Published: September 1st 2012July 7th 2012
My writing kinda fell to the wayside after my bag was stolen. I've been so preoccupied with thoughts of all my lost photos that are meaningless to them that I haven't really felt like writing. But, new country, new thoughts so let's get back on track...
Left Yaounde at 07:30 and Nico and I sat up front. Trip notes told us to exit the city the way we came in which is hard when we screwed it up the first time! But, past the breweries we went and after asking directions only a couple times, we were on our way south to the border town on Eking.
Thick lush jungle again accompanied us and we drove along in companionable silence. It's been almost four months and we were leaving West Africa and crossing into Central Africa and then the equator in a couple days. I feel like the next few weeks until we hit Namibia are going to fly by and once we arrive in Cape Town, the trip will be halfway gone...
Then the somewhat familiar sound of a bursting tyre broke the silence and we slowed, looking for somewhere to pull off the road.
We can be quite inventive when it comes to amusing ourselves in the middle of nowhere!
That failing, we stopped in the middle of a stretch of road where we would be visible to traffic both ways. Nico jumped out to get the tools and I let The Gang out, being greeted by Justice in his Eric Pickard overalls announcing his readiness! He was followed by Talbot in his karate kit and Denise and Maria quickly put theirs on. I'd packed mine away under the truck, having no room under my seat and hadn't expected to need them so soon!
Being of no use to the tyre changing except to hand the rag to Talbot to wipe his hands on, I busied myself decorating Denise's coveralls which amused us no end. It was an outside wheel so it didn't take an long as the last one had and we were soon back up on the truck and on our merry way.
The tyre change set us back time-wise and with several police check points as well as customs and immigration, we were cutting it close trying to reach Gabon officials before they closed. Dark ominous clouds gathered overhead and sure enough it soon started pouring. We were silent as we willed the clock to slow or
the town to appear but all we got was another police checkpoint, this one with a traffic cone blocking our path. We did get a laugh though. I wondered out loud which poor sucker would have to leave their shelter and come move the cone for us when all of a sudden it started shuffling out of the way! Obviously attached to string or the like, they could move it without leaving their seat! It did make me giggle.
At long last the town appeared and we took the first left as per instructions. Finding the immigration building half way down, they were already closed - it was after six o'clock on a Saturday evening after all. But, being the lovely people they are, they reopened for us and after getting what we needed, left them to enjoy their night.
The storm meant it was dark early and having passed little in the way of suitable free camps, we saw a space in someone's front yard in a small village and decided to try our luck there. Three men standing outside the house talking gave us permission and we set up tents then used the small under cover area for cooking. A small crowd gathered to check us out and after sorting myself out, volunteered to go on a fact finding mission for beer. Denise taught me how to ask 'is there a place to buy beer' in proper French and after approaching the group, one boy motioned for me to follow him and off we went. Past the first house, through the forest, right around the first house, left around the next house, trip over the wheelbarrow, clothes line self on wire and then ta da! A bar! Where I scared an elderly woman behind the counter. She stared at me for ages, wide-eyed and then shook my hand for several seconds before cackling with laughter as she poked my arm. It was surreal. The entire structure was made of wood, right down to the chairs, table and bar and with no electricity, they used kerosene lamps which gave it a soft, warm glow. I asked for a crate to carry the beers back to everyone, explaining I'd return the crate and empty bottles (standard practice all over Africa) later before she closed. Basically buying her entire stock of beer (which was the not-so-astronomical number of ten) and then paying with a large note and taking all her change (I couldn't understand what number she was telling me), we retraced our steps, taking more villagers back with us, no doubt wanting to see where the random foreigner came from.
The lightning assisted our head torches as we sat near the cook group and listened to stories about people and places on Suse's previous trips. It was around this time that a rather inebriated local started talking, saying it was our responsibility to 'fix Africa'. He kept asking what our purpose was and didn't seem content with the tourism angle. I am not single-handedly able to 'fix Africa'. If I could, I would and I think everyone on the trip feels the same. Instead, we do our little bit by shopping in the local markets, drinking beer (yes, I feel that is a valid contribution), buying in the smaller stalls rather than supermarkets when possible and things like that. Explaining this to someone whose had a few drinks is hard at the best of times but I tried. Eventually he left and we had dinner and spent the rest of the evening happy with our thoughts.
Yesterday was a long drive day through beautiful scenery. Some of the tallest trees I've ever seen are in Gabon, their thin pale trunks growing out of narrow valleys and towering over us. Vines hang from some creating what looks to be impassable jungle until you spy a little path that leads to an unknown destination.
Today we were heading towards Lambaréné to visit the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. The morning air was cool and all the sides were down until it got too stuffy. The sky was overcast but although some clouds looked threatening, it hasn't rained since the wee hours this morning.
Unable to pass the wires that hung across the driveway leading to the hospital, Suse parked on the main road and we walked the short distance under a canopy of trees to the hospital entrance.
Situated on the edge of a lake on a large plot of land, there was a lot of activity already (it's a working hospital). Women sat with young babies in a room for vaccinations as announced by the sign above the door and as we walked past, I looked through the windowless room and saw the doctor jab one patient in the arm, resulting in a sharp cry of alarm. The museum we were aiming for was housed in Dr. Schweitzer's private quarters which were towards the lake, near enclosures containing a variety of antelope and the largest pelican we've ever seen!
It was unfortunate that the story boards are written in french but I could follow a little of it and Denise helped translate the rest. Walking through the compact quarters of his wife with her bed, furniture and personal items still in place, the next room housed a few old medical instruments and the doctor's piano. He must have played often as many photos featured him seated at it. His room also contained furniture and personal effects including his white lab coat, shoes and walking stick, as well as numerous books and personal letters, bundled together with string.
From there a man took us to the 'grande pharmacie'. Moving from room to room we saw the maternity ward with the bed, weighing scales and other instruments still at the ready, the radiology room with the padded walls, the heavy lab coat and the x-ray machine and plates, the dental room with the chair and some seriously scary instruments and several other rooms, finishing in the operating room with even more scary instruments. A storeroom with crumbling shelves housed medicines, test tubes, syringes and unidentifiable boxes, all covered in a thick layer of dust. Yet another room had a variety of artificial legs made from different materials (wood, plastic, wire) and walking aids. I found it really interesting and was glad I made the effort to go (I hadn't planned to).
It was a short drive from there into town where we grabbed food, knowing we'd be free camping this evening. Then a series of comical police checkpoints began. One asked Suse if we were spies! Uh huh. In a giant truck with a top speed of 80km/hr (though on their roads we were lucky if we hit 50km/hr), full of inconspicuous white foreigners. He also asked if Susannah was really her name and still seemed unconvinced when Suse replied she was positive that it was
The next checkpoint was manned by police who were between slightly tipsy and wasted. Nothing new - as far back as Cote d'Ivoire we came across them - though throwing rocks at the truck because we wouldn't open the door for him is! We only unlock the door if Suse is present and really, with the stairs folded up and secured from the outside, it'd be a bit tricky for us to get it open and the stairs down anyway.
The landscape we encountered soon after was unlike anything I'd seen before. The dirt road looked like it hadn't seen water for weeks and both sides of the road, several metres inland, trees shrubs and grass were coated in the red dust, kicked up by passing cars. At first there were few signs of life but when you took the time to look closely, you noticed little pale lilac flowers or the tiny houses of field mice or a snake track in the sand on the side of the road. We saw few cars and even fewer people apart from the occasional village with usually no more than four or five dwellings. It must be a difficult way of life.
A large concealed area off the road was found and we set up our tents in haphazard fashion with some people choosing to distance themselves from the rest. Having put my tent up with the back towards the dirt wall, I soon found Denise only feet away on the flatest ground she could find, with Talbot right on top of her on the other side!
A handful of us stayed up after dinner, sitting around the fire. The meal had been early but most people are so used to going to bed straight after that they ended up in their tents at 19:30! We were aiming for the grand ol' time of 21:00 and looking for ways to amuse ourselves, could hear Cecilia and Justice talking in their tent. Suse's head torch is by far the most powerful and could light up their tent, even at a distance. Nico put his on flash mode and then Toby started making shadow puppets on their tent wall. We were in fits of giggles and stopped when they stopped talking, resuming only when they did. Eventually we tired of it and as the fire wound down, we drifted off one by one to our own tents.