to Cameroon's largest tea plantation. For all the tea in Ndu, I couldn't find a cup to sample, but I did make another profound discovery - fried 'Irish potatoes', as the tubers are referred to here. Combined with roasted fish, I had found the two culinary staples that would leave a happy and lasting impression on my mind and stomach as we pedaled and pushed our way through the highlands. Meanwhile Peter was off discovering the locally-brewed bamboo wine, which can also leave a rather long lasting impression on the mind apparently.

Boys on a hill

From Ndu we rode on to Kumbo and Jakiri, the latter a British army garrison post in the years leading up to independence. The North West and South West Provinces of Cameroon, form the core of the area that was formerlly British controlled. The result is that Cameroon is split into two distinct areas of anglophone and francophone populations, although the latter easily dominates the former in terms of its influence and geographic spread. On the evening of the third day out from Nkambe we arrived into Ndop, in time to sit out yet another afternoon of rain. Ndop marked a return to tarred road and the following day we headed on to Bamenda for a couple of days rest at the Baptist Mission.

The Ndop Plateau

Opting to follow the tarred route south, we headed via Bafoussam and Kumba to Buea, the town that serves as the base for organising ascents of Mount Cameroon. On a rainy Monday afternoon in Bafang, we ate some great beef stew and beans while Raphael, a pineapple exporter, explained the intricacies of the trade to us. Two days previously he had harvested four tons of pineapples. That same evening they had been driven to Douala airport and flown to Paris from where they are taken to a wholesale fruit market in time to be on the shelves of retailers by Monday morning. So right about now, when I was tucking into my beef and beans and lamenting about the state of the tropical fruit market in Cameroon, someone has just returned home from a trip to their supermarché or local fruit and veg shop and is cutting open a ripe and juicy pineapple in Paris. Comprehension of the timeframes involved, in comparison with myself and Rocinante's voyage, momentarily stunned me. For a moment I thought what it would be like to travel at the speed of a pineapple.

Young lads in Muea

A dusty road led us from Loum junction over to Kumba and late one afternoon we had our first and only problematic roadblock in Cameroon. The police and gendarmerié being very kindly disposed to traveling pedalists thus far. I arrived at the crest of a long hill to see Peter in animated conversation with the two officers on checkpoint duty. They could not assure us of the road ahead and given that we would not make Kumba before nightfall we should stay in their village, which coincidentally had a hotel that they could recommend as being up to our quality. We began to insist that we would be fine asking for accommodation in the villages that we would pass through ahead, but then the more rotund of the two began yelling that the road was notorious for armed robbers and that they would surely cut our heads off if we were captured by them. With miraculous timing, the manager of the nearby establishment that they were gesticulating at, bounded down the path and also began arguing and saying it would be foolhardy to go on. In the end Peter discovered that he had left some money at the junction and he had to return there anyhow, so after we negotiated the room down to a reasonable 3 euro per head we had a bed for the night.

Buea is situated on the slopes of the still volcanically active Mount Cameroon and serves as the base from which to organise a trek on the volcano. Having already a contact number for a guide, we bypassed the more expensive agencies that organise the treks. Shortly after dawn on a pleasantly cool Saturday morning, with not only Joseph to guide us up, but Peter No.2 to act as our porter, we felt like a proper pair of colonials as we set off up the so-called and clearly marked Guinness track that leads very much veritically to the 4100 metre summit. Guinness sponsor the annual suicidal marathon up and down the volcano, called the Race of Hope, hence the trail's name. It took over four hours to reach Hut 2, at 2850 metres, the preferred place to overnight on the mountain. After some lunch, however, I developed some stomach cramps and resigned myself to spending the afternoon at the hut, whilst Peter went up to the summit. The night was cold and immediately after our dinner of spaghetti and cabbage we both dived into our sleeping bags. A few minutes later my head torch was on again and scanning the bare and graffiti-lined room for signs of furry creatures that I could hear running about. A large rat emerged with a dazed look from the remnants of our dinner in the cooking pot and dived off the wooden ledge as he was followed by my flying sandle. The following morning, deciding against an attempt at the summit, we trekked back down to Buea and then more-or-less rolled the 60 kilometres down to Douala, Cameroon's largest city. On the outskirts of town we found the Hotel de Bojongo and opted for the nightly rate as opposed to the cheaper and obviously popular two-hour 'siesta' option.

Soldiers climbing Mount Cameroom

With a quickly expiring Cameroonian visa in our passports, we had to push on to Yaoundé to ensure that we could pick up a visa for Gabon. It was muggy riding at sea level and my daily water intake was back up to pool-sized quantities, interspersed with sufficient doses of Coke, which I'm assured cures all manner of ailments.

On the eve of Cameroon's Independence Day we found ourselves at the junction village of Boujeyem. After a row with the manager of the only sleeping establishment in the village, who assured me that the police would arrest us and fine him if they found that two men were sharing a double bed in a hotel, I headed downtown with my newfound friend Bisso, a chef in Douala who was visiting his homeplace. The town was hopping and Bisso displayed his impressive dance moves whilst Yvette held my arm and tried to secure a husband, job and home in Ireland, where she has always wanted to live.

After a night of dancing at the crossroads - Cameroonian-style - it was back on the bike to Yaoundé. The political party banners were out in force on Independence Day and it appeared that those celebrating most vociferously were clad in political party t-shirts, or had Paul Biya's head printed on their dress. Biya is the head of state and has been since he came to power in 1983. The celebrations were winding down as we rode through the capital to our refuge in the Presbyterian Mission.

Yaoundé, Cameroon

Trip distance: 15,130 km

Sunday, 3 May 2009

25: Into the clouds in Cameroon

10.30 a.m. Wednesday 22nd April - thunk thunk - a smile spread across our faces as we heard the faceless, nameless clerk in the consular office at the Angolan embassy in Abuja pound the embossing stamp onto our one-month long tourist visas. With only a visa for Gabon left to collect in Cameroon, and visa-free passage through southern Africa guaranteed, it looks like the great African visa hunt may be drawing to a close for this part of the trip. With the bureaucratic barriers enroute to the Cape cast aside, we were back in business. All we have to do now is cycle there.

Beyond the thoughtfully planned and comparatively pristine streets of Abuja, lay the sprawling eastern satellite towns of Nyanyan and Mararaba, where many hopeful souls have gravitated to, aspiring to urban fortunes. Minibus taxis and okada riders wove perilously close as they tried to attract clients by honking their horns. Soon the urban din receded, however, and we were passing through the agricultural states of Nassarawa and Benue. We camped in fields that had been washed green during our layover in Abuja. The rains had now begun in earnest and the occasional thunderstorm broke out during the night, sending us out to hammer down tent pegs. Strong winds usually give warning of impending downpours. Then the rain starts and shortly thereafter the water typically breaches the first and only line of defence, my outer fly-sheet. From then on I'm confined to a the small dry portion of an already rather small tent. Tucked up into a fetal position I avoid the worst of the inundation. Tomorrow there will be sun. Before nine the evidence will have evaporated into another hot day.

The beginning of the rainy season also heralds a return to the fields for the farmers who are now busy ploughing and planting next season's harvest. Makurdi marks our midway point to the border from Abuja and we stopover for Nigeria's answer to McDonald's, Mr.Bigg's, and a couple of bottles of Star to celebrate life on the road. As we search for a guesthouse at sunset, Peter is accosted by a member of Nigeria's notorious State Security Service (SSS), as Peter asks for directions at a junction. The man has no identification, however, and encouraged by passersby, Peter rides off. Moments later we're both pulled over by several motorbikes and a crowd gathers as our documents are examined and we're asked several inane questions that only the truly suspicious, truly bored, or truly dumb could ask. The encounter is brief, however, and soon we're on our way again.

Leaving Makurdi a mangled motorbike lays in two separate sections across the road. The driver couldn't have survived. We find out later that he didn't. Twisted metal carcasses lie all along the roads in Nigeria and the combination of ancient trucks, fast cars, overloaded minibus taxis and often poorly maintained roads, leaves conditions ripe for wholesale carnage. Later on the same day we find ourselves caught out in the darkness, trying in vain to find a secluded spot to pitch our tents. We're invisible to the oncoming vehicles, overtaking two or three at a time. We roll down a lane as lightning over the mountains to our east sporadically lights up the night sky. We find a clapped-out Peugout pick-up parked under a mango tree and Jacob is talking with a neighbour as we ask if we can be put up for the night. Of course it's no problem and once the rain arrives, a couple of other passersby also run into the compound to seek shelter. Jacob farms oranges and dinner consisted of a biblical quantity of vitamin C. The following morning we're served up with pounded yam and a piece of tender, unidentified meat. Such kindness and generosity. We're sent on our way with the blessing of God.

The road to Bissaula

From Takum, in Taraba state, we begin our final trek out of Nigeria. A rough 80 kilometre track brings us to the small border village of Bissaula. We stamp out in the evening at the candlelit immigration post. Then we're asked to produce our international vaccine certificates. After meticulous examination of the yellow book, including the Gaelic script, the officer announces with great authority and a swelling chest that our certificates are indeed valid. Peter tells the man we realise that and if he's done there's a UEFA semi-final starting in a few minutes. "What can you give me?", the officer asks with a greedy smile breaking across his face. "Our friendship" Peter quickly adds, using a now well-tested phrase, as we grab our yellow books and go to seek a hot and airless room to rent for the night. Peter wanders off to see if he can watch the football in a nearby house where a generator and satellite dish brings the match live to this small, remote outpost in west Africa, while I chat with Sunday, a Cameroonian living in the village with his young wife and daughter. His daughter dribbles on my shoulder and cries when I smile at her.

Lizard for dinner?

The official border is a few kilometers further down a progressively narrower track. After a mango and banana break in Agabi, the last settlement in Nigeria, we splash through the shallow River Donga and into Cameroon. The first settlements we pass through appear no different than those on the other side of the river, except for more tattered Cameroon football tops in evidence. Like many of the borders that resulted from the colonial carve up of Africa, the same ethnic groups found themselves divided by an international border that means little to the people living in the area. Shortly after crossing into Cameroon we begin to climb into the north western highlands, beginning a three-day epic journey that marks the toughest stretch of the journey so far. The track rose up at gravity defying angles making cycling impossible on the steepest sections. Initially we could push or pull the bikes, but then I settled for removing the bags and carting items up, then the bike, and then doing the same all over again. Progress could be measured in inches per hour. Descending was no less challenging, down the deeply rutted and boulder-strewn track. Bemused and friendly villagers greeted us with benches in the shade and asked about our trip, while we asked about life in the village. "Why were we doing this?" Damned if I know.

Things got steep

We stumbled into Ako at sunset, the first immigration post into Cameroon. At the police station, a man with a large tooth on a chain around his neck, and scars from numerous fights that deformed the right side of his face, told us he would fetch the chief. The commissioner was a jovial fellow and after a cursory glance through our passports, said there was no problem if we wanted to camp outside the station. Later in the evening, while Peter caught the second UEFA semi final, I sat under the night sky, drinking a beer with the commissioner as we discussed topics from Chinese imports to what the Obama administration might mean for relations between the US and Africa.

After a breakfast of rice and kidney beans we were on our way to Nkambe, one of the larger towns in the highlands, and at 1770 metres one of the higher ones too. We were assured that the road between Ako and Nkambe wasn't too bad and the distance was approximately 40 kilometres, but we would be climbing over 1200 metres. After a couple of hours of cycling it was clear that the previous day's exertions had taken their toll. As the road rose once more into gravity-defying ascents, it looked increasingly unlikely that we would be able to make to Nkambe before evening. By 2pm we had collapsed beside a water pipe in the hillside village of Jeyu, wincing at yet another vertical slope that lay before us. There was no food prepared in the village, but I was able to buy some rice in a shop that someone had in their bedroom, and a smiling girl offered to cook for us. By 5pm we were staying the night and we spent the evening chatting with worldly men who farmed the steep slopes of the surrounding tropical forest. Our host, Exodus, was a carpenter who had returned after a decade in the cities to his native village to raise his family and grow the best pineapples in Cameroon. He studied our map of west Africa and then we went through all of the African heads of state, pictured on a tattered poster on his wall, trying to decide which were still in power. Most of them are.

Kids in Jeyu village, Cameroon

It was with dismay that I noticed the hill was still there when I looked outside into the slowly brightening morning the next day. A couple of hours later, after a breakfast of pounded soya beans and cooked bananas, we'd said our goodbyes and were waved off by a group of villagers who stood to watch our progress up the hill. We pedaled about ten metres before being reduced to pushing the bikes again. Several more kilometres of vertical ascent and the shouts of Polish swear words began to die out as the road levelled out. We'd made it. We looked back down the green, mist-covered valley and I marvelled how similar it looked, albeit on a grander scale, to landscapes much more familiar to me.

Wicklow or the Cameroon highlands?

We finally rolled into Nkambe on an overcast and chilly first of May. Labour Day was being celebrated with unbridled fervour and the shebeens and bars around town were filled to capacity and pumping out loud beats. A taxi passed me in the centre of town, its engine on fire and the driver oblivious to the warning shouts of bystanders. We've taken a couple of days off to see if our legs will work again and yesterday, as I began checking my emails and typing up this posting, Miina and Kristiina sat down beside me in the small internet cafe. We had actually passed them by on our way out of Ako, returning their wave, but not stopping to talk. They had been visiting the Ako area from Finland, in order to assess the needs of disabled children living in the area. They downloaded the photos they'd been taking over the previous couple of weeks and they told a much different story from my own. Untreated infections that had been left for years, causing kids to live with great pain. Whole families almost blind because there were no glasses available for them. They represented a Finnish organisation, Jaatinen, that was set up to monitor the rights of the disabled, and they were setting up links with a Cameroonian partner, but it was their first time in Africa and the two weeks had clearly taken a great toll as they realised the scale of the problems that they faced. They spoke of searching for a clean bandage in Ako, so that a child's leg that had been left infected for three years, could be dressed before they arranged surgery for him. They were only able to find one bandage after visiting the two pharmacies in town. There were two hospitals in Ako but only one had running water and neither had any electrical power.

When such stories are told and I recall the scale of problems that many communities face in the areas I pass through, I often find myself questioning the value of travel in such regions. What purpose does travel provide in such situations? Is it merely voyeuristic to pass through such places? Would it not be far better to work in a capacity that could help make change rather than merely being a silent witness? Ultimately, however, regardless of the unease that I sometimes feel, I still believe that travel has a higher value than simply being an experiential activity and that the interaction that occurs between cultures can, in its own small way, be a positive force for greater understanding between people. Or perhaps not. Yet Stevenson was right, the great affair is indeed to move. Even if there is the odd tempest, it still floats my boat.

Nkambe, Cameroon

Trip distance: 14,266 km