Roland woke me up by firing up his little generator outside the hut. The lights came on and so did the telly. Wow we take electricity for granted. I got up and watched a bit of a bloody awful Nollywood film (Nollywood is the Nigerian Film Industry, the third largest in the world after Hollywood and Bombay, but the less that is said about it, the better) and then I got ready to head down to the docks to catch this mythical boat to Cameroon. But unlike most myths, there was actually a boat. However, it left at six thirty, not seven thirty. I had arrived at seven.
Time for Plan B.
Now, after three weeks of non-stop West Africa, Calabar was a breath of fresh air. Grass! Trees! Pavement! Road signs! Restored Buildings! No Litter! (Seriously!) It looked like what African cities should look like, but don’t because somebody is usually pocketing all of the nation’s cash to spend it on stuffing their faces with jewel-encrusted Faberge eggs rather than making the place look attractive. Or making sure that everyone here doesn’t die before they hit forty. One of the two.
Ooo, and Calabar sported a MASSIVE Nigerian flag (the biggest in Africa! My motorbike guy was excited to tell me), which was ultra-cool. Britain should invest in a MASSIVE Union Flag to fly above Holyrood, just to annoy the Scots.
Seeing as I had missed the boat (in more ways than one), I got a motorbike taxi guy to take me to where the speedboats leave. The guidebook recommends against taking the speedboat option into Cameroon, but I had no probs, apart from the fact that it didn’t leave until after 12, so I was left waiting, having already changed my Nigerian money into Central African Francs, all the while having had nothing but a pack of biscuits to eat all day.
Tell you what though, the speedboat was worth it. Amazingly, they DIDN’T overload the damn thing (they tried as they always do, but the driver actually told a couple of people to get off) and we were all provided with lifejackets. Speeding through the mangrove forests was pure bliss. A network of rivers, deltaring out into the sea, separated by these amazing trees that stand on their roots as though tiptoeing through the mud. Treebeard and his friends standing sentinel over the disputed Bakassi Peninsula region – claimed by both Nigeria and Cameroon.
Even the sporadic rain was not enough to destroy the magic – there was ne’er a ripple in the water, save when a boat passed us by, the occupants enthusiastically waving to the nice ginger man with the silly hat on.
A couple of hours of touring the Mangroves later, we arrived at the Cameroon border town of Ekondo Titi. Sounds like a Japanese skin flick. And, regular as clockwork, there was a problem. My visa for Cameroon had expired and even though the embassy in London had said it would be hunky-dory and that I could get it extended on the border, the border guy did not want to let me in. In fact, he wanted me to get on the next boat (which would now be tomorrow), go to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, and get a brand new visa. My jaw hit the ground. But… TIA… WAWA… er… dash? Nope. Wouldn’t even take a bribe.
It seems in Africa that you only pay bribes for doing nothing wrong. When you actually need to bribe somebody to get them to help you out of a pickle, they suddenly develop a fit of morality and decide that things are best done through the proper channels. So I waited for an hour for the guy’s boss to turn up. They had a conversation in French, the boss shrugged and stamped me in straight away. Ah, my border guard just didn’t want the responsibly of allowing a scouse into the country. It all makes sense now.
So on to my next adventure… the road to Kumba. Which sounds like… er, never mind. When I’ve been on other road in Africa, people have told me they were ‘bad’, but as with humans and dogs, roads have various degrees of badness. This road was beyond bad: it was barely even a road – more like a 50km stretch of hilariously churned up mud. The only way that I can describe it is if you’ve attended the Glastonbury Festival in a year when it has been muddy and you can imagine trying to drive a 2-wheel drive car with 7 people crammed into it from the Farmhouse to the Stone Circle via the market area without using the metal roadway.
A Herculean Task.
We got stuck in the mud about FIFTEEN times. Seriously. There were people who made a living out of standing at the side of the road and helping push hapless motorists out of the sludge. And please don’t forget that this is the MAIN ROAD to Nigeria. Unbelievable.
At one point, I got out of the car (because it was stuck) and was being physically pushed up a slippery muddy slope of slop by a group of enterprising children led by a kid named Kingsley (who, if I was Madonna, I would have certainly adopted). My ‘Vans’ were caked in mud, which had started making its way towards heaven via my jeans. I was trying to film all these shenanigans, it was night by now and there were no lights to guide my footfalls and so the inevitable happened – I fell over.
In the sloppy mud. Humph!
Now, let me explain something. Over the last decade or so, I’ve been to a lot of festivals – Glastonburys, Leeds and Vs. I’ve attended Roskilde, Donington, Exit, Bangkok 100, T in the Park and Bestival, amongst others. And in over fifty festivals, I have never – never – fallen over in the mud. It doesn’t matter how drunk I am, how crowded the moshpit or how many people attack me for sporting a hilariously offensive flag, it’s just not cricket. And here I am, in the middle of Africa on a Saturday night, Stone Cold Steve Austin Sober, and I go head over heels like a epileptic ice-skater.
In the words of Othello, “Sh*t, Cassio – there goes my reputation down the swany”.
So, eventually – eventually – I get to Kumba at some ungodly hour, but my trials are not yet over. I still have to get to Douala to meet up with Yaz’s brother Hugo who would be providing me with my digs for the night. Yaz is a mate of mine from Liverpool who originally hailed from around these parts. I hopped on a minibus and we arrived in Douala (the road was good) some time after 1am.
Douala was a threatening place to be dropped off in at that time of night. My phone was running low on battery and I was worried that I wouldn’t get to meet up with Hugo, but Yaz’s mate Liberty came to my rescue. He arranged to meet me at the pub (and by jingo, I needed a cold one) and I gorged myself on tasty barbecue meat from the vendors outside while we waited for Yaz’s family to arrive.
It would be 4am before I got to bed, after valiantly trying to get all the mud off my trainers, jeans, arms, legs, face, hands and jumper. Although the only thing I succeeded in doing was to make a big muddy mess all over Hugo’s bedroom. Sorry mate!
After a couple of hours of shuteye, it was back on the case for your favourite ginger wanderer here. We left the house in search of Liberty (Yaz’s mate, not the concept) and it was POURING DOWN with rain. By the looks of things, Hugo hadn’t been driving for too long and a combination of him stalling the engine and the relentless WET resulted in the car battery dying an ignoble death. We had to push the car up out of a pothole on a hill with the rain teeming down and a storm drain thundering away just inches behind our rear tyre making failure not an option.
I nearly gave myself a hernia, my well-worn Vans slipping and sliding in the wet, but eventually we got the car free and after I got it push-started, we soon got to Liberty’s gaff. From there, we all went to the bus station for Yaoundé, the capital, where Rocco the Camera Guy was waiting for me, having flown there LIKE A SISSY (sorry Rocco!).
I said my Thank You’s and Goodbye’s and headed off on a big coach through the storm towards rainbows and blue skies on the other side. I was supposed to get in to Yaoundé at 4pm, but T.I.A. and so I arrived at about 5.15pm. Which normally wouldn’t be a problem, but today we were booked on the train that would whisk us up north overnight. And the train left at 6pm, and Rocco had been told to arrive by 5pm or risk having his brains sucked out with a straw by ALIENS. Or something.
In a bit of Law that would make Murphy gag, I got the slowest taxi driver in the continent to take me to where Rocco was hiding like some witness relocatee, custodian of my backpack and laptop, which had thought better of hurtling through Nigeria the wrong way up a one way street at 150 miles per hour. I had two minutes to unpack and repack my stuff, fling my muddy clothes at the startled hotelier (I’ll be back!) and scarper before the train left without us.
Bah, what was the rush? The train didn’t leave until twenty past six. We had bags of time. Unfortunately, while Rocco was in the (inevitable) scrum filming me enter the train station, some cretinous jackanape unzipped his camerabag and made off with the radio mic. Rocco noticed within seconds, but by then it was too late.
Highly aggravated by the loss of our equipment, we boarded the train and made our way to the couchette – our sleeping quarters for the evening. The train was great, reminded me of my days in the Raj – and it’s my first train ride in Sub-Saharan Africa. Good stuff.
The only problem was that the train had a nasty habit of throwing you violently left and right like a ragdoll as it chugged along. Which wouldn’t have been a problem – if only I had someone to spoon. Night, night.
The train arrived at 7am in the central Cameroon town of N’Gaoundéré and, if we were VERY lucky, we could make a border hop to Chad today and get back in time to have a kip and catch the first bus south in the morning. The plan seemed sound and within just half an hour, we were in a minibus heading north to Garoua. It’s a good five-hour journey and so, we got in about lunchtime. We had an hour before our next bus, which would take us to the border town of Figuil (not marked on the standard map) so we went to a local eatery and enjoyed a good Cameroonian lunch.
The name ‘Cameroon’ actually comes from a corruption of the Portuguese ‘Rio dos Camarões’, meaning River of Prawns, so perhaps I should have had a Prawn Salad, but I’m only prepared to tempt fate when I know there are Western Toilets along the way.
In good time, we had made it to Figuil, which, let’s face it, sounds like the name of a dwarf in a fantasy novel. From there, it was a short hop on motorbike taxis to the border. I was nervous that I’d get turned back on the Cameroon side before I was anywhere near the border (like what happened to me in Tunisia), as neither of us had visas for Chad. But I needn’t have worried. The Cameroon guys were as nice as pie, they stamped us out of the country and we were on our way.
My motorbike driver was another boy-racer. I might use the term ‘pounding ride’ but I know that you’d all take that the wrong way, so I’ll just say that the road was rough. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before we crossed the river into Chad. Chad is such a ridiculous name for a country. Seriously, we should lobby for the name to be changed to ‘CHAD!’, capitals and exclamation mark being mandatory.
I don’t really know much about CHAD!, what it is or what it does? It seems to keep a low profile next to its noisy and unruly neighbours, Nigeria, Sudan, Libya etc. My only contact with CHAD! was the guys on the far border post, who were thoroughly decent chaps, who even invited us to go another 10km into their country to get entry and exit stamps as souvenirs.
But time was pressing on; I had stepped foot in the country and that’s all I needed to do, so we snapped a few photos of the flag, chucked a U-bolt and fanged it back to Cameroon. Bye CHAD!, sorry I didn’t get to see much of you, next time eh mate?
Our timing back to Figuil was impeccable – a large coach was just leaving for Garoua and the sun set as we travelled south towards our next target – the border with the Central African Republic. Oh yeah!
We arrived back at the railhead of N’Gaoundéré at about oh, god knows?, and promptly checked into a nearby hovel for about three hours of overpriced shuteye. Then at 6am, we were at the bus station, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ready to roll for another day’s slog along Africa’s less-than-forgiving roads. The guys in the bus station said that it would take 6 hours to get to Garoua-Boulaï, the border with the Central African Republic. The Lonely Planet Guidebook said that it would take 12 hours…it took 18.
To be fair, the LP Guidebook did say to think twice about taking the road in the rainy season – and my giddy aunt, they were spot on. But there really wasn’t much of a choice other than to go back on the train that night to Bélabo and head north from there – it wouldn’t have saved us any time.
The road wasn’t as bad as the one coming in the previous Saturday, which was a good thing because this one ran for over 400km. But it was unsealed and sections of it were outrageously unreasonable and resulted in everybody ‘OUT and walking’, whilst the battered 34-year old bus blundered its way through the red porridge that passed for the road.
At one stage, we went totally off-road after a tip-off that the carriageway was blocked. Through the jungle in a bus. Hilarious. We got stuck so many times, it was funny. Good job there was a ton of people crammed into the bus to help push it out.
But ah, we didn’t get too wet or too muddy, so all’s well that ends well, eh Gromit? I even got to impress the locals of a small town with a couple of card tricks along the way. Sweet!
The day dragged on with nought to report except perhaps the raw beauty of Cameroon, something that we didn’t get to breathe in on the overnight train or while mooching over the border into CHAD! But by god, the flora is ultra-GREEN and the soil is mega-RED and the sky is double-plus-plus-BLUE. Coming over those hills, it was truly breathtaking. If only I didn’t have to worry about the bus tipping over.
We hit the border town at around 1am, found the Catholic Mission to kip in (the only place in town where you don’t get hassled by ho’s) downed a couple of Cameroon’s HUGE beers and crashed out for the night.
Started the day in fine fettle – crossed over the border into the Central African Republic (and got tapped for €20 for my endeavours) then kicked Rocco out of bed for the trip to Yaoundé, back to the capital.
The roads were nowhere near as bad as yesterday and we even had a little space to stretch our legs. Halfway through our journey we stopped for lunch and a change of bus in a town called Bertoua. I decided to go and do a little filming (of a roundabout) when I was approached by two men in plain clothes (who had, up to the point of seeing the white-skinned cash machine with the camera, been boozing in the Obama Café behind me) who claimed to be policemen and demanded to see my passport. Not being born yesterday, I showed them a photocopy and asked to see their ID. One showed me his national identity card, which didn’t tell me much except for the fact that he was in the military. He could have been the bloke who peels the spuds for all I knew, so I flatly refused to co-operate. Luckily a police car was going past, so I flagged it down. Turns out they were mates with the police.
I was under arrest.
I ran over to Rocco, picked up my bags out of the bus (and Rocco) and was driven to the police station, where the horrible bastards who pass for police around these parts shifted through our ‘papers’ and attempted to invent some reason to extort money out of us.
I’m going nuts here over the balls-out greed and stupidity of these people. These moronic bureaucrats whose failure to see the bigger picture is staggering. Do they think I’m EVER going to come back here willingly? Do they think I’m going to go home and tell all my friends to head over to Cameroon on the next flight because it’s such a hip and happening place? No, of course not. Out of the twenty countries I’ve been to in West Africa, I have to rank Guinea and Cameroon at the bottom because of these stupid thick ignorant thieving scumbags in uniforms who ruin the place for every tourist who dares come near.
What the hell is going through their heads?
Rocco put it this way – he said this was a microcosm of what it felt like to be a Jew in 1930s Germany. Every time they examined our ‘papers’ (which was every couple of kilometres along the road) we were made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome and small. It’s mildly terrifying – they have guns – are they going to ask for one dollar or fifty? Are they going to throw us in a cell for the afternoon or the night? Are they just going to take us out back and shoot us through the head?
The governments of these countries have given these dreadful people carte blanche to steal with impunity. There is no other term for it – it is armed robbery. And what can we, unarmed tourists, do to stop them or gain redress? Nowt. But you’re reading this, maybe the word will filter down to the powers that be and maybe, just maybe, one day the blundering fools in charge will see that tourists are a 100% net gain for the country. All they do is turn up for a couple of weeks, spend the money they have earned working in another country and leave the nation a few hundred dollars richer.
But then the scumbags in charge around here are little more than armed robbers as well, so I’m not holding my breath.
In the end, they fleeced me out of €20. I was worried about missing the bus and having to wait a day until the next one, so I paid up just so we could go. I can’t wish enough bad things to happen to these bastards. They deserve nothing more than to be bludgeoned to death with their own legs.
We arrived in Yaoundé angry and despondent (after being tapped for another €20 in bribes along the way). It’s really cast a cloud on our time here. Cameroon is a beautiful country and the people are wonderful, but until they sort out the unchecked corruption and nasty, nasty targeting of tourists I recommend you stay away.
I rushed to get my visas for Equatorial Guinea, DR Congo and Gabon. The visas for DR Congo and Gabon were straight forward, but the Equatorial Guinea guys suggested I come back tomorrow. Then it was a case of twiddling my thumbs for the day, discovering that one of my hard drives had died (with all the footage from Cuba to Malta on it!) and then finding somewhere to while away the evening eating and drinking.
Yaoundé has a nice climate, it’s up in the hills, so it’s surprisingly cool. But as a city, it’s very very 70s concrete office blocks, which is never going to turn me on. But they have a cracking boulangerie called Calafata’s which supplied us with disgracefully tasty chocolate éclairs, so it gets a gold star and a jellybaby from me.
I headed over to the Equatorial Guinea embassy only to be told that all the borders were closed and that they didn’t issue tourist visas at all, ever.
I’ll just have to sneak in.
I picked up my Gabonese visa, but zut alors! they’ve only given me a SINGLE entry visa. Which means I’ll have to buy another one in Sao Tome to get back. That will be my THIRD visa for Gabon, as the one in Passport #2 had run out. Ygads!!
We packed up our gear and headed to the bordertown of Ambam on the frontiers of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, arriving around midnight after a few more spats with the bloody horrible checkpoint policemen (including one where they said that Rocco’s visa was invalid, because he needed two visas, one to arrive and another to move anywhere!!). Ratbags.
Can I also point out that there are too many countries called Guinea. There’s Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and Papua New Guinea. How many Guineas do we need?
Ambam was hilarious. I took Rocco out to a local nightclub where he was instantly set upon by a sexy young thing who clung to him like a limpet. He had to (reluctantly) prise her off with a crowbar. Damn you STIs spoiling our philandering!
Last night we made friends with a girl called Vivian who said she would help us do the old border hop into Equatorial Guinea (the border wasn’t closed, the lying tykes). And true to her word, this morning we bribed the guards and got in as far as the local supermarket were we bought a big bottle of Spanish Whiskey to celebrate.
When we got back, Vivian’s little brother, Kamikaze (I’m guessing that’s his nickname) entertained us with a bit of his comedy routine, which involved him pretending to have a mental illness. Hmm… could do with a bit of work if he’s going to run with that one in the West, but then again Mr. Bean is improbably popular in France and Germany, so who knows?
So after a fun morning we headed to the frontier with Gabon. I managed a successful crossover of my passports, giving Passport #2 to Rocco to take back to Oz (I don’t trust the African postal service as far as I can spit!).
We (amazingly) had the minibus from the border to Libreville, the capital of Gabon, pretty much to ourselves. It was wonderful. We arrived fairly late and checked into a horrible little overpriced hovel called Somotel. We scouted out a local night club (another hellhole where the music is set to DISTORTION BLAST – it’s the rule in Africa) before coming to the conclusion that Libreville is a little dull and returning to our hovel.