Flying Squirrels Do Ride Motorbikes

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Africa » Cameroon
July 10th 2009
Published: September 30th 2009
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I’d like to warn readers that I have fallen in love with Cameroon, and can therefore guarantee an inappropriately long blog. Each time I try to cut down on the length of these writings, I seem to end up writing more, so if you decide to persist, do crack open a beer, or fetch a glass of wine, or a tall latte - whatever blows your hair back.
We entered Cameroon via a bridge across the Cross River. It had been a slow drive from the Nigerian town of Ikom on account of our cab being stopped for numerous police checks. The police were in bad moods that day. First we almost lost our guidebook to one with a passion for literature, then another guy leafed through not only my passport, but the contents of its wallet too - old beer labels, receipts and tickets I had horded as keepsakes. I watched him carefully study each one as though they were important clues in some serious crime. The urge to roll my eyes was strong but to resist it I reminded myself about their guns, and the importance of the traveller’s charm. The second stop was manned by a sexist official who spoke about me to Seth as though I wasn’t there, and was unimpressed that I hadn’t changed my surname when I got married. A tiny schoolboy was sharing our cab and he looked worried as we went through these numerous police grillings; I suspect we were making him late for school. We couldn’t quite believe it when the taxi dropped him off in what looked like the middle of nowhere, and watched him run off down a leafy lane with his satchel swinging behind him.
For some reason, on this particular day, everybody was especially excited about my middle name.
‘Diana? Princess Diana?’
I always smile at the comment, although I’ve heard it a hundred times since I started travelling. One policeman was quite worried about the situation, though - he really suspected I might be posing as royalty, and started asking me questions about Charles and the young princes. It was becoming quite a tedious morning.
‘It’s my grandma’s name, ‘I told him, ‘I’m named after her.’
‘And are you like her?’
‘I hope so.’
The reaction at the border post was better.
‘Diana…’ said the official, entering my details into his ledger, then pausing to rub his chin; ‘She died a very mysterious death… and brought shame upon her ENTIRE family.’ I liked the melodrama (and total random nature) of that one.
The Cross River was hemmed in by walls of bright green jungle and we both liked the scene. Nigeria had its wild and beautiful side, and from what we had heard and read of Cameroon we could expect more of the same. There had been some debate about whether or not this border crossing and its single, onward road into Cameroon would be passable at this time of year, the rainy season. Several locals had confirmed it could be done, but that only motorbikes could manage the muddy jungle road that led to the Cameroonian town of Mamfe (our planned ‘M’, and the place from which, hopefully, the rest of Cameroon would be accessible.) Outside the immigration office a swarm of young men fought over who would get our custom for the long, arduous bike journey. Even when we had chosen - or rather, the immigration officials had chosen for us - two guys, the others rode ahead to ambush the chosen drivers on the edge of town. They blocked the path of our bikes and fought with our drivers. There was pushing, shoving, yelling, feelings hurt, loyalties betrayed. We both took pity on the main aggressor, a young guy who had tailed us for an hour and felt he had been skanked out of a job, so we gave him a little money to compensate. The fight then broke up and we were on our way. Our drivers were Harry and Aku, and the road was terrible. Harry drove Seth; he was young and wily. Aku was older, my trusty driver, and a nice guy. I think being ambushed by all those young men had shaken him a little and he was glad to be on the road - if you could call it that. The jungle was thick on all sides, apart from in the few villages we drove through, where half naked kids screamed at us, and to each other, ‘White! White! White!’ It is hard to describe the state of the road. If you can wipe the image of a tar road entirely from your mind, and put in its place a big squelchy mud pit, the colour and consistency of fluffy chocolate icing, you’re part way there. Sometimes Aku asked me to climb off the bike so that he could navigate alone the sludge pits and puddles. I walked alongside, my ankles and shoes and jeans slick with mud, balancing on tree trunks, and squelching through ditches. At a small town, we met a cop who refused to let us continue because Harry wasn’t carrying the correct papers. It was the first time we had ever directly paid a bribe, and once the guy’s palm was greased, we were right back on ‘track’ (sludge), all four of us eyeing the gathering clouds above the trees, and racing across an old iron bridge that traversed the Cross River once more. Our drivers were true heroes. It had been a treacherous road and a serious joyride. By the time we reached Mamfe and a quiet little hotel therein, our butts ached and the clouds were rolling in fast. It had taken hours and I wondered, would they try and drive back this very afternoon? Aku lived in a town nearby, but Harry - would he drive alone through the jungle, and the mud, and the rain that no doubt approached? They smiled, shrugged, took their pay and rode into the distance. Our paths had crossed for one afternoon, one adventure, and now they separated forever. Sheet lightening began to lick the sky and the resident hotel hens took one look at it and ran for cover. We did the same, drinking our first ‘33’ beers and eating a rustic dinner in the Data Club down the road.
Mamfe was a good alphabet town. The locals were forthcoming and the Cross River flowed right through the place. On its banks, we met people loading up boats, ready to trade - legally or sneakily - with Nigeria, a short way along the river. Most in demand were beer and bananas, piles of which baked in the hot sun while the boats were made ready. On the second night, an almighty storm struck up. We watched it approach, the river suddenly disappearing in a mist of torrential rain, the thunder roaring as though the sky itself were being torn in two, and flashes of lightening so close together they were strobe-like in effect. We realised that night that we had finally entered the thick of ‘the wet season.’ It had been building up ever since Ghana, and now it truly intensified.
Cameroon was one of those countries a traveller could spend an age in. There were countless places of extreme beauty listed in our guidebook and illustrated on posters and postcards. I typed place names into Google images and basically just gawped at what came up on the screen. There were so many miles between us and South Africa that we could not do all that we wanted to do in this tall, diverse country, but a top priority - after securing an alphabet letter or two - was to travel to the Grassfields region, an area of rolling green hills dotted with palm trees, thick brown rivers that gushed into waterfalls and rapids, and traditional villages. It is an area also known as the Ring road, though the ‘road’, which is indeed circular as the name suggests, is so bad in parts that it cannot be driven along. There was a risk involved in coming to this area in the wet season - perhaps we would find many of the places impossible to reach because of the weather conditions - but it looked too beautiful to miss, and I have always wanted to see Durrell’s Bafut. (There are several local languages spoken in Cameroon, but English is widely spoken in the Grassfields region. Further south and east, you get back to French.)
From Bamenda, the whole region was accessible, and the small city turned out to be a destination in its own right. It was congested and noisy, yet surrounded by pretty cliffs with gushing waterfalls; edgy at night (‘look!’ said a gleeful man at the table across from us in a dark street side bar one evening, ‘there’s going to be a fight!’ And there was) yet comfortable by day. For some reason every time we arrived in/returned to Bamenda, the heavens opened and it chucked it down. It was like an unspoken rule. You couldn’t come to the place without getting drenched. Our first arrival was the worst. I was tired from a long journey, a huge downpour was, of course, taking place, and when I tried to jump off my motorbike taxi, I lost balance and fell into the road. Somehow I had forgotten that I had my bag on my back and the weight of it totally threw me off as I dismounted. It was a stroke of luck that no traffic was coming as I peeled myself off the tarmac, the motodriver at my side pulling me to my feet. I had slammed my shoulder very hard and a deep cut an inch and a half long on my palm began to bleed, the rain water washing watery red blood all down my wrist. It alarmed me that a local woman waiting out the rain in the shelter of a colonnade of shops had laughed at my plight. It must have looked pretty funny, I supposed, but since I was in pain, and shaking from the shock, the humour of the situation eluded me.
From Bamenda we were able to visit Bafut town, of ‘Bafut Beagles’ fame. (I say fame, but perhaps my dad and I are the only people who still remember it?) The book told of Durrell’s exploits in the fifties, as he and a group of locals collected Cameroonian wildlife for his zoo back in England. He stayed as a guest of the Fon of Bafut and struck up a friendship with him. It’s dated but still a brilliant and gentle read, full of drawings of animals and anecdotes. Somehow, people are always getting bitten, and Durrell writes of the Fon’s love for whisky, and of the time he teaches the people of Bafut the Conga. It was brilliant that Bafut still had a traditional chief, just as it had fifty years back when the book was written, and for hundreds of years before then. The building where Durrell had stayed had been turned into a museum. It was stuffed full of intriguing statues and artefacts, and I found an old hardback copy of the book in a glass case. It was a Sunday and the sun shone as we walked through the compound to the Achum temple, a sacred place that only the Fon may enter, with animal carvings on its exterior, a vast grass roof and leopard skins hanging inside. Afterwards we drank Top (neon coloured Cameroonian soft drinks) in a little bar, then headed back to Bamenda, and more rain. I was thinking how great it would have been if, as an eight year old, I’d known that I would get to see Bafut for myself one day.
When we headed North West along the ring road to the town of Wum, we were treated to views of those sweeping green hills for the first time. The interior of our minibus was decorated with increasingly unfriendly warnings: ‘No Smoking’ ‘No Eating’ ‘No Fighting’ ‘No Vomiting.’ We were a placid bunch, all squeezed together like sardines, far too civil for fighting, but one woman did break the no vomiting rule, and soon we were all buying bananas and sweetcorn, so rules are indeed there to be broken. Wum was tiny. One minute we were driving on a narrow road surrounded by tall grass and corn crops, the next we were pulling into the muddy bus depot, which had an almost Dickensian quality to it (flies swarming around meat on a hook; a beggar attaching himself to us; mud and dirt and puddles underfoot.) We had come to town for three reasons - to get deeper into the Grassfields, to perhaps travel onwards to Nyos, which could be our ‘N’, and to see the beautiful Metchum Waterfalls. We had been warned that these were no ordinary waterfalls. Our guidebook said that a tourist had fallen to their death there some years ago, which was sad, but the immigration officials back at the Cameroonian border felt there was something ominous about the place.
‘It’s like the water draws people in…’ one official had said.
‘It’s a dangerous place’, said the other, ‘a mysterious place. Not good for white people. Don’t go there without reporting to the police first.’
Now, with all due respect, having arrived in tiny Wum, I was not feeling inspired to rock up at the police station and announce that we were going to do the very bold and dangerous thing of going to visit a waterfall. Even if the locals thought something untoward was bound to happen to us at Metchum, I was inclined to think that we were pretty experienced with waterfalls by this stage, and that we could resist the temptation to leap into it. Soon we had a arranged a ride and a price, and were on the back of a motorbike heading to the falls. The wet season made them glorious - it was not a wide waterfall but a tall one, the river deceptively smooth at the top, plunging so suddenly and with a tremendous roar into a dark, narrow canyon, slick with moss and with a rolling mist rising from the depths. I’ll admit it, it was spooky, and you could see where some of the railing had given way at the viewpoint we were stood at. It was also stupendously beautiful, and even our driver - a young resident of Wum - got out his mobile phone to take photos and video.
On the way back, the heavens opened. It was so wet it became unsafe to drive, and the three of us took shelter in a simple one room mud building by the roadside, a meeting place for AIDS awareness groups. A group of us sat out the rain in that dark room, not speaking, swatting at mosquitoes and waiting for the sound of the rain to get lighter. It had come to the point, we realised in our hotel room, when there were not many clothes left between us that weren’t soaking wet. It didn’t really matter. Both of us had arrived at that phase of a long trip where you become very comfortable. Culture shock has long vanished, you get relaxed, and you get into habits. A recent one of mine was eating raw eggs. I’d also started to collect bottle tops. You just go a little bit mad, but you know what, it helps.
A beer and a grilled fish, eaten by hand and dipped in chilli sauce, warmed us up that night, as the stars came out and quiet Wum prepared itself for sleep. As we strolled back to the Morning Star Hotel that night, we had no idea that the next day would be one of the most epic of our journey.
We weren’t even sure that Nyos should be our N. I had been keen to get as far along the Ring road as Nyos, because I had read about the disaster that struck there in ’86 (the town’s lake had an eruption of natural gas, which wiped out a great swathe of the local population as it spread along the waterways. About 1700 villagers died, probably more.) It seemed to me an important place to see; I felt it would be somehow respectful to include it on our itinerary. Seth was less keen on the plan, but I had won him around. Cameroon had a lot of ‘N’s but this one would make an interesting, if serious, alphabet town, and from all accounts of the bad roads between us and it, reaching the place could be an adventure in itself. After breakfast, we cruised around tiny Wum looking for a motodriver who would take us on the tough 60km round trip; one who knew what they were doing. John aka Soft Touch, in his leather jacket and looking just like Wesley Snipes, did not make a good first impression on us. His price seemed too high, and he bullied the other drivers who were gathering around out of taking us for any less.
‘These boys don’t know the road,’ he told us, ‘I’m from We - it’s a town on the way to Nyos - and I travel to Nyos every month. The roads are not good, but I know them.’
We were pretty much giving up on the Nyos idea, not liking the early morning price haggling, but something made us give John the benefit of the doubt, and thank god we did - I believe he was the only driver in Wum who could have got us there and back alive that day.
The three of us hit the road. As far as, and just beyond, the town of We, it was a decent road - sometimes puddle-ridden, and manned by a group of itchy palmed officials, but otherwise fine - it was when the journey became scenic that the roads fell apart. The hills were neon green under the bright sun, and tall grass lined the track. Huts with straw roofs appeared occasionally, set back from the road, their owners unaware, I’m sure, of the simplistic beauty of their homes. There were potholes and slippery muddy patches, but the steep hills, slick with mud and grit, were the most challenging. John always left it to the last moment before agreeing to let us climb off and walk along side - I think he saw it as a matter of pride that we should have to walk as little as possible.
After the disaster, the surviving villagers in the Nyos region were homed temporarily in a refugee camp that was set up for them. The tragedy that struck meant very few of them ever wanted to return to such a place, and when John, Seth and I reached Nyos, it consisted of a handful of huts and a construction site with diggers. That was it. Our alphabet town that was, and was not; that existed and yet did not exist. Our destination was the lake, just over the hill. We signed in with the army camp that had set up at the lakes edge, monitoring - still - its gas levels, and providing reassurance and protection to the (few) people who resided there, and who would never forget 1986. The army lads were pleased to have company and a group of them escorted us to the waters edge. Lake Nyos was beautiful. The cliffs hanging over it reflected in the calm waters below, and a smell of fresh grass blew in off the fields.
‘This is the man lake,’ a soldier told us, ‘The woman lake, you can see from the hill.’
We all climbed the steep hill to get a view. John huffed and puffed, and looked at the sky, where ominous black clouds were suddenly appearing. ‘I think you will need to pay me extra for this!’ He told me. I agreed that we probably did, knowing that though the approaching storm seemed to promise drama, it also threatened our safety on the way home. The woman lake lay cradled in the next valley. It was small and it had an island full of dark trees in its centre. The soldiers and John all agreed that it was definitely haunted. It may have been he dark clouds rolling in, and the knowledge of what had happened in this place, but I glanced at both lakes and could believe it. By the time we were back at the barracks, it was pouring with rain. This was nothing unusual in Cameroon but knowing the state of the roads we had travelled on, waiting for the rain to pass seemed a bit of a gamble. We loaded up the bike but waited… and waited… and still it poured. We tipped the army officers who had shown us around. They gave us some fresh yoghurt. We chatted. An hour passed. Still it rained. John was thinking along the same lines as me; that the roads would be getting slushier, muddier, and more dangerous. There was even talk of staying the night at the barracks, but when the rain grew suddenly lighter, we jumped on the bike, thanked our hosts and headed out on the return journey, hoping the weather would get better. It did not get better.
The parts of the road that had been tricky in the sunshine were now thoroughly treacherous. John had leant me his black leather poncho to keep me warm. It was huge, with a soft, warm lining inside, and as soon as I put it on I felt and looked like a giant flying squirrel. I tucked Seth’s camera bag underneath it. My own was strapped to the front of the bike, with one measly rain cover for protection, and as the rain poured onto it, I knew it would take a miracle for my equipment to survive. The journey was so dangerous that whether or not my cameras survived felt irrelevant anyway. The rain got harder and harder, needling us in the face. It hurt so much I had to keep my eyes closed for much of the time, and I wondered how on earth John was managing to drive in such conditions. I was at the back and Seth was in the middle. He was wearing just a vest. The rain fell hard on his shoulders, and despite the tropical climate, he began to shudder. I clung to him and tried to keep him warm, but soon even the giant squirrel poncho could withstand the rain no more, and great cold trickles seeped in at the sleeves and rolled down my arms and down my chest. The hilly geography of the region made the bike slip and slide all over the place. Several times we jumped off so that John could navigate the worst hills and corners. Once, we all fell, the three of us lying in the mud with the bike on top of us. Another time, we almost went down again, but John managed to drive into the skid and keep us upright.
‘I told you!’ he kept saying, remembering how we had seen the storm approaching from Nyos, ‘These are bad roads!’
As we drove higher and higher up those stunning Grassfield hills, the thunder and lightening was intensifying, flying out of the sky and striking the ground close by, the cracks of thunder utterly ear piercing. Later, I asked Seth if he, like me, had genuinely considered the possibility we might die up there. He had, and we were both talking about the same moments; the moments when we were high up and utterly exposed, while the lightening struck so close you felt it in the air all around you. By the time we reached We, both of us were shuddering. The road had flooded completely for a stretch of about ten metres and we rode straight into it without realising how deep it was. Water flew up as we roared through, miraculously avoiding flooding the exhaust pipe, but the three of us were already so wet that the foot or so of water we had raced through made no difference to our bedraggled appearances. At the other side, we let out a whoop of victory.
It was a bit like John was our hero and we were the clueless damsels in distress who had led him to risk his life on our behalf. He was not annoyed with us, nor his day’s assignment. He’d been a good sport all day, and even when the rain was at its very worse (‘I have never seen it like this before!’) we laughed together, even when we had near misses, even when the lightening got too close, and even when we were lying dumbstruck under his bike in the mud. You sometimes wonder how you would act under pressure, or in dangerous circumstances, when the heat is on - I’m really glad that the three of us rose to the occasion. The image of Seth and John clambering about in the mud trying to push the bike up a particularly steep and slippery hill, while it gradually rolled backwards despite their efforts, will always stay with me. I was stood there in that bloody squirrel outfit, begging to help, being refused and getting so heavily rained on that my skin turned blue.
When we parted ways outside the Morning Star Hotel, all three of us were grinning. We paid John much more than we had agreed. It went without saying. I handed back the squirrel poncho and we all shook hands. This may have been Cameroon but I have never been so cold in my life. There was no hot water in the shower, and a large, crablike spider was inhabiting our room. I didn’t even care. The ‘33’ beer that night tasted better than it ever had before, and my cameras miraculously survived the soaking.
It was time to leave the Grassfields region, because there was no topping a day like that, and the rest of Africa awaited. We returned to Bamenda (and it rained, of course), and from there we rode to the capital, Yaounde, a city that we accidentally spent an age in, got to know, and fell a little in love with. It was not beautiful, nor completely safe, but it was alive and kicking, and you could drink a beer at a street bar come night, and be visited by a hundred traders and hawkers, selling everything from trousers to coffee tables. We stayed one night in what was obviously a brothel. We visited the zoo, especially enjoyable because a big group of monkeys had escaped and were running wild.
‘It’s fine, they don’t bite,’ a zookeeper reassured us. This was obviously normal practise.
Wherever you wanted to go in Yaounde, you just stood on the street, shouted your destination at passing taxis, and jumped in, sharing the price with your fellow passengers. Every day it rained long and hard. Seth took portraits of shoe sellers balancing trainers on their heads. For days we visited and revisited the embassy district - there were visas to be bought.
The Gabon visa, which is known among travellers as a tricky one to get, was ours without much trouble. The DRC visa, too, proved straightforward to get hold of, though I questioned our sanity at every stage of the process. I have had visas in my lifetime that made me scared-excited, like for Pakistan, and Nigeria. The DRC visa just made me scared. As far as the other Congo was concerned, we could buy our visa at the border, and it would save us from hanging around in Yaounde much longer. We had made a trip to the seaside town of Kribi while waiting for the other two to process. It’s considered a bit of a backpackers beach destination, but the best thing about it was the fish market, where we bargained for a huge red snapper, and ate it - Cameroonian style - with our fingers. On the way back from Kribi, at a dark roadblock, we had to pay the biggest bribe of our whole trip. Our passports were with the DRC embassy, and our photocopies were not ‘legalised.’ Seth tried to sweet talk the policeman. The policeman told him, smiling, that he could ask for however much he liked and there was nothing we could do about it. We ended up 10,000CFA out of pocket. It was a lot but it was our fault. (The first thing we did when we got back to Yaounde was have our photocopies legalised.)
When the visas were sorted, we made ready to leave Cameroon and plunge into Central Africa. Gabon, Congo, the DRC, Angola - so exciting, so unknown to us, and quite an intimidating prospect. We rode to the little town of Ambam, near the border. It was our last night in Cameroon and I stood on the hotel balcony with a cup of tea, looking at the hills and the palm trees, and smelling the food cooking at the bbq stands down below, thinking how I would miss this place. Twice on the way between Yaounde and Ambam, we had been interrogated at police checks, as usual. As with the man who had caught us without ‘legalised’ copies of our passports, every official is looking for a little way to catch you out and claim a bribe. On this day we were asked, twice, for our yellow fever vaccination certificates. This never happens. Both men were positively disappointed when we produced them. Both were drunk, too - stinking of whisky, and they scrutinised my Mauritanian visa with great levity, not realising that they were checking the wrong page. The rest of the passengers giggled at these comedy cops. I just thought, ‘Ah. Cameroon. Bribe capital of Africa, and yet I still love it.’


17th January 2010

Great travel piece there, captivating with all the "squelchy" descriptions! I got itchy feet too and actually live and work in Cameroon, but have never been beyond Bamenda. My next trip is surely going to take me to Menchum and Nyos! Oh, Bribe Capital indeed, you could be more accurate. Cheers
18th January 2010

Cheers, Azore. I'm so envious of you, living in Bamenda. Never a dull moment out there, and I swear that area was one of the most beautiful of all the places we saw in our six months in Africa. Watch out at Metchum Falls - we were told several times that the falls are dangerous - enchanted, even - and suck people in - ! Very beautiful though. Thanks so much for reading my blog. Lu
22nd May 2010

great blog!
This blog is excellent! I'm trying to work out whether Cameroon is somewhere I'd be okay living for work for a couple of years. Your great blog makes me feel positive about it - thanks!
23rd May 2010

Thanks Gemma, that's kind of you; glad you enjoyed the blog. I'm envious that you may be able to live out there, i think of Cameroon very fondly. Best wishes, cheers for reading my blog.

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