The road between Ekok and Mamfe is no more than a long, thin mound of red laterite mud. The top is fairly flat and about 5 feet wide. The sides slope steeply down into the forest which surrounds the road. Laterite becomes extremely slippery when wet and this was the middle of the rainy season. Whereas it was now only drizzling lightly, there had been recent heavy downpours and the surface was sodden. The narrow, treacherous road wound its way slowly upwards into the foothills of the Bamenda highlands. Our driver managed to coax amazing speeds out of his ancient Fiat, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of meeting any traffic coming in the opposite direction. This road is one of the two principal crossings on the 2500 kilometre frontier between Nigeria and Cameroon, the main highway between West and Central Africa, yet in the 3 hours that we spent between Nigeria and Mamfe, we encountered less than 5 vehicles. This was lucky really, since when two vehicles pass, both must drive on the steep, slippy sides of the road, a nail-biting experience especially when your driver so obviously has a death wish. The reason that this short trip in a fast car took 3 hours was the presence of police and military roadblocks, 4 of which managed to convincingly cancel out our driver's efforts. The roadblocks, complete with gates across the raod and wooden booths, had a sense of permanence and age in contrast to the highly mobile banditry of the Nigerian police. The Cameroonian officials also lacked the efficiency of their Nigerian counterparts. They'd strut around the car imperiously and question us passengers at length in an arrogant, sullen manner before taking the driver aside for some private 'business' which could take up to 10 minutes to conclude. Happily their attempts to extract cash from us were very half hearted and easily rebuffed. The driver's absences did at least give us an oppurtunity to survey the rich forest around us, which crowded in on the dirt road, as if it resented the space stolen from it and was just waiting for the chance to gobble it back up.
Our journey came to a premature end, just after sundown, when our car was forbidden permission to pass a checkpoint just outside Mamfe for some unknown reason - presumably connected to the driver's lack of genorosity in his contributions to the upkeep of the security services. Nevertheless we soon found a municipal share-taxi to complete the trip and were safely deposited at a hotel on the edge of town. This modest guesthouse appeared to us like a miraculous apparition of extravagent luxury and obsessive orderliness. The building was modern, well painted and surrounded by a carefully tended garden. The bar and dining hall were clean and ordered, brightly lit by the light of dozens of functioning electric lightbulbs and ventilated by two well oiled ceiling fans. Our room was spotless; fan, lights, telephone, shower, sink and even the European style flush toilet worked perfectly. After a month in Nigeria we were overwhelmed by these gadgets and were unable to restrain ourselves from gathering around the toilet to laugh and clap at the wonderous sight of flushing. Several flushes later we dragged ourselves away to a meal of steak and chips - the first European food in some time - and a choice of 10 different types of ice cold beer.
Cameroon was initially a German colony, 'Kamerun', until their defeat in the first world war, whereafter it was shared out among the victorious British and French. To balance the British acquisition of Tanganyika, here, as in Togo, the French got the lion's share. After independance president Ahidjo, the Francophone leader handpicked by Paris, managed to manipulate the popular desire for unity. He took advantage of the ambition of some Anglophone politicians to 're-unite' the two Cameroons in a federation dominated by himself. The federation was soon replaced by a unitary republic and Ahidjo thereafter proved very skillful at using patronage, repression and military and political backing from France to copperfasten his hold on power. He abdicated in 1982 and his chosen succesor, Paul Biya, has taken the same approach and brooks no opposition to his command of the country. This domineering central power is based upon support among the francophone people, causing the population of the old British Cameroon to feel neglected and sidelined. The manifestation of this division did not take long to show itself to us. The first person we met on our first morning in Mamfe showed us around town, carefully pointing out the many examples of the "Frenchman's" ill-will: the cracked and exposed water pipes running along a muddy track, the lack of a hospital and the appalling roads leading away from the town in all directions.
Indeed there does seem to be something to his point. The main road out of Mamfe, South towards the coast and the major population centres, is perhaps even worse than the one to the border. 200 kilometres of narrow, slippery laterite track, interspersed with quagmires of soft, deep mud where some heavy vehicle has churned the surface. We took a minibus along this road to Kumba and the buses owner explained to us that the 'Frenchman' didn't want to allow access to cheap goods from Nigeria's factories to compete with imports from France, thus this main route into Nigeria was left undeveloped and indeed could by impassible for weeks on end. On this half-day journey, we encountered perhaps 4 other vehicles, a stark contrast to Nigeria. Whatsmore one of the cars was comically overcrowded. Three people protruded from the boot of the midsize saloon car, one sat on the bonnet, while two clung onto the sides with their lower legs in the windows. They smiled and waved as they passed us out. For 5 hours we travelled through deep, untouched rainforest. The few small hamlets of rough wooden huts and the occasional guardhouse with a pole across the road appeared frail, fleeting and insignificant in the shadow of the huge dark forest.
We arrived in Kumba as the sun was setting, a sizeable provincial town on the edge of the forest region. Naturally wood is the predominant building material and the wide dusty streets are flanked with simple houses with elevated verandahs constructed entirely of wood. The whole town has the look and feel of the wild west. The battered old share-taxis lumber around town negotiating the unimaginably bad roads, bucking over huge potholes, at a pace barely faster than walking. We stayed in the 'Tavern', the towns most popular drinking spot, with rooms upstairs, like an old West saloon. We deposited our bags, washed ourselves and were just settling in for the semi-finals of the European championships on television, when we encountered 5 peace corp volunteers, on a drinking binge. We needed little persuasion to join them on this - since parting company with another Irishman 4 months before we had been sorely lacking drinking partners. They were working as science teachers in a local school, but seemed to find their work somewhat unrewarding. They thought the school system was a shambles, the schools were totally lacking resources and their teaching colleagues were demoralised and showed no enthusiasm for learing new techniques and approaches from the volunteers. Hardly surprising since the government had halved the wages for all civil servants two years before. Still, despite their teaching frustrations, they proved very good instructors in the pleasure possibilities of Kumba, managing to eke out drinking spots into the small hours of the morning.
The next morning we awoke with royal hangovers to the sound of a thousand birds in full song immediately outside our window. A colony of masked weaver birds were building nests in a tree below. These birds are brightly coloured, yellow or red, with black faces and congregate in great numbers to build nests, all in one tree. They dangle upside down to weave strands of grass into hollow, spherical nests which hang from the branches. Despite their prettiness, when hungover it is a great misfortune to find oneself so close to a colony since their din is tremendous. After this shock to the senses, we deemed ourselves unfit to travel and postponed our departure for a day. We walked unsteadily to a nearby crater lake which proved overwhelmingly peaceful among the forest of massive, ancient tropical giants, yet it failed to calm our raging headaches and turbulent tummies. We visited some of the peace corp volunteers on our way back. They lived in a very pleasant bungalow near the local potentate's mansion. They entertained us for the evening which proved a very welcome change after spending so many evenings in hotels. We stuffed ourselves with home cooking, took care not to drink and the following morning we had recovered sufficiently to embark towards Mundemba, 200km Westwards, back towards the Nigerian border.
The road was again a narrow, precarious laterite track, interrupted by patches of deep swamp where all the passengers had to disembark to allow the car to career wildly through the mud with wheels spinning. Apart from the brief walking interludes, the only variety on this journey through unabating forest and palm plantations was a policeman arresting a fellow passenger from Niger, for failure to possess some document. We arrived in town just before sundown.W we had been within 20km of here four days before, when scared off by the Nigerian army. To reach Mundemba, the first town in Cameroon, from Calabar, the last town in Nigeria, about 50 km apart, took us 3 long days of uncomfortable travel, over 900 km of dangerous tracks, as well as one even longer day of suffering from a painful hangover.
Mundemba is a small, spread out town surrounded by palm-oil plantations and rainforest. The town is filled with swarms of bright butterflies and tiny birds which fly in swarms and perch on blades of grass. We had come all the way here to visit Korup national Park, a large area of protected primary rainforest along the Nigeria-Cameroon border. We hired a guide and a porter at the park office, provisioned ourselves with sacks of rice, cans of tomatoes, tins of sardines, corned beef and oil, and set out into the forest. The first stage was accomplished in a WWF landrover, through an enormous palm-oil plantation owned by Unilever where the workers are housed in makeshift company towns, remote and isolated amongst the fields, utterly dominated by the all-powerful company to the extent that these little towns are known simply by the name of the company. The plantations end at the swift and turbulent Korup river which we crossed in a small dinghy and entered into the almost untouched wilderness of Korup forest.
The park houses many species of primates, forest elephants and all manner of animals such as the fantastic pangolin with its armoured scaly skin and long tail. However all of this wildlife is difficult to see as the thick foliage limits visibility to a few metres and the wildlife has learned the valuable lesson that humans are best avoided. All over West Africa we had seen only fleeting glimpses of wild monkeys, duikers, snakes and hippos, many of them were promptly killed as soon as they were spotted, either for food or because they were considered a threat. In general wildlife is either limited to very remote areas, or is extremely good at hiding. Nevertheless despite the disappointing scarcity of animals, the experience of walking through the forest was interesting enough in itself. The forest floor is comparitively dark, shaded by the multiple levels of growth overhead; from towering forest giants, thousands of years old, to small skinny saplings, all competing for light in this most fertile environment. The variety of trees and plants is staggering. Dozens of different, brightly coloured, exotic fruits and flowers hang from trees; patches of brilliant colour which appear suddenly among the dark trees. The smell of formenting fruit is all pervasive. Bush mangoes and countless other forest fruits lay rotting on the ground, creating a pungent odour in the moist heat. In the canopy above, the sounds of dozens of forest birds ring out, each of which was identified, including its latin name, by our guide. Most impressive was the unlikely looking hornbills whose sound as they flew overhead brought to mind images of pre-historic teradactyls. From time to time we'd come across a clearing where a large tree had fallen and allowed the sunlight to reach the forest floor. Here flowers, swarms of butterflies and thick green bushes abounded. We walked 15km into the park to a manmade clearing with some wooden huts screened against insects. The only animals we encountered were a group of monkeys maniacally leaping from the giant trees into the canopy far beneath, and the nest of a fock fowl, Pitticarthus, which our guide informed us was the world's rarest bird.
The next day, after an uncomfortable nights sleep on the hard wooden floors of the huts, we set out to walk back out of the forest. 3 hours into the journey we came upon a big group of Drill monkeys, large brown primates with huge fangs, which mostly stay on the ground. They are nost notable for their unmissable sexual characteristics. The dominant male's bottom and genitals are bright shades of blue and red, while the fertile female's bottow swells up like a large balloon. These drills are thought to number only a few thousand and they exist only here and in two other isolated spots in the world, victims of the shrinking of their habitats through deforestation and hunting by local populations. We also got an introduction to that more common feature of the rainforest: the rain. For 2 hours we walked through a torrential downpour which instantly seemed to flood all the paths and turn all the small streams into raging torrents.
As we left the forest depths behind us and approached the banks of the Korup river we started encountering evidence of more wildlife. Here and there, in thickets away from the river banks, there were piles of goods, wrapped in plastic and covered in tarpaulins. Our guide indentified them as the unmistakable signs of the common Nigerian smuggler, who pile small boats full of petrol and manufactured goods and then carefully pick their way through the maze of coastal lagoons and rivers which lie all along the border. The smugglers proved to be the tamest wildlife in the forest, a group of them, busy unloading a boat, barely noticed our arrival at the river. We were pleasantly surprised to find the WWF Landcruiser waiting punctually to ferry us back to Mundemba. The cold beer, beds and showers of this tiny village made our 2 days in the forest look like the heroic escapade of an old time explorer in comparison.
After the rigours of the rainforest we made for Limbe, a resort town on the coast, to recuperate and give our collection of exotic insect bites time to heal. We retraced our steps along the sticky tracks to Kumba, then encountered a tarred road for the first time in Cameroon, which sped us the short distance to the coast. Limbe, formerly known as Victoria, was the original capital of German Cameroon. The town is dominated by the great mass of mount Cameroon, West Africa's highest mountain which rises sheer from the sea to a height of 4095 metres. The mountain is an active volcano and while we were in town, lava was still flowing from an eruption which had occured a few months before. The sides of the mountain are thickly coated in jungle except for several swathes of bare black rock formed by the cooling of recent lavaflows. A series of fine beaches lines the mountain's foot. The sand is a deep chocolate brown colour from the igneous rock. The lower reaches of the mountain are a lush tropical wilderness which extends right to the edge of the beach. Gangs of cheeky monkeys gather in the nearest trees to steal food off unwary sunbathers.
The town today has little of its former importance. Most of its economic activity seems to be based around the weeked holidaymakers, especially expatriates from the nearby city of Douala. Along the seafront and in the adjoining streets, many of the buildings date from the colonial period, even from the peroid of German rule, before 1916. They today house administrative buildings, shops, hotels and restaurants. A well maintained botanical garden laid out by the Germans, leads away from the old seafront. This old colonial area is well planned, tidy and practically lifeless, almost deserted. The vast majority of the town's population live in straggling, scruffy suburbs in valleys hidden from the resort by the clefts and spurs of the mountain, far away from the shore. Our stay coincided with the rainy season and, thus a lack of holidaymakers. Saturday night was the only time that the resort saw any life as the many nite-bars boomed music into the night and filled with froups of festive locals, dressed up, gaily dancing and drinking with increasing enthusiasm as the night wore on. Sunday night saw the European cup final between France and Italy, which we watched with a small crowd of locals, in a pleasant seafront bar set in the middle of the picturesque bay. The bay is dotted with strange projecting rocks and ships of all sizes. On one side is the massive volcano of Mount Cameroon. On the other side, in the distance, can be seen another hughe volcano rising clean from the sea; Bioko island, home to the capital of Equatorial Guinea, an island which consists entirely of a volcano protruding 3000 metre sheer out of the sea. Still the impressive setting couldn't compete with the football. The Cameroonians were divided in support between the two teams, with a slight majority favouring Italy. Curiously all of the 5 or 6 expatriates present were Germans who had businesses in Limbe, a sign of the lasting influence of the brief German occupation. It seems that the links have mainly been maintained by the German presbyterian church which is very powerful in Cameroon and, for example, owns Limbe's prinicpal bookshop.
After rejuvenating ourselves in Limbe's soothing waters for a weekend we continued on our way to Cameroon's big cities: Douala and Yaounde. We eventually spent a fortnight in each. This brought us out of the anglophone region of Cameroon and into the much larger francophone area of the country. Although the terms 'anglophone' and 'francophone' are generally used in the country, they are hardly accurate since Cameroon, as much as any modern African country, is made up of a vast patchwork of native languages, generally mutually incomprehensible and often completely linguistically unrelated. Furthermore the English spoken is a local pidgin which is incomprehensible to an English speaker at first. However it is certainly true that the dual colonial mandate has left a lasting impression on the country. In Limbe, Buea and Kumba, French is scarcely heard on the streets and is only really used for communicating with officials and government workers who always seem to be posted far from home. Pidgin English is the language of the market and taxi-park. 50 kilometres away in Douala, French totally dominates and English is not heard at all. The linguistic identity seems much more marked on the anglophone side than the francophone. While some anglophones did express some nostalgia for the British, this seemed merely to be a means of bashing the French: "The English, at least they taught us to respect people. These Frenchmen, tut tut, they have no respect at all." Nevertheless their dislike was always directed at the French rather than francophone Cameroonians and there didn't seem to be overt hostility between the two groups.
Douala and Yaounde are both large, modern cities. Douala is primarily a port town, hot, sultry and lush on the coastal lowland. The city is laid out like a French Mediteranean town and some of the wealthier boulevards and places are not totally unlike French versions, but the illusion is paper thin as poverty and dilapidation are never far away. Yaounde is the centre of government and of the exploitation of the vast rainforests which cover the south of the country. It sprawls over several hills and is riddled with pockets of wasteland. The government area of town is dominated by bold modernistic blocks, in all sorts of geometric shapes, built over the last couple of decades and already starting to peel and crack in the harsh climate of meagre resources for maintenance. Both cities are a world away from the rest of Cameroon that we had hitherto seen. Paved roads, shiny international restaurants, electricity , running water, modern comfortable cinemas, European style shops, five star hotels, large numbers of private vehicles, streets lined with high rise concrete blocks, neighbourhoods filled with acres of luxury villages; all contrasted starkly with the muddy wooden hamlets that we had been used to. It was quite obvious where the accumulated wealth of Cameroon had ended up.
One striking point about Cameroon's large cities is the overwhelming presence of all things French in the world of business media and culture. Even in comparison to the countries of French West Africa, themselves barely independant, the pervasiveness of French influence comes as a shock. This influence is maintained through both direct interventions by France's goverment and military and through the power of French transnational corporations, like Elf-Total.
Amongst the various Cameroonian people I asked, it was universally held that president Paul Biya's regime is a puppet of France, and to a lesser extent the United States and other Western powers. In 1992 President Biya blatantly rigged an election, declared a state of emergency and viciously repressed protests with widespread use of illegal detentions and torture. Facing economic sanctions, international condemnation and an upsurge in domestic opposition, Biya was saved only by a $115 million unilateral loan from France which allowed him to weather the storm. In the most recent elections which were obviously going to be rigged, the opposition chose to boycott the poll. France criticised this boycott as 'undemocratic'. Of course, France's influence in Cameroon does not rest on economic and political power alone. The French army has permanent bases in neighbouring Gabon and Chad, ready to 'protect French lives and property' at any time, although as France's 35 post-independance military interventions in Africa have shown, this sometimes requires defeating a rebellion or replacing a government.
The overt foreign influences in Cameroon are visible on the streets of Douala and Yaounde, in the shape of a large number of expatriate workers, mostly French and German, working for large foreign companies as consultants, engineers and senior management. Even the civil service has a few French nationals in key positions. These expatriates form the majority of the clientele of many of the fine restaurants, boulangeries and recreational facilities. In Douala we stayed for a few nights in the German Seaman's mission, a favourite haunt of expatriates, who flock there in the evenings to sit around the pool, gulping draught beer and tucking into numerous grilled German sausages with salads of cabbage and vinegar. Most of the other restaurants that we saw had more black faces present, although many of these faces were on top of skinny, long-legged, short-skirted, tight-topped, female bodies, for wherever there were expats, prostitutes were never far behind.
We inadvertently stumbled upon two of the prime spots for observing the mating behaviour and habits of these expats and their playthings; The Mediterraneo restaurant on Douala's foremost boulevard, and La Terrasse restaurant next door to our hotel near Yaounde's town hall. These were similar places; big, largely open-air, with a moderately priced European menu and overpriced beer, frequented by mostly middle-aged European men, most of whom had grown fat and idle from a pampered life with servants always to hand. From time to time young black women, mostly very beautiful, unusually skinny and scantily clad by african standards, would walk into the restaurant, either alone or in small groups of 3 or 4 women. They'd walk through the tables, greeting the men whom they already knew, sometimes one or more would be invited to join the table of some group of men. If not they'd take a table and wait for more guests to arrive and then approach the newcomers to innocently greet them, hoping to get an invitation to stay. The clients were certainly not shy about the business being transacted. We observed a table of two Frenchmen with four African women, one on each of the men's knee. The men were openly fondling the women, planting slobbering kisses on them and slapping the bottoms of passing, unattached women. As the night went on the demonstrativeness became ever more lewd and unrestrained. In Africa, at least in everywhere that we had been, it is always taboo to display physical affection in public. Even married couples holding hands is prohibited. On one occasion we had the misfortune to observe a very drunk Frenchman going through an elaborate and lengthy flirtation pantomime with a paid woman, chasing her around the bar to try to kiss her as she pretended to flee from him.
The expats seem to exist in a world without a moral code. Many of them are contemptuous of the native culture and its social restrictions. Their contempt is given strength by their economic might in relation to the vast majority of africans. The expatriate employees of multinational corporations and expatriate entrepeneurs are often in the country primarily to make money. They resent the inconveniences to their lifestyles of living in a poor country. Despite their relative wealth, their numbers are not enough to maintain a fraction of the number of fine restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and myriad diversions of a European city. The only consolation is the potential for exercising power over people to an extent that would be possible in Europe only for the richest and most powerful bosses.
Any expatriate worker can afford to emply a large staff of domestic workers. Many have cooks, maids, childminders, gardeners, butlers, drivers and it seems to be common practice to employ a man to sit outside the house by the gate and open it when cars come, although this may only happen twice a day or not at all! These domestic workers are almost universally servile in tone and normally adress their employer and his associates as 'sir', 'master' or 'boss' ('patron' in french). In addition to their domestic power, many expats command the labour of large staffs of Africans at work, and others use their money to exploit the native culture in a whole host of ways.
This exploitation inevitably creates resentment among Africans and indeed in Cameroon, we perceived, for the first time in Africa, a real sense of hostility to white-skinned people. Ordinary people in Douala and Yaounde sometimes appeared instantly hostile, a reaction which we had barely seen in West Africa where the only time racism had been an issue was when an occasional hustler had tried to use guilt about 'white privelege' to extract cash from tourists. One Friday evening we travelled to the Yaounde suburb where the African music halls are concentrated, hoping to see a local band. We were accompanied by Pedro, a Swiss guy who was half way through cycling from Morroco to South Africa and who we'd previously come across in Burkina Faso. We were sitting in a crowded beer hall fending of two ladies who were determinedly trying to pick us up or get invitations to Europe, when a man approached us and asked, smiling, how we were enjoying our stay in his beautiful country? We were reciting our standard polite responses when he suddenly stuck his middle finger up at us and shouted: "fuck you, go back to where you're from, fuck off". Pedro shouted back: "shut you're fucking gob". Happily 2 or 3 bystanders interceded to calm the situation by putting their bodies in front of our enemy. He complained to them: "but if I was in their country, they wouldn't let me just go to a bar for a drink like that", but he was soon diverted away to drink more beer.
The following evening we went to see an American film, 'Hurricane', at the cinema. The audience of about 200 people, was boisterous, groups of excited teenagers swigging whiskey on a Saturday night out. The film traced the career of a black American boxer persecuted by racist police. For the first half of the film, all the white people were deep South racists. African audiences are always demonstrative and vocal. Normally it is part of the fun of visiting the cinema, but on this occasion it lost its charm as the group of drunken youths behind us started shouting racial abuse, obviously aimed at us, the only whites in the cinema. "Yea that's what all whites are like, they're pigs", "fucking whites". We were most relieved when the inevitable Hollywood affirmation of America and its justice kicked in. In the second half of the film, some good whites emerged and helped to free the imprisoned hero. The audience's mood changed miraculously as the hero realised that all whites aren't racist. In the final scene of the film, the white US supreme court judge delivers an eloquent speech freeing the hero. Several people leapt into the air with joy. The tension had disappeared completely and we escaped before risking the crowd's reaction to the second film of the double header. We deemed their reaction too unpredictable after an aging, latin-incanting, catholic priest had attempted to assasinate the devil with a high powered rifle, only to be thwarted by an elite US commando - in the first scene.
Otherwise we managed not to come across overt racial hostility. Newspapers carried an occasional scandalous story about unnamed Europeans paying Cameroonian women to have sex with dogs, or some such outrage. However much of the latent hostility probably had nothing to do with racism, it was probably simply a consequence of the harsh atmosphere of these big cities where poverty and repression lay heavily upon the people. Guns are widely available and violent crime is common. I was fortunate to escape when a group of 5 men surrounded me, grabbed me and tried to empty my pockets in front of Yaounde's central market at midday. The criminals must by truly desperate for justice is rough. The police are alleged to have killed hundreds of suspected criminals under their 'commandement operationnelle' to clean up Douala and Yaounde. There is a constant state of warfare between police and desperate illegal hawkers who flock into the cities' commercial areas. It is not unusual to see dozens of hawkers fleeing as large teams of armoured police arrive en masse to confiscate their wares. The government and security services have a well earned reputation for gross corruption. Transparency International ranked Cameroon the world's most corrupt country, it is also Africa's leading importer of Champagne. In our experience Cameroonian police were the most corrupt, arrogant and acted with the most impunity of any country that we'd seen. Torture in custody seems common - in Limbe, a human rights group had shown us photographs of the bruised body of a suspect who had died recently during interrogations.
In addition to widespread corruption at senior levels, Cameroon's public sector services are affected by extreme demoralisation among workers as a consequence of 5 rounds of belt-tightening on IMF structural adjustment programmes. Not only did workers see their pay universally halved 2 years ago, but they have to work with a serious lack of resources due to meagre and shrinking budgets. We unfortunately needed to use the Cameroonian postal service to dispatch a parcel of surplus goods which were weighing us down - especially the 10 kg bronze soldier from Benin. It took us several days of enquiries to learn the whereabouts of the only post office in Douala which accepted parcels - in the port, a long walk through an eerie and deserted corridor of heaped shipping containers. The post office, dark and quiet, is beside the port's customs office. A decent sized crowd seemed to be always standing around outside, waiting for some dealing with that office. I entered the post office to find a woman half asleep behind a counter. I asked her how much it would cost to send a package weighing 20kg to Ireland. She told me that the person who knew how to work out such matters was out, could I come back the next day? The next day, she informed me that he was out, this time to lunch, but that the package wouldn't cost more than $50 and that if we came back in 2 hours, he'd definitely be back. We hired a taxi to carry our package and arrived back 2 hours later with it. The woman was still there lightly snoozing. We awoke her. There was no sign of the expected man but she assured us he'd be back soon. She invited us into the office, a semi-derelict room with an adjoining storeroom littered with parcels that had an abandoned air about them. In one corner a uniformed official slept on his desk. We waited for two hours in the sweltering heat until the woman at the dest finally realised that we weren't going to go away and called somebody on the telephone. Some 20 minutes later a besuited man entered the room, he claimed to know the secret of pricing parcels. We quickly lost faith in the reason behind his method however, when his first question to us was: "so how many kilometres is it from here to Dublin?" Several minutes later, after substituting this distance into a complicated equation that he had constructed, he calculated that it would cost about $500 to send the package. We stormed out full of impotent rage.
A week later we tried again, this time in Yaounde. This time the price was reasonable but it took us several days to complete the transaction. We had to apply to officials in two different government ministeries for permission to export the goods, each of which took several days to process. Once the export certificates were obtained and, of course, the fees paid, we brought our package to the post office. First the porter brought us to the desk for clearing agricultural exports and fooled us into purchasing a certificate. Before we left the post office, we had to pay police, customs and post office officials for various 'certifications' and had to fill out a sickening quantity of forms. Happily, despite our misgivings, the parcel did actually arrive safely.
Initially we had envisaged that Yaounde would be the end of our overland trip in Western Africa. We planned to fly to Kenya and continue overland to South Africa along the East coast. Beyond Yaounde, to the East, South and West, lies the great rainforest of the Congo basin. This region of Africa from Southern Cameroon, running Southwards through Gabon and the two Congos to Angola; Eastwards through Central Africa to the Western parts of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, is covered by the vast Central African rainforest. This belt also comprises the most ravaged countries of modern Africa. As long ago as the early 16th century, only a few decades after the first contact with Europeans, King Alfonso of the Congo was complaining to the Portugese about depopulation of his lands due to excessive slaving. In colonial times they remained almost totally undeveloped. The harsh climate amd impenetrable forests of the region caused it to be neglected in favour of lands where wealth was easier to extract. Today the countries of the region are extreme examples of exploited and impoverished third world countries. Their economies are dominated by a small number of foreign companies who extract oil and minerals from the abundant sources of diamonds, gold, copper, aluminium, crude and timber and other riches from the central african soil. Roads, where they exist at all, run from the mining centre to the port, airport or river, from where the goods arer shipped straight to Europe. There are no paved roads linking any of the capital cities of any of the central African countries to each other. They are completely focused on exporting raw materials to Europe and America.
The small amount of wealth remaining in the country, after the multinationals have taken their profits, accumulates in the hands of those who control political power. Outside the capital city and the few centres of extraction, there is virtually no development whatsoever. No roads, no large towns, just subsistence villagers, abandoned by the state except for its constant attempts to extort money from them through police, army and taxman. The capital cities swell with hungry peasants while the elite squander the country's meagre resources consuming expensive imported European luxuries. The swollen cities woefully lack services and breed desperation and crime. Because wealth resides in small cliques and is dependant primarily on physical control of a small number of strategic sites, wars, coups and invasions of mercenary adventurers are common. Angola has been at war for 40 years for control of its diamonds and offshore oil. Congo-Zaire has seen 5 years of bloody war for control of its vast mineral wealth. The robber-barons who rule these unfortunate states are famed for their brutality and greed: Idi Amin, Mobutu, Bokassa in the past, today Omar Bongo in Gabon, Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Congo-Brazzaville and Laurent Kabila in Kinshasa. Yet these brutal rulers have generally relied on the support of the multinational companies and the governments that sponsor them. To give a few examples: Elf-Aquitane largely financed the 1997 coup in Congo-Brazzaville. Mobutu's kleptocracy in Zaire was consistently assisted by France and the US, including French military interventions to quell rebellions. France backed the regime that was responsible for the Rwandan genocide to the last. There have been at least 6 major French military interventions in Central Africa since 1990.
Due to the anticipated problems with transport and security in this troubled region, we had initially thought that it would be impossible and fooldhardy to cross overland to East or Southern Africa. However as we travelled through West Africa, we had learned that many things are both possible and safe which are not supposed to be. We also met people who had done it in the past. Whatsmore we were very curious to experience this region at first hand, inhabited by elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas and home to many isolated tribes living very traditional lifestyles, as well as the less interesting soldiers and strong men. Therefore we resolved to attempt to traverse Central Africa, overland from Yaounde.
There were two possible routes. We could either go South through Gabon and Brazzaville to Kinshasa, the capital of Congo-Zaire. From there we'd have to traverse the country to the South Eastern border with Zambia, and the safety of Southern Africa. The other option would be to go East into the Central African Republic (CAR) and from there across the North Eastern corner of Congo-Zaire into Uganda and the safety of tourist-trodden East Africa. After a week of deliberating and trying unsuccesfully to obtain any information whatsoever about the viability of either route, we finally opted to try the Eastern one since the ceasfire in the CAR was almost 3 years old while in Congo-Brazzaville it had barely attained 6 months. Furthermore this would minimise the distance to cover through Congo-Zaire and keep us further from the frontlines of the war there, in territory controlled by Uganda and Rwanda, whose soldiers we were less afraid of than the notoriously drunken, ill-disciplined troops of Kabila's government. Therefore we resolved to travel East to Bangui, the capital of the CAR, as the first leg of our journey.
To this end we dawdled in Yaounde, steeling ourselves for the rigours ahead. We replaced worn out shoes, clothes and used-up toiletries. We purchased cooking equipment and medical supplies, emergency rations in tins, plates and cutlery. We did everything to lighten our loads to increase our mobility with our backpacks on. We sent home or discarded all but the most essential items. 2 small paperbacks were our only reading material. Finally we filled ourselves with all the good things that Yaounde had to offer, especially the delicious grilled fish, cooked over charcoal fires along the roadside and eaten with strange, super-dense, translucent sticks of cassava, wrapped in corn leaves.
Our stay in Yaounde was further prolonged when I became sick. I was suffering from mild heart palpatations, chest pains and headaches and feared that I may have picked up some tropical disease. I called the British embassy to ask them to recommend a doctor. They sent me to an expensive clinic in the suburbs where my blood was tested for various parasites, 3 x-rays were taken, my blood pressure, throat, chest and eyes were examined and I was charged $120 before I'd even got to see the doctor. When I was eventually ushered into the doctor's office, he briefly examined the x-rays, asked me a few questions, mostly about what I was doing in Africa, before delivering a vague diagnosis of something to do with my lung as evidenced by some imperceptible mark on the x-ray. He proceeded to write a long list of prescriptions. At this stage I asked him about the result of the blood tests. This took him by surprise, he hadn't known they existed. He bid his assistant to bring him the results. Five minutes later his assistant returned with a card. The doctor took this, read it and said: "ah, it appears that you have picked up a little malaria on your travels, you really should have taken some prevention. But you also have that thing I told you about before". I protested that I was taking mefloquine but he just smiled, shook his head, and added an anti-malarial drug to the long list of prescriptions, before ushering me out.
Even though I was very sceptical about the doctor's original diagnosis, I resolved to follow the prescriptions exactly. I had to go to a pharmacy and purchase over $100 worth of drugs: anti-inflamatories, antibiotic pills, an antibiotic nasal spray, anti-malarial pills, and some mucus producing pills. I was feeling relieved to have at least something to take, hopefully at least one of the drugs would kill the bug and cure me. Then, when I got back to my hotel room, I read the instructions on the anti-inflamatories. The simple instruction : "administer anally" was enough to take any pleasure out of the cure. Nevertheless after a few days stuffed with drugs, I did indeed feel sufficiently better to push on into the rainforest.
In order to break up our journey and because we still hoped to see gorrillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants, we decided to visit one of the remote rainforest reserves in the South Eastern corner of Cameroon, a minor diversion from the road to Bangui, according to our map. We visited the WWF offices in Yaounde and they informed us that everything could by organised from their regional office in Yokadouma, the largest town in the South Eastern rainforest zone. Therefore we duly made our way to the bus station at 6am one morning to attempt to find a bus to Yokadouma. No direct buses existed so we crammed into a packed, old Mercedes 20-seat minibus with metal benches and no windows, to Bertoua - an administrative town some 450km East, roughly halfway to Yokadouma. The first hour or so was on a reasonable paved road. Thereafter we made tortuous progress over the earth tracks, corrugated in parts and starting to become slippery and churned up by the rains. The scenery was unrelenting forest, although it appeared to be secondary growth after logging, rather than pristine rainforest. Most of the infrequent traffic consisted of enormous logging trucks carrying enormous loads of wood. Some of the wood is cut into planks and stacked high in giant bales. Other lorries carry just 2 or 3 enormous logs, sections of the forest giants. This is the main road for the extraction of timber from the rainforests of the CAR and Congo-Brazzaville as well as from Eastern Cameroon. All the timber goes to the port in Douala. Cameroon insists that wood be sawed in the country in an attempt to create jobs and add value to the wood rather than to simply export it raw, elsewhere there is not even this meagre effort. The road passes through several small towns, many obviously supported by the jobs of the logging industry. The buildings are simple wooded concoctions made in three different styles. The most basic houses use irregular planks roughly overlaid in horizontal rows. Another version is made of planks cut in the mill and regularly overlaid. The third style has long thin strips, about 10cm wide, laid vertically side by side to form the walls. All are roofed in corrugated iron or palm-thatch. While stopped at one such town for lunch, a local dressed in rags approached me. -"So what have you come here for, what are you going to take from the ground?" -"I'm only passing through, I'm on my way to Yokadouma to try to see animals in the forest" -"A few weeks ago a German was in town. He said that he was going to Lome (a nearby logging town) to look at gorrillas, but I knew he was lying, he was going to look for diamonds and things in the ground like all the whites do." -"But you see there are no gorrillas where I'm from so some people come here to see them" -"What, no gorrillas?" he looked increduously at me. -"we don't even have any monkeys". He walked away clearly not believing me.
We arrived in Bertoua after 11 hours travelling, slept and arose to catch an onward bus at 4 am to Yokadouma. The road and bus on this second stretch were much as before. The scenery briefly cleared out into pleasant tropical woodlands, before the road plunged back Southwards into the forest. The settlements on this stretch were much smaller than before; tiny hamlets of simple huts along the roadside with the forest pressing in all around them. Some of the huts were entirely constructed out of palm frond thatch, wrapped around a wooden frame. One would have barely noticed the villages it it wasn't for the ubiquitous strutting policeman barring the road with a pole. They became every more surly and numerous as we went deeper into the forest.
Yokadouma is a straggling settlement around a crossroads at the centre of town. The buildings are almost all wooden, some of two stories. The streets are normally lined with timber lorries. Prospectors and dealers in diamonds and gold abound, all looking for credulous buyers. The shiny white Landcruisers of the WWF are the only small vehicles on the roads, adding to the curious mix of this boom town, which has grown from almost nothing by attracting immigration from all across the region with the prospect of work for the logging companies or, even better, discovering a fortune in gold or diamonds. The centrepiece of the town is a small statue of a forest elephant, ironically driven ever deeper into the forest by Yokadouma's industry. The monument, on a small pedestal, is surrounded by a horde of fast-talking, motorbike taxi drivers. Nearby are numerous large provision stores which are amazingly well stocked given the town's remoteness. These shops are all owned by merchants with light skin and arabic appearance and the same appears to be true even in the small villages of the region. In the evening the streets fill with women grilling fish to be eaten on a plate of forest leaves. The numerous night bars blast music from huge speakers and advertise beer promotions to attract the truckers, lumberjacks, environmentalists, prospectors and pygmies in from the bush with money to spend.
We arrived in town in the early afternoon and checked into one of the cheap hotels which seem to have been hastily constructed in the last few years, near the centre of town. We left our room to find some lunch. The first person we met tried to sell us diamonds but couldn't assist our search for food. Eventually, after walking aimlessly about for an hour, we found somewhere, ate an overpriced fish head and drowned it with a bottle of guiness before getting an early night.
When we contacted the WWF office in Yokadouma the next day, we discovered that we'd have to wait several days and pay some money for a permit to continue. We had come to expect such situations in Cameroon and accepted it with resignation. Therefore we spent 2 days sampling the limited charms of this boom town and trying to avoid being conned by one of the many sharks in town. Finally our permission arrived and we set out at 5am to catch a bus to the reserve. Contrary to the advice of everyone we'd asked, the bus didn't eventually depart until 7, which gave the local lunatic ample time to try to find out why we were REALLY here. We had been assured that we'd arrive by 10am but this turned out to be pure fantasy. We made tortuous progress over the 100km or so of wet and slippery logging roads. The weight and size of the logging trucks frequently destroys the road surface in the wet. There are many rain gates on the roads which are closed to prevent circulation in the rain and are manned by officials. Many of the bridges become damaged by the heavy vehicles and are repaired in makeshift manners. These required our bus to advance at crawling pace for fear of falling off.
This journey was made even less comfortable than usual by the poor bus, another aging Mercedes, but this time worse, as there were 4 benches set lengthways facing each other, all crammed with people. We passed through a series of tiny settlements of 20 or 30 buildings by the side of the road. Here and there pygmies had settled in small, semi-permanent camps. Their buildings were mostly built in their traditional way, in a domed hut, shaped like an igloo, with a cane frame and a covering of giant palm leaves from the forest.
At about 5pm, our kindly fellow passengers informed us that we were arriving at our destination, a tiny place, not marked on any map, called Mambele. We made ready to descend but were informed that there was no need to rush since we'd by stopping anyway. At the entrance to town there was a pole stretched across the road. Beside it was a small shelter, under which sat 2 uniformed police officers behind a table. A third officer was sleeping on the table.
The sleeping officer awoke, exchanged a few words with the driver and motioned one of the other policemen to open the gate. We drove through the barrier and stopped 10 metres further on. We were gathering our bags together when the officer climbed on to the back of the bus, pointed at us and gestured for us to come with him. We followed him off the bus with our baggage. "Passports" he demanded in an angry tone. We handed them over. "Vaccination certificates", he continued, now even angrier. He took a cursory glance at Deirdre's certificate, waved it in the air, cried "out of date vaccinations, these are from 1999! Take their baggage off the bus!" and stormed off to his shelter with our documents. We followed with the bags.
Unfortunately I was in terrible humour after 12 hours of uncomfortable travel and was in no mood for confronting such a situation. I couldn't help myself from telling the officer that I knew the law perfectly well, he had no authority to enforce vaccination regulations, and that if he could read he'd see that all of our vaccinations lasted for 3 to 10 years. He became enraged. He took a fresh look at the documents and screamed "No TB vaccination!". I irritably replied: "nobody needs a TB vaccination, you're making the laws up, anyway I can show you the scars of my TB injections". He was getting every angrier. He continued questioning us aggressively for some time. When he realised that this place, Mambele, was our destination, he made one last desperate attempt to frighten and annoy us. He shouted out: " your vaccination cards are not in order. You have no TB vaccination. That amounts to fraudulent entry into the country. You are under arrest, get back onto the bus and you will be taken to the major police station at the Congolese border". We reluctantly climbed back onto the bus, our bags were loaded back on top, and we resigned ourselves to losing another few days to the officials of the Cameroon state. The officer stood a little way away, conferring with a subordinate. Everybody on the bus waited. Finally, after some time, a fellow passenger approached and told me to go talk to the officer. Deirdre suggested that I try to apologise. I followed her advice, approached the officer and expressed my profound apologies for my stupidity in not having a TB vaccination. It worked. He ordered our baggage unloaded and commanded a subordinate to bring us to a nearby hut. This policeman explained to us, as he led us away, the gravity of our offence: offence to the dignity of an officer. We had implicitly told him that he didn't know his job by disagreeing with him, in front of his subordinates and common people, a very serious offence. 20 minutes later we were summoned out of the hut, back to the policemen's shelter. The officer had gathered his subordinates and numerous underlings around. For five minutes he gave us a lecture on the dangers of not having vaccinations: "If you had gone and caught TB, you'd come crying to me wouldn't you..." We bowed our heads and nodded our agreement with his opinion of our foolishness. The price of freedom. After the speech we were duly released and strolled across the road to the local lodge, an extremely simple makeshift wooden affair. We fell asleep on its wooden boards almost at once.
Mambele is a small collection of shacks gathered around a 'T' junction in the logging roads. Truckers often stop here to eat or sleep at the lodge. When it rains trucks may be stuck for weeks here as there is a rain gate on the edge of town. There are two small provisions stores selling basic goods. Around the town, in small scattered settlements, there are pygmies. These people, of the Baka tribe, lived until recently a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Now many have settled in semi-permanent camps on the fringes of Bantu towns and villages. The Baka families we saw around Mambele were some of the most wretched people we'd seen in Africa. Thin, hungry-looking, dressed in rags which were dyed a uniform dirty orange by the red soil of the forest lands. The Baka, like most of the inhabitants of the region, survive off the produce of the forest. Small mammals, duikers and pangolins, dangle on sticks outside several huts, advertising game for sale. Others weave palm fronds into furniture and implements. Many people eat forest fruits, vegetables and herbs to supplement their diets. The only transport in the area is provided by the WWF Landcruiser which acts as an unofficial public transport, delivering people and goods at it goes about its business.
We had no problem in tracking down the local WWF officer in this small town. He conned us into paying for a weeks supply of fuel for the Landcruiser and then organised 2 guides for us, one Baka, one Bantu, provisions and a lift to the edge of the woods. The route into the forest is heavily overgrown with thick foliage, at least 3 feet deep on top of the 'road'. From time to time we had to stop for one of our guides to hack a fallen branch away from the road. Otherwise we hurtled through this dense bush. Our guides who were riding in the open back of the pickup had to be constantly vigilant to avoid being whipped by dangling branches. After driving for what seemed like a ridiculous distance through the forest, we finally came to a tiny clearing with a flimsy cane shelter. We loaded our gear off the back, fixed a rendezvous with the driver for 2 days later, and bid him farewell. It was already raining heavily. We waited under the shelter for half an hour, dividing up the baggage and hoping that the rain would stop. It didn't. For the next 6 hours we walked at a brisk pace through the trees, along a faint trail, over fallen trunks and across rivers. It poured rain incessantly for 6 hours. Water, several centimetres deep, sat permanently on the ground everywhere. After 6 hours our guides stopped and pointed to the left; "a gorrilla!", but we were too weary and defeated by the rain to react, and missed the creature.
We stayed for 2 days in a wooden hut on stilts overlooking a large clearing and a small stream, deep in the rainforest. Our guides stayed a kilometre away in a tent in a forest clearing and cooked meals from sardines and cassava flour, made delicious by our hunger and the forest spices that our guides found. While we weren't eating with them, we were supposed to be viewing wildlife from our stilted lookout. However the forest animals proved as elusive as ever and apart from monkeys we only saw a pair of buffalo in the distance. The birds were more numerous: geese, hornbills, ibises, bea-eaters and kingfishers. Most numerous of all were the insects, an incredible variety of biting things, flying, crawling, hopping and squirming, visited us from all over the forest. Deirdre got 170 bites on her legs whe she left them uncovered for 1 hour at dusk. By the end of the two days, while we hadn't seen much wildlife, at least we were able to dry all of our things which had been soaked on the way in.
As we were gathering our bags to walk back out of the forest, it started to rain again. 2 hours into the walk, it suddenly began to rain much more heavily, which was seriously demoralising since it was already some of the heaviest rain I had ever seen. It is amazing how good the rainforest is at catching sun and how bad it is at catching water. The water on the path was deeper than our boots and we were utterly sodden and shivering. In these downpours, snakes emerge from their hiding places and climb up trees to escape the waters. Deirdre's boot missed one such snake by a few milimetres. The rest of us had to stop to wait for this small, green serpent to leisurely cross the path and wrap himself around the stem of a small bush. The WWF Landcruiser was an hour late to meet us. We shivered and scratched our bites under the dripping shelter waiting for them, then travelled back, exhausted, wet and covered with mud, and once more collapsed into the simple wooden beds at Mambele lodge.
The next morning we arose at 6, with all of our belongings still wet and covered in mud, except for one set of clothes which we had thoughtfully left behind in Mambele. Naturally the bus didn't arrive for a few hours after it was supposed to, so we got a chance to sample the comings and goings of this curious crossroads. There were several benches in front of buildings, on which locals sat passively, waiting to see what would happen. From time to time a figure would appear in the distance and walk, very slowly, across the wide road; small children sent to buy bread, the WWF driver organising a lift, a truck driver getting a bottle of beer. 3 Baka children, in their dirty orange rags, came to scoop water into their pots from the muddy puddles in the middle of the road. A screaming fight broke out between two groups of young ladies which eventually percipitated a huge argument. Most of the village's inhabitants came out to watch the shouting and screaming. The bus arrived full. We had to squeeze on, standing in the non-existant space between facing rows of people. After an hour we each got a seat on one of the benches, almost opposite each other. It started to rain, not a downpour but consistent rain, and I was soon soaked by a leaky window behind me.
The roads became very slippery. We passed a bus that had slid off the road into the banks of deep mud at the side. We came to a raingate. It was closed, no logging trucks could proceed but we, as public transport, were okay. A line of trucks were parked in front of the gates, taking up most of the flat surface of the road. Another bus, coming in the opposite direction, was trying to manouveur around these trucks. It went a few centimetres off course and slid off the road. We would have to wait for this obstacle to be cleared before we could attempt to pass.
We all got off the bus and sheltered on the porch of a nearby hut. The passengers natural pessimism was in full flight. Most seemed already resigned to passing the night here, in the bush, and predictions for our journey time were running from 2 days to 1 week. It took 6 attempts to push the wayward bus back onto the road. The first five ended with the bus careering back down the slope, nearly crushing the passengers who were pushing. The sixth was succesful and the passengers re-embarked, covered with mud and soaking wet. Now it was our turn. The leading logging truck tried to move over, but only succeded in skidding further onto the road. Our driver tried to manouveur slowly around it but we started sliding towards the edge. Miraculously we stopped with 2 wheels on the sloping side of the road. The passengers had to disembark and push the bus back onto the road at a tortuous pace. The conducter dug ruts beneath the wheels. We'd push, after a few centimetres the bus would start to slide and we'd have to stop and dig another rut. While leaning over to push the bus, I slipped down the slope into the edge and got covered in mud. I tried to rinse it off with water from puddles, but everything went instantly orange. Finally we made it past the rain gate, after a 3 hour delay, wet and muddy with only a small distance covered.
The next major delay occured when we encountered a broken bridge. It had been down for some time when we got there. A dozen logging trucks were waiting, and a team of engineers, employed by the logging company, were already fixing the bridge. They bolted some improvised wooden beams to the metal bridge in the place of the warped and broken metal supports. They were a team of 8 workers or so, there was one white man with them who appeared to supervise the operation. 2 hours later we were back on the road, darkness was approaching and several of our fellow passengers warned us to take care of our belongings. All of our valuables were in a small satchel on my lap. I thought that I was safe since the guy on my right was a religious nutter who kept singing hymns and brandishing a bible, and I had my eye on the guy on my left. Later, when we finally got to Yokadouma at 9 pm, I learned the valuable lesson that one should never trust a man with a bible - he had taken advantage of the tight squeeze and the dark to slip his hand in my bag and swipe my camera! We stayed 2 nights in Yokadouma, enough time to wash our clothes and dry all of our belongings and to rest a little before setting off again into the unknown.