Day 80 - Thursday 10/01/08 - Mamfe to bush camp near Bangem
Swapped some West African CFA for Central African CFA with Nick and Gwen (it's one to one, but no money-changer will give you that rate) and left them fixing a problem with their radiator. We decided to take the backroads from Mamfe towards Bangem for a bit of adventure. Wow, the scenery is fantastic with dirt tracks through thick jungle, and lots of colourful butterflies. They also grow lots of jasmine round here, which makes the whole area smell gorgeous. The road was so steep and bumpy we had to engage low ratio quite a few times, and it just kept going up and up and up. I don't know how the locals get their bikes and cars up here. The mountain people are really friendly, all the kids shout 'white man' and get really excited. They're also incredibly strong - you see them carrying huge baskets of bananas/firewood on their backs. We didn't quite reach Bangem, so found a place to bushcamp. It's actually quite chilly because of the altitude - we even had to put our fleeces on and get our thick sleeping bags out - very refreshing.
Day 81 - Friday 11/01/08 - Bangem to Limbe
It appears we camped in a spot the local women use to dry their manioc, but they seemed delighted to see us when they turned up in the morning. From Bangem we followed signs to the track that leads to the Manengouba Crater Lakes, set on a grassy caldera a few kilometres from the town. On the way up a man stopped us and asked if we could give him a lift to the lakes - 'no problem' we said... but at the top he revealed that he's actually the 'revenue collector' and we had to buy a ticket - dammit! Still, the whole area is absolutely beautiful, reminiscent of Wales or the Lake District, with a lovely cool breeze. Spent a couple of hours hiking round the lakes, then continued on the backroads to the coastal town of Limbe, passing through some lovely little villages, surrounded by banana and coconut plantations. It's quite a funny sight to see people walking down the street with huge bunches of bananas on their heads - they wouldn't look out of place at the Rio carnival. When we finally hit the main road the going got even slower, with potholes everywhere. There were a couple of police checkpoints, but they've all been remarkably friendly so far with no cadeaux requests. In Limbe we camped in the car park of the Park Hotel Miramar - a bit run down, but right by the sea.
Day 82 - Saturday 12/01/08 - Limbe to bushcamp at Mile 11
I wondered why Robin kept rollling into me in the night, but when we got up we realised one of the tyres was completely flat. This is the first puncture we've had so far - despite having pulled a four-inch nail out of one of our tyres back in Senegal; we even haven't had to pump it up since. Fixed the puncture, went to the market to stock up on fruit and veg, then made our way down to the seafront for lunch. The beaches here are dark brown volcanic sand and you can watch the fishermen heaving their boats up onto the shore. Joined the locals for some barbecued fish - fresh as it comes - served with a spicy peanut sauce and eaten with the fingers. Very very tasty. Apparently Limbe sits in the shadow of Mount Cameroon, West Africa's highest mountain (4095 m), but we can't vouch for that because the whole time we were there it was completely covered in cloud. However, we did visit the lava flow from the 1992 eruption, which must have been quite a sight. Found a great spot to bushcamp at the end of Mile 11 beach. The sea is warm, but it's quite unnerving swimming on a black beach because the water looks really dark and scary.
Day 83 - Sunday 13/01/08 - Mile 11 to Presbytarian Mission, Yaounde
There was quite a storm last night and it was still raining as we left the beach. I get the impression that it rains a lot here - not really surprising as just down the road is Debundscha, the second wettest place on earth. Unfortunately it was way too early to pop back into Limbe for another fish lunch, so we set off on the good, paved road to Yaounde. The journey took about five hours so, for once, we arrived well before dark. For an African capital, Yaounde is really quite pleasant - not too hectic and a fair bit cooler than the coast. You can camp in the garden at the Presbytarian Mission and it doesn't feel like you're in a city at all. Good to have somewhere peaceful to stay as we've got lots of visa collecting to do while we're here.
Days 84-88 - Monday 14/01/08 to Friday 18/01/08 - Presbytarian Mission, Yaounde
Spent the next few days getting our visas for Congo, DRC and Gabon, which left us with a huge dent in our wallets. Ridiculous really as we'll basically be transiting those countries. Some other overlanders turned up having had a nightmare trying to cross from Cameroon directly into Congo - the roads were non-existent and they'd ripped the side off their car! Everyone's talking about the Angola visa as it seems they've stopped issuing tourist visas unless you're in your home country. We're keen to avoid Kinshasa if possible (third biggest city in Africa) and the Pointe Noire-Brazzaville route is too dangerous because of the Ninja rebels. Why, oh why do they have to change the rules while we're away!?
As well as visa collecting, we made good use of our time in Yaounde to do some washing and stock up with essentials at the supermarket (expensive as mostly imported for expats, but hey we are running low of Heinz ketchup and Earl Grey). We also became regular customers at the bakery just round the corner from the mission, where they sell the best croque monsieurs. On the streets the women sell toasted peanuts in old liquor bottles, while the shoe sellers walk round balancing shoes on their heads. And in the evening the local church women come out to practise their singing and give us a free concert. A very nice place to chill for a few days.
Day 89 - Saturday 19/01/08 - Yaounde to Nemeyong, near Lomie
We like Cameroon so much that we've decided to head out to the far eastern corner to explore the remote Lobeke National Park, in the Congo Basin. The road out of Yaounde started off well, but soon deteriorated and became quite rough and hazardous. There's a lot of logging going on in Congo and the trucks come through at a ridiculous speed - kicking up huge clouds of dust forcing everyone else off the road. At one point, a lorry came flying round the bend and there was literally nowhere to go but the ditch. With a bit of help from the villagers we were soon back on four wheels, and we felt we ought to give them something to say thanks. Unfortunately, we didn't have any small change and the only other thing handy was a bunch of bananas, but they weren't impressed with that: "bananas?? we've GOT bananas... we want wine!". They're big drinkers out here in Cameroon, so we quickly made our escape before the mob could turn angry. Late afternoon we chose a tidy-looking village and asked the chief if we could camp for the night. A rather large audience gathered to watch us put up our tent so we made some popcorn to hand out ('village PR'). The pecking order soon became clear: the men scoffed most of it, the women ate some, but the poor kids got none at all.
Day 90 - Sunday 20/01/08 - Nemeyong to Mambele
Woke up to the sound of pigs, chickens and goats wandering around outside our tent. Made an early start and we were soon back on the dirt road - everything we own is now covered in a thick layer of red dust. Most of the roads in this area were built by the logging companies, and they're pretty treacherous with half-collapsed bridges and dirty great holes in the road. The scenery is spectacular though, as we're driving right through the heart of the jungle. Bush meat is popular in these parts and you see the occasional dead monkey hanging up by the side of the road. Commercial trading of bushmeat became illegal in 2002, but you can still find plenty of snakes, crocodiles, antelopes and even gorillas for sale in the markets in Yaounde. Pretty grim. On arrival at Lobeke National Park we hooked up with Matt and Sarah who are working with the WWF to help encourage conservation and tourism (although they only get 400 tourists a year). They kindly let us use their bathroom to wash off some of the dust and invited us in for spaghetti bolognaise and red wine - thanks guys! Robin has started to feel achey and feverish and there's no hospital nearby, so we've started him on a course of anti-malarials just in case.
Day 91 - Monday 21/01/08 - trek to Petit Savanne
It took a while to sort out our trek and to convince people that we really didn't need a porter, guide, park ranger AND security guard (all of whom want paying, and feeding) for just two days in the forest. Eventually we set off towards the trailhead, driving down the tiniest of muddy tracks. It took us a couple of hours to reach the mirador, a wooden hut on stilts, with a great panorama over the 'Petit Savanne' clearing. Made ourselves a cup of tea and settled down to watch and wait. The first bit of action came with a couple of sitatunga - a kind of deer. Then nothing happened for ages. We watched... we waited... we drank more tea... and several hours later the star of the show arrived as a lone gorilla wandered into the frame. He ambled along slowly, picking leaves, chewing, scratching, and then ambled off casually into the forest again. Wow! I hadn't realised quite how big they are - he was absolutely huge with a beautiful silver-grey back. It was a full moon and we were ever hopeful that he might come back, or that we might be visited by some forest elephants (plenty of huge footsteps and dung around) in the night. Made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the hard wooden floor and drifted off to sleep to the sounds of the jungle.
Day 92 - Tuesday 22/01/08 - trek, stayed at Camp Kondo, Mambele
Still chuffed at having seen a gorilla, we trekked our way back to the car. We spied a family of colobus monkeys in the trees, but it doesn't seem to be teeming with life like other jungles we've been to; so much of West Africa's wildlife has been poached. The ranger took us to visit a local Baka family - the Baka are one of few remaining pygmy (forest-dwelling) tribes that still live in this area and maintain a traditional nomadic lifestlye. Short in stature (typically about 4.5 ft), and dressed in the poorest brown cloth, we were struck by how little these people have. Their dwellings are tiny domes of bent sticks covered with leaves. Inside, is a bed of leaves and a small fire - nothing more - but the forest provides everything they need. Appreciating our tent more than ever, we camped up for the night at WWF's Camp Kondo and had a much-needed wash in the river.
Days 93-94 - Wednesday 23/01/08 to Thursday 24/01/08 - Mambele to Yaounde
Set off early on the 500-mile slog back towards Yaounde. It's been raining quite a lot but the roads aren't too bad - in fact it really helps to keep the dust down. We considered driving on into the night to get back to the city in one day, but decided it was unwise so found a bushcamp in an old quarry and set off again the next day. Running the gauntlet of crazy Yaounde taxi drivers, we arrived back at the mission at around croque monsieur 0'clock, to find that Helio and Anna were still putting their car back together. Robin took the car to the Texaco to do an oil change and grease the ever-noisy propshaft, but apparently the mechanics were all drunk and he's not convinced they did a good job.
Day 95 - Friday 25/01/08 - Yaounde to bushcamp between Bitam and Oyem (Gabon)
Robin's suspicions were confirmed when 100 m down the road the universal joint of the propshaft completely went to pieces! Fortunately we still had our old propshaft, so I nipped to the internet cafe to see if there was any news about our Angola visas, while Robin got dirty under the car by the side of the road. So much for our early start. The road south to Gabon was in good condition and we made good progress. Just as we stopped for lunch Helio and Anna drove past, so we decided to continue to the border together. They've managed to get all the way from Portugal without a carnet de passage and have got very good at blagging! It was a pretty quick and hassle-free border so we stopped off in Bitam to stock up on fresh food - it seems that eggs and bananas are more expensive in Gabon but diesel is a lot cheaper. Made our way to a quarry bushcamp that we had the GPS coordinates for; it's really tucked away and we'd never have found it on our own - perfect.
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