Chapter 10: Cameroon

We drove slowly across the bridge that spanned the border between Nigeria and Cameroon and could see the deep waters of the Cross River far below us.  As we bounced off the far end of the bridge, the Cameroon border post was immediately in front of us. We presented our passports, carnet, insurance documents and health certificate to the border guards who studied them all very carefully. Our visas were in order but what about our insurance policy? At first, they said that our ‘worldwide’ policy was not valid since it did not mention Cameroon. This gave us a sinking feeling as we envisaged another day spent waiting in their office until our papers were in order. Then very fortunately for us, one of the other guards announced that he had heard of the ‘Worldwide Christian Mission’, and he totally understood the principle involved. On the advice of this learned colleague, the guard finally agreed to stamp us into the country. 

Map showing the route from Calabar, northward to the border at Ekok, and southeast to the capital, Yaoundé. Most of the many small villages that we passed through, like Bakebe, were not shown on the map.
Source: Michelin Map 741, Africa: North & West.

We immediately set off towards Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, where once more we needed to visit the Embassies, this time for Gabon and Zaire (now called Congo) to obtain visas for our onward travel through central Africa. We knew exactly what we had to do because it had all been carefully explained to us by the German tour guide back in the camping yard at Kano.

Crossing a large river, we caught a glimpse of village life.
It was good to see the river level was so low. This hopefully meant that roads further inland where we were headed were still relatively dry.

The road was narrow, and the rampant growth of trees, bushes and vines that formed the jungle closed us in on both sides. We were in low  gear most of the time because the rains had washed away the surface of the road, leaving large potholes and ditches. We caused a sensation as we passed through the villages, and our arms began to ache with waving to the cheering friendly crowds of people.  

A Cameroon village along the road. The skies were uniformly gray because they were blotted out by the heavy humid air that engulfed us.
The village was deserted because the entire town was attending a wake. The large palm tree behind the buildings was the source of the palms nuts from which they made their palm wine. We had seen them everywhere we went along the road.

At about six, we arrived at the village of Bakebe where we hoped to stay the night. The whole village was deserted because they were all attending a wake in honour of someone’s dead brother. When we stopped at the community centre in a large park surrounded by palm trees, we were offered a half pint mug of palm wine. Later, the village chief gave us his permission to camp in the village school yard nearby.

After we had set up camp, we were visited by the headmaster and his wife who very kindly invited us to stay at their house. We declined because it would have been a lot of work to dismantle our bed again and then reload the jerrycans and tyres back onto the bed, and we were already very tired. Nevertheless we stood chatting in English to these kind and hospitable people for some time. It was somewhat disconcerting though that neither of them smiled, not even when inviting us to their house. This was a trait that was widespread amongst the villagers at the wake, and was presumably a measure of their grief for their recently departed friend.  

The classrooms were open to the breeze from about waist-level on all sides.

We parked by the classrooms which were open to the breeze from about waist-level on all sides, to keep the pupils cool in the torrid climate. They sat together in the tiny classrooms on long forms with no desk to write on. The classrooms were empty when we saw them, and we left early next morning before they had a chance to invade their playground. We would certainly have caused a distraction from the lessons had we lingered.   

The road gradually became wider although it was still only clay with no shingle or tarmac at all. Wherever it was wet, it as very slippery, and we had very little traction. Crowds of children were walking to school along the road that morning, and we passed them at a crawl, creating a stir wherever we went. Throughout the region, the children all wore very smart blue and white school uniforms. 

At each village along the way, there was a Presbyterian or Catholic church and sometimes a hospital or school built by the missionaries. I remembered that as a child, we were issued with small boxes in which to collect our pennies for the African Missionaries. These edifices in the jungles throughout Africa were the result of several hundred years of such collections in Sunday Schools all over the western world.   

One of the teachers approached us while we were stopped and asked us for medicine to give his feverish pupils. It was probably malaria from which they suffered, and we did not have any spare anti-malaria tablets. We were taking a small dose each day ourselves, as a preventative measure. Children who already had fevers would require much larger doses to cure them. I gave the teacher a packet of aspirin I had, helping him read the doses for children. We were sad to realise that this was only a drop in the ocean of suffering that was about us. Even if we had brought a lorry-load of malaria tablets, we would have made no impression on it.  

One of many creeks and swamps with stagnant water that bred the mosquitoes that made the children sick with malaria.

We finally reached the main road which was sealed, but with the faster pace and steep climbs in the very hot humid air, the engine began to overheat. We stopped frequently to wait for it to cool, and so progress was no faster than on the unsealed track. For this reason, just passed Bafoussam, we made the decision to turn off the main road. We would cross the central highland area to Yaoundé, rather than follow the main road down to the coast. This had the added advantage of avoiding the port city of Douala and its inevitable traffic jams.

In places, the road was remarkably wide and well maintained.

After turning off the sealed road, we stopped in a village market-place where Evan began, as usual to talk to a group of villagers while I prepared some food in the back of the van. My task was difficult because in the crowded village square, we dared not take any of the petrol cans out of the van for fear they would be stolen. This meant I dared not light the gas burner to cook a hot meal. Nor could I open many of the floor-level food storage and utensil cupboards which were jammed shut with heavy jerrycans up against them. However we had to eat, and I had several carefully laid contingency plans for preparing a meal under such conditions.  

One of the villagers that Evan had started talking to was the French master at the school, a very jovial Cameroonian. Since his name was Lewis, he was delighted to learn that ours was also and immediately invited his newly found kin to visit his home on the other side of the square. We packed up and followed him to his house, a nice bungalow in a leafy street. He introduced us to his wife, Madame Lewis, a tall girl with a beautiful smile.  She made us welcome with a glass of wine, and we sat in their comfortable lounge seats surrounded by such refinements as a well-stocked bookcase, writing desk, polished coffee table, carpet and colourful wall-hangings.  We were surprised to find such sophistication but it was mixed with the genuine friendliness and hospitality we had found so many times already since we had been in Africa. 

Mr and Mrs Lewis in their lounge in Cameroon.
Mr and Mrs Lewis looking through our booklet of New Zealand photos. It was well-thumbed already as we had given it to everyone who asked where we came from, which was just about everyone.
We caught a glimpse of their baby son being cared for by a nanny.

 We camped the night in their driveway, and the next morning, at their insistence, breakfasted with them on a freshly baked French baguette, coffee and bananas. When I presented our gift of a jar of my home-made apple jelly, the meal took on the atmosphere of a carnival as they savoured this new taste. 

In colonial times, the house had been supplied with running water by a pump from an artesian well, and the plumbing was still in place. However when the Europeans departed, the running costs had proved too great, and they had reverted to drawing the water with a bucket and rope from the well near the back door. 

We wanted to replenish our supplies of clean water while we had the opportunity. Madame Lewis took Evan out to the well, and when he started to draw some water, she was shocked that a man would carry out this back-breaking work. She felt it was definitely her place to draw up the heavy bucket for us. In the end, Evan had to insist that he was going to do it because we needed quite a lot. She very reluctantly stood and watched. All too soon we were saying goodbye to these very kind folk.

Evan drawing water from the well with a bucket on a rope.
Madame Lewis stood reluctantly by while Evan drew water from her well. She would really rather have done this ‘woman’s work’ herself.

As we continued on our way that morning, the road was unsealed, very narrow and very dusty. The soil was bright red, and the dust soon coated the van, both inside and out. We were soon to discover that this rusty red dust stains clothes most stubbornly, stuck as we were with hand scrubbing them in a bucket of cold water each evening. It had been a long time since we had seen a washing machine, and our clothes were starting to look worse for wear. We had become acutely aware of this when being entertained by the immaculately dressed Madame Lewis.

The red soil clung stubbornly to the van, inside and out, and to our clothes.

We stopped to photograph a Chief’s house which Monsieur Lewis had told us about. This proved a costly mistake because a boy emerged from the bushes to demand 2000 Central African Francs (C.F.A.), about US$10, for taking a photo of it. Since we had been unable to locate a bank in any of the villages we had so far been through, we had been unable to change the traveler’s cheques we had. Thus we were penniless and had to refuse to pay his extortionist charges. We roared off in a cloud of dust just as a crowd was gathering to back up his claims.  

The Chief’s round house built in the traditional Cameroon way.
The Chief’s hut that we were supposed to pay 2000 C.F.A. to photograph.

 We were finally able to change some money later that day at a town nestled in a jungle clearing.  After a long day spent dodging pot-holes on the road, we stopped at a small country bar on a plantation where the proprietor gave us permission to camp in the grounds beneath some tall rustling palm trees.  

We were not far from Yaoundé when the next morning, we crossed the great Sanaga River on a long bridge. Beneath us, the river passed over some rapids in a churning white froth.  It was after this river crossing that we were unsure about our route because, although the main road went straight on, there was a shorter route which actually sported a rare rickety old signpost to Yaoundé. However the Michelin Map, which was undoubtedly out-of-date, showed this road to be third grade, recommending it as suitable for four-wheel-drive vehicles only. Since this was practically the first signpost we had seen since arriving in Africa, we were reluctant to ignore it. When we inquired at the café on the corner, we were assured that it was indeed the road to Yaoundé. 

The Sanaga River, near Yaoundé, Central Cameroon.
The churning white froth of the rapids in the Sanaga River.

It quickly became apparent that our Michelin map had been correct because the road was very bad. There had been some rain, and already the heavy red clay was turning to a gluey mud. Deep chasms had been washed down the centre of the unsurfaced road by fast torrents of water while the trucks had worn steep-sided ruts in the mud. 

The road was narrow and washed out by recent rains.
The houses were made with the local red mud. There was no glass for the windows, so wooden bars and a woven flax curtain sufficed.
At least this one has a wooden door, many did not.

 We stopped to look in dismay at a steep narrow ravine down into which we must drive. The road, which was almost completely washed away, went steeply down into the ravine and was just as steep going up the other side.  The soft, slippery mud would give us little traction, and we began to imagine ourselves trapped at the bottom, able to go neither forward nor back up the sticky inclines. 

Standing looking at it was not going to get us to Yaoundé, and so we climbed apprehensively back into our seats. We went gingerly down, expecting the van to start sliding at any moment. Near the bottom, we had to pick up speed to give us the momentum for the climb up the other side. Evan floored the accelerator, and we slushed our way up without a falter. He had changed our tires to some with a deeper tread which fortunately for us held in the very slippery clay.  

The road, which was almost completely washed away, went steeply down into the ravine and was just as steep going up the other side.
This was a scary moment for us, because we were unsure if we could get enough traction in the sticky mud to get up the other side of the ravine.
We reached the top where a lady was selling pineapples. We stopped to buy one and had a large slice each to celebrate. We had been living on pineapple and little else because it was all that anyone was selling.

The quality of the bridges also rapidly deteriorated until we came to one where the surface planking had come off, leaving only the two tree trunks that had originally formed the bridge support. Fortunately our wheels fitted exactly across the span between the two logs and, after not a little procrastination, we gingerly edged the wheels onto the logs. As the van stood balancing on the two narrow supports, with the river raging below, we were reminded of a high wire act over Niagara Falls. When we were finally safely on firm ground on the other side of the river, we were standing congratulating ourselves on a magnificent effort when a van-taxi zoomed up and without hesitation bounced over the bridge as though it were not even there. 

Little did we know that this was only the first of many such scary bridges we would need to cross.
Double checking to make sure that the wheels would land on the logs.

Later that same day, we arrived in Yaoundé where we would have to stay for some time in order to obtain the visas to continue our journey.  That first night, we camped in a supermarket carpark but the next day found the place where other overlanders were camping in a disused quarry at the base of Mount Febe. 

It was here that we met Heinz and Elaine, an Austrian couple who had just driven their VW Kombie from South Africa. We poured over maps together for hours as we exchanged information and talked about our experiences on the road. Between us, we had covered the length of the African continent, and we were all anxious to help each other to continue our journeys as safely and easily as possible. They patiently went over their route with us in great detail and were to have a profound effect on the rest of our expedition. Their journey had been so successful that we made the decision to follow their route exactly from then on. We felt extremely relieved by this, no longer feeling so much that we were plunging into the unknown all the time. 

We made this decision despite having applied for and received a visa for Gabon which we would not need if we followed their route. Heinz convinced us that our original plan to travel to Kinshasa and from there, up the Congo River by ferry would be unwise. He had a feeling that the ferry operators would be able to charge us what they pleased, knowing that we had no alternatives. We heard later that this was indeed a correct assumption because passengers with vehicles were being charged a thousand dollars. Since we could not have afforded that, we had a lucky escape. 

Before we could apply for any more visas in Yaoundé, we had to obtain new passports because the visa pages of ours were by now almost completely filled. All the border guards had stamped on a new page, both going in and leaving the country, as well as scores of police and military road blocks within each country taking up a page each. We had realized too late that we should have applied for new giant-sized passports before leaving home.  

We were traveling on our New Zealand passports but there was no New Zealand Embassy in Yaoundé. We enquired at the British Embassy and explained our problem. They were kind enough to issue us with temporary British passports which in fact we traveled on for the rest of our time in Africa. We were delighted because with two passports, we could obtain visas twice as quickly, leaving one passport at each of two country’s embassies at one time. So then we began the never-the-less time-consuming task of obtaining visas for Central African Republic (C.A.R.) and Zaire. 

While we waited, we spent the long hot days in the quarry doing maintenance on the van and washing the red mud out of our clothes. There were also pleasant interludes when we went swimming at the American Club pool in Yaoundé or shopping in the market. On the 18th February, we celebrated Evan’s birthday by a rare visit to a restaurant. This was all a very European interlude which contrasted starkly with the thoroughly African culture we had been immersed in since leaving France. It was a full week later before our new passports with the required visas were finally ready.  On the 22nd of February, we at last set off on our journey to Central Africa. 

Letter from Evan Lewis to his family in New Zealand


                                                                                                Feb 20th 1982

We have just driven across a hair-raising 4-wheel drive only track inland from Ekok to Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon where we have to get visas.  But the road blocks in Nigeria had practically filled our New Zealand passports with stamps. There is no New Zealand Embassy here but the British Embassy was quite happy to issue us temporary British passports valid for six months.  

With two passports each, we can get visas twice as quickly. Furthermore we do not need visas for many of the countries with a British passport. Until now we had planned to go from Cameroon to Gabon, then Congo and cross the river from Brazzaville to Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire so that we can get a visa for Rwanda (near Uganda).  Rwanda is a problem for most tourists as there are very few Rwandan embassies, and a visa is required.  From Kinshasa, we were going to take a river boat about 500 km to Kisangani. This takes about nine days and runs once a week but is rather expensive. We are not sure but it may be $1000. However there are private ferry operators which are cheaper but they may not be as reliable and often breakdown.  

We got our visas for Gabon in our new passports yesterday but that evening we met a South African-Austrian couple going back to Europe.  They had just come through Uganda and the northern route through Zaire and told us it was very easy and safe.  They said it was a relatively fast road through Zaire.

With the British passport, we only need a visa for Tanzania and then we can go from Zaire to South Africa without any more visa problems.

So we have decided to change our route as follows:  From Yaoundé, Cameroon, we will go north to Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic and visit game parks for water animals. From there, we go probably to Mobuyi, Buta, Bambesa, Isiro, Mambasa, Bunia, Mahagi and then southwest Uganda to get to Kenya and then on to Nairobi. From Kenya, we will probably go south through Serengeti National Park to Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.  We have heard that it is possible to put Katy (our van) in a container and ship her from Capetown to Perth ($2000?).  We should arrive in Australia in the winter for driving to Alice Springs (Darwin also perhaps) and eventually ship across to New Zealand by roll-on roll-off ferry in the last quarter of 1982. All this is rather vague.  The first thing is to get across Zaire, and the rest we can work out along the way.  

Here in Yaoundé, we are parked in a quarry with a commercial tour company truck (Encounter-Overland).  There are 20 people traveling on the back of this big truck and camping in tents.  There is also a group from England we have become friends with.  They are two very British Indian-born whites, a brother and sister.  Brother Martin owns the Landrover and is a farmer in England.  Sister Paulette is a temp secretary in London.  Traveling with them are a Scotsman Ronny and an American Graham – all packed into the LWB Landrover.  They are going North on the Bangui route, and we have decided to travel together.  The vehicle owner reminds me of John Cleese and is apparently very protective about his Landrover, sometimes causing friction.  But I guess it will work out OK.  It is more secure for camping with two vehicles.  So those are our plans.

Overlanders meeting at the quarry in Yaoundé, sharing experiences and advice about the road ahead. Kae is seated on the left. A vital piece of equipment for each overland was a folding chair to bring to these meetings.
The long-wheel based Landrover belonging to the two British, one Scottish and one American whom we met in the Yaoundé quarry. They are on their way to Central African Republic and we joined them for part of this journey.

Yaoundé is the most civilized city we have seen in Africa so far.  There are many Europeans working here building a fantastic new road system for the city and running businesses. One third of the cars are driven by Europeans.  In a way, it is a pity that it is not being run by Africans. But the fact is, in countries which have thrown out the Europeans and tried to run things themselves, it has failed miserably and collapsed under corruption and ignorance.  

Unfortunately the cash seems to have come to Yaoundé, and the country areas are neglected. When we drove through the lush rainforests, we saw children with distended stomachs and occasionally people begging for food.  They say the banana crop is bad, and there is nothing to eat. But the forest is incredibly fertile if they only bothered to plant some more banana palms, pineapples etc.  They do not seem to know how to help themselves and expect to be able to subsist by gathering what they can from the jungle. It is difficult for us to understand.  It could be a utopia. 

Two days ago, it was my birthday.  We went into Yaoundé and found a nice restaurant where we could sit on the balcony watching over Katy (van) parked in the street. We both had very tender Steak Garni – French style. During dinner, a man came selling ebony carvings of African figures. He wanted 10,000 CFA (£20), then 8000 CFA “last price”.  I offered him 4000 (£8) for a pair and eventually he agreed.  So I got myself a birthday present!  (We have also bought a spherical cluster of ‘sand roses’ which are mineral crystals that grow in the Sahara, and some ancient stone tools, all from Touregs in the desert.)

Unfortunately the meal did not agree with me, and I suffered all night and the next day. I also got a good collection of sandfly bites for my birthday while fitting new rear brake linings.  

The next day the Landrover group showed us how to get into the ‘American Club of Yaoundé’ where we spent the afternoon swimming in the pool and eating hamburgers and toasted sandwiches.  The hot weather (90 degrees F and above) is rather pleasant sitting beside a pool, if not in our quarry.  The others went to an American Forces dinner and movie in the evening but we decided to stay ‘home’ and re-plan our route through Zaire (as above).   So that is more or less up-to-date.    Bye for now, Evan. 

Kae continues:

As we set off alone from Yaoundé towards the border with Central Africa Republic, we were driving with a definite goal in mind for the first time.  We intended crossing the continent of Africa here at its widest point to reach Kenya.  From there, we would drive southwards to South Africa.

The route from Yaoundé to the border with Central Africa Republic (marked in yellow) and on to Bangiu, the capital.

We hoped the low cloud and steamy humidity did not herald the rains that we so dreaded. When the short piece of battered tar-sealing on the road came to an end, we were driving on a deeply corrugated surface where the van began literally to shake to pieces. After the roof mountings and the brake adjustment had both simultaneously jiggled loose, we stopped for several hours for Evan to repair them.  

Every evening since we had arrived in Africa, Evan had climbed under the van on his endless quest for loose bolts or faulty parts. He regularly maintained the engine so that it gave us its peak performance and minimum fuel consumption. While driving, our ears were attuned to the sounds of the engine and suspension. If there were any strange noises, Evan was crawling in the dust under the van or poking his head in the engine compartment in the rear of the van. 

The traditional round house of Cameroon, this time with mud-brick walls and thatched roof.
Food storage platforms on stilts were in every village compound. In this case, the food is covered with a tightly woven basket.

At sunset we found a track leading into the forest where we camped in an idyllic valley filled with the sounds of the night birds calling and the crickets endlessly chirping. However as we were eating our breakfast the next morning, a team of giant flies came in for the attack, buzzing noisily in our ears.  They persisted until we had packed and fled their valley.

A road gang was at work in the forest, churning up the surface of the road so that now it resembled a newly ploughed field. Once through this, we hit dust which was lying up to ten cms deep on the road. We were enveloped in a dense choking cloud as the dust was tossed into the still air. That night, we found that the dust had infiltrated right through the van, even into supposedly sealed cupboards. Little did I know as I shovelled the dust out of the food compartment, that we would be permanently in this dust-clogged state for many months to come.  

The dusty road was well used by pedestrians who must have choked with the dust as we passed by.

We paused to chat to seven Swedish University students who were driving a commodious bus. It was equipped with sleeping and seating space for them all as well as a toilet and bathroom that we eyed enviously. They had had an accident in Morocco, and there was a large hole in the front of their deluxe bus. They had sealed it with sheets of plastic and tape.  The bus was so large that they had been forced to park it here in the middle of the road for their lunch.  It was this lack of manoeuvrability that was eventually to doom their expedition.  

The next day, it was bees that disturbed our leisurely start. As the sun came up, they descended on us rank upon rank in an organised invasion. We had to close up the van and spray with insecticide before we could call the place our own again.  

Our hurried departure brought us to the border early that morning. Before crossing from Cameroon into Central African Republic (C.A.R.) we topped up our jerrycans because we knew that petrol would be more expensive across the border.  

© Copyright Kae & Evan Lewis 2020. All rights reserved.

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