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January 26, 2013 / samwilson60

Into Cameroon

There was no mistaking the border between Nigeria and Cameroon and certainly no accidentally overshooting the ten-foot-high padlocked gates across our path. We left the car the only side of them we could and ventured through the small opening on foot, to find yet more smiling, cooperative Nigerian officials. When asked why we hadn’t stayed longer, we offered the usual pleasantries and made no mention of the officials at the other side of the country who’d been all too keen to limit our stay. That aside, we did feel a little like we were leaving too soon but there was no turning back now. There were three huts in total on the Nigerian side of the bridge to Cameroon and all were efficient and polite. Once we’d got our stamps and they’d filled in their forms, we were ushered through the big gates and over the bridge and, with that, were in Cameroon.

We’d thought the Nigerians had been nice, but their Cameroonian counterparts were downright adorable. There was just one building, police on one side and customs on the other. Starting with police, we felt like we were meeting the parents of old friends – we were slightly guarded and at pains to be polite but instantly felt welcome and cared for. So much so that we popped back to ask advice on insurance and exchange rates once we’d collected all our stamps (this was a first – normally, however nice the officials, we are at pains not to push our luck by sticking around any longer than strictly necessary). As for customs, their office actually had a sign outside advertising a harassment and corruption helpline (another big first). The guy inside was über-efficient but not up for small talk and we couldn’t help wondering if he was processing us as quickly and silently as possible so that he wouldn’t be tempted to revert to old tricks. But this is probably unfair.

Before dashing off we reluctantly followed the money changer who’d befriended us to his office. We still had West African CFA and Nigerian naira, neither of which would be any use to us again and we were eager to get rid, even at border rates. We let ourselves be had on the CFA to CFA exchange but put up a much more solid fight on the naira and despite some slippery fingers on the calculator and a helper between us and the door, we managed to get what we wanted and were on our way.

As in Nigeria, our first taste of Cameroon was off-road, along a disastrous but oh-so-enjoyable piste that took us all the way to Mamfe, where we found a friendly hotel of sorts that would let us camp in the garden (together with seven two-month-old puppies!). This is also where we had our first taste of Cameroonian cuisine and while tasty it left us wary – spicy doesn’t come close.

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We’d wanted to get insurance in Mamfe but having arrived on a Saturday evening we’d have been in for a long wait and instead decided to brave it for another 100km or so. The short hop to Bamenda was almost as enjoyable as the jungle-esque piste the previous day. For the most part it was brand-new tarmac but at some point that ran out and we were back on the dirt, and climbing. Bamenda lies at over 1,000 metres above sea level – one of the main reasons for heading this way – and to get up there the drive is spectacular. We were already in love with Cameroon and had barely scratched the surface.

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In Bamenda we were struck first by the cleanliness, and the rubbish truck – to be fair anywhere would look clean in comparison with the rubbish-strewn towns we’d passed in Nigeria but rubbish is a serious problem in most countries we’ve visited and this in itself made Bamenda, and the few other places we’d seen in Cameroon, stand out. On a more mundane front, we were then struck by the limited accommodation options. The whole town is on a fairly steep incline and few of the hotels had any grounds in which we could sleep even if they’d let us. The first place we saw with space to pull in was clearly not the sort to have us littering the car park (more illusions of grandeur than anything else, but quick obvious illusions nonetheless), but we decided we could afford some lunch here at least. It was mediocre and overpriced but did the trick. We were ready to move on, we just didn’t know where to. This dilemma solved itself when we accidentally turned into the Ex-Servicemen’s Guesthouse. Our instincts were to make a quick retreat before anyone spotted us but it clearly said it was open to the public and it looked so perfect we couldn’t bring ourselves to turn away. The grounds were dotted with little thatched huts to sit and chill out in, the rest was lawn (some of which even looked flat) and it was basic enough not to charge the earth. And yet it was the home of gendarmes, ex or otherwise, and throughout our travels through West Africa, gendarmes had been our biggest foe. Talk about sleeping with the enemy.

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Despite a half-hearted attempt at overcharging us, the guys on duty were very welcoming and nothing like those we’d met on the road. We soon agreed this was home for the night and set about trying to tackle the to-do list. This included a switch for the horn and internet (they only time we’d tried to connect since Cotonou had been Abuja and there the only functioning connection had been at the Sheraton, where they’d tried to charge us over 20 euros an hour). There was an internet café opposite the ‘fancy’ hotel but the connection there wouldn’t play ball and given the heat we couldn’t really be bothered to venture any further, having already seen people on laptops over the road. We reluctantly returned to our lunch spot, ordered some overpriced drinks and settled into the comfy chairs. Once online we realised this was worth the relative expense, or at least it would have been if we hadn’t been accosted by a friendly but pushing young guy hosting a cocktail party there that night. We initially thought he wanted us to leave (we certainly weren’t dressed for the occasion) but it turned out we were to be his special guests. It was a lovely gesture and, while not really our scene, may well have been fun, but with one of us recovering from food poisoning and the other coming down with a cold, we just weren’t in the mood. Our new friend would not take no for an answer though, leaving us forced to sneak out when he wasn’t looking and hope he didn’t spot us in town the following day.

The next morning we set about ticking things of the to-do list for real, starting this time with a new switch for the car horn. The old one had been on the way out since Benin and it was a miracle we’d made it this far. For motorists in these parts, a horn is perhaps the single most important part of the car, valued far above such trivial matters as wing mirrors, brakes or even a functional engine it seems. We’d tried on various occasions to buy a new switch for ours but the best anyone could offer was a light switch and in most cases we just got a blank face. In Bamenda, though, they seemed to understand our problem and at only the second time of asking we were presented with something much more promising – agricultural granted, but with potential. This first one broke before Sam even had it attached but we got a second that looked almost identical a day or two later and that’s doing better (touch wood).

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Next up was insurance – we’d had an ECOWAS policy since Senegal and had loved not having to worry about it but Cameroon wasn’t covered and although no one ever seemed to ask (too distracted by the right-hand drive), we knew we needed to get something. We’d just had time the previous day to make some internet enquiries according to which there was a similar insurance scheme for Cameroon, Gabon and the Congos. The insurance brokers may deny it, we read, but we were getting used to that game. On the main high street in Bamenda, there were countless signs advertising insurance, the problem was finding one with a functional office attached. We did, though, and inside was a lovely woman who’d son happens to be doing a PHD in Newcastle of all places. She didn’t for a second deny the coverage available to us and charged a very reasonable price for it. Another massive win.

All that remained was internet – we’d already tried a couple of places that morning but had been unable to connect. We agreed to give it one last go (apart from anything else, the blog has been shamefully out of date of late) and, power outages aside, we lucked in again. We even had an armchair to blog from – luxury!

We did as much as we could bring ourselves to (two posts in two hours), then with the next power cut decided we’d achieved enough. The reason for being in Bamenda was not actually to be in Bamenda but to get onto the Ring Road, a 367km loop through Cameroon’s Grassfields. Until recently it had only been possible to drive up the east side but the bridges on the west had apparently been repaired and we wanted to do the full circle. Note to selves, and anyone else who’s interested: this would be an awesome, if exhausting, place for mountain biking. Definitely on the ‘to come back for’ list.

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One Comment

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  1. leelee / Jan 28 2013 11:19 am

    mountain bikes y’say??? let’s get planning i say!

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