Cameroon – a diverse country
As soon as I stepped onto Cameroonian land, I could sense a change in the atmosphere, and I knew that it was good. Thanks to my countrymen in ABBA, my exit from Nigeria went smooth because the immigration officer was a big fan of them. I arrived to the infamous road between Ekok and Mamfé that used to be a hot topic discussed among African overlanders, renowned for its bad condition, but nowadays the Chinese are working on it and only a few kilometers of mud remains. I was a bit disappointed because I had been looking forward to a challenge!
My heart grew bigger for this country each day. It was green, full of smiling people who respected my integrity and privacy, and on top of that they served good and cheap food. Coming to Cameroon was also like coming to heaven for someone who likes fruit and wants to discover new exotic fruits. I have eaten the following varieties while cycling across the country:
Banana, plantain, grape fruit, orange, mandarin, lemon, lime, papaya, pineapple, coconut, “plum” (not at all a plum, but a popular local fruit), avocado, cacao, “monkey collar” (plus related species), watermelon, passion fruit (two types), ground cherries, tree tomato, soursop, rambotan (two types), guava, “wutt”, mango, “casmango”, “mangue sauvage”, “corosoll sauvage” and “mariantus”.
I stayed one week at the Baptist Mission in Bamenda to charge my batteries. English-speaking Bamenda is a town that at 1,000 m above sea level has a very pleasant climate. The scenery is beautiful, with green hills and waterfalls. Just like me, Cameroonians are open-minded and love beer and grilled meat so it was easy to make new friends here.
I pushed on towards the capital Yaounde. After Makenené, I switched to smaller roads to enjoy the scenery and worry less about traffic. One night I asked in a village if I could sleep inside the school and I was more than welcome to do so. But in the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of a motorbike standing outside honking. Two men with civilian clothes, one carrying a pistol, the other an automatic weapon screamed at me that they were from the gendarmerie and that I should step outside. After my experiences in Nigeria, I nowadays don’t take these situations too seriously. So I walked outside, yawned and stretched and asked what the hell they wanted. Apparently, someone from the village had called them and said that there was an armed and dangerous tourist residing in the school. You gotta be kidding…
A few weeks earlier, I had started to notice something weird on my foot: a swollen and slightly hard area that itched intensively, especially in the mornings. It had started with a mosquito bite that I had scratched until it became a small open wound. From this place, I could see a track emerging and zigzagging its way a few centimeters up the foot. I thought that I had a worm creeping under the skin, but I certainly didn’t want to believe that. Anyway, once I got to Yaounde the first thing I did was to visit the hospital. It turned out to be a hookworm. After penetrating the skin, these parasites travel through the body and end up in the intestines. Here, they can lay up to 10,000 eggs per day and when they hatch, the babies exit with the excrement and can then start looking for a new host to repeat their lifecycle. Interesting. There was no point in surgically removing it but instead I was given albendazole that would kill it within a week and make it dissolve into the tissues.
I applied for two visas in Yaounde, Congo-Brazzaville and DRC. Both were easy to obtain, but the DRC-visa (3 months) extremely expensive: 170,000 CFA (260 euros). I met nice people at a family house that I randomly ended up staying at. Patrice and his relatives took good care of me and I got a good chance at improving my French in this bilingual country.
After Yaounde, I stopped my long tradition of following the coast and headed east to start what would be my detour into the interior of the continent. On my way I discovered new fruits, learnt how to build animal traps and tasted incredibly bitter (!) meat for the first time in my life. It was the meat from the beautiful animal called pangolin.
Almost every second truck on the roads in eastern Cameroon are logging trucks, they carry timber from the jungle and transport it out to the coast where it is loaded onto ships for further transportation. Apart from these, I saw many cars belonging to the UN refugee agency (UN-HCR) and the Cameroonian military, and realized that they were here to support the refugees from Central African Republic (CAR). Since December 2013, more than 100,000 refugees have fled the ongoing war in their country and crossed the border to Cameroon. Ever since I started planning this trip, CAR was included in my itinerary. But the more the conflict has escalated the more I have realized that I would have to look for an alternative route. However, I now saw the opportunity to meet some of the people from CAR and hear their stories by visiting the refugee camps that had been set up.
Using a recent map from UN-HCR, I headed towards one of the camps called Timangolo. Coming to the site felt a bit weird. I had never before seen a similar situation with my own eyes, and I couldn’t help but making comparisons to what is shown on the news and in movies. The first thing that struck me was how beautiful people were, and this felt so counterintuitive. I guess I had expected to see dirty and miserable people dressed in rags, but no, this was not the case. The majority of the refugees were from the Fulani tribe and women and girls wore beautiful clothes with many colorful necklaces. But I could see that some people were in a bad condition, many had walked long distances without much access to food. I saw one woman collapsing from fatigue. Another one didn’t have the energy to carry her bag on her head, so I helped her out. And a third woman asked for help and pointed to her ankle and showed a big wound, but I had to explain that I was not a doctor and instead direct her to the hospital. Apart from the hospital where loads of people were waiting, the camp consisted of white tents or shelters where people stay. Schools were also being constructed. New arrivals temporary sleep in a small room for twelve people inside one of the bigger tents, where they stay for maximum a few weeks. All belongings and food rations for these twelve people should also fit here. I looked into one of the rooms and it was not big. Then they are given a tarpaulin to build their own house with wood collected from the surrounding bush. At the time of my visit, 6,300 refugees lived in the camp, with new people arriving every day.
The visit to the refugee camp at Timangolo left me with a feeling of emptiness. A feeling of wanting to help out so much, but not knowing how. When I approached people within the camp, I did it in an extra careful and respectful way. I didn’t know what they had been through while fleeing their country, but they had all abandoned whatever they had before, and some might even had lost family members. It was a very strong experience to be walking there among the shelters thinking about what they might have been through, and seeing innocent people affected by war, with my own eyes.
The next day I came to a bigger camp called Lolo, where 11,000 people lived. This camp started six months ago and was much more developed than Timangolo that was fairly new. Here, it was almost like a micro-economy, people had small shops inside the camp just like they would in any village. I even saw plantations outside some of the shelters. I took a long walk and got completely surrounded by children, many that had arrived to the camp without their parents. All of them wanted to hold my hand, so at times I had 5-6 small children’s hands in mine at the same time. Again, this was a very strong experience for me.
When I arrived to Yokadouma, I did some bike maintenance, went to the WWF-office for Internet-access and stocked up on food for the days ahead. Leaving this place, I could sense that I was really in the jungle, more than I had ever been before. Huge trees and thick vegetation started lining the road and it became more humid. The distances without human settlements became longer and the logging trucks constantly painted my skin with the same color as the road.
One day I had my first encounter with pygmies. Here in eastern Cameroon, the pygmy tribe is called Baka and apart from the obvious (being short), I was surprised how different these people were compared to the other Bantu tribes. They seemed more shy and careful and some of the women walked around bare-breasted. Their low-built houses are generally more basic, and they use a hut made from thin branches and leaves to cook in. They know a lot about the forest that they live from and I found it extremely interesting to meet them!
There is unfortunately a strange relationship between Bantu’s and Baka’s. I read that in Congo-Brazzaville, it’s sometimes referred to as slavery. Baka’s often work for the Bantu’s, sometimes they are even considered to “belong” to them from birth like a kind of ownership. Me myself, I noticed that the Bantu’s often interrupted conversations and took control over situations. There’s was a clear feeling of disrespect and racial superiority and it’s absolutely awful. Baka’s also seemed to have more problems with alcohol and tobacco. I have an enormous respect for this oppressed minority and I can only hope that their unique culture will be preserved even in the future.
In Mambele, WWF had a second office due to the presence of the Lobéké national park. I stayed here one night and the next day I had bought a 2-day trip into the park to hopefully see gorillas at one of the “bai’s” – natural clearings in the forest. I didn’t get a good start, people were late and the schedule was tight. Then a drunk guide appears asking for more money. I got pissed and since they wanted to get paid for 3 days, I changed my mind and said that I only wanted to do a single daytrip. They hadn’t explained to me when it was most likely to see the gorillas (not that there is any rule but still) and unfortunately we didn’t see any. But we heard them! One powerful roar and several chest-beatings – wow! When we came to the actual bai, we saw some kind of deer and a few forest elephant tracks. The guide taught me that if I met a gorilla, I should stop and stand still. On the other hand, if I met an elephant that seemed aggressive, the only thing to do is run.
When I was in Yokadouma, I met a Spanish guy who told me about a remote and wild road heading to Libongo and the Sangha river. I couldn’t decide whether to do this road or not, because I risked having to turn back the same way if I couldn’t find any pirogue taking me south into Congo-Brazzaville. But after the bad luck in the park, I decided that I wanted to give it a try. Almost 100 km’s without any settlement sounded too good to be ignored. And I was right. After 2 km’s, I saw plenty of monkeys.
After 10 km’s, I saw heaps of elephant tracks and the roadside vegetation was full of elephant trails. Honestly speaking, I got a bit nervous when I saw all this activity because I would never be able to do 100 km’s in one day and I had been planning to camp in the bush. My senses were alert and I was excited! Then at one point, I met Ngongo, a Baka pygmy who said it was a bad idea to camp alone along this road full of aggressive elephants. He invited me to stay in their forest camp they had put up while they were collecting “mangue sauvage”, a fruit that has a seed that they cut and dry for selling. I happily accepted his offer. Here, four families lived and every day they went into the forest to collect fruit, as well as to hunt. In the evening, we went to look for gorillas but we didn’t see any.
When we came back, the women were busy cooking the night’s dinner. I noticed in the light from the fire that they had filed their teeth pointy, which given the situation in this remote forest camp made them look extremely exotic and wild, almost animal-like. They prepared bushmeat in a sauce made from the seed of the fruit they were collecting. I also got to try “chenille” – caterpillars. They first burned the larvae over the fire to get rid of all the hair, then they boiled them with a cube of Maggie and salt. The taste reminded me of that of crayfish. Yesterday they told me that they had eaten a snake, and I also saw them prepare a medicine by boiling pieces from different kinds of wood. These people really live from what they find in the forest! After the dinner, we sat and listened to all the animals and they explained what animal made what sound.
I started early the following morning, hoping to see some animals. And after a little while, I finally saw what I had been waiting for. A big, black, furry creature scurried slightly bent on all four limbs over the road in front of me – a GORILLA! It was exciting and scary at the same time. I stopped immediately, brought out the camera and waited for other group members to follow. After one minute, a big silverback male comes out and sits down in the middle of the road staring at me. We look at each other for a second or so, and at the same time as I raise the camera to snap him, he makes a loud roar (a bit similar to the barking of a dog but ten times more powerful) and leaps off into the bush. I waited a few minutes and continued forward. I stopped at the same place where he had crossed the road and measured the distance to be 150 m. Just as I unclipped the pedals, I hear a second roar coming approximately 20 m from inside the bush meaning he was very near, and then I start hearing branches snapping on the other side of the road (!). Damn, I realized that the whole group hadn’t passed and if kids were on the other side, I was between them and their silverback leader, which is bad news. For a few seconds, I thought about what to do because I had been told that in meetings with gorillas you should not run. But at the same time, staying where I was felt out of the question, so I slowly started to roll down the hill while filming trying to catch his eventual roars on the camera, and then finally I accelerated into a euphoria of excitement of having seen these wild animals in the wild!
The road continued to be full of tracks from elephants, gorillas and other animals all the way until I reached Libongo. I arrived very dirty from the road dust and I had anticipated to be met by bureaucracy and problems at this sort of border town, but instead I was warmly welcomed. The men working for the gendarmerie said that they had seen me on TV on channel 5. I told them that this must have been another cyclist, but they ignored what I said and kept insisting that it was me they had seen! After a while I figured that what the heck, why not play along this time, so I told them they were right, it was me they had seen on TV. They seemed very amused by having met this “celebrity”, and the head of the police even invited me for wine. Then I was introduced to Giorgio, the Italian director of the local timber production plant. He was also incredibly nice to me and I was given my own air-conditioned house and later invited for homemade pizza. That night, I was dancing in the shower full of happiness.