• Red dust road February 2nd, 2011

    Judging by the colour of their clothes I had a good idea what the road ahead was like. And they were in a vehicle. The tohelandback duo, two young English guys I’d briefly met in Yaounde, who are driving around Africa in a sponsor-emblazoned Land Rover, met us for lunch and kindly donated their dust masks before wishing us well for the road out of Bertoua.

    They were welcome gifts. Once we passed a rare sign post showing Bangui, Central African Republic’s capital to be 841km away, the town’s tarmac soon ended. It wasn’t long before we disappeared into a cloud of red dust, then another, and another, and so on.

    Into the dust

    Hiromu enters the dust

    Road to Batouri

    We were still on one of Central Africa’s main logging truck corridors, but now it was narrower, unpaved and there was no escape as large wheels rumbled over corrugated laterite and transported the loose surface of the road into the air, from where it would settle on whatever object it first came into contact with – often us.

    After the dust storm

    I was glad I hadn’t bothered cleaning the bike, other than the chain, although inside that plastic guard it stays remarkably free of dust. This, I should note, is a worthwhile piece of kit for anyone considering a long tour on poor roads.

    Cameroon takes on a different appearance in its far eastern quarter. Apart from the fact that vegetation at the roadside is a closer shade of red than green, the people living alongside it are predominantly Muslim. This doesn’t mean the end of bars and beer, for we’re still in Africa’s beer drinking capital, but there is a different atmosphere and appearance to those small dust-covered truck-stop towns. Mud brick mosques and market stalls selling unidentifiable slabs of char-grilled meat remind me more of rural Nigeria than the Christian-dominated beer-guzzling nation of Cameroon. I soon discovered people out here speak a Hausa dialect and there is a large fulani population, the latter easily recognisable from their lighter complexion. There are also a lot of refugees from CAR living along this road to the border, having fled the conflict and upheaval in their country over recent years – a comforting scene for someone about to ride a bicycle there.

    Central African refugee

    There was however one minor problem about me leaving Cameroon and entering CAR. My visa for Cameroon had expired two weeks previously. In most parts of the World this should and would mean a fine, calculated on a daily basis for the length of overstaying the visa. It probably would have done in Cameroon, had I not taken a tip-ex correction pen to the date of entry on my Cameroon stamp (written in biro). A foolish thing to do you’d think? Absolutely. Tampering with your passport is a crime and I have no desire of visiting an African prison.

    The tip-ex job was a result of having previously failed to get a visa extension at the immigration office in Yaounde. Here I had been told to pay for an entire new visa. It was partly something about the rudeness of the woman who told me this and partly my mood at the time that had me decide there was no way I was paying another $100 to stay in Cameroon for a few more weeks.

    A few years ago I’d changed the dates on a Libyan visa and exited the country without a problem. Here in the less official and alcohol-induced state that so many things seem to get done in Cameroon I decided the risk of being accused of forgery was preferable to the cost I would encounter for a new visa  in Yaounde.

    So when Hiromu and I rolled up to the immigration office in the border town of Kentzou I was relieved to find the official in charge was from the Anglophone part of Cameroon. He was also sober and more interested in hearing about our journey than checking the dates we had entered Cameroon. A few minutes later another official in another office was giving us the exit stamps without having even looked at the entry stamp and my DIY tip-ex job. Another big relief. I hoped entering CAR would be as easy as leaving Cameroon, but something had me thinking otherwise.

    Jim'll fix it

  • The Grand trunk road January 21st, 2011

    Should you want evidence that central Africa’s jungles are being destroyed I highly recommend driving between Douala and Yaounde in Cameroon. Actually I don’t recommend driving, even less so cycling. Just stand on the roadside, but not too close, and observe. This is a highway dominated by trucks. Trucks transporting enormous tree trunks – their 20-metre long trailers loaded as they hurtle towards you and the coast and empty as they journey back towards what remains of the continent’s equatorial rain forests. It’s a sad and scary sight, these speeding monsters helping to bleed Africa of its lungs, but it’s been going on for years and seems unlikely to stop or be reduced any time soon.

    This 300km highway between Cameroon’s two largest cities needs to be wider. Better still another road should be built, but that would only destroy more forest.  With its location on the coast Douala is the end point for traffic coming not just from the capital Yaounde, but northern Cameroon, as well as landlocked Chad, the Central African Republic and probably the jungles of Congo and parts of Gabon. So it’s an important road, and needless to say a busy one.  It’s also well-paved, at least by African standards. This is a problem for the cyclist – traffic moves as fast as humanely possible. One stays in the hard shoulder, when it’s there.

    There are few towns or even villages along this highway. It cuts through the jungle, which is the only interesting thing about it. But with the deafening roar of a logging truck approaching you there is little opportunity to hear or look into that twisted tangle of greenery. The jungle feels close around you, yet distant at the same time. Why could there not be a cycle lane winding its way through that other World where engines don’t exist? That comes in the Congo perhaps. Everyone using the highway wishes to leave it as quickly as possible. In a vehicle the journey is a 3 hour drive, or less, on a bicycle 3 days.

    I stayed in unadvertised rooms along this road. They were small and and cheap ($5-10 US) and I found them behind roadside bars, of which there are many in the small towns that do exist. In the day time such establishments might get used by the hour – “for a siesta” as one truck-driver told me. Very convenient if you want to get drunk and, well, I think you know what I’m talking about.

    I don’t have any photos from this stretch of road. Partly the traffic, but also the dust-filled skies provided little inspiration. I just wanted to arrive in Yaounde, like everyone else, and after that long and relaxing stay in Limbe the road was tiring – both physically and mentally.

    And so here I am, passport back in my hands this morning with a visa from the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two days ago I also collected a visa for the Central Africa Republic. I had anticipated problems of the ‘letter of introduction/invitation’ type, but it appears money is all that really matters. Neither visa is cheap, particularly if you request a 90-day stay, which I have done for DRC. I don’t anticipate spending 3 months there, but I want time on my side in what will be Africa’s largest  and most challenging country on this journey.  Just for the record, a visa for CAR costs 55,000 CFA ($110) and is issued in 48 hours, and a 90-day visa for DRC is 105,000 CFA.

    Central Africa Republic visa

    DRC visa

    Hiromu is here. I met him outside the Central Africa Republic embassy in his favourite hole-ridden shirt. I made some comment to how suitably addressed he was, but translating sarcasm often doesn’t work. On his head was a new sun hat with “kiss me quick, squeeze me slow” written across the front. ‘Why did you buy this hat?’ I asked. Well I already knew the answer.

    He is staying over at the Foyer Presbyterian, which is a Church run guest-house/camp site,  along with several other overlanders, whereas I’m surrounded by more western furnishings in a teacher’s apartment belonging to the International School I spoke at yesterday. I hardly seem to have gone anywhere in the last several weeks. Really keen to start moving. There is however, one problem remaining. My Cameroon visa expired earlier this week, which will present problems if I don’t do something about it when I arrive at the border. More about that in a future post.

    Hiromu  at the camp

    Overlanders in Yaounde

    Beer o clock

  • Hard roads ahead: Crossing Central Africa January 6th, 2011

    Up until quite recently I’ve not given much thought to how I will cross Central Africa. By bicycle obviously, but on what roads and through which borders and countries.? There aren’t many roads, which kind of simplifies things, and those shown on maps are probably no more than muddy tracks through the jungle. Not so simple.

    The road condition is far less of a concern than my personal security though. Bring on the mud, sand, river crossings, sweat, flies; if locals can navigate jungle tracks on a Chinese made bicycle loaded with 100kg+ then so can I, I think. But they’re local, they speak the native dialect and their bags and jerry-cans loaded on their bikes do not contain a laptop, camera, Ipod, cash and other desirables. Mine do, and the countries I’m about to talk about make me rightly hesitant about the roads ahead.

    Finding a recent account of someone travelling through the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is rare. Most people who know anything about the region will say don’t go. Too much insecurity and danger. But it is a vast region I’m talking about, and the reports one hears might be outdated, second-hand or refer to a region thousands of kilometres away from the one I’m intending to go to. It wasn’t until I arrived here in Limbe, Cameroon that I actually met someone who’d been to CAR.

    Let me introduce you to Dave Robertson, who by all accounts is quite a remarkable man. For the past two decades he has devoted his time and energy on the continent to preventing malaria, clocking up almost 200,000 Kilometres in his white land rover. An impressive distance, particularly if you only have one leg and one arm to drive with. How is it possible you ask yourself? Well it’s true.

    Dave Robertson and Drive Against Malaria

    I first stumbled across the Drive Against Malaria website a few years ago, but wasn’t aware until a fellow overlander had contacted me that Dave, who is English, had settled with his Dutch partner, Julia, in Limbe. The missing arm and leg had nothing to do with being in CAR, he lost them in a motor accident before he ever started his travels in Africa.

    I spent an afternoon with them, finding out more about Drive Against Malaria and their views on the most effective means to prevent, cure and tackle the huge problem of malaria on the continent. I also wanted to know more about one of the least visited countries in the World.

    “You went to CAR”? I asked.
    “Yeah, in February this year. No problem, although they’re more aggressive than the Cameroonians. You should be OK on the bike, at least in terms of travelling the roads. Best way to do it.”
    “What about DRC and the road to Kisangani? I want to travel east across northern DRC towards Uganda or Rwanda.”
    “That I haven’t done since 89”, said Dave, thinking back. “Or was it 88? Kisangani had lots of travellers then. No idea what it’s like now. I’ll be really interested to hear how you get on.
    “So will I”, I said.

    The second person I met who’d been to CAR was also staying in Limbe, although for a much shorter time. It was another Dave, also driving a white land rover, but he had his limbs intact. His vehicle had also clocked up a fair bit of mileage, which he’d rescued from the South African embassy in Lagos.

    Dave, also South African, had travelled as far as Nigeria from his home in Cape Town on a motorbike and decided he’d had enough, so bought the bullet proof vehicle, which had been unused for years, then drove it back to South Africa. And now he was travelling north again with his friend, (I wasn’t quite sure what the relationship status was) an older French woman who’d decided to rent out her Paris apartment and give up on European life. As far as I could tell it was the money from this monthly rent that was keeping them both on the road. “The people work work work in my country. And for what”?

    Dave and Marion were an interesting couple. I met them having a clean out of their land rover, which was packed and surrounded with a ridiculous amount of clutter: musical instruments (several drums and a guitar) plastic crates full of books, pots, pans, various cooking stoves and bags and other containers of all sizes. Underneath an enormous marquee awning, held up by drainage pipes salvaged from somewhere, Dave launched into his travel stories with gusto.

    “I have presents for you by the way”, he said after I’d heard the story of his ‘Manic Mission’, a 10-week tour of 10 countries in southern and east Africa. “Here take this, and these, and you will definitely want these”. Within 10 minutes I’d just become owner of a handheld GPS (he was using another that was given to him free by tracks4africa), two hard back books on the Congo and a pair of foot-straps for my pedals. What a score!

    “I miss DRC man, but don’t do it. They’ll fuck you up.”

    Dave had ridden his motorbike up through DRC, taken one of the famous Congo River barges, then exited the country into CAR quicker than planned when he got malaria. Why is it so many travellers in Africa opt to not take malarial prophylactics to protect themselves?

    “I think you should fly from Doula to Nairobi. Leave the Congo man. Those guys are drunk and armed.”

    Despite the bout of malaria and problems with corrupt police, the DRC turned out to be Dave’s favourite country, but here he was recommending I avoid going.

    “I miss it man”,
    he repeated again as he asked me to plot a route  for them through Nigeria. Dave and Marion had no idea where they were going, Dave literally flipping a coin to decide on a route. The next day they were packed up and leaving. I have no idea where they are now, and I doubt they know much more.

    Fellow overlanders

    Back at research HQ, which is the enormous and empty house that I’m staying in here in Limbe, I began to read accounts of people travelling the DRC, as well as putting questions on forums to see what the travelling community had to say. As I expected, adventure and danger featured highly. But there have been others – DRC travel agents and the odd adventurous aid worker, who’ve gone a bit further, which one needs when we’re talking about a country 80 times larger than the country that colonised it – Belgium. When one starts to get names of specific towns, the roads between them and advice pertaining to one or the other (some positive, others negative) progress can be made in determining what level of danger/risk is involved.

    Of course I won’t be alone. Hiromu, my Japanese colleague as I introduce him, will be alongside, or somewhere behind bargaining over the price of a handful of ground-nuts or bunch of bananas. I told him to come to Limbe rather than stay in Yaounde, where I imagine his room resembles a prison cell, but being Japanese (read stubborn) he has been unable to check-out, throw his bike on a bus or arrange to leave it in the Guest House.

    Well it doesn’t matter now. He called yesterday to say his parcel from Japan had finally arrived (the reason we’d split from Bamenda and he rushed ahead). I’d been waiting to hear this news before leaving Limbe and starting on the road to Yaounde, some 350km east of here.

    The last of the third crate of beer is currently in the fridge. Other than sharing one or two bottles with the guard during the past 10 days I’ve drunk them by myself. I never did find that drinking partner. It has been an odd situation to find myself in here. Big empty house, four semi-wild dogs (read good security dogs) and an attention-seeking cat have been my surroundings. I won’t meet the tenant who invited me here, unless he gets on his motorbike and continues the journey to South Africa, where I’ll happily buy the rounds.

    For those scratching/shaking their heads thinking why does he want to travel these difficult and uncertain/troubled roads the answer is twofold. Firstly I want to reach east Africa overland, rather than fly. It just so happens that there is no easy/safe/recommended route to do so by. And secondly I have a natural curiosity, like any adventurous spirit, to see just what that huge swath of equatorial Africa that few people get to visit is actually like.  In the words of someone who travelled this part of Africa long before people were riding bicycles in it:

    “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there”.

    The question is at what point does a road, feared dangerous because of  reports of instability in the area, become safe? I can’t imagine many people would  have recommended the route I followed in Nigeria, Liberia or even Guinea, given my time there during the elections last year. Was I lucky? Maybe. Nothing is definite in terms of my route and I don’t want to put myself in ‘extreme danger’, just to say that I did it. I will apply for a visa for CAR and DRC in Yaounde and continue to seek advice as I proceed eastwards.

    New GPS

  • And the winner goes to… A year in reflection December 31st, 2010

    I started the year learning to surf in Morocco and I’m finishing it drinking a lot of beer in Cameroon. Between then I’ve crossed 14 countries in Africa and cycled about 12,000km, collecting more than a few stories along the way. Here is a review of some of the highlights, lowlights and other interesting observations from my year on the road. If there is a category you’d like to add please post a comment to let me know. Happy New year.

    Most atmospheric place: Harper, Liberia. A town full of war-ravaged buildings, surrounded by beautiful palm-fringed beaches.

    North from Harper

    Country I’d most like to return to: Nigeria. Forget the bad reputation, Nigeria is the India of Africa in my opinion. Big, overpopulated, ethnically rich, full of positive energy and immensely rewarding for those adventurous enough to explore it.

    Worst day of the year: March 13th. I was mugged by 5 men in Dakar, Senegal, who slashed my left wrist and left foot with a machete as I attempted and failed to prevent them taking off with my camera and day-sack. Just in case you’re wondering – the foot slash was minor and I was back on my feet walking fine within a week. The injury to my wrist was much more serious as 4 tendons were severed and required stitching together. There remains a slight stiffness, but no real discomfort. I probably ought to have done and ought to continue doing more physiotherapy as I don’t have the same degree of flexibility in my left wrist as I do in my right, but all things considered recovery has been good. No point in adding the category – ‘Place I’d least like to return to’.

    Machete wounds

    Most popular day of traffic to this website: The day I posted an account of the above. Almost 2500 hits, which goes to show bad news travels quickly.

    Worst roads: Leaving Nigeria and entering Cameroon. Steep, full of large rocks, deep gullies and impossible to cycle on.

    Most hassle at a border: Crossing from Guinea-Sierra Leone. Immigration told me the border was closed until the country decided on its new President. I’d have been there for months if that was true. I crossed without paying the bribe.

    Most beautiful women: Senegal and Ivory Coast. Pity my French is poor.

    Least ‘African’ feeling place: Abuja, Nigeria. Clean, well-paved roads and a sterile, but relaxing oasis from the ‘real’ Africa.

    Easiest place to get a beer: Cameroon, which might also be one of the World’s easiest place to get a beer, just don’t assume it will be cold.

    Hardest place to get a beer: Mauritania, unless you’re lucky enough to be staying with ex-pats who like drinking because there is very little else to do when you live in a city like Nouakchott.

    Best place to drink a beer: Overlooking Bakau fish market in The Gambia. Dozens of boats off-loading the day’s catch, which is then sorted and sold beneath you.

    Friendliest country to spend time in: Ghana, followed or possibly matched by Sierra Leone. Kindest, most (on the whole) non-aggressive and generally sincerest people in west Africa.


    Country with the best beaches: Sierra Leone. Unspoilt, palm-fringed and clean white sands.

    Beach in Sulima

    Most generous donation to Against Malaria Foundation: £1450 from American International School of Nouakchott, Mauritania. A great effort for a small school.

    Best ‘African’ food: Senegal and Ivory Coast: Fresh baguettes, good grilled fish/meat and a Francophone mentality that generally dictates ‘quality’ to be more important than quantity.

    Worst ‘African’ food: Sierra Leone and Liberia. The nation seems to survive on rice and cassava leaf with a bit of fish or unidentifiable bush meat thrown in if you’re lucky.


    Best ‘on the road’ refreshment/snack: Fresh coconuts along the coast in any country.

    Biggest disappointment: Finding that the jungles of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast have mostly been destroyed.

    Most frequently asked question: Are you not afraid of wild animals?

    Most colourfully dressed people: Togo and Benin. Everyone wears bright wax-cotton cloth.

    Best sleeping place: One of many nights out in the Sahara under the stars.

    Saharan star-gazing

    Worst sleeping place: In an abandoned building in the Sahara full of dry human excrement. I was trying to hide from the wind with little success.

    Desert camp

    Biggest relief: Finding my passport two days after leaving it in a room I stayed in within The Gambia.

    Most historically interesting/moving place: Slave Castles of Ghana, particularly at Cape Coast and Elmina. Shame on my ancestors and all other European powers in Africa.

    Never again: Slave depiction, Elmina

    Most used/valued piece of kit: My trustworthy Tilley hat


    Least used piece of kit: My Solar charger. I’m rarely away from a power source for long enough to warrant using it, although it’s lightweight and packs easily so I’m holding onto it just in case.

    Solar power

    Best new piece of kit: X-mini speaker. Sound beyond size as the logo says and it fits snugly between bottle cage and my handlebar bag. Nothing like a bit of Led Zeppelin blasting out on a tough road.

    Best books read: The Poisonwood Bible: Mary Kingsolver, French Lessons in west Africa: Peter Biddlecombe and The Grass is Singing: Doris Lessing.

    Most common on-the-road thought: Do I write a book when I finish this journey? There are a few stories/characters I don’t write about here.

  • Your round mate: Christmas in Cameroon December 28th, 2010

    Another lung bursting climb took me out of Bamenda, but at least it was on a tarred road. I’m done with dirt tracks for the moment; there will be plenty more where I’m headed in the next few months.

    From above the town looked as attractive as it did from street level; a sprawling mass of single-storey tin roofs with no discernible landmark other than an ugly church on a hill. It is the landscape surrounding Bamenda that half-saves it, although at this time of year the visibility is impeded by an African fog, better known as the ‘harmattan’. I thought Cameroon was too far south from the Sahara to suffer from the dust-filled skies that cover much of west Africa during the dry season. Obviously not. Straight after the rainy season would be the best time to be travelling through Cameroon. I’m two months too late.

    Back on my own I was no longer looking over my shoulder to see where or where not Hiromu was. We ‘should’ meet again in Yaounde, unless his ‘schedule’ dictates that he has to leave the capital before I catch him up. We have a similar route plan from Cameroon onwards, so it makes sense that we move together, particularly along some of the troubled roads that lye ahead. It’s unlikely I’m going to bump into another cyclist in this neck of the jungle.

    It was Christmas eve and Cameroon was gearing up for Christmas. What does that mean? As far as I can tell a lot of preparation for one enormous drinking festival. Not that Cameroonians need any excuse to drink. Every other vehicle that seems to pass me by on the road is a truck filled with beer-crates.

    A good place to be at Christmas? Well yes and no. Should a thirsty cyclist need liquid refreshment at the end of the day from a punishing climb no problem at all. Just don’t expect it cold. Cameroonians will drink warm beer for breakfast quite happily. The problem is that with the ‘season of goodwill’ everyone would very much like you, the ‘white man’, to stop cycling, come take a drink and buy a beer for everyone present. “How about a drink for my boys?”, “You have something for us in one of the bags?” and so on. Beer is not expensive, but in an African context neither is it cheap – about $1 a bottle. I can’t quite figure out how so many Cameroonians can afford to drink so much.

    Almost every bar in every hamlet, village and town will have a boisterous drunkard determined to make you stop by frantically waving and yelling at you whilst clutching a bottle of warm beer in the other hand. And so you smile, wave, shout “next time” and keep pedalling until you find a discreet place that looks like you might drink a bottle of coke in peace or be able to ask the bar-man for a place to sleep for the night. This is how I spent the 24th, 25th and 26th of December. I felt like  a bit of a party-pooper, but it seemed to be the safest option. Quite a contrast from cycling through Morocco a year ago!

    On Christmas day itself the roads were blissfully empty. Between bars children dressed in their best greeted me with a ‘Joyeux Noel’, for somewhat confusingly I was now in French-speaking Cameroon, only to be heading back to the English speaking part. Having attended a Church congregation with their parents in the morning, who would then proceed to get blindly drunk, they were now going to their own party. This seemed to consist of an empty room rigged-up with a bad-sounding stereo system. Close by a make-shift photo studio would have been erected. This would consist of a background of several glossy pictures, perhaps showing a luxury house, a white beach with palm trees or a famous footballer or music artist.

    A worrying ‘clanging’ sound came from my bike on Christmas day as I descended a long steep hill from the town of Dschang. Had the frame suddenly cracked? No, my wheel rims were red hot from braking and a front spoke had broken. Not sure if this is the reason?

    Replacing a broken spoke, assuming one has the spare spoke and spoke key, is not difficult. The skill is tightening it to the correct level to ensure the wheel remains well-aligned, or ‘true’ as cycling terminology would say. It is something I’m a complete amateur at, which may explain why I’ve now had 3 broken spokes from my front wheel, although if you ask me it looks pretty ‘true’.

    Out of the mountains the temperature and humidity returned to what one would expect at this degree of latitude. Plantations of banana, pineapple, cocoa and sugar cane flanked the roadside, giving way to denser and larger vegetation behind. It was a taste of the jungle, which will be with me as I cross Central Africa.

    Pineapple man

    Somewhere within the muggy breathless sky lay Mt Cameroon. At 4095m in height this is by far the highest mountain in west Africa and should have dominated the skyline. Only by looking very hard could I trace its outline though, for it remained mostly invisible behind the clouds.

    I was heading back to the coast and the Anglophone town of Limbe, which in former times was known as Victoria, named by its 19th Century founder after someone famous. If ever there was an over-used name for African places and landmarks Victoria would be it.

    My host, who I’ve never met, but whose empty house I’m now staying in, recommended a detour here. In the yard are two large motorbikes, which he and a friend drove overland from the UK on. I think the plan had been to continue to South Africa, but they stopped short in Limbe, which doesn’t seem a bad place to put down for a while. I’d have liked to hear his story over a few beers. As New Year approaches I’m in bad need of a drinking partner who doesn’t assume the round is always on me.

  • 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


    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.


    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

  • Nigeria just gets better December 15th, 2010

    The Emir of ‘Old Muri’ took care of us in Jalingo. By this I mean we received a reduced rate at his brother’s Guest House and had breakfast and dinner delivered free of charge to our room by one of his ‘personal assistants’. We had first met the Emir, whose long name I quickly forgot, sitting on a palatial throne and swathed in a white robe several days earlier in ‘Old Muri’ itself. Why this man, (who had obviously received word of two foreigners riding bicycles through his chiefdom) decided to send his messengers out to summon us to his home I’m not sure.

    Old Muri is a small village on the north bank of the Benue River in Taraba state. Between the sandy streets and mud-brick huts there is little to show for what the Emir claimed to be a 450-year history. I missed the details as we sat opposite him on a sofa in his front room whilst a servant crawled across the carpet to bring us bottled water and fresh papaya. There was some mention of warring tribes, which is probably the history of  much of Nigeria from the very beginning.

    With the Emir of Old Muri

    We had used the Emir’s personal ferry to cross the Benue River and been told to contact him when we arrived in Jalingo, which is just what I did. To what extent the Emir was expecting me to ‘dash’ him in some manner for all this hospitality involved I’m not sure. I ought to have asked him to introduce me to one of his many daughters. Perhaps treating and caring for two foreigners foolish enough to ride bicycles through his remote chiefdom was merely a statement of his power and generosity.

    Crossing the Benue River

    During our pampered stay in Jalingo Hiromu and I had clothes made. Having bought the material from a small market somewhere near Yankari National Park the week previously I’d carried the 18 yards of colourfully patterned cotton (purchased for around $20) and was waiting to find a moment where we might rest and locate a tailor. The latter are easy to find throughout Africa and in a little over 24 hours we were exchanging $15 for 4 shirts, 3 pairs of trousers, a kaftan and bag. I thought this might be an occasion for Hiromu to throw away his hole-ridden shirts, but he seems content to wear them until they fall off.

    South from Jalingo the old tarred road quickly deteriorated. In a four-wheeled vehicle this would be a bone-crunching journey over crater-sized pot-holes, but on a bicycle it is merely a case of finding the right line and weaving ones way between the hollows.

    South from Jalingo

    Our celebrity status continued as we passed through villages and sought permission at the end of the day to pitch the tents besides schools or churches. This has rarely been a problem anywhere in Nigeria, other than having to convince dumbstruck locals that we will not be cold or uncomfortable sleeping on the ground. Crowds of children and men will often gather to watch in fascination as the foreign objects are erected. Many refuse to believe that anyone would wish to travel by bicycle and not be profiting directly from an employee or government for doing so. Wearing a shirt with ‘Against Malaria Foundation’ written on the back often involves extra explanation, which is usually a case of saying ‘no’ I don’t carry mosquito nets to distribute and nor does the charity financially support me.

    Having company on the road helps to disperse all the attention one receives for travelling in a region that sees few foreigners. Hiromu and I have different cycling speeds, which is partly because his bicycle is far too heavily laden with unnecessary things like an extra sleeping mat and large rucksack, which gets rarely used. When I first met Hiromu in Morocco his panniers had the words ‘Running w. E’ written across in large white paint. Since Ghana the words have been taped over, for it seems Emily, the long-term girlfriend whom he left behind in Japan and whose name he dedicated his trip to, calling it ‘Running with Emily: Dreams do come true’ has decided that a 5-year wait for her loved one’s return is a bit too long. ‘Running w. E’ continues to be written on the bicycle frame and mudguards and Hiromu asked me whether transferring the meaning of the letters ‘w’ and ‘e’ to ‘wandering’ and ‘Earth’ would now be more appropriate. I explained that ‘Running wandering Earth’ makes little sense. How about ‘Running without Emily’ I suggested. Hiromu is yet to be convinced.

    The scenery becomes more mountainous as one heads south through Taraba state towards Cameroon. Behind thatched huts and harvested fields of maize, yams, and peppers rise green boulder-strewn slopes. The quiet and now better-paved road begins to undulate and it is at this point that locals seriously shudder with disbelief that you intend to cycle up onto the Mambilla plateau. This is a high grassland area of rolling green pastures, unlike most of the rest of Nigeria. And it is indeed a challenge to reach; 16km of mostly steep gradients and sharp bends bring you out of the familiar lowland heat to a cool alpine freshness somewhere above 1500m in altitude. Here cows graze and wild flowers grow at the roadside. Tin-roofed farm houses lie sheltered and hidden within gentle valleys where wooden picket fences divide the land. To look at the landscape you would never guess it was African. I could quite happily pass more time here.

    Mambilla Plateua approaching

    Peppers for sale

    Admiring the view on the Mambilla Plateau

    A few days ago we were lucky enough to pass a weekly cattle market where hundreds of cows had been walked from miles around by their Fulani and Hausa owners to be bought and sold on a hillside. There was no fenced enclosure. The animals stood huddled together whist young boys waited on guard with sticks in case one decided to wander or charge off. The cows here look much better fed and healthier than the anorexic-looking animals one sees throughout much of west Africa.

    Cattle Market

    Cattle Market

    Cattle Market

    Cattle on the Mambilla Plateau

    The tarred road on the Mambilla plateau ends in the town of Gembu, which is where I’m writing this from now. Distances of 40, 80, 300 and 1000km have been given to me when I’ve inquired how far it is to the border with Cameroon. It is much better, although not always anymore accurate, to ask the travelling time in such situations. Two hours by motorbike seems the consensus, which on an untarred mountainous road probably puts the distance somewhere between 40 and 80km. All going well we should cross the border later today or tomorrow.

    Before leaving the 16th country on this journey I want to say a few parting words. During the months leading up to my arrival in Nigeria very few people had anything positive to say about the country. I now wish to say how very misinformed their impressions were or misguided their experience in Nigeria was. My time here and the broad spectrum of people I’ve met have proven the very opposite. From the stranger who disappeared with my $100 note to change on the black market, to the farmers who’ve given me free fruit, school teachers, chiefs and pastors who’ve provided safe places to sleep in my tent at night and the many other Nigerians who’ve been full of energy, generosity and a sense of humour no matter what circumstance they found themselves in. They have all made the last seven weeks a very memorable one in the life of the Big Africa Cycle. I wonder how Cameroon will fare in comparison.

    Village gangster