• 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

  • North of the Niger November 21st, 2010

    Crossing big rivers in boats with holes in never feels very reassuring. As the water seeps through the wooden hull and runs to the stern of the overloaded vessel you look for signs of alarm from your fellow passengers. There is none. They sit motionless whilst one boy frantically bails out bucketfuls of brown water from Africa’s third largest river.

    The first time I saw the Niger River was in Guinea, a short distance from its origin in the Fouta Djjalon mountains. Here the channel was less than 20 metres wide. Fast forward several thousand kilometres and now it was over 1km in breadth, a silent expanse of dormant energy making its way to troubled regions further south.

    All aboard

    Small roads had brought me to the town of Pategi, which sits on the southern bank of the Niger River and probably sees few visitors. It is on the road to nowhere important, although apparently hosts an annual regatta. I had been told there was a government-run ferry on the river, but like many state-controlled businesses it was not in operation. Unless I headed 100km upstream and took the bridge, a leaky motorised canoe was the only way to reach the northern shore.

    When we arrived at the other side some twenty minutes later the water-baler looked exhausted. ‘Good job‘, I felt like saying, or ‘you really tried’, as Nigerians like to exclaim. There was no road, so I followed the other passengers, many of which had loaded their motorbikes onto the canoe. A narrow track cut through lush green rice fields and there was not a sign of concrete in sight.

    Bike boys

    I was now in Niger state, Nigeria’s largest, which feels a long way from the Yoruba dominated south. Keeping track of changes in ethnicity and language in Nigeria is not easy. There are something like 400. What is obvious is the stronger Islamic influence as you head north; more mosques, more women in headscarves, and lots of goats and sheep at the roadside awaiting slaughter for the forthcoming Muslim holiday. Towns also seem more relaxed. Less of the aggressive calls for attention or the dizzying density of traffic. Savannah grasses start to replace the thick bush of the coastal belt and the temperature  climbs.

    Why was I heading north in Nigeria when I’m riding my bicycle to South Africa? Other than wanting to avoid the environs of Lagos and the busy coastal states, I needed to visit Abuja, which for those who don’t know (I didn’t until several months ago) is Nigeria’s capital. It’s also a capital city like no other I’ve visited in Africa.

    Zuma rock and road to Abuja