Cameroon – Jungle Fever on Ring Road

Abandon all hope ye who enter (Dante, Inferno)

Cameroon, Congo and DRC visas were sitting in our passports for over 2 months now, but we would rather linger in Nigeria. We had fallen in love with the place. We had gotten hooked on the brotherhood with our coworkers from Afi Drill Sanctuary, and the huge soul of Naija-land. But our time to move on had come. And we have been dreaming of Cameroon – nicknamed “miniature Africa” – for a long time. The 9th of October 2011 presidential elections had passed peacefully, instead of turning into a bloody conflict, as predicted by the foreign news agencies. Paul Biya had scored 7 more years of direct access to Cameroon’s wealth and power with a few campaign t-shirts and some bags of cash.

9th of November, last days of rainy season. We zoom from Afi to Ikom, where we fill up for the last time with the dirt-cheap Nigerian petrol and call home. 20 km farther we cross the border from Mfum to Ekok, where the Cameroonian customs officer has some troubles figuring out that our visas are still valid. We had taken the visa in Abuja: 1 photo, application form and 50000 CFA. Gas in Cameroon costs aprox. 595 CFA/l. A few hours and 7000 CFA later we have a  Laissez Passer for 14 days and we start rolling – late as hell – on the dreaded Ekok – Mamfe road, arguably one of the most difficult of its kind in all of Africa and the world.

Jungle Fever

We are fierce and climb steeper and steeper hills of unsealed mud that has petrified under the scorching sun. Where pools of water linger, the laterite sinks our tires into a sticky swamp of hell. The Chinese are working at this road and they say in 2 years the legendary over-lander’s nightmare will be buried under smooth tarmac. For now, the beast is alive and is claiming all our mental and physical energy. Ana walks the toughest parts. It’s all challenging, but we are coping well.

Romanians say that “one must not celebrate before the race is over”. At a crossing, through a crater the size of a lorry, I feel the clutch on fire and my rear wheel just dead. I’m stuck, I have no clutch and people come running. I know I don’t have a spare clutch, nightmare begins. As it turns out, we are on a plantation, where a 10 houses community has set camp to profit from the traffic to Nigeria. We carry alu-boxes, dry sacks and our frozen souls under a palm shed, then we push the bike uphill.

A woman fetches us water to shower and plant on Ana’s lap a 7 months baby who makes a wee. At might we drop exhausted and in a state of disbelief on our punctured mattresses. In the morning we begin the damage control operation: we have some food (oats, tea, 2 cans, 1 soup) and 4000 CFA (6 Euro). We buy garri, sweet potatoes, Magi, sugar, bananas and oranges and we sent scooter-taxis to Ekok to charge a borrowed SIM. After 4 weeks of conservation work in Nigeria, there we were, living among poachers, smelling the daily catch of bush meat (porcupine, monitor lizard, tortoise) in the villagers’ pots and listening how illegal loggers cut rare trees, then ship them to Nigeria on floats during the night.

Watch us speak at TEDx Bucharest one year after this adventure

We have to renounce all privacy, constantly scrutinized and hassled by curious passengers, dozens of truck drivers and mechanic wannabes. Kids begged for any plastic spoon and old sock we dared to use. By the third day we were forced to buy at inflated prices the oranges and potatoes that villagers had picked from the floor behind their house. By night, drunken people debating loudly our situation kept us awake, with alarming key words like moto, rich, money, Abuja, kidnapping. When we barely managed to close an eye, the goats and roosters would begin a delirious routine, feeding our paranoia. Every day we felt more tired and hopeless. We missed our scheduled live TED conference, but we somehow managed to contact our Abuja friends and our families. Harry bought a replacement clutch, FedEx-ed it to Abuja, from where it would be trucked to Ikom, then carried over the border by a taxi.

Deus Ex Machina

It was the 5th day in Nsanaragati when saw the first white faces. Another overlander’s vehicle had gotten stuck in the pothole that had claimed our Tenere. Jacques, Delphine, Lea (4,5 yrs) and Elisa (3 yrs) had left Toulouse for a year long African adventure by Land Rover Defender. It was Elisa’s b-day, Lea had a fever, but all they said was: “rescue team is here”. We took their generous offer to be towed to Bamenda and after 30 minutes of packing, we were attempting something we’d only seen at Dakar.

Lea is suffering with high fever while Gillian is watching. We had been living under this shed for 5 days. © Delphine

The impossible becomes possible on the infernal 10 km to Eyumojok. No image can begin to describe what is like to actually be knee deep in this sticky mud, but that’s all we have to remind us of this improbable experience. One day the Chinese machines will bury the Ekok-Mamfe legend under tarmac, but until that happens, I give it my best, stopping only to catch my breath for a moment, leaning on some cocoa bags, hungry and with a high fever from exhaustion. In the background, the car we later helped out of the mud.

The epic ride ended with Elisa blowing her 3 candles at the bivouac. Is she’s gonna remember this b-day in Cameroon?

The road to Bamenda took us another two days, because the good tar is alternating with unsealed patches.

In Bamenda we camp at Foyer Eglise Presbiteriene and spend our time doing laundry, shopping for necessities, finding a shoe guy to sew our disintegrating slippers and emailing home. Meanwhile…

Spoiler: The other overlanders we had met en route, Emilie si Olie are already in Congo and informed us that DRC and Angola visas are impossible to get now, because of the upcoming Congolese elections that are expected to become violent in the buildup. They got stuck in Pointe Noire and had to ship their vehicles (2 cars + 2 bikes) to Namibia and fly via JoBurg. A very scary and expensive option, we are hoping that as we already got our DRC visa we might get lucky with Angola as well in Matadi, if we can reach it before our Congo and DRC visas expire. In the meantime, our clutch arrived in Abuja and will be shipped to Yaounde where we will pick it up next week from the UPS office. With days to spare, we decide to take a joyride on the famous Ring Road in our french friends Landie.

Ring Road of Cameroon

The 370 km Ring Road is the most famous piste in Cameroon, crossing a very diverse ethnographic area, home to many of the 280 distinct tribes in the country. We stock on food for the 3-4 days offroading: potatoes, vegs, grasshoppers, fruits.

Yam mountains in Bamenda market

First day: we drive on the piste to Bafut, where we opt out of visiting the local chief compound, because of the tourist tax worthy of a major european museum.

Veggies and grasshopper salad for lunch.

Lea practices for Dakar

We Falls

One has to earn the perfect camping spot. So after a dignified struggle up on a hill covered in wild flowers and thyme and after some intense machete-gardening, we pitch our tent by a pepper tree and a guava. We would wake up with the most incredible view.

The locals are herders and they look rather north-african. Mohammed and his sons pay us a pleasant visit in the morning.

We pass by Lake Bamendjing, that famously has a gas pouch on the bottom. The countryside is so beautiful that it’s soothing to our recent memories of Nsanaragati.

The second day the track becomes almost unpassable at times, with huge holes and ravines that run through the middle of the road. Jacques graciously allows me to drive for the first half of the day and even if it’s a tough job, I am having a lot of fun doing it.

In the evening we camp on the edge of a mountain. We start roasting our sweet potatoes and the excellent beef we got from a butcher in a village. We are soon surrounded by a large muslim family, complete with the two wives and many kids. They give us some space to eat or dinner though, only to visit us again the next morning.

The third day we get going quite late, having to struggle with a leaking differential. The road feels smoother and it twists and turns among logged hills, rice paddies and tea plantations.

The green curvy landscape reminds us of our homeland mountains in summer.

We have lunch in Nkambe: rice, beef stew, chicken, boiled plantain and ero

With our now impeccable sense of finding the right place, we pitch our tent in another super place. On the edge of a eucalyptus forest, with a breathtaking view of the surroundings: villages are dotting green mountains and we see cattle returning home and sun setting down in an explosion of colors.

At over 2300m, the air is fresh and cold. A warm shower, a fire, a Bordeaux and a plate of cabbage with beef – cooked with local ingredients – complete a memorable day

First Attempt To Fix the Tenere

After 4 zen days, we’re back in Bamenda and back to our troubled reality. We organize transportation to the capital Yaounde, where we are expecting the clutch. Our only option is to take the night bus, so we bargain hard for the 30 Euro ride. The vehicle was stolen from the EU aids bulk and is barely recognizable under the load of yams and live pigs. A woman stuffs her chicken under my bike, and with only 2 bottles of water, some ground nuts and what we are wearing, we hop on at midnight, only to descend at 6.30 the next morning. It was impossible to close an eye, but somehow someone manages to steal our mobile during the night. On arrival we ignore the rude hasslers in the bus station, push the bike uphill to a Total and hitch a taxi ride to the meeting with the Vidals.

We apply for the Gabon visa (photo, form, 50,000 CFA, 48 hrs) and we set camp on the lawn of the unfriendly presbyterian center, the cheapest accommodation in Yaounde.

The huge water towers are local landmarks. Nearby, flourishing commerce: call booths and candy stalls.

There’s plenty of french boulangeries in Yde, so we feast on buttery viennoiserie.

In the afternoon it’s barbecue time: fresh mackerel and tilapia brought in from Douala and served with plantain chips and pepper sauce.

The clutch arrives

2 weeks after the bike broke down, we manage to collect our precious parcel.

We are high with joy. Finally we will fix our bike and get going.

Suddenly, my brain freezes over. The clutch discs don’t fit! Even though Harry has explained to that we only have one chance to make it, they just sent us the wrong parts. We hit a new dead end.

I realise that they sent me a clutch for the old Yamaha Tenere motorbike.

We pull the cover over our sick bike and we hop again on the Vidal bus. Our fiends suggested we should wait with them in Limbe, which is closer to the entry port for another parcel. This time Harry orders the second clutch from, who will ship by DHL in about 5 days to Douala.

On the road again, we sample some banana leaf wrapped manioc.

And spicy fish stew.

Missing Nigeria.

Coke reigns supreme here.

But beer is still cheaper than water.

The green gold of Cameroon is constantly being lorried out and illegally shipped from Douala to every corner of the planet.

A vision of Mt. Cameroon. The lava giant rises above the ocean at 4090m.

We camp in the parking of Seme Hotel, on Mile 11 beach, where the girls’ grandfather is expected to visit with a bag full of french gourmet foods. Everyday we lunch on bushmeat in Batoke village: gazelle, wild rabbit, with manioc and corn on a cob.

Lea and Elisa

In Limbe we feast on fresh fish in the traditional port. After the 1999 eruption, a cloud of volcanic ash changed forever the Limbe beach: now black sand is washed ashore by the warm calm waters of the ocean. Beyond the horizon, Mt. Cameroon lures us again to climb it, and we decide to go for it during the next 2 days.


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