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20.04.2011 - Mali – Home

Our time in Africa was short now; in a few months we would be back in Europe, back in the UK, back home. Read more..

Gabon and Cameroon

February 15th, 2011

Heading out of the countryside from Franceville, we made our way back to the coast and the Gabonese capital, Libreville.

The guidebooks and overlander grapevine had suggested there was no known place to camp in Libreville, so we toured the hotels and beach resorts, trying to find a willing establishment with a compound who might let us sleep in the corner.

At one such resort, we bumped into a friendly French expat, who insisted on feeding us cold coke and put us in touch with his friend, Dominic, who had a spot beside his beach-fronted house with room for the truck.

A quick confab and it was sorted, so once again we found ourselves sleeping on the beach and cursing the crash of the waves and the sand in the tent.  We figured if those were the worst things we had to worry about then things were probably going ok!

New Years celebrations in Libreville were understandably slightly muted. We had suggested having a beer with the kind French gent Dominic so at 9.30 we strolled up to Dominic’s gate with the intention of heading to a bar but were instead invited inside to join his wife and two other French couples, as well as Dominic’s mother, for a few glasses of Laurent Perrier champagne! Overlanding is tough some times.

We sat back, trying to slowly explain our trip and its route so far in French, a now common theme to conversations on the West coast. We certainly never learnt the phrase, “The people are great but the bloody police are a bunch of corrupt bastard crooks.” in GCSE French, but we know it now.

At 10.30 pm, we said thanks and headed out into town. We grabbed a beer in a downtown bar, avoiding the prostitutes who did all they could to make eye contact and toasted the passing of 12 o’clock. We might as well have been on Mars, as no one else appeared to notice. However, for the next few weeks, everyone we met greeted us with ‘Bonne Annee!’.

Unfortunately before we left Libreville things hit a sour note. On a busy market street a Toyota Hilux tried a ridiculous overtaking manoeuvre in a space not big enough for two cars and ended up smashing into our front wing. Both cars stopped in the middle of the street and got out to inspect the damage.

Thankfully for us it was mercifully light; the wing had a big dent and the tyre had clearly taken a whack, but nothing which would stop us from being mobile. Unfortunately for the other guy, our bumper had made a 6 inch gouge down pretty much the entire length of his car, badly damaging two doors and a side panel.

Within seconds a crowd had formed around our car. As we explained to the other party that we would pull out of the road, people tried blocking us getting back to the truck. We wrestled our way through and got in the car to find drunk aggressive Gabonians trying to force our doors open and reach past us to take stuff from the car.

Starting the engine, we forced our way through the crowd whilst one onlooker tried his best to smash the passenger window. Fearing for our safety we hit the gas, planning on making straight for the border which we had intended on leaving for the following day.

This wasn’t us trying to be devious or avoid dealing with the other party, this was simple fear and common sense, for odds of 2 versus 50 drunk, aggressive men intent on causing trouble don’t stack up too well.

Maybe they wanted our car, maybe they wanted money out of the two white guys trapped in an unfortunate position or maybe they were just still pissed as it was by New Years Day and they saw us as a way of having some rough fun. We weren’t interested in hanging around to see which of these was the case.

On reflection we probably shouldn’t have stopped at all in the first place, as that was the advice (or orders!) given to us by friends in South Africa and Nairobi should we ever find ourselves in accidents there, instead we should have gone straight to a police station.

We tore down the main road, running a few red lights, trying to put as many miles between us and the incident as possible. After covering 5 miles, we slowed somewhat on a dual carriageway and tried to work out where the hell we were and the best route to the border.

Suddenly a Hilux loomed large in the mirror, hazards on and gaining us fast. In a few seconds the car was alongside us, swerving violently at 50mph trying to force us off the road. Tom neatly nipped around them and we powered off into the distance, the rebuilt engine leaving them for dead.

These guys were clearly very pissed off and the back of the pickup was now loaded with an extra 6 guys. We questioned whether they might be armed and whether this could be that worst case scenario where we would have to walk away from the car. We’ve always stated that this trip and our car isn’t worth being injured over. It wasn’t a decision we wanted to be forced into making so tried to press the accelerator pedal through the floor.

Seeing traffic ahead we turned off to be faced with more traffic. We realised we were soon going to be caught so swung about onto a smaller dirt road, knowing that as long as we had some clear road we’d leave these guys in our dust.

Unfortunately the gods of fortune weren’t smiling on us as traffic continued and we headed off down a yet smaller dirt road where we thought we saw an army base. Thinking that we would be able to bluff our way in and then use the armed guards as protection to try and calm down this immensely messed up situation we headed for the watch tower in the distance but found the huge gates shut and unmanned.

So there we were, stuck in a dead end, with our friends coming up apace behind us. We got out and showed we were unarmed and wanting to talk, trying to explain why we had fled in the first place, as the other car simply thought we were running away from what they saw as damage we had caused.

Obviously we saw it very differently but unfortunately these guys were beyond the stage of reasoning. An hour or arguments, threats and some fisticuffs followed, before we all trooped off to the local police station. We knew we were in for a long argument there, but at least that was semi-familiar territory and we were unharmed and still had our car (despite one guy stealing our keys at one point).

Now, we’ve had to blow smoke up a lot of African men’s backsides when dealing with officials over the last 10 months to get into/out of countries and avoid bribes, so we smartened up and decided on the best way to deal with the local police chief.

The other party took a different approach to our quiet, smiling, polite approach and screamed and stamped their feet to him for about 30minutes non stop. After 31 minutes he turned to us and offered us some of the milky drink he was sipping – it was then we realised his eyes were very bloodshot and he had been on the palm wine for most of the day.

Now here, half way through adjudicating blame and trying to find a solution he was winking at us and offering us alcohol! Whilst we had clearly won over the chief it soon became apparent that we had a choice of arguing this out for the rest of the day and possibly the following day, or paying a small amount and leaving. Figuring that barely any amount of money was worth the stress we had been through that day we bartered an $80 recompense and headed straight for the biggest and most expensive hotel complex we could find to try and take everything in. We sat in a daze and later headed to bed once again outside Dominic’s house, before leaving very early the following morning.

This incident aside, Libreville was expensive and instantly forgettable, except for the beach and the pleasant time we spent with Dominic. Gabon has also seemed quite unremarkable, with nice views in the East but very little of note to mark it out as a country that we would return to. We didn’t, however, visit the game parks in the south, where it is apparently possible to see ‘surfing hippos’.

We motored from Libreville to Cameroon in two days along good road through some very green countryside. Arriving in Yaoundé, we headed straight to the Brit High Commission, over on the aptly named Winston Churchill Avenue.

Having run out of pages in our passports, we had cunningly conspired to avoid the three week delay for new copies of Her Majesties Empires identifying documents by posting our applications from Congo.

Thus, our reasoning ran, by the time we had traversed the Democratic of Congo, Gabon and arrived in Cameroon, the three weeks would be up and we would only have to glide through Yaoundé and collect our new paper permits en route to Nigeria.

Sadly, this was not the case. The Brit HC informed us that the passports were not yet even printed, never mind posted. We emailed the Brits down in SA, with little success. There must be a terribly complicated email filter at the Pretoria BHC passport department, as none of our inquiries got through to the ‘Fast Response’ section, rather ending up in the ‘Reply Next Week, Possibly’ category.

This is of course no ones fault, but another shortcoming of technology. We would never for one second surmise to suggest that the lack of any answer to an inquiry about a three week old passport application was due to anything but the devilish unreliability of computers.

Over the next 14 days (or 20,160 minutes if you’re interested. There was a lot of time to kill) we sat waiting in Yaoundé paying a princely $10 a night to stay at the Presbyterian Church (the only place to camp) trying to find ways to divert ourselves from the horrendous toilets and the growing feeling of disillusionment with travelling for so long. Leaving Libreville we agreed we were fed up terribly dangerous African driving during which the passenger could never relax, aggressive African mentalities, shit campsites, homesickness, travelling through countries apparently containing little of note, a lack of other travellers, far more aggressive and corrupt police and each other.

It was time to take stock and ask ourselves how we were going to make the most of the rest of the trip and not simply a chore. We agreed we needed a good chance to relax and a change in attitude. Thus we approached Yaoundé with a different mentality, a determination to fully absorb ourselves in the local cultures as we had done on the East coast, not just taking a superficial view, and both of us a determination to stop being grumpy bastards to each other.

That said, one of the first things we did in Yaoundé was head to a bar to watch Premiership football, but this provided us with a wonderful opportunity to see something we had always wanted to do, but never had the opportunity or got round to.

Having met a local chap in the bar whilst watching footy, we were invited to visit the nearby Omnisport Stadium the following day to watch a couple of Cameroonian Premier League games. We were delighted to accept and the next morning accompanied our new friend Mr Bell and his son to the stadium.

The 20p tickets for the 2nd best seats provided us a good view of the pitch, as we took our seats on the bare concrete steps. For a further 20p, Mr Bell bought us all a sheet of cardboard, to save our trousers from the dirt and dust.

One of the first teams to play was from the North and had brought their band with them. A trio of trumpets ably supported the lead trombone, whilst the two boys on drums thumped out a stirring beat for the entire game. A varying selection of sellers circulated throughout the growing crowd hawking food, cigarettes, tissues and kola nuts.

These bitter Kola nuts are very popular in Cameroon, especially accompanying beer drunk with the boys. Pink or white in colour, they are hard and crumbling, going soft to the touch when over-ripe and old. The taste is at first almost as unpleasant as anything yet known to science. It progresses from immediately bitter to aftertastes of sour, dusty unpalatableness.

However, even the kola nuts couldn’t detract from a great day out in Yaoundé. We’ve been promising ourselves that we’d visit a local football match for a while and were delighted to have the opportunity to see something so different. Our bums, however, are still numb from 3 hours on concrete. At least that’s what Tom claims.

We were joined for a time at the campsite by a veritable Blitzkrieg of Germans. First up was Peter in his brand new camping-converted Landy 110. Then Jens and Franziska arrived in their Toyota LC and their Swiss/German friends in their nice new Station Wagon 110. Complimenting this First Strike wave of Allemanders was Jurgen, who juddered into view in an ex military Hanomag truck several days later.

A quick trip to the local supermarket later and we were in possession of a £1.20 bottle of Cameroonian whiskey. Drunk with coke, it was deemed ‘blindingly good’. Chased down with several beers and a lot of half-cooked (ok that’s generous, the middle was still iced) bbq chicken, we spent our first evening swapping stories with fellow overlanders in several months.

After an evening centred around making lederhosen jokes, we left the chaps with many tips from them for the route North and many tips from us for the route South. Having met some American Peace Corps volunteers in Yaoundé one night – (we were all left shaking outside an closed Indian curry house) – we decided to take up their offer to visit the Cameroonian countryside and stay a couple of nights in the East.

We arrived in Damako (a small village some 40kms from Bertoua) just before dark, our entire facade a heavily dusted shade of red, the dirt road and the steady stream of logging trucks succeeding in turning us a tint of orange not seen in nature since David Dickinson accidentally applied one too many coats of Ronseal to his ever-tangerine phizog.

We were first hosted by Renee, who put us up in her compound. As it was Renee’s birthday we headed out accompanied by another couple of PC Volunteers, Janelle and Marie, for a huge meal prepared by her Cameroonian friend. We were treated to piles of fried plantain, plates of chips, roast chicken, grilled fish, chocolate cake and fresh papaya and pineapple. All this was washed down with several litres of palm wine, the locally produced poison.  Amazingly, after not having left bed for the previous 3 days from food poisoning, Tom managed to see out the entire night, claiming illness whenever it was sachet time.

The following morning, we were again treated to lunch in town, but this time the menu comprised one special addition; viper.

The viper was about 6 inches wide and presented in a spice sauce and, despite being decidedly bony, was deemed ok. A bit like slightly tough fish, without much flavour. The food in general was excellent and we spent a deliciously lazy afternoon sitting around with the Peace Corps volunteers taking about their work in Africa and its highlights and difficulties.

Whilst relaxing thus, ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Carl spotted only our second snake of the trip, about 10 metres away on the path. The Americans instantly told us that it had been a green mamba, one of the world’s most dangerous snakes (is this right Stroudy?) and a ‘f*cking big one at that!!!’ Thankfully it soon slithered away and we got on with eating its much larger cousin.

The morning after, we packed up and drove a further 80 dusty kms to Batouri, another small village on the trucking route towards the Central African Republic. Here we were expecting to meet a couple of absolutely crazy cyclists, Peter and Jimbo, who are planning to cycle from Cameroon into CAR and then across DRC to Uganda.

This three month journey will take them through some of the most dangerous and arduous terrain in central Africa, so we were determined to meet them for a last beer to wish them good luck.

For those who are interested to see what people who are prematurely released from Secure Mental Units do with their time (as these two are clearly insane) then do cast your eyes over Peters blog, which can be found at .

Again, we were kindly hosted in Batouri by Peace Corps volunteers. We stayed a day longer in the East in order to finish a set of tailored local outfits, with Carl going for a set of Cameroonian trousers and Tom opting for the full Cameroonian bou-bou suit and black satin shirt. Classy and cooling in the climate.

Batouri is a small, dusty town, with little to attract the visitor but a place that does give a good flavour of Eastern Cameroon. A wander round the market is always interesting and here especially reveals the scale of the illegal bushmeat trade.

On several tables separate from the Muslim beef butchers, a wide selection of wild animals can be bought for the pot. As we have previously mentioned in the blog, monkey is popular here. It can most often be bought dried or smoked, as can dik-diks or small forest antelopes. Alongside are lain bushcats, akin to small lynxs, known locally as ‘bushpussy’ (no laughing at the back please).

Live pangolins (small, scaled anteaters) curl themselves into balls on the table and vainly await nightime when they plan to make their escape. Toucans aren’t immune to the hunters aim and take their place next to foot-long bush rats and porcupines. Lizards and snakes make up the table.

Having collected our tailored wares and eaten our spaghetti omelettes, we said our goodbyes to the PCVs and their frankly hilarious Cameroonian friend Jupiter and left Batouri, heading back to Yaoundé for the trip West. A couple of days in the far less hectic countryside playing afternoon football with the local boys and sinking a few beers with the Corps chaps left us with a real holiday feeling. Sometimes, especially as the trip nears the 10 month spot, its nice to get out of the tin can of the cab and have a social life.

Our holiday mood didn’t last long. First up, as we raced along to reach Yaoundé before dark, heavily armed police pulled us over and got very agitated as we gently deflected away requests to hand over any documents.

After 20 minutes of arguing we decided the risk of them taking a document was better than driving longer into the dark, so handed over one of the paper (and cheap) international driving licences. We then had it explained to us that we had committed an offence, not by refusing to show the car import documents (the carnet is worth about £800 so it never comes out), but by having the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car!

We tactfully explained that customs would not have allowed the car into the country if this was the case and began making slow movements to reclaim the licence when the woman in charge whisked it away and promptly sat on it.

Despite what our mother’s might think, she then did a better toddler tantrum impression than either of us could ever muster and looked the other way as either of us tried to speak to her! Another official came over and explained that we should just pay her a little something ‘as it is her job’. We tried a high and mighty approach and enquired if her job was really taking money for nothing and robbing people.

This had the desired effect as she now addressed us once again, claiming that was wasn’t a thief and then outright demanding that we pay something or we would not get the licence back, all in the same sentence! A ‘fair’ fee would be 20,000 CFA, approximately $40, which left us in hysterics and we offered her the 50p we had in our pockets. Continuing the high and mighty theme we then tried to write down her name and explained that we would be visiting the head of transport in Yaoundé the following day and she soon relented and giving the licence back, 1 hour after first having stopped us. Hmm. Insert rude words here.

We drove through a glorious sunset, passing village after village full of boys enjoying a dusty evening game of football and the final logging trucks snaking their way out of the forests and beginning the long journey towards Douala and the Atlantic.

Then, as we re-entered Yaoundé, a motorbike smashed into the Landy as we sat in traffic. His 125 moto came off worse, impacting as he did with the rear ladder and exhaust. Luckily, even though he wasn’t wearing a helmet, he was ok, clearly shaken up but nothing broken.

As the bike was such a mess, we felt obliged to see he was ok and, having ascertained this (as a crowd gathered and people tried to lead Carl aside) we drove off into the city, all too aware of how exactly this situation can worsen.

We were due to be meeting a friend of Tom’s family who was previously a high ranking policeman so the intention was to ask him the best way forward that night.

In all, the damage to the car was light. However, the exhaust suffered a 90 degree bend which encouraged the engine to stall, which had to be straightened with the aid of the crow-bar and a lot of sweating and swearing. A cursory car healthcheck also highlighted a dying wheelbearing and damaged shock absorber mount (both irrespective of the accident). So after an extra day’s delay and a lot of playing with chemical metal and with a new wheel bearing installed, we were ready for the trip west.

First off though, we met up with Patience and Francis, a lovely couple for whom we were given contact details through the Nurse at Tom’s mothers’ practice, who happens to be Cameroonian.

Having just finished struggling to re-insert the halfshaft, we only just finished in time to be taken out to a great dinner (far in excess of our usual standards!) by Patience and Francis. As we sat down to dinner, the waiter passed round perfectly white hot lemon towels: ours were handed back entirely grey with spots of grease, dirt and oil. Stoically, he muttered not a word.

After dinner, we toured the city in the air-conditioned comfort of their Land Cruiser, taking time to visit Patience and Francis’s house; a grand affair set atop the hill overlooking Yaoundé. At this point, Francis produced a gold-framed portrait of himself meeting President Mbia, in Francis’s old capacity as Head of Immigration for Cameroon! Good to know these people, no?

Returning to the campsite after a good evening out, we sunk a beer with a couple of European type chaps who had rolled in in their convertible Jeep. Ruben and Renee were from Belgium and Holland respectively (nobodys perfect) and were heading down the West coast. A lovely couple, we were sorry to have to leave the campsite the next day to finally say goodbye Yaoundé for good (after one final trip to the infamous Etoa Meki bakery) and head West towards Nigeria.

It was good to be moving again and equally comforting to know that in Bamenda we had yet another Peace Corps Volunteer to offer us shelter and show us to the nearest bar. We rolled in late that afternoon and were welcomed by the lovely Ms Kelly and a couple of boxes of wine.

After a few glasses, we headed out for food and a beer to meet some other volunteers. A good time was had by all and we moto-d our way home to a real bed and the anticipation of sore heads the next morn.

At this point, it may be prudent to point out that neither of us are raving alcoholics. Nor, for that matter are most of the PCVs. However, it may at times seem that way. Certainly, a lot of the American chaps and chapesses out here have developed quite an ability and indeed appetite to imbibe many beers at the drop of a hat.

This is however, in our opinion, a result of two things. Firstly, whenever we turn up, a celebration is in order. That’s just natural.

Second, the Cameroonian drinking culture is as well established as any in Africa. Honestly, these boys and girls puncture the palm wine bubble at breakfast and then begin to surmount the vast stockpiles of Cameroonian beer by lunchtime. In the evening, unassailable inebriation is assured as even the great and the good attack 100CFA (roughly 30p) sachets of whiskey, rum, gin and vodka. Naturally, all sachets are double shots.

After a day of wandering Bamenda, seeing the sights and changing money, we grabbed some food from the sprawling market and Kelly cooked up a feast of fajitas and Mex mince, with guacamole and salsa.

Not for many weeks have we been so welcomed, so well fed, so well entertained as in Cameroon by the Peace Corps brigade. Thanks to these guys (and friends back in Yaoundé), we managed to see and do a whole host of interesting activities, quickly putting the frustrations of recent events firmly in the past.

They are, on the whole, a well educated and fun lovin’ bunch who fully appreciate the difficulties of Cameroon and who are not looking to change the World in a day, just improve their village somewhat. Forget your American stereotypes, these guys are switched on to the world they live in.

Hats off to you chaps and many, many thank-yous. A special mention must also go to Harley, up in Ngong. Had we had more time, we would have loved to visit the North and, well, drink more beers. Even if he does have a very ill advised moustache.

Time to leave once more, we turned the tyres and notched up the miles towards Nigeria, stopping the night in Mamfe with, yes, our last batch of volunteers. They really are everywhere.

Next, its into Nigeria, the most populace country in Africa and one of the countries which, for us at least, holds the most apprehension. Fingers crossed, buttocks clenched, we’re going in.

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