Apr 10 2010

Cameroon – diary 2010-03-04 to 2010-03-18

2010-03-04

 Our exit out of Nigeria and into Cameroon was smooth and easy made better by the beautiful surroundings of tropical vegetation and an abundance of water. Cameron marked a significant milestone in our African adventure as we ventured closer to the equator. The dense green vegetation is evidence of the abundance of rainfall that these parts of the world receive and we were gearing up for some torrential downpours over the next month or so. The road from the Ekok border post in Cameroon to Mamfe is notorious for its difficulty. We were anticipating all sorts of drama and Kirk was even hoping to be able to put all of his recovery gear and skills to use but we were sorely disappointed to see that the road was actually not that bad. The rainy season had not yet started and the roads were still quite solid with minimal mud. We managed to breeze through the stretch of ‘road’ that, in the past, has taken people days on end to get through the cloying mud and arrived in Mamfe 3 hours later. The day was still young and after a cold drink in a local café we decided to push on to Bamenda. The Michelin map illustrated that the road was a national road and so should not take too long to cover the 150km. We took to the open road and were pleased to find that the first 30km was perfectly good tarred road. This then stopped abruptly and we entered what seemed to be a construction sight. The Chinese have moved in and have started building a massive highway to link Bamenda and Mamfe. This will be great for the economic development of Cameroon in the future but it really did spoil the scenery and my heart was very heavy to see the amount of canopy trees they were tearing down all to build a road. We made the most of a bad situation and took in the beautiful surroundings that remained. There are many people living in and amongst the forested area and we saw many women lugging these homemade woven backpacks up steep hills laden with bananas and plantains. Their strength was admirable and one thing is for certain; the women work exceedingly hard in these parts of the world. The unconstructed road wound up into the mountains until we eventually hit tar road again. We were thankful that the rain held out because the roads would have become impassable if there were to be a sudden downpour. We drove on to Bamenda where we located the Presbyterian Church Grounds. They have a wonderful set up that allows for camping and they provide good clean facilities. Upon arrival we bumped into Etienne, Sylvie and Rene whom we had met originally in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. It is amazing how the paths of overlanders cross time and time again. We enjoyed a relaxing evening catching up on traveller’s tales and enjoying the much needed relief from the humidity. We were 1200m above sea level and the mountain air provided great relief from the stifling humidity that the coastal areas bring.

 2010-03-05

 After the long days of driving that preceded our arrival at Bamenda the boys felt that they deserved a rest day. A rest day is never actually restful. When you are driving through Africa there is always some sort of admin to do when you are parked up for a day or 2. The girls invariably do laundry, shopping and general cleaning whilst the boys almost always certainly have some form of car maintenance to do. A rest day in overlanders terms means to work hard so that you can enjoy a restful drive the following day! We visited the market after Kirk and Joe had fixed the front stabilizer bar on the Hilux Surf and we were pleasantly surprised to see the abundance of variety that the market folk had to offer. We visited the meat market to try our luck with acquiring some fillet. Chicken was still far more expensive than beef and with the price we were paying for fillet we just couldn’t resist. The butcher that we visited was probably the most skilled we had met since leaving Europe. He didn’t hack at the meat like many of the others and he surprisingly had a good understanding of the various different cuts. He also informed us that the vet comes to inspect the meat every morning to ensure that it meets a certain hygienic standard and is suitable to sell to the public. We were feeling very confident in our meat purchase and set off to buy accompaniments for our dinner. We were getting bored o the usual tomato and onion combination that we had been living on so when we found some green vegetables called Huckleberry, that could be cooked in a similar way to spinach, we jumped at the opportunity. We also found bought some baby potatoes and a variety of fresh fruit. With arms heavily laden with shopping bags we headed back to the camp ground and began the preparation of our evening meal. We enjoyed pan friend fillet steak with baby potatoes and Huckleberry done with tomato, onion and garlic. It was a meal fit for royalty and we enjoyed every morsel.

2010-03-06

 We had a lazy morning and were eventually on the road at 11am. We were heading for the Ring Road, a road that bucks and weaves through some of the finest scenery in Africa. The road is demanding in that it is unpaved for large sections and in the rainy season some of the bridges wash away and the route can become impassable. Our immaculate timing meant that we were not yet in the rainy season and so drove towards the destination of our evening stop. The road took us through the town of Wum and 3km north of town we arrived at Lake Wum, a fine Crater Lake nestled amongst the patchily cultivated hills. The Fula herders were in abundance and whilst we were setting up camp droves and droves of healthy looking cattle came to be watered. Once the cows had left and Kirk had finished taking off the left rear torsion bar (it had broken during the drive to the Crater Lake) we took to the lake and had a bath in the surprisingly warm water. It all made for a very pretty setting but unfortunately where there is water there are bugs and because of the lack of wind or breeze we were inundated with dive bombing mosquitoes and vampire bugs that had us reaching for the DEET and covering our bodies form head to toe. The setting was peaceful and serene and the altitude allowed us to enjoy another cool evening and even allowed for us to enjoy a pot of soup for dinner.

 The local people are very sceptical of the Crater Lakes in the Ring Road area. In 1986 there was a freak gas eruption at Lake Nyos where a cloud of intoxicating gas billowed out of the crater flattening the vegetation and people around it. 3000 people lost their lives on this tragic day. Scientists are still investigating the cause of the eruption. Some believe it was caused by the amount of decaying materials at the bottom of these lakes and have now started venting these Crater Lakes to prevent another disaster.

2010-03-07

 We had planned to do the long route of the Ring Road but since the torsion bar had broken we thought it best to do the smaller loop as we were not sure how Mvubu would handle the rough roads without the added support of this bar. We had been in contact with Etienne who had given us vital information about the upcoming roads. We planned to meet up with them en-route so that we could drive the next part of the Ring Road together. We drove through the most exquisite scenery passing through green countryside and fertile pastures. The Ring Road made us nostalgic as it felt like we were in the Drakensburg Mountains or the green hills of Wales…It was breathtakingly beautiful. There were times where we were as high as 2000m and would then start the descent into another fertile valley. We eventually met up with Etienne at a turn off that would take us to a village called Oku which was also famous for its grand Crater Lake. The road started ascending and continued on this upward journey. We stopped for a bite to eat along one of the road where we enjoyed views of a mountainous region and undulating hills. The road got progressively worse as we went along. It was beginning to become clear that cars do not use the road very often and that majority of the transport that uses these roads was motorbikes. We persevered and enjoyed the opportunity to put our vehicles to the test. Mvubu did just brilliantly and we sailed through some tricky sections. Lake Oku came into view and was dramatic in the way that the ominous looking clouds created an eerie feeling about the lake. It appeared from the top that there would be no access to the lake and that our desires to camp there for the night would not be granted. We pressed on until we reached a cross road. The path down he road led o Oku and the path to the left led to Mbessa. We investigated the road and found that the road to Oku was impassable. We would have had to build the road up in order for us to get down to the village and time was ticking by. We needed to make camp before sunset so we decided to drive towards Mbessa. We had met a herder who told us that we would be able to get to Oku through Mbessa and that the road was much more suited for vehicles like ours. We continued forth and found a great campsite for the evening. 

Perched at 2500m, Kirk and I were pleased to be sleeping at altitude in preparation for our trek up Mt Cameroon in the next few days. We set up camp, had the coldest bush shower of the trip and wrapped up warmly. It was the coldest weather we had experienced in a long time and we were all relishing in the fact that beanies, gloves and thick down jackets were necessary to keep warm. We enjoyed an evening around a campfire where Etienne showed us the photographs he had taken that day.

 2010-03-08 

Nothing beats sleeping in the wild. There was nothing to wake us up apart from the sound of nature. We had picked the prefect spot to camp as it overlooked an entire valley and the views were spectacular. Once packed up we started our journey towards Oku and to hopefully get a closer view of Lake Oku. The road improved marginally but the going was slow. We had to now descend to a lower altitude so with the vehicles in low range we started the slow trek to the Lake. The valleys were yet again being used to their full capacity. There were people working the land and tending to their crops. The children in these remote parts of the country always find it incredibly exciting to see white people driving in their big vehicles. Not many rural people understand what it is we are doing and cannot conceptualise the idea of travel. Most of these people have ever even left their village. They were delightful and we were only met with smiles and calls of ‘you’re welcome’. We eventually arrived at Lake Oku only to discover that access to the lake is virtually impossible. There is a vast amount of vegetation that surrounds the lake so the only view we had was from a piece of land that was once home to a church. We stopped for an hour to enjoy some lunch and then started our journey back to Bamenda. The Ring Road had been a beautiful scenic drive which was an excellent indication of the diversity that Cameroon had to offer. We were really impressed with what we had seen and experienced and we were eagerly anticipating what was to come.

We arrived back in Bamenda in time for Kirk to see Tom, the mechanic, and get Mvubu’s torsion bar welded together and refitted. It was as good as new and we were now good to go again. We returned to the Presbyterian Church grounds, set up camp again and enjoyed the last of our fillet steak.

2010-03-09

It was going to be a long day of driving for Kirk and me as we had an important meeting with Mt. Cameroon. We said goodbye to Joe and Christine and made arrangements to meet up with them after our adventure and hit the road. Again the scenery was magnificent with lush greenery engulfing the sides of the roads providing us with the most exquisite driving experience. We drove from Bamenda which was in the Northwest Province, an Anglophone area, through the West Province, a Francophone area, and into the Southwest Province entering an Anglophone area once again. The difference between the Anglophone and Francophone areas is marked by the language. We went through as series of toll gates where it changed from English speaking ticket issuers to French Speaking. It felt very bizarre to feel a distinct divide in a country. As we drove further south the banana and pineapple plantations were some of the biggest we had seen. Cameroon was certainly cashing in on their natural surroundings and making the most of the land that was fertile and able to produce such high yielding cash crops. The fruit was of export quality and were some of the nicest bananas tht I had ever tasted.

 We made it to Mt. Cameroon Ecotourism Office (Mt. CEO) in the nick of time. We had phoned ahead and spoken to Gwendolyn, a gregarious lady who was willing to wait for us to arrive and not go home at her usual time of 5pm. She gave us a warm welcome and explained the options that we had to climb Mt. Cameroon. A guide and porter were compulsory as there was no water on the mountain and we needed to take all of our own provisions with us. We opted to do the 2 day Guinness Track which was literally the steepest route up and the steepest route back down!  What were we getting ourselves into? We arranged to start the trek on Thursday which gave us the opportunity to get all of our gear sorted out, buy the necessary food items and stock up with water. We went to the Presbyterian Guest House (these Presbyterian grounds are scattered all over the Anglophone Cameroon and have very good facilities and cheap camping) and set up our tent. Sylvie and Etienne were en-route and would be joining us shortly. When they arrived we walked down to a local restaurant where we enjoyed a lovely meal of chicken, plantain chips and fried rice. It was probably the best chicken we had eaten since Senegal and it didn’t break the bank. Kirk and I were starting to feel nervous for our trek up the mountain. Had we bitten off more than we could chew? Our fitness levels were low, we had been sitting in a car for the last 4 months and the last bit of strenuous activity that we had done was Jebel Toubkal! Silently we were both dreading the aftermath of climbing a mountain in the state that our bodies were in.

 2010-03-10

Kirk started the preparation procedure by emptying the entire contents of the roof box onto a plastic tarp on the ground. We had 1 porter each who would be able to carry 15kgs, 6 of which would be water. We had read and heard that the huts on the mountain were rat infested so we opted to take a tent with us and pitch that rather than share a sleeping bag with a rat! The weather can also be unpredictable on the mountain so we needed to take wet weather gear as well. The packing process was a matter of sorting the necessities from the creature comforts and eventually we had condensed our wide range of trekking and camping goods into 2 small bags that would hopefully meet all of our needs. The nerves kept creeping up on us and we both tried to ignore them and focus on the fun side of trekking up an active volcano.

We made our way down to the Mt. CEO office where we met Jackson, our guide. We asked Jackson a few questions about the ascent and descent and when he told us that rain would prevent us from summiting we questioned him and explained that it was imperative that we got to the top. We asked Jackson to explain what merits rain and if it is drizzling would we be able to persevere. He explained that it was unsafe and too cold for the guide as they were not acclimatised to those cold conditions. We offered a warm jacket and shoes and explained to Jackson that we needed to summit for the reason that we were climbing this mountain for UNICEF and that summiting it is the only option. Jackson promised us that we would summit come hell or high water. We left feeling satisfied with the capabilities of our guide and only needed to have faith in ourselves and our capability to get to the top of the mountain.

 We stopped in at the market for some last minute provisions of fruit and bread and made our way back to the Guest House. The afternoon was spent playing with the children from the surrounding houses – Kirk was picking them up by their feet and carrying them upside down saying ‘come on chickens, I am taking you to the market’. This had them in fits of giggles wanting more and more. We enjoyed our last dinner with Sylvie and Etienne. They would be driving south to Kribi and then on to Gabon. They needed to be in Cape Town by mid April and still had a lot of ground to cover. We went to bed with huge butterflies in our stomachs in anticipation of what was to come.

2010-03-11 to 2010-03-12 – Mt Cameroon

I had set my alarm for 6am as we had planned to meet Jackson at 7am to start the climb. When the alarm went off it was bucketing down with rain. Hopefully the rain was not a sign of things to come. We decided to sleep for another 30 minutes and alas when we go out of the tent we were greeted with blue skies. We made haste and made our way to the office where Jackson was waiting with Samuel our porter. We were supposed o have 2 porters but because of the rain we had had that morning the other porter felt that he was not equipped to make it up the mountain. Jackson stepped in and said that he would be our guide and porter. He was going out of his way to ensure that we were as comfortable as possible and that we were going to get to the top of the mountain. We set off, Jackson in a pair of flip flops and Kirk and I kitted out in our hiking boots and walking poles.

The first part of our trek took us though some farmlands that were established way back in the early 1900’s when the Germans settlers were in Cameroon. The buildings that they used to reside in are still used today and are very sturdy structures. The old dairy is now home to a prison and the more lavish homes are used by the presidential party. We started the uphill trek and soon made our way into the forest. It was dense, green and humid – everything a forest near the equator should be like. There was not much in terms of animal life but we were fortunate enough to see 2 Violet Turacos hanging out in the canopy trees. Teir calls were very unique and Jackson informed us that the hunters would use their call as a clock as they sounded their melody every 15 minutes. As we continued the uphill climb we eventually hit the Savannah ecosystem which stretched from 1800m to 2800m. The incline from the forest to the savannah was steep and we needed to put in a lot of effort to get to hut 2, our sleeping spot for the night. Halfway up the Savannah the heavens opened, the rainfall was torrential and the small valleys on the mountain were soon turned into small rivers. Our shoes became slushy and Kirk and I were starting to fear for our lives. We were in 2 minds as to turn around and descend or preserver and seek shelter in the hut. We finally understood why Jackson had told us that it was unsafe except that he hadn’t quite emphasised the extent of the rain and what it does to the mountain. We put on our ponchos, put our heads down and climbed up the treacherous terrain. Samuel, our porter literally ran the rest of the way. His strength and stamina was astonishing and left Kirk and me in awe. Jackson plodded on in his flip flops always ensuring that we were safe and taking the most cautious route to the hut. We made it to the safety of the rat infested huts and set about getting ourselves dry and warm. The rain was still belting down and there were rivers flowing past the doorways of the rooms in the hut. We decided to pitch our tent on the platform in the hut, that way we would have a barrier between the rats and ourselves and be out of the rain. We made some soup and hot Milo which warmed us to the bone. Jackson and Samuel had built a fire in the ‘kitchen’ and kindly offered to dry or shoes over the balmy flames whilst we rested in our tent and had a 2 hour nap whilst the rain continued to pour out of the grey skies. At this stage Kirk and I were beginning to doubt whether we would be able to summit. The torrential rain was detrimental to our attempt to summit Mt Cameroon. We spoke to Jackson and arranged to wake up at 3am to suss out the weather which would determine our fate.

 3am came very quickly. Our sleep was marred by rats scratching at the outside of our tents. We checked the weather and were good to go. With the stars blinking and the moon and our head torches lighting the way we started the steep ascent to hut 3. The going was tough but made easier by our ability to only see 1 meter in front of us. It was an uphill climb all the way and at this stage I was tiring and Jackson was picking up on this. As we approached the hut Jackson mentioned that if I was too tired to summit I should wait at Hut 3 and he and Kirk would make the summit. This of course spurred me on and with renewed energy I soldiered on. The summit came easier than I expected and as we made our way to the top of West Africa a sense of achievement filled our bodies. We had done it! The wind was blowing gales at the summit which made posing for our picture quite a challenge. The descent started as a godsend. Our legs were fatigued by the upward climb and the downhill movement of our legs made for a change. We made it back to hut 2, packed up and started the treacherous clamber down the savannah section. The rains from the previous day had caused the ground underfoot to become lose and treacherous. It took us a long time to   make the descent to the intermediate hut and our legs were starting to feel the strain. We persevered and after 11 hours of ascending and descending we made it back to the Presbyterian Guest House. We were absolutely shattered and were relieved to get our feet out of our boots and sit on the lush green grass. Our feet were broken! Blisters scarred our heels and Kirk and I were both sporting a beautiful black toenail on our left feet. We made arrangements to sleep in one of the rooms that evening as the mere thought of having to hoist our tent was soul destroying. We were tucked into bed and sound asleep by 7pm. We were both very proud of our 2 day trek to the top of Mt. Cameroon and back again.

2010-03-13

 Our legs were in agony. The first steps we managed to take that morning had both Kirk and me close to tears. The pain was an indication of the challenge we had put ourselves through and each aching step filled us with a sense of achievement. We said goodbye to Mt. Cameroon and headed to the black volcanic sandy beaches of Limbe. The surrounding volcanic mountains were picturesque and really added to the tropical atmosphere. Their slopes were lined with abundant green trees which gave an illusion of fields and fields of leafy shrubs. You couldn’t see the slopes, only the mass of greenery. It was spectacular. We arrived at Madison Park where Joe and Christine greeted us and filled us in on their adventures from the last few days.

We decided to head into Limbe as we had heard of a restaurant run by a South African woman and her Cameroonian husband called Arne. It had been given  rave reviews by fellow overlanders who had travelled a similar route to ours the year before and Kirk and I were eager to reward ourselves for the great climb up Mt Cameroon. We were welcomed with open arms by Erika and made to feel at home. We enjoyed an afternoon of great food (the burger was the best I had tasted since London) and some very original cocktails. We headed back to Madison Park and settled in for a relaxing evening. Our bodies appreciated the nourishing food and my bed welcomed me with open arms.

 2010-03-14 to 2010-03-18

 We decided to leave the black sandy beaches of Limbe and head further south to the white sandy beaches of Kribi. Kirk and I were desperate for some Rand R and needed to rest our increasingly weary legs. The road was brilliant and got us to Kribi in no time at all. The beaches did not disappoint ant to top it all off, we had the place all to ourselves. It was a Sunday and most visitors to Kribi are heading back to Douala or Yaounde’ after their weekend of luxury. We stopped in at Tara Plage and set up our camp on the grassy lawn overlooking the calm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The reality of the oil drilling that occurs in the central parts of Africa was brazen as we looked upon the horizon which was scattered with oil tankers and the bright burning flames of the oil rigs. We settled into our new ‘home’ with ease and enjoyed the beautiful view that we never tired of.

 The following morning saw Kirk carrying out some maintenance on Mvubu. He changed the brake pads and checked the diffs. All seemed to go well and afterwards he and Christine went into town to replenish the fresh produce supplies. They returned with fillet steak, rump steak and some other meat to mince. We had procured a meat mincer in Beau and were eager to put it to the test. It worked a dream and we packed the fridge with our lovely meat and veggies. After dinner the heavens opened and we experienced the first heavy rains of the equatorial region. It was quite something and anything left out of shelter was drenched within a matter of minutes.

 The days in Kribi were restful and just the thing to get our aching muscles back to normal. We went for a long stroll along the beach and dreamed about owning a piece of prime land right on the beachfront. Kribi is still very underdeveloped with miles and miles of untouched beaches and property appears to be very very cheap. That night we enjoyed a feast of prawns and savoury rice. We have unquestionably eaten like kings and queens on this trip. Good wholesome African food at ridiculous low prices. Africa certainly has its pros and this was one of them.

 We awoke to heavy rains. Kirk and I had been on the road for exactly 5 moths and perhaps the weather was a reminder of the weather we would be experiencing if we were still in London only a good deal colder. We were very pleased to be experiencing the tropical weather as it added to the whole experience of being in the equatorial regions. Most of the day was spent relaxing and really enjoying the time that we did not have to be in the car driving.

Joe and Christine went in search of more prawns and came back successfully with another kilogram. The previous night’s indulgence was far too much for Kirk and me so we opted for a prawn curry instead. Again I was delicious and we went to bed satisfied that we had made the most of our stay in Kribi as we would be departing the following day.

 It was an early start the following morning s we had a fair distance to travel. We were heading for the Gabon border and still needed to stop in at Yaoundé to restock with supplies as well as get our tyre repaired that was punctured en-route to Buea when we went to climb Mt Cameroon.

 Yaoundé proved a fruitful stop. We managed to get the tyre repaired and headed to a supermarket where we bought a few more vital supplies as we headed into the equatorial regions. We had heard that Libreville was very expensive and that Gabon imported most of its fresh produce so we stocked up as much as possible. We hit the road again and made it to the border in time. The passport control at Kye Ossi was not too problematic and we managed to get through to the Gabon border post just before 5pm.

 Cameroon is a beautiful country with wonderful people. Our experience of Mt Cameroon made our stay in this country very rewarding. The fruit and vegetables are in abundance and it was a treat for us to be able to buy so much for so little.

The landscape is diverse offering us the opportunity to trek through some dense forest and savannah. The highlands in Bamenda were truly breathtaking as the crater lakes provided an eerie feeling to the green undulating hills.

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