Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle
A quick time check on arrival in the border town of Ekok showed that it was already half past four. We needed to change some money to allow us to function in the country - and by the time that had been accomplished, the chances of covering fifty miles of dirt roads in safety were slim, even if they were in perfect condition. We asked the friendly locals whether there was a hotel in town and were pleased to be directed to the Boston Complex Inn, a grand name for a place with no food, drink or running water, but at £1.50 each for a room for the night we weren't complaining.
Food was found in the village where we were offered Pagetti Wegg, which turned out to be Spaghetti with Egg, a pasta omelette. Our adopted assistant had explained to the proprietor that our delicate white-man compositions might not take kindly to the addition of chillis, but we were still given the option and opted to include them - it may have been a simple meal, but it was delicious.
Thursday 13th December saw our decision to stay in Ekok the previous evening vindicated. The locals estimated that if we left early, we could get to Mamfe in two hours, and then on to Bamenda in a further seven. The dirt road started reasonably well - potholed but dry and easy going, but barely were we out of town and into the jungle, before we saw a taste of what was to come. The road ahead had been churned beyond all recognition by a heavy truck, and to the left there was an easy path. The easy path however was obstructed by a makeshift wooden barrier, manned by a group of men demanding money for our passage. They claimed that they had constructed the diversion themselves and if we didn't want to pay, we would have to use "the government road". With that clearly not an option, we refused to pay and tried the tactic of claiming that we'd been told not to as it'd be illegal. One of them eventually let us through, much to the annoyance of the others.
From there on in, the jungle canopy thickened and the road deteriorated precipitating more diversions - some of them quite challenging in themselves. At each one, the men manning the roadblocks explained that they had cut the paths with their own hands and therefore we should pay them for their services. The men were all good natured and generally calm, but a lone traveller would certainly be intimidated into paying whatever was demanded. Our delaying and trying not to pay didn't go down well, even though it was becoming apparent that no locals ever paid to pass. Sadly we don't have pictures of the state of the road in these particularly bad places as whipping out an expensive camera is not a great way to negotiate a low price with a machete-wielding road-builder. We did have to pay at a few, but we were still unsure of the legitimacy of these roadblocks until we reached a little village where we were stopped by the Police.
After the usual passport check formalities were completed, Dan asked about the diversions, which were starting to seem very expensive. Each one demanded 1000CFA for the three bikes, which is just over a pound. Given that we'd already come through 6 of them in 30 kilometres of dirt track, had we paid the full amount at all of them we'd have spent more money than if we'd taken three bikes up the M6 toll - a distinctly better stretch of road. The policeman explained that they were legitimate and that we should pay them a small token, so with that in mind we resolved to try to negotiate a reasonable price rather than try to demand free passage at future diversions.
As Ed and Chris prepared to ride off from the police checkpoint, the policeman told Dan that they had oranges for sale. A great option, but rather than get left behind for the sake of some fruity goodness, Dan went to follow the others. As he did so a lady ran over with a bag of oranges which the policeman had bought for us - an act of kindness quite alien to us and very much appreciated.
From there, we were faced with more tough road through beautiful jungle until we came to a fork in the road. The GPS units on our handlebars implied that the correct way to Mamfe was to the left, where the road was completely destroyed. The right hand fork was in much better condition (it was at least passable) but we were unsure of which way we should try and go. Just as we were taking our helmets off for a drink and a think, a little local motorcycle approached us from the better of the two roads. On it was Father Peter Paul, a Roman Catholic priest, and a lady passenger he was taking to the village we'd just come through. We asked which way we should go to Mamfe, and he confirmed that the churned mess was the correct way, but impassable. He however was happy to guide us through the alternative route, an offer which we quickly accepted, though we warned him that with our heavy bikes we might hold him up considerably. He set off to drop off his passenger, giving us just enough time to wolf down a couple of slices of bread and triangles of Vache Qui Rit each before he returned with another passenger whom he would drop off on the way to Mamfe.
We set off in convoy following the priest on his Q-Link Tiger 150, and whilst there were a few tricky sections and an adverse camber that had one of the bikes on it's side, our good samaritan's local knowledge was invaluable.
We were taken via one of the catholic primary schools for which he is partly responsible and met some of the teachers and children for whom we became the centre of a brief impromptu geography lesson for the eight-year-olds, mostly centred on England and South Africa both being a long way away.
With Father Peter Paul's business at the school done, and our photos of the children taken, we were back on the dirt road to Mamfe, where our ever-patient priest was keen to help us further. By the time we arrived it was 4.30 in the afternoon - it had taken 9 hours to cover fifty miles and we were exhausted. With our plan to make it to Bamenda that day abandoned, he offered us their brand new church hall, the plumbing and electrics of which were not yet quite finished but that had been open for three weeks - we were the second group of people ever to use it.
With our tents erected in the church hall by 5pm, we headed into town on foot to search out an evening meal and some supplies for the morning. Dinner was sorted for 25p a head in the form of rice and pasta with some sauce and a slice of fish, a fine feed and just what we needed.
So as we set off from the church hall at 7.30am on Friday, we at least knew roughly what to expect. The locals had warned us that the road from Mamfe to Bamenda was worse than that from Ekok, and had estimated 7 hours to cover the distance. Given that they'd estimated 2hrs for the journey from Ekok to Mamfe that had taken us all day, this pegged the journey time at anywhere up to about four days, and there would probably be no friendly priest to guide us along the way. There was however the fairly major town of Batibo at about two thirds distance, so we'd be sure to find accomodation there if need be - or we could even ask to camp in one of the little villages we'd be sure to pass before that if we really struggled.
Soon after leaving Mamfe, the road lived up to expectations. The track degenerated into a 100 metre quagmire with the top of a laden Land Rover just visible stuck in a deep trench to the left. There was a team of locals working hard to get the landie free, and we got the distinct impression they'd been there all night. There was nothing for it however, we just had to get stuck in.
Chris went through with minimal problems on his CCM, then Ed was next into the slurry. The bike was doing well until it got to a high, hardened rut edge that would not clear the right hand pannier. At this point the problematic pannier had to come off to allow the lopsided load to continue it's slightly sideways journey through the mud. With this recce completed, Dan on the second Africa Twin took his pannier off in advance and got stuck in. With both big bikes through, there was little time to hang around and take a breather before getting the luggage back on so we could clear the way for the locals following us.
Of course we were of great interest to the friendly locals who, despite having seen how much trouble our bikes were to get through the mud, still wanted them. They explained that this was the worst section on the road, but by now we've grown very used to being told what we want to hear, and took that report with a pinch of salt.
As it happened they were right this time, though there were plenty more challenges yet to come, including trenches perhaps 10 feet deep cut by the trucks that supply Mamfe and Ekok from Bamenda, slurry filled ruts and parts of the track where the only practical way forward was to balance precariously on the central ridge between deep wheel ruts, itself uneven and rutted by local bikes. Some of these again required the removal of luggage, and there were plenty of occasions where one of the bikes got dropped, but no harm came to any of the bikes or riders. It was no surprise that both Dan and Ed's bikes suffered from mud clogging the front mudguard and locking the front wheel in the softer muddy sections. The only way to convey the effect this has is that it turns the wheel into a front rudder, which is every bit as effective and controllable as it sounds. The answer however is simply to remove the front mudguard and strap it on the back, accepting that you will, occasionally, get mud and slurry splattered in your face as you ride along.
By mid morning, the heat and humidity were getting quite oppressive, we were covered in filth and already tired. The locals were unfazed by the conditions, riding along in flip flops and smart trousers, many without a spot of dirt on them bar the soles of their shoes. We stopped for a swig of water and to recover after a particularly gruelling slurry trench, and Dan realised he'd allowed himself to become quite dehydrated. This hammered home the need to keep drinking, no matter how involving the riding conditions. Clean water availability was not the issue it could be imagined to be, as again we were able to get a re-fill from a tap in a little village en route, though again we opted to discreetly add a few drops of iodine to each bottle to ensure it didn't upset our soft european constitutions.
By mid afternoon, we'd made it to Widikum, from where the locals claimed the road improved dramatically. Sure enough, it became much easier, mostly dry dirt track as it wound it's way out of the valley, to higher ground. It was whilst stopped at the side of the track for a quick pick-me-up of chocolate biscuit and water that we met and chatted to a local guy on another Q-Link Tiger 150 who'd passed us that morning. He'd been from Mamfe to Bamenda that day, and expected to be back in Mamfe before nightfall. It was a humbling sight as we watched him tear off down the track away from us, the lightweight bike and daily dirt riding practice clearly paying enormous dividends.
The track from Widikum to Batibo was occasionally rocky and potholed but after the day's activities it was a piece of cake. We made excellent progress and arrived in Batibo late afternoon, to news that the road from there to Bamenda was now tarred. Forty kilometres of tarmac was despatched in no time at all, and we arrived in the bustling but friendly commercial centre of Bamenda tired, filthy and slightly disoriented after a day of struggling through the jungle.
After trying a couple of hotel options, we found the New City hotel, who allowed the three of us to share a room for a total of £6 a night. With a trip to the verandah of the chop house over the road despatching our collective hunger for another pound we found ourselves tired but contented, and being pleasantly engaged in conversation by the proprietress' husband. A physical education teacher drunk on palm wine, he summoned one of his nine offspring to fetch us some white-man wine from his car, which unprepossessingly arrived in a one litre cardboard carton of the sort used to package entry-level fruit juice. It turned out to be a spanish red of a surprisingly drinkable nature, and aided our participation in the rambling discussion of religion and politics that ensued. We were still tired however, so before long we made our excuses, made our way back to the hotel and slept well.
Saturday 15th December was a rest day for our fatigued crew. We spent the day in Bamenda, occupying ourselves with laundry, bolting the mudguards back on the bikes and writing up our web-text. Chris opted to give his bike a bit of a check over and was unnerved to discover a crack in the frame, though only in the bracket that holds the sidestand on. For a competition bike travelling laden through Africa, his bike has been doing astonishingly well, but it was a reminder to us of one of the reasons we chose the bikes we did. Aside from taking a break and making a damage survey, the other reason for staying in Bamenda for a day was that Mikey was due to arrive with another British bike traveller, other-Chris. And yes, we do realise how frustrating it must be for our confused readers that so soon after other-Dan disappeared from the narrative, other-Chris has arrived.
Other-Chris is on another big bike, a 1982 BMW R80G/S, and was to form a group with Mikey and original-Chris to take a trip up to the Cameroon ring-road. The ring road is a loop of track north of Bamenda which is famed for being as beautiful as it is difficult. Dan and Ed had opted to preserve their bikes for the trip ahead rather than subject them to another dirt-track pounding, and would instead depart the following day for the seaside resort of Limbe, under the shadow of Mount Cameroon.
The ride to Limbe on the two Africa Twins ended up being a classic Sunday blast with a difference. A glorious rollercoaster of smooth, twisted tarmac tracing a path through intensely green mountainous scenery kept our adventuring duo entertained and allowed the two big bikes to stretch their legs without leaving a little one behind. Both riders occasionally had to be reminded that they were not riding the sportsbikes they were imagining, this reminder was however readily provided by the decidedly wobbly handling of the laden bikes on heavily worn tyres, the machines understandably surprised at being ridden harder and leant further over than they had been since the Pyrenees.
We were stopped at one police checkpoint along the way, the officer asked Dan where we were from, and on hearing that we were from England, asked what language we spoke. On learning that we spoke English, he declared that our bikes had "too much mud" on them. Unsure of whether this was a comment on the quality of the highway that runs direct from South East England to the South West corner of Cameroon, an error in the officer's english or the opening line of a ruse to fine us for a fictional offence, Dan laughed and expained that it was good Cameroonian mud from somewhere near Ekok. This seemed to pacify the cleanliness enforcement officer, who returned Dan's passport and bade us "bonne route".
Limbe itself is a pleasant place. Black volcanic beaches form shady coves which give the impression that were it not for human intervention, the jungle would stretch right to the water's edge. We treated ourselves to a meal at a bistro overlooking the Atlantic, which provided pretty, if hazy views across the water to a couple of little islands, and the fishing port at the other side of the bay.
The botanic gardens in Limbe have a guest house where it used to be possible to camp, but when we asked, we were turned away. We went in search of alternatives and having been turned away by another establishment, ended up at the friendly Bevista Hotel where we were allowed to camp for free, on the concrete surround of their long-disused swimming pool. There was a charity fundraising event in progress when we arrived, which provided us with a ready audience for the spectacle of Unloading The Bikes. One gentleman, on learning of where we'd come from and how, insisted that we were wonderful people - a viewpoint in stark contrast to our own self image at that point which focussed less on the "wonderful" and more on the "tired" and "smelly". We were in good moods however, and feeling a little more sociable than we sometimes are when we arrive to be mobbed by the locals and it was pleasant to stand and chat with them for a while.
On Monday morning it was back to work for the riders, 17th December presenting a far more functional ride from Limbe to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon to which we were headed. Yaounde houses embassies or consulates for the three next countries on the route, Gabon, Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo, and the plan was to try and get visas for all three sorted.
The road may have been less exciting than the previous day's scenic rollercoaster ride, but as seems to generally be the case in the more developed parts of Cameroon, the surface was generally in good condition outside of the towns. The standard format is a smooth well maintained tarmac road with light traffic leading into a heavily congested town with a mixture of good tarmac and potholed glimpses of armageddon, from which another smooth lightly populated highway leads to the next city. Douala, a large town featuring early in the day's route conformed to this Cameroonian ideal perfectly. The potholed dirt sections in the town are made all the more challenging by the fact that nowhere in a Cameroonian city is it possible to leave a gap between yourself and the vehicle in front large enough to actually see what you're riding over. As soon as your front wheel stops rubbing a groove in the bumper of the car in front, the driver of the car, motorcycle or truck behind will conclude that you intend to stop, and edge his way into the enormous gap you've left. This makes for frustrating progress through the towns, and it was no great surprise that the combination of an irritable Daniel, a pushy taxi driver, a rare scrap of dusty tarmac and a big handful of throttle resulted in a very sideways Honda, though the dirt riding drills practiced over the preceding few days had the heavy rig pointing in the right direction again without having first to be picked up and rebuilt. Dan was still ahead of the taxi.
One feature the rural roads have in common here with those in many other African countries is drivers of oncoming vehicles flashing their lights and waving at us, and people at the side of the road standing and staring. In the rainforest on the way into Cameroon, the response had been a little different, a minority of the people instead choosing to run away from us and hide.
25th January 2008
When we'd arrived at the Presbytarian guest house, we'd only realised what it was from the sight of another overlander parked outside. The green Land Rover Defender of Christoph Bangert was the first thing we spotted, followed closely by Christoph himself jogging up to the gate to welcome us. Christoph is a professional photographer, his first project having been to set off from his german home aged 24 to document a journey from the tip of South America to New York overland in his trusty Landie. He eventually became a news photographer for the New York Times and has since spent a total of 19 months in Iraq photographing the news for the people of America, and published the book of his transamerican experience - an inspiring volume of the thoughts of a young traveller and striking images. He's also published a second book, an even more striking though naturally less easy-going collection of images of Iraq's recent past.
The other resident of note at the guest house when we arrived was Colin - another overlander with a very different modus operandi to our own. Colin left his Wembley home exactly two years before we did - on 28th September 2005 - and has been cycling his way around Europe and Africa ever since. Colin's gentler pace has resulted in a very different experience. More inclined to stay in one place for a while, he's broken through the frustration barrier with african cities, and found that after the initial shock of dust, noise, traffic and people, it's possible to discover a very different side to these places. After a few days of exploring a city you will find places to listen to music or watch other performers, and try more varied foods. This of course contrasts with our own experience of the cities - we appreciate the convenience of getting things done, but tend to move on as soon as we've achieved what we need, never taking the time to really get to appreciate them.
The following morning, on 19th December, Mikey, Chris and other-Chris arrived, having enjoyed their trip round part of the ring road, but not so much being eaten alive that morning whilst packing up their rough camp in the jungle. Each had literally hundreds of pink bites covering every area of exposed skin, and were doing their best not to scratch themselves to oblivion.
They'd picked up another new arrival - Thomas, another very friendly german veteran of overland travel, also in a 4x4, this time a white Toyota Land Cruiser.
Having chatted to the guys for a while, we set off back to the Congolese embassy to pick up our visas. When we arrived, we found we were to be disappointed - the 24hr service had changed overnight into a 44hr service - we were invited to return the following morning at 10. The following morning at 10, we found that even the second estimate was a little off, and in fact a total of 48hrs was going to be required. This of course should not have come as a surprise. The embassies cannot reasonably be expected to be any more efficient than any other african organisation, and as such a 100% delay in providing a service is actually pretty good going.
We delivered our newly liberated passports straight back into the warm ambassadorial embrace of the Gabon embassy, from where we'd be able to pick them up in a further 48hrs. This time when we returned to pick them up, we found they only had one British passport - Dan's. Ed's passport had been mislaid somewhere in the office, and was nowhere to be found. We returned to the waiting room of the embassy where we had perhaps 90 minutes to try and remember if there was a British Consulate in Yaounde who might be able to help out with a new passport if required...
One striking thing we've noticed particularly in Cameroon is the albino population. They've been present throughout Africa so far, but for some reason noticeably more so in Cameroon. To begin with, as you ride through a town you assume you've spotted a blonde european visitor. It's only when you look a little closer and spot the african facial features that you realise they are in fact locals. We noticed another albino lady arrive in the embassy to pick up her visa while we were waiting for Ed's to return.
Eventually Ed's passport was found (possibly propping up the corner of a wonky desk) though still sans visa. The visa was hurriedly stamped in and the passport returned to a waiting Edward without, of course, so much as a hint of an apology for the delay. We were then free to attempt an african hattrick, and sped off to deliver our passports to the third and final embassy of interest, that of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Finally we had stumbled upon an embassy that kept it's promises - the express service producing a visa for us in sixteen and a half hours.
Meanwhile, whilst waiting for another aid parcel of service items, Chris had been preparing his CCM to have the cracked sidestand bracket repaired, and other-Chris had been performing a service on his 25 year-old BMW. All of us felt relaxed and comfortable in our Yaounde surroundings, and were enjoying spending the run-up to Christmas relaxing and chatting amongst ourselves.
The prospect of chatting with our families around Christmas time was also quite exciting, though the associated billing from our UK mobile phone companies to make or receive calls was pretty off-putting. Dan's network, "3", did for once provide a roaming service in Cameroon, but at the decidedly salty cost of £1.80 a minute to make or £1.00 a minute to receive. A back-packing visitor to the guesthouse, Simon from London, had a top tip for us however. Several of the discount telephone services, posters for which pepper the walls of the London Underground, offer pretty good rates to Cameroon from a UK landline. He'd spotted one in particular that offered a rate of 10p a minute before he left, so all we needed was a local phone number for our families to call. For 25,000CFA (approximately £27) Dan purchased the cheapest Nokia handset available, and a local SIM card for a further couple of quid. Having bought a similar Nokia in Ouagadougou when his UK phone stopped working, Ed was able to equip that with a local SIM as well, and both men were then fully set up for less than the cost of making one 20 minute call to the UK.
Gradually the merry band of overlanders disbanded in different directions - Colin being the first to pedal off into the distance, chased after a suitable head start by Christoph in his Land Rover. Thomas and his Land Cruiser left the following day, and Mikey and other-Chris left to head back towards Limbe and Mount Cameroon with the intention of climbing to the summit by Christmas Day. This left the Brighton2capetown duo of Ed and Dan, plus original-Chris staying in Yaounde for Christmas.
Chris was to be disappointed when his aid parcel eventually arrived. It did contain the air filter and DV tapes that he'd requested, but in place of the oil filter his bike so sorely needed his mum had chosen instead to include a selection of confectionary. The Maltesers had helped bribe the DHL staff into reducing the import duty, but even the most mechanically inexperienced motorcyclist would realise that Cadbury's Buttons were unlikely to effectively filter 10w40. He was cheered up however when Dan helped him with some fault-finding on his video recording kit.
The eyepiece had been snapped off the viewfinder of the official Motocross Africa camcorder before leaving the UK, and the side-mounted screen had ceased to work somewhere in Mali. It had still been possible to squint at the tiny screen where the viewfinder used to be however, and thereby get some small clue of what was being filmed or photographed. The most recent developments though had left the package a little less useable. Chris' helmet camera had ceased to work a week or so ago, prompting Chris to strap the camcorder to his handlebars so he could still take some on-bike footage. Unfortunately he had unwittingly jettisoned the camcorder en route round the ring road, and, not having been designed to survive use as a missile, the much-abused Sony had since refused to record anything other than a black screen. Chris was left without capability for both stills and video.
On close inspection, the camcorder itself was found to still be every bit as broken as had been feared, the tape-recorder part nolonger functioning correctly even when fed data from another camera. Thankfully however, after a little probing with a multimeter his helmet camera fault was traced to an easily fixed wire in the battery cable. The following morning, Chris was duly despatched into town to search for a replacement camcorder and a man with a soldering iron to effect a more permanent repair to the helmet cam.
By lunchtime, the camp had been rejoined by a happy Christopher, triumphantly returning at phenomenal odds with a new camcorder of exactly the same make and model as the one he'd spent the last three months destroying. Had there been a branch of William Hill handy, we'd've stood to make a fortune. He'd found it in a shop attached to the Yaounde Hilton, at a price of 400,000 CFA. He'd successfully bartered them down to 225,000 CFA before discovering that they couldn't find the box with all the associated extras like instructions and the battery charger which of course he didn't need. This prompted a further round of bartering, ending at a very pleasing result of 165k CFA and bypassed the need to find a handy skip for the instruction manual, cables and charger.
This reduction in price even in the context of a shop takes a bit of getting used to. The starting prices asked for most expensive items are usually sky-high. A rare sight back in Bamenda had been a british registered car. Clearly not belonging to an overlander, as it would not have been capable of the road in from Ekok, the twelve-year-old Toyota Carina was clearly for sale, and a squint through the window revealed the starship mileage of over two hundred and seven thousand recorded miles. On a good day in the UK, the car would be worth maybe £200. Naturally, we couldn't help ourselves, and on asking the price, we were told it was up for four million CFA, which is about four and a half thousand pounds. Imagine, if you will, how many calls you'd get having placed that particular ad in the Auto-Trader...
A wise man once said, "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with". And so it was that on Christmas morning, Ed and Dan each presented their Africa Twins with a cleaned and re-oiled air filter and a new rear tyre. There wasn't a lot of gratitude to be noticed, but the shocking amount of african countryside that had been washed out of each air filter promised a slightly more spritely steed for the Boxing Day run to the border.
In many places, we've met people with a large chip on their shoulder courtesy of a very warped view of life in Europe, and of europeans. One such character invited himself over to our table outside the guest house to talk to us before our Christmas lunch. His opening line of questioning was to ask us why we came to Africa, given that we don't like africans. He knew that europeans were racist, and that was why they didn't let africans come to live in Europe. He went on to explain that here in Cameroon, life was hard - he played football, but also had to work as a painter, as unlike in England people who play football don't get paid. We tried to explain that the vast majority of people in England who play football don't get paid to do so either, but we couldn't help but feel he didn't believe us. We're sure it remains his dream to move to the UK and play for Man-U or Chelsea, but we suspect it may never happen.
His beliefs seemed to be symptomatic of the fact that many of the africans we meet are of the opinion that opportunities for personal and business success exist only in the developed world, and hence also that the economic development of Africa must be forged by westerners. It is no coincidence that the majority of successful businesses we come across are western franchises or run by ex-pats. It seems that for many, there isn't yet the belief that africans could themselves make Africa great. At first we guessed that this might be some kind of colonial hang-over, but in fact it is probably something else. Just as in Europe many people believe that a successful future will be handed to them without their having to take responsibility of their own destiny to make it happen, so perhaps it is in Africa.
After a pleasant Christmas meal of fish, potatoes and fried plantain prepared by the guesthouse kitchen, the group spent the afternoon having an easier chat with some new dutch arrivals and relaxing in the shade. Each rider was already looking forward to spending Boxing Day making a break for the border, as while we'd enjoyed our break in Yaounde, it was time to move on and sample the delights of Gabon.