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Blog 76 by Tan: Cameroonian Christmas

The next morning, we woke up and casually packed before tracking down some breakfast and heading for the border. Although we’d had some memorable experiences in the country, I can’t say I was sad to be leaving Republic of Congo. The obvious highlight of traveling RoC was taking our new friend Jack to visit the Bayaka, and it more than made up for any of the challenges we had faced. However, our time in both Congos had been intense. We were looking forward to moving on to something different and hopefully a bit easier.


Souanke – Republic of Congo. Sadly, we didn’t stay long enough to get the measure of the place.


According to my reading, Cameroon was described as ‘Africa in miniature’ based on its geographical and cultural diversity. We saw it as a gateway between Central Africa and West Africa, and a kind of fusion of the two. We couldn’t have been keener to get there.


Fun fact – Cameroon was named by a Portuguese sailor who arrived at a river in Douala and noticed it was full of prawns, so he called it Rio Dos Camarones (River of Prawns). Let’s face it, the sailor in question, Fernando Poo, could hardly name the place after himself.


As with many borders in Central Africa, you don’t need to wait long for the almost inevitable request for cash. Ours didn’t happen on the immigration side. Instead, we were swiftly stamped into the country. But the moment this was done, things went quiet between the immigration and the customs blokes with words conveyed through a few furtive looks. We knew it was coming. Immigration guy stopped making eye contact, and the more assertive customs guy took the reins.


As was our border crossing modus operadi, we had chosen a lesser-used crossing into Cameroon. It was narrow dirt roads through the forest most of the way. The immigration offices were small and basic as you’d expect for a minor border crossing. The Customs guy took on a typical big man pose and let us know in no uncertain terms that we would be giving him a bunch of money, or he wouldn’t be stamping our documents. He was particularly brazen and made no attempt to conceal the shakedown behind trumped-up, non-existent taxes or levies.


The RoC border – the building on the left is the Department of Forestry office. The building on the right are the same construction but with an ornate Chinese entrance. It appears to be a logging company office. Cosy bedfellows.


It was a straightforward proposition – we wanted a stamp, he had a stamp, we had money, he wanted money….Simples! He wouldn’t say how much. He just wore a sly smile and said it would be a lot. While the audacity was new and irritating, the most striking thing about it was that it took place under the watchful eyes of Jesus. Right behind him was a near 10ft high technicolour canvas of a literal larger than life-size, open-palmed, white-skinned, blue-eyed, haloed Jesus.


Fatigue, frustration, and anger hit us like a ton of bricks. I lost my temper. Seconds later, Mick lost his. It wasn’t a pretty sight as we turned into a couple of jerks. At one stage, I explained to the Customs guy he was being corrupt in front of Jesus. Really not the way to go about things. We’d developed hair triggers, and worse than that, we had developed them simultaneously.


The road from the border.


In the Republic of Congo we experienced the most overt corruption of anywhere we had been on the trip so far. In Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index had the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic and Chad all tied for position 147 out of 167 countries. But we found what we experienced in Republic of Congo harder to deal with. Our encounters with people in uniform wielding power here were just far more aggressive than anything we experienced in DRC.


The requests for kickbacks were gentler and sometimes with a sense of desperation in DRC. Deep in the DRC interior, it was hard to be angry at the disheveled, sometimes barefooted Gendarmes meekly asking for cash or cigarettes. Who knows when the last time they were paid. It was a world apart from the hostile, well-oiled shakedown racket of the Republic of Congo. We gently refused requests for bribes in DRC and often shared snacks, cigarettes, and handshakes there. It was a different scene here in RoC. And not very nice.


We barely saw another vehicle at all.


Riding through the more trying parts of Africa can get frustrating at times. We’ve always managed this well being a duo. When one of us hit our patience limit, we could tap out and have the other person take over. This kept situations and heads cool and us travelling on our merry way. But that natural balance had been eroded by the background stress of the last month. The slightest provocation (always in the form of shakedowns) had us mad as cut snakes. It was a recipe for trouble in these parts that we were both struggling (and often failing) to keep our cool.


It was a significant cause for concern. We knew we needed to take some time off riding as soon as possible. We had been waiting to take a break somewhere low-key on the coast of Benin or Togo. However, our behaviour (and apparent lack of control over it) had us planning some immediate downtime. We had some errands to take care of in the capital Yaoundé. So we resolved to keep our shit together until then and find a decent place to rest up and decompress before taking on Nigeria.


Still feeling surly from our nasty border experience, we were keen to put some distance between it and us. We didn’t end up paying anything, and they soon got sick of the sight of us and sent us on our way.


The road would be a handful with a bit of water on it. But in the dry, it was a dream.


Cameroon’s border was a breeze and a picture of professionalism. The Cameroonian officials had an air of efficiency and no-nonsense. We were processed straight away and were once again moving.


The road from the border continued past logging areas where Chinese supervisors stuck out like sore thumbs. The forest road was simple fun riding. The only downside was the sneaking suspicion large tracts of the forest we were enjoying were not long for this world.


At one point, we encountered a lonely roadblock where an imposing Cameroonian soldier asked to check our documentation. After the usual questions, he asked us if we had children. We answered no, and he seemed both pained and confused by the fact. He told us that he had 13 children and bid us farewell with the question sincerely asked, “What is a man without children?”


An orange-hued Mick.


In the late afternoon, we came across a small town. After fueling up and downing some service station snacks, we set off on the remaining 110kms to Sangmelima. The road from the border had turned to brand new tar 30km back, so we figured it would be tar from now on. That thought was soon dispelled when we found ourselves on an appalling dusty road, badly chopped up by countless logging trucks. And so began the most frightening section of riding of all our time in Africa.


There were plenty signs of logging.

Mick answering nature’s call at one of the calmer parts of the terrifying road.

I remembered thinking that if one of us was to have a fatal accident on this trip, it would be here and now, on this road. It’s with this thought in my head and eyes the size of saucers that I rode in near to no visibility, through invisible deep dust bowls with a procession of thundering logging trucks in both directions. The unhelpful words playing through my mind “this is where we die.” Mick was likely far braver but recorded the following notes in our diary that night:


“Dusty as f@!k. Dusty like crazy. Motherf@!king dusty as hell. That’s how dusty. F@!k.”

Road doesn’t look too bad here. Trust me it was a nightmare.

Our slow progress had us arrive in Sangmelima after 7pm, about 40 minutes after sundown. At one of the police checkpoints just outside the town, I made the silly move of asking the copper the name of a good hotel. He gave me the name of a place. It was now just a matter of finding it.


It was long past dark, and the town’s lighting was not conducive to finding the hotel or any alternative. We were a bit stuck before I had the bright idea of finding the town’s ‘China shop’ and asking the owners in Chinese for a recommendation of a place to stay. This was to become a tried and true method for getting the information we needed quickly when my French wasn’t getting us over the line. English was not common here. It worked like a charm, and we actually had a guide from the shop to lead us there. We got a room and a beer and went to bed grateful to have made it there in one piece.


The next morning the front desk staff informed us the policeman from the previous night had come looking for us, but they had managed to get him to clear off. He had decided that we owed him some cash for one word of assistance in giving us the hotel’s name. Luckily we didn’t see him again. The hotel had enough pull, it seemed.


We ended up staying a couple of days rather than arrive in the capital Yaoundé at the start of the weekend. Capital cities tend to be busy, less pleasant, less secure, and expensive. We, therefore, try to minimise our time in them. But when visas are required, there is no option. The trouble for us was being unemployed nomads, we seldom know what day it is. A strange phenomenon seemed to be at play on the trip. Invariably, if we were a day off arriving in a capital city, we would almost certainly find it to be Friday.


We were comfortable in the nice, reasonably priced hotel, so spent a couple of days chilling, eating excellent food, using sad wifi, and allying the front desk staff’s fears about our impending travel through Nigeria.


In between lounging around, Mick saw to the ever-present bike maintenance. He tried to seal the fork seals, succeeding with mine, failing with his own. After all the fine dust of the ‘logging road of doom,’ Mick made sure he cleaned and replaced the filter skins and cleaned, lubed, and tensioned the chains. He also replaced an indicator that had vibrated itself off somewhere in one of the Congos.


Before leaving town, we revisited the China shop and had a chat with the owner. It was the usual story of constant work, isolation, and infrequent visits home. She worked 7 days a week and only took 2 weeks off every 2 years when she returned home to visit her son, who lived with parents in rural China. How fortunate we were in Australia with weekends, public holidays, and minimum 4 weeks vacation a year.


Mick replaced his broken sunglasses with a pair of knock off designer ones, and we set forth for the capital. Before leaving, the woman gave us the name of her sister’s Chinese restaurant in Yaoundé. We committed to dropping in to treat ourselves to some authentic Chinese cuisine.


After 175kms we arrived in Yaoundé. Traffic and navigation was nice and manageable for a reasonably big city. Unfortunately, our Sena batteries went flat right before arriving, so we were without comms. This made for an unpleasant time when a taxi driver got it in his head that Mick had grazed against his cab in traffic. I was behind and saw he was actually a good foot away from the cab. When the angry taxi driver couldn’t catch Michael, he started tormenting me by chasing me through traffic, trying to run me off the road and into oncoming traffic. It was pretty scary and had me shaking by the time I caught up with Mick. It didn’t make for the best of introductions to the place.


View of the outskirts of Yaoundé. We didnt take nearly enough photos at this point in our travels so have borrowed. Image: Frederic Papy


We were all set for upcoming visas and only needed to find some rear tyres. There isn’t much availability for motorcycle spares in West Africa if you’re riding anything but a little 150cc local bike. Planning resupply points, therefore, takes a bit of thought. We intended to replace them at the KTM dealer in Togo, but it was looking like the current tyres wouldn’t make it. Call us over-cautious, but we aren’t the type to ride a tyre down to fibres. I’d once come off the road and into a ditch on a bald tyre, and had no desire to add to already decent risks presented on African roads.


We tried the Yamaha dealer with no luck. Tyres could only be procured with 2 months’ lead-time… no good. We got some rough directions for an area that might have second-hand tyres, and went to a nearby hotel and checked in for a rest. In the end the second-hand options were a couple of half worn motocross tyres that wouldn’t last long on the upcoming tar roads. Or there were a couple tyres in worse condition than our current ones. So we just needed to ride carefully on the ones we had until Togo.


While we were in town, we thought we’d try to track down the Chinese restaurant of the China shop seller’s sister in Sangmelima. With scant directions, we found the restaurant despite its obscure location. The prospect of knocking back a beer and some Sichuan chicken and chao mian compelled us into performing a navigational near-miracle. Much pleasure was derived from that meal, believe me!

The hidden gem of a Chinese restaurant.


The feast.

We annihilated it.


Having failed at sourcing tyres we couldn’t see much of a reason to stay on in the capital. After a couple days, we checked out of the hotel, packed up the bikes, and got dressed. It was only after this 90-minute ritual was complete that we realised that we were dog-tired and not all that interested in traveling to the beach at Limbe for Christmas as planned. It wouldn’t be the first time we did this dance. And with that, we checked in once more and carted all our gear up an obscene amount of stairs and settled in for Christmas in Yaoundé.


Downtown Yaoundé. Image: Gilles van Leeuwen

While far from the most scenic place to stay, the inner city hotel we chose was not too expensive at 15,000 XOF (~25USD) a night and suited our needs. And it was quiet. It was everything we needed. It was time to do nothing but restore our energy reserves that had fallen off a cliff of late. We were so drained we thought we might be playing host to some kind of parasite, so knocked back a couple de-worming tablets and engaged rest mode.

We found Yaoundé to be a pretty nice city. Unlike most African capitals, Yaoundé was picturesque as the city was spread over several hills. It reminded me somewhat of Kigali, Rwanda but less green. The largest buildings were your typical 70s-era chic, but some of them had flair and made for the most interesting architecture we’d seen all trip.

Just some of Yaoundé’s distinctive architecture. A bunch of government buildings on the left. Bank of Central African States on the right. These are just pics from the internet.


The Monument de la Reunification (Reunification Monument) was constructed to celebrate post-colonial merging of British and French Cameroon that occurred in 1961.

The spiral structure has two serpents (representing France and England) merging into one at the top. The man in the statue represents the generation that fought for reunification. There are for children, 2 girls and 2 boys, said to emphasise the equality of opportunities between girls and boys.

Over the next week, we did little but sleep, eat, surf the net, read and work on the blog. Every now and then we’d jump on the bikes and attack with relish the incredible Greek run bakery in the middle of town. We weren’t overly enthused for the festive season but figured we should do something to mark our second Christmas on the road. We tracked down a fancy Indian restaurant for Christmas Eve dinner. Non-traditional but great.

Christmas day passed in the usual manner of doing little more than chilling, eating and watching copious amounts of French dubbed Mexican telenovelas. These Mexican telenovelas were huge in Cameroon, with the same episode playing at least 4 times throughout the day. The hotel restaurant where we set ourselves up had a TV busting out these shows from dawn till dusk. Watching them was unavoidable. With intense over-acting and sheer repetition, I had managed to piece together what was going on, and it did wonders for my limited French. When I noticed myself eagerly anticipating the next day’s episode, I realised it was probably time to get moving again. So we checked out, packed up the bikes and got dressed yet again. But this time we actually left.


I will always associate my time in Yaoundé with the 2012 Mexican drama Corazón Valiente (Fearless heart). The premise was two hot bodyguard sisters falling in love with the rich men they were protecting. I kept waiting for a scene where someone from HR found out about, but it never came.

On the subject of Cameroonian cultural phenomena I have to share this song – Collet la Petit by Franko. We heard in multiple times a day all through Central Africa. LOVED IT!!!!


We were blessed with manageable traffic out of the city, and it felt excellent to be moving again. We made it as far as Bafoussam, where we had more trouble than usual finding a hotel that was secure and had a place nearby to eat. After a fair few attempts, we found a nice, secure place for just 10,000 francs. Dinner was excellent street food of grilled fish with spicy peanut sauce and manioc served on a palm leaf. It was one of the most fantastic meals to date in the most modest of food stalls and all for 1000francs – $1.66. Bellies full we slept like babes.


After a nice sleep in, we packed up and went to the food stalls from the previous night to have breakfast. Not long after arriving, we started to get hassled by a very drunk, possibly crazy guy that wouldn’t leave us alone. He was loudly demanding money and seemed to be saying that his mother was a dangerous woman and he would get her to curse us if we didn’t give money to him now. It was always drunk men (or men keen to get that way) that caused us this kind of trouble.

It was smooth and we had it almost all to ourselves.

We went back to the hotel and checked out only for the same guy to follow us threatening more curses and harm. Luckily the curse didn’t stick, and we managed the hideously pot-holed road to Bamenda without a hitch. The ride made for very slow, very exhausting riding. We stopped in Bamenda for lunch and a rest. We found a small health food restaurant (of all places) where we had a colossal shwarmer (not sure how that got on the menu), juice and a couple cups of good coffee. Food-wise things were really on the up and up after Central Africa.


View of an old bridge from a new one.

We jumped on the bikes again and cruised along a new road, free of traffic and erratic drivers. To top it off, we were greeted with scenic views at the end of the day. The great day of riding in Africa was sealed when we secured ourselves a hotel in Mamfe for 10,000 francs. The rich day’s riding had us feeling good about being moving again and feeling ready for Nigeria….or as ready as you could be, I guess. We’d be crossing the border into Nigeria the next day.


As we were getting to bed that night, I heard a resounding yelp come from Mick in the bathroom. Mick had copped his second electric shock of the trip. This one, also from dodgy wiring, was an absolute whopper. He alarmed me with comments on how his chest felt funny, and this strange sensation lingered for hours. It was the kind of thing you’d be heading to the emergency room back home to make sure a heart rhythm hadn’t been badly messed with. But as we were in ‘Nowhere-Ville’ Cameroon, there was nothing for it, but some swear words (him) and some sympathy (me). We went to bed hoping for a better start to tomorrow than the finish to today.

The live wire in question.


We rose the next morning with the mission in mind. First up, Mick attempted to reseal his stator cover. His bike had been leaking oil for a while, and he thought it might be coming from the stator after having it off in Ouesso. When that was complete, we fueled up and hit the road. The new road we travelled was pristine hot-mix tar all the way to the border. One less horror route in Africa dealt with it seemed.


There were barely any cars or truck on the road.

Taking in some views.

Right near the border, we saw an overlander biker coming the other way, and we stopped for a chat. It had been an age since we had come across another biker, so it was extremely exciting. The young fella was named Bevan, who hailed from California. He was riding an old TT600 bought and registered in Ireland. We had a good chat and swapped a few stories. He informed us he had a YouTube channel called “Moto Gains” as he tries to go to the gym in every country, which is pretty funny. It was far removed from our priorities on the road but cool nonetheless.

Biker Bevan – you can find a bunch of cool trip vlogs he made here:

Overland bikers are so rare over this side of the continent, so we weren’t surprised to hear that Bevan knew all the bikers we knew. Most of whom we’ve only interacted with online. The Africa moto-traveller clique is a strong one. This is in large part due to the reliance you have on other travellers for the latest info on the road ahead. Things on the ground change so fast. A Lonely Planet guide is not going to cut it in these parts.

We had a border to cross but couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a chat with a fellow biker.


Not long after parting ways with Bevan, we reached the Cameroon/Nigeria border. Our first order of business was to get some food in our bellies. We had learned long ago that it wasn’t a good idea to do a border crossing hungry.


It was a smart move just executed poorly in this case. There were some impressive BBQs fashioned from 40-gallon drums brimming with sizzling meat. It looked delicious, but it was mostly bushmeat, so we gave it a wide berth. It was slim pickings on offer, but we found something. It feels obscene to complain about food in a place where many are lucky to get a single meal a day, but it was the most horrid meal of our life. It was the first time I have ever seen Michael unable to eat something. I was ravenous so pushed through to ward off the ‘hangries’ to aid a smooth border crossing.

The meat, which seemed to be pork, was actually good. It was the rest that was a struggle. The main issue was the leaves. We’d we seen people cut very finely, then pound before boiling the life of. I think it is what they call it eru in Cameroon and okazi in Nigeria. It was incredibly bitter and tasted like sucking on coins. Perhaps, like the Vegemite us Aussies love, its an acquired taste.


The Cameroonian side of the crossing things took ages. Immigration and customs were fine, but there were a bunch of other hoops to jump that seemed pointless. But no big deal.


While this was going on, we had ample time to take in our surrounds. The most eye-catching sight was the gruesome posters adorning the office walls showing Boko Haram’s terrorism handy work in the area. The macabre posters showed the brutal aftermath of terrorist attacks complete with the remains of the terrorists who carried them out. Our lunch wasn’t sitting well before this and certainly wasn’t afterwards.


The officers on the Nigerian side of the border were officious and inoffensively indifferent to us, which is everything you want when entering a country with your own vehicle. They wore crisp white and green uniforms with some chic looking berets to finish off the look. Happily, the whole entry process was swift as we were sweating in the tiny office where two small desk fans had far too much asked of them. Our passports and carnets were soon stamped, and we were officially in Nigeria. It was now time to compare Nigeria’s daunting reputation with our personal experience. Gulp!