Thursday, September 29, 2011

Southern Cameroon

Limbe bay.

And then we went down the escarpment, a long, long descent and me trying to save the brakes and the clutch! There was some lovely scenery, but I had little time to see it, as we dodged police roadblocks, suicidal motorcyclists and bus taxi's. We ended up in Limbe, formerly called Victoria, a lovely town nestled in a valley below Mount Cameroon, with eroded coral islands, and an oil rig in the bay. The fishing harbour was nice, and their prawns fresh, as were the gambas we ate that night.

Oil rig in Limbe bay
Having had little luck with my mysterious electric problem, I called in an electrician, who immediately concluded that there were two problems, and not one. The right hand lights work from a relay and the connection slips out. Easy! I wonder who did that modification.... But the indicator problem had us stumped. We concluded that it had something to do with the trailer plug that feeds the extra lights and indicators on the roof rack, but it was only when the guy got fed-up and insisted that we take out the cable altogether that we discovered that it had slipped out from its place behind the tailgate, and was mashed flat! Ten minutes later all was working.

Douala traffic
Then we headed out to Douala, a real puzzle of a town, with chaotic traffic (nothing new in that) and a lack of road signs (nothing new here either.) It was nerve-wracking, but then we were through, and on a lovely road south, until we ended in Kribi, a beautiful beach town. One could imagine retiring here!

On the horizon there are oil rigs and tankers, but no sign of pollution, at least not yet. We were camped on the beach, a really idillic setting, and despite the visible presences of oil rigs, the beaches were clean. All along the beach there were run-down beach cottages, small hotels that were closed or falling into disrepair. Yet the President was expected in town any day to launch the  construction of a deepwater port, as well as a gas processing plant. One wonders how much will remain of this sleepy piece of heaven...
Douala: view from the bridge

The next step on the way is to go east to the main road, then south to the border, and see how long the crossing takes, and where we can reach before nightfall. And where we can find an internet connection!

Roadside business in Cameroon
And so we did: 150 km to the main north-south road, which took us almost five hours. There was only one major mud hole, and that could have been done without using four wheel drive, but the road is badly pot-holed, some bridges are almost gone, and it was slow going. So much so that we cut our planned trip short and stayed one more night in Cameroon, at Ambam, some 20 km short of the border. We found a hotel with a courtyard where the others could camp, and settled down to some 3G internetting. The menu at the little restaurant had porcupine, pangolin and viper on! A sure sign that we are approaching the rain forest country.

View from the escarpment towards lowland Cameroon
Beach restaurant
We had mixed feelings about Cameroon. It was, after Nigeria, a pleasant place, with signs of hard work, commercial farms, and also small farms around the houses. People were, in the main, friendly, and the police were, with one exception, not out to extort. Just before leaving one discovered that we did not have car insurance, we had forgotten that Cameroon was not part of the ECOWAS countries, and so we did not take out any at the border. But instead of fining us, as he had every right to do, or trying to extort a bribe, he gave us a lecture, and told us to get insurance at the first major town. And yet there was an uneasy feel about the place.
Lobe falls

The next country is Gabon, and we have heard much about the place. We need, for the first time since Bamako, to do some serious Embassy hopping, and now we hear that the DRC visas may be difficult, due to the upcoming elections. And we want to see if we can get a second Angolan visa for Cabinda, to avoid the Brazzaville-Kinshasa crossing.

Oil rigs: what does the future hold?

Monday, September 19, 2011


Friendly greetings!
This country will always be carved in our memories as the place with the worst roads of them all. There may be worse roads, in fact there certainly are, but as for main roads linking one country to another, with holes as big as swimming pools, entire hills that are one major mud bath, the road from Ekok on the Nigerian border to Mamfe, capital of this province beats them all.

Hans just slid off the road, it was like grease.
And the advice of the guide did not help.
It took us two days to cover sixty kilometers, and that was good going. Ok, Merlinda did this in two hours, before the rainy season, and after the chinese had begun their work. But that was then. We had two near disasters with the Land Rover. Once it slid into a ditch and had fallen over but was held up by the embankment, the other time it slid backwards into a ditch on the other side of the road. With patience, road building skills, many hands, and brute force we got it out.

Swimming pool-sized holes
My Cruiser got stuck several times. It lacks ground clearance, and the bull bar acts like a bulldozer. At the back the towbar digs in if the going gets bad. We took the easy way out: two long towropes linked together, tied to Hans' Rover did the trick. Looking at the photos later had us shaking our heads, one cannot imagine doing this sort of thing and not wrecking the car. As it is the Land Rover popped the one rear spring out again, and I had to empty hands full of sand out of the brake drums. Those new brake shoes were chewed!

Stuck! And the guide says Just come with fire!
In Mamfe we sought accommodation with the local priest, father Manfred, and he promptly chased away the guy we had engaged as a guide. After some consultation the Bishop offered to send his driver along with us, to help, advise, and negotiate with people who have their own 'toll booths' on self-made deviations around the worst holes.

This was actually a private toll road!
In the village where we spent the first night, Eyumojoko a local Councillor came to welcome us, and to tell about her village. They give great emphasis to basic education, but just do not have the means to educate children beyond primary school. The soil is too light to support serious agriculture, and they have problems with buffaloes and antelope eating their crops. They are aware of the potential of tourism, and have a guest house on a nearby lake for visitors, but it is not finished. We pointed out to her that nobody knows about it, and that they should look at camping sites for overlanders as a start, then chalets with basic accommodation. It would be interesting to develop something here, but what a struggle with the roads as they are! The Chinese are pushing a major road through here, and then the world will probably just pass this spot by.

Main drag in a village...
After Mamfe there is another hundred or so kilometers to go before we get to the main road, with tar, police, and all that.

Rebalancing the tires after
all that mud

We left early in the morning for Bamenda, this time with the Bishop's driver, Michael, as guide, but soon had to stop to clear mud from the wheels, it made the cars bounce on the tar road! From good tar to road foundation, road bed being prepared, soupy mud left by the construction trucks, rocks, and a few mud baths we came to Bamenda, a beautiful setting with waterfalls, just four thousand foot above sea lever, where Mamfe was at about 400. Father Arnold of the Mill Hill Missionaries received us in a guest house set out for missionaries and visiting priests, which he runs with Dutch precision.

After washing kilos of mud from the cars we went back for a lazy afternoon, and had a great chat with father Arnold, who had spent almost twenty years in Mamfe, and was passionate about the development of the agricultural potential of the area, citing a local variety of orange good for juice, and many other crops, as well as an agricultural centre he had helped set up.

Then it was time or some serious looking over the cars, this will be summed up on the page dealing with the vehicles.

But the nature is stunning!


Nigerian fuel in Benin, cheap!
 And then we went for Nigeria. We had braced ourselves, decided that the northern of the three border posts near Porto Novo would be the best bet, and that we wanted to avoid Lagos traffic at all costs.

Nigerian fuel delivery
We left the ordered structures of the Songhai village in Benin behind, filled from a roadside black market stall run by two mute boys, who upended big glass jugs of what they confirmed was Super petrol into the Cruiser, and then headed out. Some artful GPS work and enquiry from locals followed, and we were stopped, on a dirt road in the bush, by a scruffy bunch of people who pushed a spiked barrier into the road in front of us.

When I asked them why, they said they were from the Benin Customs service! They made a few phone calls, and we were allowed to proceed a hundred yards, where the scene was repeated. This time the people claimed to be Benin Police, Immigration Department. No uniforms, no signs, just a reed hut, rough tables, and bunches of children, but, most importantly, the Exit stamp!

And then the Nigerian Immigration: two pleasant youngsters, not in a hurry, found five bug-eaten entry cards for the six of us, and after a long discussion decided that one must fill in an exit card. That done we went to the Customs, and the theatre followed. One gentleman inspected the vehicles, minutely examining the cosmetics, the toothpaste and vitamin pills, and then the food. Every can was scrutinised to make sure the expiry date had not passed. One of my cans was discoloured, and the customs officer rubbed it off, pointing out that rusted cans were dangerous. Then he discovered that the expiry date was in the coming month! He offered to dispose of the can of coco milk, but I solemnly promised to make sure we consume it in the coming days. The discoloration on the can was, in fact, chili paste, and we hoped that we scratched himself somewhere before washing his hands.....

Then the road: a bad road, with perhaps twenty road blocks by police, customs, immigration, who kept us another hour, and wanted to inspect the contents of my car. Then we were in Ilaro, the first town, where we bought simcards, only to be told we must go to the next town, Shagamu, to have them activated.

The Trans-African Highway
The first bit of the “expressway” to Shagamu was not bad, and it continued on to Benin City, our original destination. It was about one o'clock, and we thought that it would be easy to do the 250 km before dark. Well, we were wrong. Police road blocks, at times every two kilometers, the worst holes we have seen so far, and some of the worst drivers turned this leg into another extermination march.... And there was a corpse on the road, in the middle of nowhere, partly covered with palm branches.

The police were not too bad, mostly they were friendly, and just wanted to know where we were coming from and where we were going. But they did delay us, and it is not funny having people wave loaded rifles at you. Traffic police, in funny red hats, were a different story, but they, too, got bored and let us go.

More Highway
In places the Expressway had disintegrated, in others it was disintegrating. The maintenance was not being done, and in some places they just put a fresh layer over the old, cracked tar, despite the fact that the foundation was subsiding. In a few places they were actually laying a new foundation, and the traffic jams could be imagined!

In the end we dragged into Benin City just after sunset, with one firm address and a few possibilities, none on GPS. The first choice was full, but they pointed us to a hotel just down the road. Well, for Africa … cold water, which did not run all the time, a restaurant that only had meat pies and yoghurt.... but at least we were under cover, and not trying to bushcamp in the unknown.

The next day we tackled the Trans Africa Highway, and it was more of the same. In one town the road out of town started as a double highway, then the two became one. And the one roadbecame two tracks that snaked between holes, ditches and mud baths. Only to transform into a beautiful double highway again for a few kilometers.

We slept at Enugu, and after an early start we made for Ikom, with hopes to see the stone monoliths on the way. Well, we saw one hand-painted sign to a famous carved stone, but by then we were too tired from roadblocks, requests for 'something for us' and dodging potholes for endless kilometers.

In Ikom, thirty minutes from the border, we checked in with the local Catholic Parish, and they had a room for us and camping place for our friends. So we rested before tackling the border crossing and the 60 kilometers to Mamfe, having been assured that there were three or four bad spots, but that with vehicles like ours we should do it in a day!!

The evening was characterised by a typical rainy season downpour, and we could not help thinking that this was also falling on the road to Mamfe!

What are we to think of Nigeria? Anything we would say would be unfair, as we drove through at the fastest speed possible, and so our experience was limited to roads, some very good, some very bad, to numerous road blocks, mostly manned by policemen who asked for handouts, and were embarrassed to do so. Traffic police we had too, gangs of them, aggressive and shouting, but lacking in patience and the ability to listen to the answers to the questions they had asked. We drove through vast savannas and bushveld, sometimes with sugar cane, rice, and maize, but usually just unkempt forest, bush veld, and small patches of cultivation. This is obviously fertile land, but not used. There must be more tourist opportunities than the carved monoliths near Ikom, the brasses of Benin city or the mysterious earthworks near Lagos, but the threatening attitude of the constant police, the bad roads, and, it must be said, the upcoming elections in Cameroon made us decide to get through Nigeria as soon as possible. We did meet some very nice, helpful people, and maybe we can be convinced to come back and spend more time. Maybe.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ghana, Togo, Benin

Every day is market day

Ghana gave us a different impression. Maybe it was wishful thinking, maybe we enjoyed hearing English. We drove until late, stopped at a village to ask the local Chief if we could camp, and made the best of a quarry before the rains came down. The next day brought us, again, down not so good roads to Kumasi, where the GPS led us twice through the market, fortunately just as the rains came down, so the crowds were leaving. Then we found ourselves stuck in a gigantic Eid celebration, and sat for a couple of hours trying to get out of a crowd that wanted to dance, sing, and have fun.
Accra traffic
Eventually we found the Presbyterian Guest House, took a room, and crashed out. The next morning our friends left, while we lazed about, got a telephone chip (Merlinda's had expired) and had it activated for 3G. Then we headed for the coast where we spent a few days just lazing at a few places we had heard of.
Beach scene near Accra

I wanted to change the air springs and restore the car to the original configuration, and so ventured into the Abossey Sokai market, where we spent two hours in various scrap dealers' shops, only to conclude that the part we need, or its equivalent, did not exist in Ghana. Another hour in a traffic jam trying to get to Shoprite, then an hour trying to get to the Art Centre left me a little drained, to say the least. From there it took os close on four hours to get back to Big Millies, where we camped, a distance of maybe twenty kilometers. Rome, move over! There is a bigger Eternal Traffic Jam!

What to say of Ghana? It took a lot of digesting, and we realise that we have barely scratched the surface. From the chaos of Accra to the self-sufficient villages in the hinterland there is a wide gulf, a difference that we find hard to grasp. And from people grasping to get some money from us, to some really nice, warm welcoming friends, we met a whole range of Ghanaians.
Reed rat anyone?
We were worried at the repeated requests, from policemen, for something, some bread, some water, a salary top-up, to outright demands for money. We found the acceptance of utterly chaotic traffic conditions strange. Ugandans would have reacted to the two- and three hour traffic jams by taking over the oncoming lanes, but in Ghana they sit and swelter, buy trinkets from ambulant sellers, call friends, and wait.

The diversity of cultures was also to us, as visitors, baffling. There are clear cultural divides, but we lacked the time to begin to understand them. And we lacked the time to begin to explore the history and the nature of this enigmatic country.
Fishing boats on the beach

Elmina castle, from where golkd, and later slaves were exported
Yet we came away with a sense of concern. Ghana seems to be bustling with energy, enterprise and potential. The education system leaves serious gaps: few shop assistants could work out our change without a calculator, almost nobody could give clear directions or estimate distances, and officials seem to have difficulty in copying details from a passport onto a form. Beautiful roads are being built, but the work seems to be done piecemeal, without planning. And many Ghanaians asked, very seriously, if they could join us to go to South Africa. Why would they want to leave this beautiful country?

We went north, past Lake Volta, and into the mountains. Magnificent scenery coupled with agricultural potential attracted us, and the idea of setting up a papaya farm here kept some of us thinking. Apparently foreign farmers are welcomed, even encouraged. Something to take further.
Benin village

From here we crossed into Togo, and through the back country roads to Benin. Here too agricultural potential and lack of development tickled our interest. We were told that foreigners could, with the agreement of the local 'collectivity' purchase land, and that agricultural development is actively supported by Government. Cotton facilities were to be seen, victims of American subsidies.

Fitting the 'bumpy rubbers'
And then we descended to the sea, to get ready for Nigeria. One of the jobs I had to do was to replace the rubber bumpers that were removed to fit the air springs, which are now on the roof. A Ghana modification of the springs, in effect a Dyna truck overload spring under the normal spring took its place, and we were finally able to get some 'bumpy rubbers' that would fit. However, I first had to drill out a bolt that had broken off inside the chassis, tap the hole again to repair the thread, and then mount the rubbers. At the same time I could inspect the chassis, and check on the front wheel bearings. All seemed Ok, except that the right rear brake was unscrewing the automatic adjusting mechanism again.
Togo, walking to market

Benin deserves much more attention than we gave it. It seemed to be thriving, bustling, busy. Soldiers and police waved us on, toll booth operators asked about our trip and wished us “bon voyage” and we were sorry that we would spend only a few nights, in transit to the border. We passed through rural villages, towns where there seemed to be a perpetual market, and cities that would rival any in Africa. The place seemed to be neat, relatively clean, and orderly, and the children we met were well behaved.

British soldiers, perhaps at the time of the slave trade, sang:

“Beware, beware the Bight of Benin!
Four comes out for every ten that go in!”

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dogon country, Burkina Faso and on to Ghana

Cruiser going south
Songho village rock paintings
The Dogon country is a completely different area to the rest of Mali. We saw some amazing rock formations, some interesting villages where the Dogon people live their traditional lifestyle, having taken over from the Telli people who lived here before them.

Your insurance broker is not going to like this!
At Borko we saw them live in harmony with the
Harmony is possible
Photography class
These must come from The Lord of the Rings!
crocodiles, and at Songho they showed us the traditional rock paintings that they renew every three years when they initiate the young boys. It was good to see how people try to maintain their traditions, and also seek to develop a local tourist industry, but unfortunately we could not find any information about it before times. Every village has a camping site and a place to stay over, which we did not know, otherwise we would have stayed in Borko, and maybe in some of the other villages.
Songho village
At the same time we were brought under the impression of the differentiation between the roles of men and women. Granaries with little roofs are men's granaries, contain millet for sale, and have one opening only. Women's granaries have different openings and contain groundnuts, cassava, and so on. Which means that the men are the only ones to trade, while women have the responsibility of feeding the household. This extends to other roles, but then the Mayor at Borko was a pleasant, efficient woman who obviously enjoyed the respect of her villagers, maybe because she was not beneath taking a broom to the toilets to see that the visitors are comfortable!

Unfortunately the dependence on tourism has another side too. Guides are pushy and sometimes downright rude, which led us to avoid guides wherever possible, which was probably not the right thing to do. Also, a downturn in this sensitive industry can have devastating effects, so the Government should see how the people could be cushioned against a downturn. And, I have to say this against my usual policy, Government has to see how to regulate the tourism industry. At least a little!

Millet is the staple food
One of our group came down with a high fever, while we were in Bandiagara, and so we left in haste for Ouagadougou, probably not the right thing to do, as the locals know what diseases are around their patch.

The road to Burkina Faso
A nightmare drive on terrible roads, clueless burocrats at the border, punctures, and driving into a city we do not know in the dark, looking for a place that was hidden inside a bus depot was not fun at all. The hospital in Ouaga tested our friend negative for malaria, but thought that he may have Dengue fever, although expensive tests would only give results two weeks later. Instead we headed for the Ghana border.
Ride your bull!