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January 26, 2013 / samwilson60

The Ring Road

We set off anti-clockwise and had been warned of the steep climb awaiting us. It wasn’t until we were creaking and crawling up in first gear that we realised what they’d meant. Granted, the Tinker Beast would have fared better, and did, when tackling the same gradient a few thousand kilometres lower down, but it was steep, there’s no denying that, and she needed regular breaks to cool off (which would be no problem if the track levelled at any point suitable for stopping).

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Before pushing the car too far, we decided to stretch our own legs on Sabga Hill, despite the automatic weapons going off all around (military exercise, doubtless fully under control). It was a short climb but a fun one and the views were a great taster of what was to come. In some ways the grassy meadows looked so familiar we forgot where we were, then we’d turn and face a palm tree or something equally exotic and remembered we were one country away from the equator.

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After the exertions of the morning in town and the afternoon on the hill, we settled for making it as far as Ndop, where we found a lovely hotel in pretty good nick. The rooms were reasonably priced but as always we would have preferred to camp anyway. The young woman on reception was having none of it though. To her it would be rude to leave us out in the cold, whether that’s where we wanted to be or not, so she gave us a discount on the room and shooed us upstairs. We promptly scurried back down to the car park, where we spent most of the evening, but we graciously slept in the bed provided and found good use for the bidet (beer chiller).

The next day we continued on to Kumbo, via Lake Oku. We had toyed with the idea of climbing Mount Oku, Cameroon’s second highest mountain, in training for Mount Cameroon, but we didn’t have a bottle of whiskey for the fon who grants access and weren’t in the mood for taking a guide, so we carried on in search of some independent hiking elsewhere in the hills. When we got to Kumbo and decided to call it a day, the hotel there reacted just as in Ndop. This one wasn’t as nice and it had the perfect courtyard for camping in round the back, but the manager wouldn’t accept that it wasn’t just a financial issue and insisted we take a room, again at a discount.

Once in Kumbo, we realised we were really very close to a reported wild camp (marked on our open source GPS map) and thought that might make for a nice short drive, leaving plenty of time for walking and no one to stop us sleeping in the tent. It meant taking a slight diversion from the Ring Road and we didn’t know where the new track led, which made for an interesting checkpoint chat. The one thing they always want to know is where you coming from and going to. We blundered around the question and ended up conceding that we must have taken a wrong turn, fully expecting to be sent back, but he ended up as confused as us and at some point simply ushered us away. The spot marked as having been used for a wild camp was very close to and in full view of the piste, which isn’t really ideal, so we carried on for a bit. A bit turned into a lot and the rocky, mangled piste climbed once again, but just as we were starting to seriously question what we’d got ourselves into, we came across a very inviting grassy plateau. We managed to position ourselves and the truck under some trees out of view of all but the farmers ploughing some small tea plantations on the next hill over. It was still morning by this point, so after elevenses we set off to explore our surroundings on foot. We ended up doing quite a strenuous loop over a couple of peaks, across fields of ferns, through a small forest, then back along the piste, and still got back to camp with sufficient daylight for some arts and crafts (Benin wildlife finally added to silhouettes window).

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The next morning we ventured back to where we’d left the Ring Road, wary of what we’d tell the checkpoint gendarme this time. There was a different guy awaiting us and he seemed genuinely amused by the obvious fact that we’d slept out in the wild, but no so amused that he forgot to check our insurance (money well spent already!). As we pulled away past a truck parked on the other side of his rope, it looked a bit of a squeeze but the locals clearly thought nothing of it so off we went. The Tinker Beast promptly fell off the ridge on the edge of the track, leaving a good six inches clear at the wheels but minus a few up top. The noise was alarming but our awning absorbed the impact and neither the gendarme nor the truck driver batted an eyelid, so we thought it best to carry on as if nothing had happened and assess the damage later.

On the far side of Kumbo, we stopped for fuel just because we can’t resist a Total, not because we genuinely thought we were running low. We’d done only 200km since refuelling last, but we’d used neigh on 40 litres on that stretch. We’ve had bad but that’s horrendous, even by our standards. Just as we were getting over the shock, we came upon yet another checkpoint. They initially waved us through, then frantically gestured for us to halt, thankfully just because one of the gendarmes recognised us from the previous day and wanted to catch up.

From here to Nkambe the piste wound through massive tea plantations but remained slow going – and this was reported to be the easy side. It went ‘bad’ from Nkambe on, apparently, but we were left questioning this local assessment as much as we were the Lonely Planet’s because from Nkambe to our wild camp north of Weh, the track was miraculously smooth and intact.

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We stopped in Nkambe for a new variety of meat on a stick and some more checkpoints, police this time, followed by a sole gendarme just outside Misaje. The latter was as pleasant as the others initially, but then after checking all our documents he decided we were friends, and friends do business together and help each other out. We gave him the usual missive about being on the road for a long time to come and not really being in the market to sell our car or anyone else’s but couldn’t get away without giving him a phone number of some description and assuring him we’d have a chat and work something out once back in Europe.

The truck was much happier on the smoother, lower ground and we made surprising progress, to the point that we thought we could make camp at Lake Nyos for the night. At the junction a kilometre or so from the lake, the track suddenly turned to tar but we thought little of it, given the apparent randomness with which roads, or parts of them, get surfaced around here. Our best theory was that a hotel had been built up top, not that it was a military zone. Once again, they seemed happy enough to have us to stay but this time felt less comfortable than the last and we extracted ourselves and did a U-turn as politely as we could manage. By this point it was getting on though and we really didn’t want to carry on much further. We made it up a few more bends and as the light was fading (storm clouds, not sunset after all) we pulled into a small quarry for one of the most peaceful piste-side camps of the trip so far, despite brief concerns that we’d wake up in a quagmire when we heard the altogether unfamiliar sound of thunder overhead.

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The storm passed us by in the end and the ground was still solid at sunrise, so we resumed the circuit, eager to see how the landscape would evolve as we looped round the other side. Within minutes of setting off, we were nearly ploughed down by a large baboon and the piste took a turn for the worse. The bridges, in particular, were best not examined too closely. We plugged onto another lake we thought we might be able to hike around and camp nearby but were scuppered by building works so continued to admire the more untouched waterfalls at the next village along and ended up at the botanic gardens near Bafut shortly after lunch. Having secured a room, with the option of camping outside, we set about dusting the truck (an increasingly regular occurrence), finally getting the blog up to date (more of a rarity) and cutting Cat’s hair (positively unheard of). The evening was then spent trawling through our photos of Cameroon so far and feasting on the best chicken Africa has produced, in front of Burkina v Ethiopia in the Cup of Nations.

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