• Lung-bursters and drunkards: Walking into Cameroon December 23rd, 2010

    Crossing into Cameroon proved challenging. Aside from the fact that no-one could provide an accurate approximation of travelling time or distance to the border, the road was terrible – really terrible. When unpaved roads in tropical countries aren’t graded to level out the bumps and ensure surface water runs into ditches at the side, heavy rain soon destroys them. Crevasse-deep gullies form between football-sized rocks and the way ahead ends up looking more like a dry mountain river-bed than a road. Such has been the story for much of the past week.

    Walking into Cameroon

    River-bed road

    Climbing again

    1st gear all the way

    A small river at the bottom of a steep palm-forested valley provided the demarcation between Nigeria and Cameroon. This came 40km, or a day’s journey from Gembu, where my passport had been stamped out of Nigeria. Up until this point I’d just about been able to cope with the steep gradients and bone-numbing tracks without descending from the bike and pushing. Entering Cameroon was another matter.

    Nigeria/Cameroon frontier

    It is hard to believe any vehicle other than a tank or 4×4 wishing to break its suspension and chassis would chose to take the road to Nwa, the first large settlement in Cameroon with an immigration post. The fact that I had arrived here 2 days after my passport had been stamped out of Nigeria escaped the attention of the three officers sitting on the verandah and sharing a 5-litre jerry-can of palm wine.

    “Bonjour Monsieur. Bienvenue a Cameroun.” bellowed one as he raised his gourd and took a swig. I paused to catch my breath after another lung-bursting climb and wondered if I’d now crossed into Francophone Cameroon. “Is this the French-speaking part of Cameroon” I replied. “Ah you’re an Anglophone”chirped another. “No, this is north-west Cameroon and we speak English here. This other man is from Doula”.

    Feeling the bumps

    Painful

    Before arriving in Cameroon I had been a little confused as to where the boundaries between the English and French-speaking part of Cameroon lay. What was once a German-administered colony was later divided by Britain and France following WWI, although the majority of the country is Francophone.

    The French-speaking official finished his gourd of palm-wine, poured himself another then took it along with my passport inside his office. “Donnez moi 2000CFA. It is for my boss”. I wanted to ask what it was about Francophone officials in Africa that made them so much more demanding and less polite than their Anglophone counterparts. But it would have been lost on this drunk, just as the whole thing seemed to pass over Hiromu’s head that we were each being asked to pay a $4 bribe.

    I think being Japanese in Africa helps my cycling companion, although everyone assumes he is Chinese. Not only does Hiromu fail to pick up on the nuances of many a situation, atmosphere, tone, or meaning in the voices of people talking to him, but he comes from a country, which far from having an innocent past, has no history  of  wrong-doing from  on the African continent. People regard him much more an alien oddity than me, the white-man from England.

    We retrieved our passports without opening our wallets and continued into Nwa, which was having its market-day. There was nothing remarkable on sale; the usual wooden-stall or empty raffia-mat on the ground with a spread of cooking essentials: maggi stock cubes, sugar, small red onions, tinned tomato paste, re-cycled bottles filled with palm oil. More interesting was the fact that surrounding the market square were a number of small shops filled with people drinking palm-wine. Both men and women.

    I had read somewhere that more alcohol is consumed in Cameroon than any other Africa nation. The small town of Nwa and many others I passed in the days to follow would certainly live up to this theory. I don’t mean to exaggerate, having barely been in the country a week, but it’s hard to find a sober Cameroonian; half the population appears to be continually drunk.

    Lets take Jackson for example, who called himself the living ‘Michael Jackson’ and stumbled out of a lively bar on a Sunday afternoon to wave me down. We had now left behind the lung-bursting ascents and joined the grassfields, or ‘ring-road’ area of Cameroon, which is noted for its scenery. How the Lonely Planet can describe the section of road we were on as ‘decent’ I don’t know. Perhaps the author had also travelled the same road from Nigeria to Nwa and was being ‘relative’ in his/her description. It was comparably horrendous. Not horrendous of the 20% gradient and herculean boulder-type, but horrendous in that a 6” layer of powered dust provided a cushioning over the bumps. Not so bad if there is no traffic on the road. But it only takes one vehicle, of which there is an increasing number as you head south from the town of Ndu, to raise up a thick cloud of red-brown particles, which then slowly descend to fill and cover every surface around. The tea-plantations and slopes of eucalyptus trees would look a whole lot more scenic if they weren’t covered in this film of red-dust. And a touring cyclist could much more appreciate his mountainous surroundings if he weren’t blinking, rubbing his eyes and spitting out mouthfuls of the stuff every time a vehicle went past.

    Eating the dust

    “What you are seeing is a reflection of the roads in your country” is what I told Jackson, who  was laughing at my appearance and as merry as one could be before losing his legs. Why I was asking this drunkard for a safe place to sleep I’m not sure. A minute after propping up the bike at the top of yet another climb and waiting for slow-coach Hiromu, whose speed by 4pm in the day drops below walking-pace, I was entering a dark-filled room thick with the heady sweet smell of palm-wine. A fat woman was standing behind a table, on which an assortment of different sized bottles waited to be filled from a huge plastic jerry-can. “Try our delicious wine” shouted Jackson as he rocked back and forth from across the bar. So I did. And it was good. Fresh tasting and sweet. “How much to fill this 1-litre bottle?” I asked, returning with the spare from my front-rack. “One hundred francs” replied the fat woman. At £0.15 that’s about as cheap as alcohol gets I thought.

    When Hiromu showed up I’d already arranged to pitch our tents on the school grounds, which Jackson miraculously  managed to walk us to, before bidding us a good night and no doubt returning for more palm-wine.

    Travelling alongside someone who doesn’t enjoy a drink at the end of the day is a bit tiring at times. Hiromu belongs to that Japanese/Asian contingent whose face turns a worrying shade of purple after a few sips of alcohol on account of not being able to digest the stuff. Any excuse. I’m not sure alcohol would fit into Hiromu’s budget even if he were occasionally to imbibe anyhow. I thought I was a budget-traveller until I started cycling with Hiromu, who if he returns to Japan and takes back off on his bike, as I did from England, may realise that life is too short to bargain everything down to the lowest denomination of local currency.

    On another evening we met a chap called Felix. He introduced himself as an environmental officer, was dressed in shirt and trousers and had that professional look and manner of speaking that led me to believe he was a man who might help us. The sun was setting again through the harmattan haze and we wanted permission from an authority to camp next to the school or some other such open and neutral place.

    No, that is not permissible. It is not in our custom to allow a foreigner to do that. You will sleep in a room” ,said Felix in a tone of sincerity and authority. It wasn’t until we had sat down in a nearby bar and he ordered me a beer and Hiromu a coke that I realised Felix was drunk. I was annoyed with myself and apologised to Hiromu, who like me was also thinking of his stomache, where he could wash the film of dust from his body and lay his head to rest. Felix had done a good job of hiding his drunkenness through an ability to speak fluently and articulately. “Why do Cameroonians drink so much”? I asked. “Because we are suffering”. Fare enough I thought. Same reason many people drink the World over.

    Felix really had no idea where we would sleep. He was fifty years old and lived by himself in a shoe-box sized room. We found the school a few hours later and slept peacefully, returning into the village for breakfast the following morning (fufu and huckleberry leaf, which is much like spinach) to be joined by Felix. It was 8am and he was taking a 650ml bottle of Guinness, suggesting we join him as there was a big hill ahead and it would provide us with energy. We left him as he started his second bottle and the chop-shop started to fill with other regulars taking their morning beer.

    Followers

    A sign across the road saying ‘end of tarmac’, which to us read ‘start of tarmac’ as we were travelling the other way, came as a huge relief later in the day. Our clothes, bags and bikes were now caked in dust and I was looking forward to doing more than the 40-50km per day we’d been struggling to make since leaving Gembu. But the Cameroonian Ministry of road construction or whatever has an interesting approach to tarring the country’s roads. It does so in patches, so just as one gets used to rolling smoothly without the  bumps and dust the tarmac disappears again, returns several kilometres later then stops again. And so on.  One might call it a drunkards approach to road construction. I can just imagine the tarmac-crew finishing a stretch, then stopping for lunch and needing to drive 10km to the next town selling beer or palm wine, from which they will continue tarring in the afternoon, or much more likely the next day, week or month.

    Having slept in our tents every night since leaving Gembu we took a room in a Palace one evening. It is the first time I have ever slept in a Palace. This one belonged to the Lamido of Sagba, a Lamido being the name given to a Muslim chief in Cameroon. His Christian counterparts are called Fons. Being a Muslim it was a relief to speak with someone sober for once. One of his ‘errand-boys’ had found us in the village and suggested we could ask the Lamido to sleep in his Palace. To sleep in a Palace. Now who can say they have done that?

    The Lamido – ‘Elhadji Maouda:N.W.P Holder of night’, as his business card on which a picture of him sitting on a throne looking like Santa Claus with a white shawl round his neck and face read, showed us to our room. A healthy-looking horse lay grazing outside on a grass slope and I wondered as the Lamido opened the door to the room if I were looking in on its stable. But the ceiling would have been too low. On tip-toes my head touched the dusty wooden timbers. “Um…It’s perfect” I said as the errand boy Suleiman did a fine job of raising the inch-thick layer of dust from the floor by attempting to sweep it out with a palm-frond brush.

    The following day, yesterday, we climbed again then descended towards the town of Bamenda, where I write this from now. Hiromu took off on his bike this morning headed for Yaounde. It is some 450-500km away. I suggested he take a rest day like me, having travelled continuously for the last 14 days, but he has a package to collect that is being re-sent from Japan (it arrived in Yaounde a few weeks ago and was sent back). I too need to go to Yaounde for onward visa applications and a school talk I had originally thought I’d give before the close of term. Both can wait for the New Year – I’m off to enjoy my last taste of Anglophone Africa in west Africa on the coast at Limbe. I won’t make it for Christmas Day, but I doubt it will be hard to find someone to share a drink with along the way. Happy Christmas to you all.

    Towards Cameroon

  • To go or not to go to Togo? October 20th, 2010

    That was the question I was left asking myself. My passport had been stamped out of Ghana and now at the Togolese border post I had a problem. Obtaining the visa I needed to enter  was not going to be such a simple procedure. It wasn’t helping matters that the burly officer on duty refused to accept my handshake nor look me in the eye as he stood chewing and spitting a stick of cane sugar. A nice welcome back into Francophone Africa.

    If I wanted a visa I would have to take an overpriced taxi and be unnecessarily escorted at great cost to a town inside Togo. Where this town was and how long it would take before coming back to the border post (where I would unhappily be leaving my bicycle an hour before sunset) I couldn’t ascertain. The officer-in-charge merely shouted “Do you want the visa or not” and had no time for my pathetic questions in French. So I decided to go back to the Ghana post, where I’d made friends with the welcoming and polite guards, and explain I didn’t want to cross this border and grease the hands of the idiot on the other side.

    I would be curious to know what a Frenchman’s experience of travelling through west Africa is. Does he get shouted at, interrogated and treated with zero respect when entering an Anglophone country, where his proficiency in English is somewhat basic, and then get warmly welcomed with utmost courtesy when entering Francophone Africa where he can be confident and fluent in conversation? I wonder. I’m coming to the conclusion (I’d reached it a long time ago) that Anglophone Africa is basically a lot friendlier than the Francophone part, at least when it comes to matters of officialdom. Perhaps this sounds bias coming from England. I need a neutral party to chip-in here.

    I discussed all this later that evening after pitching my tent in a dis-used room of the immigration office. Dickson, the officer-in-charge, agreed that I should continue the next day to the town of Shia, where he believed the Togolese were issuing visas on the border. Had he wanted to he was within his means to fine me for remaining in Ghana beyond the 30-day stay, but thankfully the press cuttings about the journey and my remarks about hospitality and kindness in his country steered the conversation away from my passport.

    The border town of Shia didn’t look all that far away on my map, but what should only have been a 50km journey ended up being closer to 100km. The map totally failed me again and the instructions and directions from local Ghanians along the way were equally as inaccurate and misleading. At least I was seeing a bit more of what has been Ghana’s most scenic region.

    Wli Waterfall

    Eastern Ghana

    DSC_0019

    School girls at break

    Pineapple stop

    By the time I’d reached Shia and explained myself to immigration the day was getting on. They too could have issued a fine, but agreed to let me spend another night within Ghana and cross into Togo the next morning. If only all border officials were as understanding as these ones.

    Double exit stamp

    As it turned out the Togolese visa is not issued on the border here either, but 5 kms away. I was given a motorcycle escort by the Ghanians to smooth the way. No money was exchanged, other than paying for the visa, but the Ghanian officer-in-charge will now be donning matching waterproof jacket and trousers when on patrol in the rain. I needed a good excuse to off-load these clothes I haven’t worn since Morocco and this seemed like a good time.

    My visa here in Togo is only valid for seven days. A short time, but the country is tiny and I’m less than 100km away from crossing into Benin, a country that claims voodoo as it’s national religion. A Sunday service there might be one with a difference.

  • When force matters September 25th, 2010

    In the end it required four of us to remove it. I’d struggled for two hours previously with an adjustable spanner in one hand and chain whip in the other and got no-where. I was in danger of doing myself an injury. The advice I’d been told about removing my bike’s rear sprocket was true. The thing wouldn’t budge without tremendous force. Two men held the wheel, another the spanner and the biggest of the four of us thrust down on the chain-whip. It finally gave and I unscrewed the dagger-edged piece from the hub.

    Replacing it was much easier. I made sure I greased the sprocket thread. In another 5000km or so I’ll remove and reverse it. Or need I do it so soon? Had I read my Thorn manual and done this with the first sprocket I might have prolonged its life. It now dangles from my handlebar bag as a kind of souvenir come weapon/African juju. Together with a new chain, front chain-ring, oil change in the hub and two new tyres I’m all set to continue into Central Africa. I’m even carrying spare tyres, which I rarely do, but these are special and were donated by a generous reader.

    Abidjan would have been very expensive if I hadn’t been given the keys to the apartment of a friend. Across the road in this peaceful suburban area was a supermarket stocked with imported food-goods. People shopping here had plenty of money to spend. Most items were twice the price they’d be found for in Europe, but it was hard to resist a little fromage, pate and vin rouge.

    After collecting my Ghanian visa I left Abidjan and headed to Grand Bassam. The French settled here first when they arrived in Cote d’ Ivoire and a number of colonial buildings, many in ruinous states, survive from that era.

    Grand Bassam

    Sunset paddle

    I visited and spoke to students at an International University here. I’m sure I was something of a curiosity, but don’t think I inspired any of these privileged individuals do undertake something of a similar nature. Anyone with status or money doesn’t ride a bicycle in Africa. One of them asked what the most striking thing was I’d seen in their country. I told them the destruction of their natural environment. “What about the women”? another asked. I confessed they were much better preserved. Cote d’ Ivoire ranks with Senegal in this regard.

    My bike was clean until I arrived in Ghana. When the tarmac ended beside a stretch of French holiday homes some 60km east of Grand Bassam I loaded the bike onto a wooden boat. This was effectively the end of the road in Cote d’ Ivoire, but the border post with Ghana was another 20km away down a sandy track. “Pas possible”, declared the locals when I said I would cycle it. They were right. You can only cycle on sand when it’s compact. So I waited for the tide to turn and sat with an elderly man tending a herd of goats behind the beach. He said he was originally from Niger and beamed a large smile when the Voice of America broadcast a show in Hausa on his small radio. I left him when the tide had sufficiently dropped enough and followed the palm-fringed beach with the sun at my back towards the border.

    Lagoon crossing

    ”Waiting

  • At the bamboo border July 14th, 2010

    Leaving Guinea required some patience. The border was closed, at least according to one immigration officer. I found him lying on a wooden bench under the shade of a mango tree. Several metres away a bamboo pole acted as a barrier across the dirt track. This was the end of the road for Guinea. And whilst the country waited to hear the results of its Presidential elections I apparently would not be allowed to cross into Sierra Leone.

    Several hundred metres back, beyond the ramshackle dwellings and stalls that made up this border town of Heremakono, the immigration Police seemed only to happy to bid me bon voyage and provide an exit stamp in my passport. Why was I now being told the border was closed?

    I decided to sit down, pull out my journal and wait. After an hour passed I started to wonder if there was an element of truth in this explanation. Perhaps there was. Much more likely is that I was probably expected to have lost my patience and settled on the African way of getting things done – pay a bribe. There was only an hour left of light in the day and 10km of no-mans land on a muddy track lay towards the border with Sierra Leone.

    I was contemplating either a bribe or finding somewhere to sleep in the town when it appeared that the novelty of this tight-fisted white man with his bicycle must have worn off. The nod came and the bamboo pole was lowered.

    I had anticipated something like this after leaving Labe several days previously. The elections had fortunately passed quietly, but a military presence remained clearly evident on the road. Instead I found nothing but a continuation of waves and greetings in Fula as the road undulated through the green forested hills of the Fouta Djalon. Forested is perhaps not the right description. Many of the slopes have been cleared for cultivation and firewood, thereby leaving a wasteland of slashed tree-trunks. Unless land is placed under some National Park status or given special protection, people living in palm-thatched huts with no other source to cook their food are given a free reign to hack away at the vegetation around them. Guinea is no different from dozens of other poor countries in this regard.

    Road to Southern Guinea 

    Returning home from the fields 

    Once I dropped out of the Fouta Djalon mountains the road diverged in two directions – right on what I guessed would be an increasingly busy road towards the coast and the capital, Conakry, and left towards the south of the country. Conakry sounded as appealing and scenic as Dakar, and given the uncertain political situation and the fact that I had no need to go there, the decision wasn’t very difficult to make.

    Two days later I was at the border and back on a dirt track, making my time in Guinea shorter than I’d originally thought. I’d by-passed the waterfalls the guidebook had made much mention of, but I wanted to be involved in the distribution of mosquito nets that was taking place in the south of Sierra Leone. First there was Freetown to contend with.

    Goodbye Guinea 

    As I write this Guinea is yet to announce it’s new President. No candidate won a clear enough margin of votes, thereby necessitating a second round of voting.