07 February 2016

640 to Yokadouma

For our December vacation, we decided to take advantage of the added time off, and the dry season which meant we could traverse roads that are usually impassable during the rainy season. During a previous visit to Yaounde we had taken down the WWF's phone number and thus began a long back and forth over email between us (well, Blair) and the WWF staff at Lobeke National Park, which is in Cameroon's portion of the Congo river basin.

Even with the roads dried out, the route would still take four days' travel each way. The day after school closed we began the easiest route – our much-loved train to Yaounde. The medical information video wasn't as interesting (on food poisoning, and without diverting graphics), but the usual complement of music videos kept us entertained. In Yaounde we visited Parc Sainte Anastasie (named after the president's daughter) and otherwise took it easy (and delighted Blair with the discovery of bacon-flavoured Tuc biscuits) after arranging for onward transport.

Kids fishing (hopefully catch-and-release) in Parc Sainte Anastasie.

The next day we traveled to Bertoua, the capital of East region. Our guidebook suggested that the road was paved only half of the way, so it was pleasant surprise when it was fully paved. I was a bit dubious when one of our neighbours on our large bus took a call shortly after we departed and said, “A bientot. J'arrive!” (See you soon. I'm arriving ~ I'll be right there.), but sure enough we reached Bertoua after just seven hours (excluding waiting time at the agence voyage/bus company). The main sight on our way was a German colonial outpost, along a tree-lined drive off the main road in Doume.

St. Tropez, a pleasant bar in Bertoua.

We did not find Bertoua very charming, although the fact that we stumped for a dumpy room right next to our car park for the following day's journey (and thus nestled between several agences voyages) probably did not help. We did find a colourful bar called St. Tropez and enjoyed a drink there before buying provisions for our stay in Lobeke. After fish at a bar up the road, it was an early bedtime for our 5AM wake up call.

Compound across the way from St. Tropez, Bertoua.

Bertoua, and the East region as a whole, was surprisingly cool, and we didn't particularly miss the fan, nor the pounding music from various road stalls, when the town's power cut off around 1AM. The agence voyage was pretty organized, and people were called by number to board our windowless minibus – number 640 to Yokadouma – of the style dubbed “prison buses” by PCVs-Cameroon. To be clear, there were holes for windows, just no glass. The back of the bus was separated from the cab by a metal cage. Blair surmised that, since we were likely to get covered with dust regardless, at least we would have decent air flow (passengers here are fond of closing the windows no matter how hot it may be). She was right – we did enjoy fresh air when opposing trucks didn't blast us with dust clouds that swept through the vehicle and reduced road visibility to zero.

We also got many opportunities to climb down from the bus so the “Control”/police/gendarmes could inspect every passenger's Karante (identity card). After the first few stops our fellow passengers began balking at this (extracting 25 people from a rather confined space and then stuffing them in again was time-consuming). Sometimes the authorities were satisfied with checking through the windows are seeing a “show of hands [cards]” but another admonished us to “Get down and stretch your legs, feel the earth” (underneath us this time...). With the rutted roads, dust and the traffic stops, the 300 kms to Yokadouma took us 9 ½ hours.

We passed many small villages hugging the roadside, the main economic lifeline, source of transport, and walking path. One waypoint, Batouri, seemed quite pleasant. Approaching Yokadouma we passed a camp for refugees from Central African Republic. It featured a banner exhorting residents to vote in last month's presidential elections in CAR; hopefully they will result in some reconciliation and stability, allowing the refugees to eventually feel safe enough to return home. They have fled to one of the poorest parts of Cameroon, and here and in other regions they face restrictions on movement and are sometimes exploited and abused.

Yokadouma at dusk.

Upon arriving in Yoka at dusk, we found a dusty town with a couple of blocks of commercial activity. After settling in at the Elephant Hotel, we walked back to the town centre and settled in for more grilled fish, batons (rubbery sticks of boiled manioc), beers, and people-watching (lots of men walking around with babies – a frequent sight in East region it would turn out). The Elephant Hotel kept its generator running until about 5AM, although the downside was that we killed six cockroaches during our one night there, with a couple more at large.

The van says "Soyons patience" - Let's be patient. Yokadouma, East Region.

The next morning it was time for our final leg of our journey, a Moloundou bus that we would alight from in Mambele, the nearest village to Lobeke. We held the last two numbers for our bus, so I fully expected each of us to be stuck in one of the fold-down middle seats, which inevitably only provide about 8 inches of back support and, as a result, no place to rest your arms and head on the seat/person in front of you. But our luck took a turn.

In my experience on cheap buses such as these through west Africa, the front seat (or two) next to the driver are usually grabbed first, and occasionally fought over if two men reach it around the same time. Here, however, there was no rush for them and they tended to be dispensed at the driver's discretion. Once it became clear that there were NO seats left in the back of the bus (this point comes sometime after the 1-2 people per row beyond when one would consider the vehicle full), we were promptly sent to join another lady in the front cab.

As we settled in, the driver was put off by the size of Blair's backpack - “C'est trop!” A ridiculous statement given the parlous state of the passengers crammed behind us, not to mention the sundry suitcases, motorbikes, plantain bushels(?) and poultry on the floor and/or roof of the minibus.

For 100 CFA you can attempt to stem the flow of dust into your lungs.

Given that we were again on a deeply rutted dusty road, being in front afforded us a number of perks:
  • - the driver would sometimes roll up his window when opposing traffic/dustclouds approached
  • - an unobstructed view of towns, villages and scenery (and advance warning of the dustclouds)
  • - relatively more space and comfort than behind the cage
  • - a “front of the roller coaster” feeling when cresting and about to drop into a particularly deep ditch
The only disadvantage was that the left portion of our seat (and thus the right portion of our neighbour's) was on top of the radiator and engine so it got rather hot.

We had a couple of bathroom breaks, multiple ID card stops, and slowed down so male passengers could jump onto the back or climb on top of the bus, but the bulk of our time was spent negotiating the furrows in the road caused by lumber trucks travelling over it in the rainy season. There was a lot less traffic than on the Bertoua-Yoka leg, so our masks were bought a day late.

There was a surprisingly large number of Fulani herdsmen in the southeast of Cameroon.
Among the sights were the delapidated trappings of a village, Salapoumbe, that must have been a prominent place during colonial times, replete with a big hospital, a large church, and (no longer functioning) streetlamps on the barrier of a “divided highway.” We also saw mosquito nets being put to use as goal nets, another unanticipated outcome, although perhaps less damaging than their use as fishing nets..

Church in Salapoumbe.

Upon descending in Mambele, we were met by Lucien and Jean-Baptiste, who work at Lobeke National Park. At the only restaurant in town Jean-Baptiste and I had beef stew and rice while Blair enjoyed an omelette and all of us had a soft drink. We were then dropped off at Camp Kombo, where we had bucket baths and relaxed in a small clearing in the forest that was the site of the lodges.

Lodging at Camp Kombo outside Mambele.

The next morning we went to the WWF office before eventually setting off for the trailhead. We then had a two hour walk to Petite Savane, a campground with nearby mirador/observation post. Our coterie of accompanists included:

  • - Desailly, our guide/pisteur: a freelance guide and part-time field researcher for the WWF, he also works at one of the parks across the border in CAR.
  • - Jean-Baptiste (Ji-Bay), the ecoguard: J-B has been working for the forestry ministry since 2006, and spent time extolling the virtues of working as a funcionnaire (government functionary) during fireside chats with the porters on unemployment in Cameroon.
  • - Platini, one of the porters: the second member of our party to share a name with a French footballer, he's the younger brother of Simplice. He impressed me by picking up one of the cooking pots with his bare hands just after the fire had burned a hole into it.
  • - Simplice, porter: Simplice works as a teacher, and was using the Christmas break to earn a little extra money.
  • - Adrien, porter: Adrien is a member of the Baka ethnic group. It seemed that this at times made him a target of teasing by the others.
  • - Cyrille, porter/cook: on Christmas night, Cyril quizzed me at length about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and was impressed to learn that state governors are selected by direct election in the U.S. In Cameroon they are appointed by the president.
Aside from J-B (Yokadouma), all of the gentlemen were from Mambele.

Tree cover at Camp Kombo.

Before reaching the campsite, we took a quick look at the Petite Savane clearing. In one of the highlights (animal-wise) of our trip, there was a solitary male gorilla traipsing around and drinking water at the far end of the clearing.

Our solitary male sighting!

At camp, we discovered that a number of items were missing from the supplies we brought with us: tea bags and salt were not among the provisions, and Desailly was shocked and dismayed that we had not packed any either (and that we planned to cook without oil or salt). Our tent was missing too, so we squeezed into J-B's tent and he shacked up with the porters and Cyrille.

J-B's wife and four kids live in Yokadouma, so he only sees them every few weeks. He also, bizarrely, has to travel to the forestry ministry in Yaounde to collect his salary – a two to three day journey. As a result, he tries to space out his Yaounde trips so he doesn't have to spend so much time on the road. Express Union has been advertising salary money transfers for civil service workers, but perhaps the forestry ministry hasn't gotten organized yet. Whenever we went to one of the viewing spots, J-B invariably brought along his study materials for the Bacca(laureate). He is studying for this university entrance exam so that he can move up the ranks at the forestry ministry. The test is in May and lasts five days.

Colobus monkeys!

In the following days we got to explore Lobeke more, both from Petite Savane and a second camp site and viewing area called Djangui. We didn't see the forest elephants Blair was after, although we did see their footprints, droppings, and heard one trumpeting briefly one night. It was still fairly early in the dry season, so there are plenty of places for them to get water as well as lots of vegetation to obscure them. We twice saw vultures capture pigeons and saw a few families of colobus monkeys in trees and foraging on the floor of the forest clearings. Desailly showed off his “distress call,” which would attract curious monkeys and sitatunga (a medium-sized antelope). He was also able to spot baby cephaloph/Duikers nestled under trees as they awaited the return of their mothers.

Baby cephaloph/Duiker

Meals at camp were rice or pasta with sardines or beans, with biscuits for breakfast. Our companions had brought rice and cassava fufu flour, although Desailly commented more than once that he was planning to skip a meal on account of the lack of salt.

Evening discussions tended towards larger issues such as marriage and unemployment. Regarding marriage, J-B said that it can be luck (who you end up with, how it works out after marrying). Simplice said that his grandfather used to say that you should greet people loudly when you are returning from a trip, lest you catch your wife in trouble. Cyrille wanted to wait until he was gainfully employed before marrying. Finally, someone noted that a wife is like a car. If you take care of it then it will run well. If you don't, then you can expect problems.

A view of the Djangui clearing in Lobeke National Park.

These conversations (the employment one mainly featured Jean-Baptiste counseling the group to consider internship placements which could help them find eventual public sector employment as happened with him) generally took place in easy to understand French, with occasional exchanges in Bangando. Bangando and Baka (a “pygmy” language) are the main ones spoken around this area of Lobeke. We found the French much easier than Douala or Yaounde as it is invariably a second or third language for all speakers, rather than the lingua franca role it plays in big cities. People generally spoke more deliberately and formally (no slang) so it was quite easy to follow.

On our walks through the forest and visits to the viewing posts (where we'd usually stay for a few hours), we were led by Desailly and accompanied by Jean-Baptiste (who always brought along his study materials if our itinerary included a viewing station). The rest of the group usually stayed at camp, usually relaxing and preparing meals. On Christmas eve, though Desailly decided that they should supplement their rations with fish. So he sent Adrien, Simplice and Platini to fish in a nearby stream. On our walk we came across a large pond, so Desailly called everyone over and they set about catching fish for dinner.

Desailly and Adrien fishing for their (and our) festive meals.

This effort reached its apex on Christmas day, when the guys caught about 50 fish and we shared them amongst ourselves, along with pasta, fufu and rice meals. For the celebration itself, we ate our nice petit beurre biscuits for breakfast, and Blair played some music on her ipod and mini-speakers. No one was driven to dance, so we had lengthy chats with our team instead – mine mainly centred on Cyrille's afore-mentioned questions about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, democracy in America and in Cameroon, and the feasibility of studying car plants in the U.S. then starting a car factory here. Blair and Simplice chatted about his musical aspirations (he writes religious songs and wants to put an album together); the three of us also talked about action movie stars and Simplice was surprised to learn that Jean-Claude van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger are Belgian and Austrian, respectively.

Kingfisher at Djangui clearing.

We asked Jean-Baptiste a bit more about his ecoguard work when he's not chaperoning tourists (of which there are lamentably few at present). He is one of 45 ecoguards who work in Lobeke. They escort research groups as well as patrol the park to protect against poaching. J-B didn't identify any animals that were especially targeted, and he noted that, given the park's location, poachers in Lobeke may be from Cameroon, CAR, or the Republic of Congo.

Monkey at Djangui.

The next day we were up early to hike back to our pick-up spot at Pont Casse. We stopped a few times as Desailly used his “distress call” to coax responses from colobus monkeys and a cepaloph patais that came quite close to us before darting off. After Dieudonne's eventual arrival to pick us up (with the excuse being that someone had accidentally shot themselves in the foot...), we went our separate ways at Mambele, with a plan to go out for drinks in the evening to make up for a low-key holiday season in the bush.

Lobeke camp site.

Once back in Mambele we went to Chez Mariette, the “nicest” bar in town with an outside area and a rather large concrete dance floor inside. We got an egg and beans omelette to share with everyone, and enjoyed seeing each other dressed sharp, and no longer covered with four days worth of dust and sweat. We enjoyed a few drinks and everything kicked off once the grupe electrique/generator came on around 6PM. We had a little dance circle around the table (each person gets a turn while the party claps/cheers along) before taking turns to head over to the dance floor. There we got to dance with some rather older inveterate drinkers, who then praise-sung you and demanded a drink: “You dance very well – buy me a beer!”

We got to meet Adrien's wife Pascaline, deflect arguments between two competing moto drivers for the start of the ride north tomorrow (including Desailly who duly failed to show up the next morning), and then headed back to Camp Kombo for a promised dinner of chicken (which turned out to be viande/beef stew with cuts of variable quality). We were only out until about 8PM or so, but it was a good amount of entertainment.

The next morning we arranged a backup moto ride with the Camp Kombo watchman Ma Joie (“My joy” - his wife was a good match for him as she is “Success”) and made our way to Salapoumbe. We got blasted several times by dust from lumber trucks, but were able to wash our faces and enjoy some porridge and beignets at our way point. A short time afterwards, a prison bus from Libongo (a border town near CAR) reached the junction and we were able to hop on.

Once again we managed to get the front row seats, which Blair decided to take despite the entreaties of the women in the back. They were a rowdy bunch, and made the driver stop multiple times for fish purchases, leading to him yelling “C'est la derniere fois!” Later on, as we stopped to shoehorn another suitcase-laden passenger into the back, the ladies there yelled, “Don't pick her up – she's fleeing her marriage!” Our driver soon forgot his admonishments about stopping for shopping once another gentleman entered the cab to share our seats. They soon got to discussing the prevailing prices of plantains, and soon we were stopping frequently to scrutinize and haggle over bunches of plantains. As one passenger remarked, “On fait cent metres, on s'arret” - He does (goes for) 100 metres, he stops.

Riding back to Yokadouma.

Despite this, we only reached Yokadouma a few hours later and, given our early morning start, were able to roam around town to enjoy some delicious liver and macaroni, a Christmas photo booth, a wedding with bridesmaids riding on the bonnet, while picking up essential provisions like mosquito coils and a small cup for bucket baths.

These roadside plants are green. They're just coated in dust.

Our ride from Yoka to Bertoua was another hot dusty affair. Our bus had some mechanical difficulties (perhaps the rear axle) so we got an extra hour to explore Batouri. It really is a nice town, with a couple of paved, tree-lined paved roads. We had some snacks, picked up a Show [sic] Yun Fat DVD compilation, then returned to the dust clouds. With the added stop, the 300 kilometer journey took 10 ½ hours.

Wedding convoy/cavalcade, complete with bridesmaids atop the car hood.

In Bertoua we abandoned the motels next to the car parks and stayed in a hotel further out. It was the best value hotel so far in Cameroon – 15,000 CFA ($25 or so) with cable TV, air conditioning and excellent water pressure, which was a great help in removing some of the layers of dust.
Our ride on to Yaounde was uneventful and quick – only 6 hours and the driver very rarely stopped (with these big bus companies they must have an arrangement with the security forces because we were never flagged down) – we only got down once after a woman asked the driver to stop so she (and thus about 25 more of us) could go to the bathroom; a male passenger remarked, “Elle a courage de parler” - She has courage to speak.

Christmas lights at Rond-point Nlongkak, Yaounde.

In Yaounde we gave ourselves a rest day and checked out the Reunification Monument (commemorating when the anglophone and francophone portions of Cameroon were formally united), joined several lines outside malfunctioning ATM/cash machines, and visited the Musee National.

Reunification monument.

The Reunification Monument has a clever spiral staircase design, showing the merging of the British- and French-administered parts of Cameroon (taken from the Germans and divvied up after World War II). It affords a decent view of the city, if a bit obscured at the time on account of haze caused by the Harmattan. Aside from a man who awoke from his slumber to demand to know what our motivations were, admission was free.

Statue next to the Reunification monument. I believe he is lifting up the youth of Cameroon.

The two portions of Cameroon merge!

The National Museum was quite impressive, and among the best I've visited in West and Central Africa. It is housed in the former presidential palace, which was donated by the president (who presumably still resides in nice digs). The museum had a stable of guides, so we had a complement of guides who all spoke English. In all, a half-dozen showed us around the various exhibits. There were interesting ones on de Brazza (apparently not a bastard on the level of Stanley), musical instruments, the stone age, and traditional clothing and accommodation of Cameroon's various peoples. Some of the colonial history was interesting, too, although the rooms for each decade from the 1960s onwards quickly devolved into photos of Paul and Chantal Biya with various dignitaries. The Egyptian wing also left a lot to be desired.

Former presidential palace, now home of the Musee National / National Museum.

On New Year's Eve we returned home. A low key evening featured grilled fish and beers on the street on the Douala Bar block of Akwa, then we went onto our roof to watch the fireworks (set off by individuals, although the Douala local government did put up nice holiday lights around the city).

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