A Travellerspoint blog

November 2009

Welcome to the Jungle

learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play

semi-overcast 22 °C
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Heading into Gabon, the rain-forest ecosystem encountered in Cameroon was intensified and though the route we took was windy, it made for spectacular views on the many long drive days. The second day in Gabon made for a personal victory - entering the southern hemisphere for the first time! Water did indeed flow straight down a funnel, and contrary to my childhood belief that I would spontaneously combust upon straddling the equator I managed to remain as pale as ever. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of Gabon was the climate. Most days required a jumper and the nights were spent bundled in my sleeping bag, and this is out of the rainy season.
June 28th, our 3rd day in the country, we made it to Lambarene, home of the Albert Schweitzer (Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1952) Hospital. The clinic was originally set up to treat lepers, and while it is closed, a new hospital has been built and is free to locals. The original is now a museum and remarkably intact, the only downside to the visit was how rushed we were since they close early on Sundays. Most of us made the visit and encountered a slight problem when meeting back up with the truck - there are 2 post offices and we met up at the wrong one. Tempers flared a bit and cross words were exchanged by some but all was forgotten in the evening thanks to the equator party Lene and John H organized for us. Everyone performed short skits which were all nothing short of hilarious. Kudos to Martin, Gwynne and Tamara, the cook group for the evening, who slaved over the campfire making pizzas for 5 hours! The morning proved to be painful for most however, as our camp was infiltrated with virtually invisible insects which are immune to deet and leave painful red splotches. In some cases entire legs were covered in these making me think another visit to the leper hospital was in order. They are also some of the most painful bites encountered; maybe not as bad as some the bouts I’ve had with flea bites, but worse than bed bugs and mossie bites for sure.
After leisurely packing up camp we set off on a long and windy drive for Reserve de la Lope, where there were rumored to be lowland gorillas. We set up camp for 3 days here, scheduled a game drive for the second afternoon, and arranged for our radiator to be fixed (again). On the game drive we saw forest elephants from a lengthy distance along with a couple of indistinguishable monkeys and a buffalo that wandered off pretty quickly. Most thought it to be a fairly lame game drive but considering this was my first one I wasn’t too fussed and it turned out to be a pretty owesome Canada Day.
The following morning we set off towards Franceville but our fickle radiator let us down. “George” (the newly named pesky rad) went through 100 L in 2 hours and eventually left us stranded on an unfrequented logging road. Luckily a passing car informed us of a logging camp nearby where we hoped to find a mechanic to help us out. Chris, Gary and the good Samaritan drove back to enquire while the rest of us amused ourselves for a couple hours while trying to fend off the fourous (tiny demonic insects). The crew arrived with good news of a mechanic and we drove to the small logging village of Offoue. The town was so small that the only food we could find was a few tins of sardines and manky looking fish from the freezer of a small general store. The cooks managed to conjure something up while the rest of us found the local bar to hang around. the local millwrights mending our rad were very friendly and hospitable, and had about 8 of us over for drinks that night. Days like these, while stressful initially, always seem to turn into the most memorable and authentic. Once again we were saved by the generosity of locals and I seem to be consistently astonished with African hospitality.
Camped in amongst graders and logging trucks, we set off on our way the next morning after filling our jerry cans at the train station. It is worth mentioning the enormous amount of logging taking place in Gabon; trains kilometers long full of trees at least 2m in diameter are constantly rolling past, and slash pile fires can be seen most every night. I don’t consider myself a tree hugger by any means but the clear cutting of such pristine rain forest is upsetting. We entered Gabon at a rather historical time; a week after the death of president Bongo, who has been in power the last 42 years (making him the longest serving head of government of any African country, and the world's longest-serving non-monarch ruler). There has been much controversy over his green initiatives in recent years; while he has set aside much of Gabon’s area as national parks for ’conservation’ and tourism marketing, the loop holes for limitless logging and mining in these ’protected areas’ is shady. It will be interesting to see what the next cabinet (ran by his son) brings. Even the lonely planet guide cites Bongo’s imminent death as a momentous and possibly volatile event. Given the recent bereavement, however, it is for the best we planned not to go through the capital, Libreville, during such an unpredictable time.
We finally made it into Franceville, the only city visited in Gabon with much more than a few shops and street vendors (which has been good considering it is the most expensive country in Africa - the Lonely Planet jokes it costs $20 a day to breath in Libreville). We treated ourselves to a pizza lunch and most ran off to the first internet cafes encountered in a couple weeks. We only stayed a few hours in the city and bush camped en route to the border in a gravel pit. The following day was another drive day to the Congo border town of Leconi after passing through Bongoville.

Note: I have updated the Cameroon entry and have added more photos.. trying to get this caught up to at least South Africa, but will be leaving wifi territory soon.

Posted by binderblog 14:12 Archived in Gabon Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Here for a good time, not a long time

So have a good time, the sun can not shine everyday

rain 23 °C
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June 10th marked our entry into Cameroon, the 12th country encountered thus far, and it made for an interesting installment to say the least. Our driver, Chris, had heard of a supposed hippo trainer so we thought we’d check it out. We managed to find the guy and off we went to the river bank on a whimsical excursion. None of us had any preconceived notions of what to expect and I don’t think anyone realized just how ’hands-on’ it would be. We were first led to the river bank where I happily took photos of the raft of hippos off in the distant waters. The hippo-trainer then got into the water and waded out to meet the beasts; at this point we were all pretty convinced this guy was mad. Our impressions were premature however, as an assistant came around the river bend with two dodgy pirogue canoes. I was a bit weary but thought ‘awesome, I’ll get to see the hippos from a closer distance’… the first canoe was poled over to the shallow bank in the middle of the river, and while I boarded the next I was flabbergasted to see those in the first boat getting out for a better vantage point - IN the river. I followed suit somewhat apprehensively while 10 hippos circled around, surfacing closer and closer. I kept thinking back to what I know about the blubbery mammals, namely that they account for the most deaths of any animal in Africa and wondered if it was due to gullible tourists vying for a too-good-to-be-true adventure. Keeping a “safe” distance, the lot of us looked on with a mix of petrified and stoked faces as the massive animals came within five feet of us while a crazy man in his knickers hand fed one. As it turned out, only ONE of the hippos was ‘tame’, and the other members of the family were just as close (including a male, the biggest hippo Chris had ever seen, who kept submerging). For the brave at heart we also had the opportunity to feed and pet the tame hippopotamus. When it became my turn a calf turned up for a feed and the trainer still tried to direct the mother in my direction. I managed to pet her but if there is one golden rule I know of any dangerous animal its not to get in-between a mother and her young, so I happily backed off and we set off to shore. It was certainly a once in a lifetime opportunity that would never be advertised in any other African country and not something I ever thought I’d get (or want) a chance to do, but definitely in my top 5 best moments! The days excitement didn’t stop there though; at our bush camp later that evening we were swarmed by flying termites. Apparently the event only happens two nights a year during the breeding period when hundreds of thousands of winged termites swarm, drop their wings, and pair up. While it was quite a spectacular event to see, it was a shame I was on cook duty that night! Lets just say everyone had an extra serving of protein, and it was best not to eat with a torch on. Clean up was at the height of the infestation and we were left covered in bugs; we also spent a good portion of the morning cleaning the remnants of thousands of dropped wings out of the food lockers.
The next five days were spent in transit towards the capital, Yaoundé, to collect visas for Gabon, Congo, and DRC. We passed through in the height of the rainy season, a much different climate to muggy and stinking hot Nigeria. The road through is a particularly rough logging road making for some uncomfortable days in the back of the truck. The heavy rains also cause the rain barriers to become set down, though they were easily avoided with cigarette bribes or exaggerations of acute illness. The state of our radiator didn’t make the journey through any easier, nor did our missing headlights; so travel was only made before nightfall and frequent stops were made to mend the rad. Before arrival in Yaoundé we bush camped for nine days total, all without showers, and within very close proximity to each other. That length of time was difficult to be in such a confined space and I think a lot of nerves began to fray. You can try to take everything with a grain of salt, but at the end of the day we sweat an awful lot! All in all, it was a difficult travel period but managed successfully and made for a well deserved break entering Yaoundé. The scenery passing through northern Cameroon was absolutely stunning. It was my first visit to rain forest area apart from the temperate rainforests of BC, and is by far my favourite biome visited. The morning fog veiled the forest canopy below at one memorable bush camp, making for a scenic restroom. Driving closer towards the capital we came across sugarcane fields which were a complete change of backdrop and also very picturesque.
The town of Yaoundé is 750m above sea level and composed of a series of hills dispersed amongst the valley. We stayed at a Presbyterian mission there that was unfortunately suffering a water shortage so I instead opted to ‘splurge’ on a hotel down the road with showers, TV and wifi - it was a very appreciated luxury after so many days on the road. Most everyone made frequent visits to the local French patisseries for cheese pies, croissants, and cakes; the long days on the road through small villages often leave us with only packs of biscuits, bread rolls, laughing-cow cheese, or tinned goods for lunch if we’re lucky. it also seems fresh produce is quite sparse in the markets, surprising given the seemingly fertile land.
Apart from having hot showers and internet access there wasn’t much to see and do in Yaoundé, but I managed to make the most of it anyhow. Lene and I had a memorable day in Mokolo, the grand market, clothes shopping. It seems all of the hundreds of stalls are run by men and are very infrequently visited by white women. Much laughter and amusement was had by the two of us as we were completely swarmed by exceptionally forward locals making advancements, and fighting amongst themselves for our attention. It’s not uncommon to attract a lot of fascination throughout west Africa, nor do I principally enjoy it, but this particular market was a level beyond belief and made for a very funny afternoon. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to purchase much since it was all a bit too overwhelming...
Leaving Yaoundé, finally, we ventured off to Kribi after losing 5 Mt. Cameroon climbers. Of course, the road in between isn’t sealed and the recent rains left us stuck in the ditch in no time. The locals passing through were all too keen to help and after hours of digging there was little progress, in fact, the truck became increasingly inclined and rutted farther into the mud. I’m not normally too phased by such predicaments (as I’ve been known to have been in a few of my own :S) but the angle of the truck was starting to make me nervous and I’m surprised it didn’t end up tipping. By 9:00pm there was no hope of digging it out and a dump truck passing through finally came to the rescue and pulled us out. By this point we had set up camp at a church down the road so we parked up and went on our way in the morning before encroaching upon the Sunday service.
Entering the coastal beach town of Kribi we were greeted with a tropical rainstorm. One night in a tent was enough, and for the bargain price of about $2 each, Lene, Martin, and myself were treated to ‘the beach house’ - of course, this IS Africa, and the water pump was down, as was the electricity 90% of the time so water was fetched from the well and candles were lit. In Kribi I was also able to make use of some fabric purchased in Nigeria; by just bringing in a few meters and a drawing of what I wanted, the very talented seamstresses conjured up a custom African dress for a bargain price. The weather managed to calm down over the few days beachside, so the clean warm ocean water was visited frequently. Lene and I befriended a cook from the restaurant we frequented, who got us a bargain deal on 5 crates of beer for the truck, the supplies of which had run out quickly in the long and grueling Cameroon drive days.
Leaving Kribi, we ventured back to Yaoundé to pick up our Gabonese visas along with Sarah (who had fallen victim of malaria), Ben and Gary. On route we were fortunate enough to visit Mefou national park, a tucked away sanctuary for chimps, lowland gorillas and other primates. Being able to observe the extremely endangered gorillas from such a close distance was a special experience for everyone who partook, and the sanctuary does a good job of providing a large enclosed space for the animals severely targeted by bushmeat hunters in the area. We were also visiting during what the UN declared "year of the gorilla" in an effort to boost conservation and awareness. All-in-all it was a favoured activity and we all had to be dragged away from the magnificent and curious animals with whom we share so much. Looking into their human-like eyes you can feel an instant connection and feel as though they can read your thoughts just the same. In the case of the chimp enclosure, I felt as though I was visiting an insane asylum!
From Mefou we headed to the Gabon border via Ebolawa. Most were quite happy to leave Cameroon after finding the people unfriendly, I however consider it my favourite countries visited so far in terms of scenery and city ambiance. It is a rather French-feeling country, and people are fairly standoffish but the nightlife and people, once you get to know them, more than make up for it. Our last night in Yaoundé was a prime example. Six of us met a few locals outside a supermarket make-shift bar and ended up going to the local hangouts with our new friends Francis, Renée, and Renaldo, who insisted on buying all the rounds, much to our dispute. It was a prime example of the hospitality and generosity of the people throughout many countries visited and the sort of night that’s always one of the best. It also exemplifies one of the downturns of this sort of travel, as we are never really in one place long enough to get to know the friends made and are constantly leaving for a new destination.

Posted by binderblog 06:53 Archived in Cameroon Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Don't call me white

Could it be semantics generating the mess we're in?

sunny 34 °C
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The country of Nigeria can be summed up in one word as welcoming. As we entered the Chikanda border post, our journey into the second English speaking country of the trip became immediately memorable. This particular route was noticeably unused and home to the friendliest border crossing guard anyone had met. “Welcome to Nigeria” has been the catchphrase throughout the country and uttered at least fifty times in our first twenty minutes through the gate. The next greetings were screams of “whhhittttteeeeeeee” as I walked into the village centre along with observations that I walk like a soldier… As it turns out we were the first whities through in twenty years, according to a village elder. This wasn’t hard to believe when Lene, Martin, and I ventured into the market to grab lunch and walked straight into a sea of the most stunned faces I‘ve ever seen. We turned around from a market stall and were instantly swarmed by at least sixty people just staring in awe. It was if some of the children had seen a ghost, and since I’m the whitest person most of the people on the tour have seen I can’t blame them. The people were friendly but too shy to speak to us and when we left our entourage of twenty kids followed us back. The remainder of the day was a typical drive day but agreed as one of the best days experienced by everyone aboard. The people of Nigeria are some of the most excited people I’ve ever come across and everyone waved feverishly as we drove through. Women carrying 20L pails atop their heads and a baby on their backs ran alongside the truck grinning ear to ear and doing the two-handed wave. This was all without the usual screams for “cadeau”, “money”, or “gift”. Children screamed with glee and danced along to my ipod mix; luckily some passengers were able to capture the sights and sounds on video. We were equally full of glee reminiscing over the days events when we set up camp early due to a loose hub seal. It was such a sincere experience overall and never to be forgotten.
As we made our way south the next big stop was Abuja, the political capital of Nigeria and the first modern city visited in some time. We ended up staying for nine days while securing visas for Angola and Cameroon. The contrast to most other campsites was vast considering we holed up at the Sheraton hotel (parking lot that is…). We were very fortunate to have been able to stay (for free) and have use of the facilities while sorting out pertinent, and hard to get, visas. Everyone made the most of their time showering, lounging by the pool, doing laundry, visiting the bakery, and making use of happy hour. A few of us made friends with the expat casino managers and were treated to a South African braai and air-conditioned alternative to our tents! There are certainly some interesting patrons frequenting the Sheraton and the amusement was never-ending. If someone thinks your clothes are too dingy for the hotel ambiance they will tell you and then buy you new ones (as Rob found out). It was at times easy to forget we were in one of the poorest countries in the world and though it was nice to have some luxury I would definitely like to revisit Nigeria again someday to experience it further. Nonetheless, our time in Abuja was thoroughly enjoyed: visas were obtained, new friends were made, and forgotten western amenities were relished.
Poolside at the Sheraton

Poolside at the Sheraton

Somewhat reluctantly, we left the comforts of “Ajuba” and made headway to Jos, a city where recent fighting between Muslim and Christian groups had only ceased months before our arrival. I heard harrowing stories from expats who had ventured unto the chaos, but luckily our visit was uneventful. Continuing on we stopped at Wiki Warm Springs where our leisurely wallow in the springs was contrasted with a pesky baboon trying to steal food scraps. The rest of the days were spent in transit and bush camping, nothing too exciting save for a few trivia nights. The last bush camp turned somber when Fatima Couscous, one of two pet tortoises acquired in Marrakesh, went missing amongst the mango trees. Hours of search brought little hope so we carried on and wished her well. The following day we made it to the Cameroon border post after meeting up with Gary who had stayed behind in Abuja to pick up the last of our visas.
Overall, Nigeria has become one of my favourite African countries. While in Ghana locals told me how awful the people of Nigeria allegedly are but I found it to have a much more sincere feel even if locals don’t go as out of their way to greet you as was the case in Ghana. Nigeria was also our last chance to converse freely in English for sometime. From Cameroon to DRC it is back to French, and Angola is predominately Portuguese…. Namibia will be a welcomed change but too far off to look forward to yet!

Posted by binderblog 05:14 Archived in Nigeria Tagged luxury_travel Comments (0)

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