Sunday, February 20, 2011

Y a pas de problèmes?

Okay, we knew this couldn't last forever. Ever since we entered Cameroon, things have been going too smooth. Finding a place to sleep, covering long distances on pistes, visiting the lake, joining other travellers on safari, finding an adaptor for our laptop cable, arranging the obligatory liability insurance,... It has all been too easy. Our lucky streak was bound to end...The only question was: when?

All was still fine when we left Maroua in the afternoon, direction Mokolo and Roumsiki. The beautiful road creeps slowly towards the mountains and the views only get more spectacular when approaching the little touristy village. Giant rocks arising from the earth like raised fingers, picturesque villages and the sun setting above it all. With some effort we get rid of all the self-proclaimed guides and other touts, have dinner at the hotel's restaurant and a pastis across the street, where apparently the French tour group we met in Waza is lodged.

Next day we manage to leave early from Roumsiki, skipping the - for our taste - way too touristy village tour including crab sorcerer. The track is good and easy to follow. After a while we're so soaked with gorgeous mountain views that we continue steadily without even too many picture breaks. A quick cooldown with some sour mangoes doesn't prevent us from reaching Garoua in time for lunch. At this pace we can even continue further down the road to Ngaoundéré, the portal town to the south.

Our copies from Rough Guide mention two attractive accomodation options at roughly 40 and 70 kms from Garoua. No signboard for "Lagon Bleu" though. Maybe we'll have more luck in finding "Campement des Eléphants", which is even indicated on our Michelin map. When there's no sign of it either we ask around. The locals've never heard of it but we bump into foreign hunters by chance, who've been there two years ago. They take us back 20kms to the right side track and make sure we have enough water for the 30minutes to get there. Straight ahead, past the village, should be obvious. Not so much though.

The villagers have to point out the trail, which doesn't seem to have been used by vehicles in ages. The first things we see are broken down machines and rusted containers. There's a pungent sweet smell coming from elephant hides and warthog remains tossed away in one of them. Euhm, is this the place? Further on we find the pillaged ruins of several camp buildings amid burnt grass and cut trees but no signs of life. A short excursion further down the path reveals elephant bones lying around: skull, pelvis and vertebrae. No tusks. The whole atmosphere is very creepy and breaths poaching. Why didn't the villagers tell us? Or the hunters? What happened here?

We feel uncomfortable and don't fancy spending the night on an elephant cemetary. By now it's getting dark so we need to decide quickly. There's probably a very reasonable explanation for all of this, but we're not sticking around to find out. We rush back past the village, along the difficult track through the forest. For the first time Nicolaas has difficulties keeping up with me, in the dark. Once on the main road again, we ride back the 70 kms to Garoua. Tired and beaten we spend the night the same place we reached 6 hours ago...

For more pics see album "Y a pas de problèmes?"

That's where things started to go wrong. Next day we're both suffering from gastroenteritis and particularly Nicolaas feels ill. My engine idling speed doesn't recover after a rough cleaning the air filter. We arrive late in Ngaoundéré, a depressing little town where we have to check out 6 hotels before we find a more or less acceptable but overpriced option.

We stay a day to recover (Nicolaas), visit the Lamido's palace (local Islam ruler), service the bikes (third oil change after 19000 kms and sixth thorough air filter cleaning) and decide what to do with my rear tire, which is wearing faster and unevenly since uncautious Beninese nitwits bent the brake disk. From hereon weather and road conditions could change drastically. We opt to leave the old tire on and reevaluate daily. Hopefully we can make it to Yaoundé, where we'll look for a solution for both brake disk and idling speed problems and prepare for the next and more difficult stage of our journey: into the remote rainforests of Central Africa.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

E.T. at Lake Chad

Ever since we started our trip Nicolaas has been nagging about wanting to visit Lake Chad, a luring landmark on the map of Africa. I talked him out of actually wanting to go to Chad, which supposedly still has a major problem of armed banditry and rebellion. A visit to the lake from neighboring Cameroon will have to ease his longing. So we organized to cross into Cameroon through the northernmost border post of Gamboru/Fotokol.

After an exhausting 350kms to reach there, easy but time consuming formalities and a quick money change, we rush on to reach Makary, the first larger village on the way to Lake Chad and our final destination for tonight. Amazingly, the broad but sandy and bumpy track is one of the two large trade routes for the Chadian capital, N’djamena. After the branch off we have to depend on directions from natives, as our GPS map is blank north of the main road. Luckily the trail is straight and clear enough so we only have to ask around once or twice. 

As always when we arrive in remote places, it’s priceless to see the astonishment on people’s faces, even after Nicolaas explains where we come from and with what purpose. More than once we’ve been told that we look like extra-terrestrials in our motorcycle gear, which made me think of a metaphor that captures how absurd the situation must be for some locals. Imagine two aliens stepping up to you in for example Boechout, saying: “Hi, we came from the town of Bling Blong on the planet Blong Bling and we’re touring the galaxy. We’re visiting your solar system now. First we went to Mercurius and Venus, and we just arrived on Planet Earth. We’re trying to find our way to Mortsel to find a place to sleep; can you show us the way?”

We finally come to Makary just before nightfall. It’s a rather big and well equipped village and we’re happy to hear there’s even an ‘auberge’ that can accommodate us. Very dirty and shabby, but with running water! After ten hours on a bike I’m in the mood for a calm evening and today I get exactly what I wished for. The owner of the guesthouse leaves as soon as we are settled. The curious neighbor kindly brings us two chairs but leaves us to our dinner after a short chat. For the rest all’s quiet. No gathering flocks of children. No lines of inquisitive adults. It seems like Cameroonians are more reserved than other Africans.

Next morning, the owner turns out to be a valuable source of information. We learn about local agriculture, security situation and possibilities of exploring the lake. Since the Cameroonese government threatened to close the border, which would cut off Chad’s capital from foreign supplies, Chad has secured its border area; no more gunfire coming from across the Chari River. It is now considered safe to visit the lake.  Based on his accounts we decide to head for Blangoua to do so.

The piste leading there is more challenging than expected but provides us with stunning landscapes. At the catholic mission a very weary looking Spanish father explains we’ll have to ask around in the village for a pirogue and then retreats, giving us the keys to a room in the guest quarters. There we meet Cameroonian youngsters Carine, Kaoutal and Vedice. 

According to Kaoutal it’s easy enough and much cheaper to go to the lake by bike. He even offers to join us, which we welcomingly accept. Without him we would have never found our way, as the track meanders through pretty and well kept fields, crosses irrigation canals and passes through several villages before arriving at the riverbank. 

We – meaning Nicolaas and at least 5 other men – mount the bikes in a pirogue to cross to the other side. 

There the track continues through bushes and increasingly wet marshland until it stops dead at a large pool; a left over from the time the lake expanded to its largest size in 30 years due to the heavy rains of July and August last year.

We leave the bikes and continue the last bit by boat together with 20 or so people returning from the fields. It’s a wonderful, calming experience – the rhythmic thudding of the pusher sticks used by the boatmen to push the vessel, birds flying up, the rippling water that mirrors the sky-blue and contrasting fresh grass-green colors. From the docking place it’s another 15 minutes on foot to the lakeshore. We’re just in time to see the sun set above Lake Chad. On the way back we’re eaten alive by the thousands of mosquitoes.
Once at the bikes it’s already pitch black. This is exactly what we said we wouldn’t do: riding at night,… on a track,…. in a border region… We have some difficulties at first, getting stuck in the mud. But after that, the riding in the dark without the distraction of details actually seems to improve our skills. Back in Blangoua a whole home-made buffet awaits us.

Next morning we do some chores and wait for our Cameroonian friends to come back from church before we leave. But not after we’ve had lunch! Instructions were clear: to the village centre, turn left at the school, afterwards straight on… Simple! Except that ‘straight on’ is a vague concept in these parts. The small track twists and turns, splits and joins other tracks… It’s only with the help of our GPS and some locals that we’re able to follow the course of the Chari River and come to Maltam, where we find a tarred road again. Wide, open landscapes stretch out as far as the eye can see at both sides of the road, the colors changing in the setting sun. Another spectacularly beautiful day ends at the ‘Campement de Waza’ near the entrance of the national park.

We are in luck to find a group of French travelling in a minibus who are willing to take us along on their safari. We see a lot of beautiful, large birds but despite the open landscape we have to look hard to find other animals and when we do they are rather shy. Again we wonder about the difference in animal numbers between the parks in East and West Africa. Is it poaching, bad management, or something else?

Shortage of cash and fuel drives us to Maroua, the second biggest town of north Cameroon. We decide to take a detour via the village of Meri, which will lead us through the Mandara Mountains, another scenic route as indicated on our Michelin map. The track is dreadful but the sights are stunning! Picturesque villages, dramatic rock formations and softly colored plateau scenery. We’ll see more of it when we head for Mokolo and Roumsiki tomorrow, after a day of rest and practical arrangements.

For more pics see album "E.T. at Lake Chad

Nwanne di na mba

All over West-Africa, people tend to overestimate the maximum speed of our motorbikes. Nigerians are no exception. We were told several times that – with our machines – the distance between Abuja and Jos could be covered in two and a half hours. Since Jos lies 313km ahead, this implies an average speed of 125 km/h. We wouldn’t be surprised at all if some Nigerians can achieve this, but we certainly don’t even bother trying. Instead, it takes us more than four hours. Without stopping for photographs, that is, since we left late from Abuja and don’t want to arrive in Jos after dark. Once the chaos, dirt and poverty – successfully banned from the heart of the Nigerial federal capital, but spreading east for tens of kilometers in Nassarawa State – has subsided, the ride through the green and hilly region north of Akwanga is very pleasant. Jos Plateau State announces itself with some dramatic scenery: solitary rocks dotting the landscape as if they have fallen from the sky. Taking into account the higher altitude and thus cooler temperatures, it isn’t hard to image that this beautiful region used to attract quite a number of foreign tourists.

On the plateau, several military checkpoints are stopping traffic but waving us through. The heavily armed soldiers don’t feel the need to chat with us. “No peace, no progress” has been painted on the oil barrels blocking the road. Jos itself feels very relaxed: much less chaos and dirt than around Abuja. My cousin Cyril awaits us on the market of Angwan Rukuba. It is great to see a familiar face among the crowd. The following three days, Cyril takes excellent care of us. We are lodged and fed and shown around town. The architectural and ethno-historical museums and a nearby bird reserve are well worth a visit. Even more interesting for us to see, is how the crisis affects daily life. Whether it is a visit to the university campus, where the recent ethnically motivated stabbing of two students is still the talk of the day and the sorrow of the vice-chancellor, or the detours avoiding Muslim-dominated Bauchi Road. It’s also visible in the market hall that was burnt down in the first outburst of violence in the early nineties, causing the sellers to take in the surrounding streets. Houses left in ruins after their Muslim owners were chased from a Christian neighborhood. The nearly repaired roof of a bar in Angwan Rukuba that was bombed at Christmas Eve. The suspicious reaction to pictures taken near a private house. Or in a more positive way: a reconciliation project signposted on the street. The local media pick up our presence in town via Cyril’s contacts at the university. Their main questions are: why do people like us come to Jos and how do we like it? Our answers are broadcasted on radio, tv and printed in the twice-weekly Nigerian Standard.

To travel is to say farewell. Cyril comforts us with an Igbo proverb that used to be written on the back of the minibuses shuttling to Cameroon: “Nwanne di na mba”. There’s always a brother on the other side. The road to Bauchi seems to count more lunatic drivers than ever. Ghana was sometimes bad, Nigeria is often much worse. As Cyril’s landlady put it: “We don’t value life here, not even our own”. In Bauchi, crowds are rallying for the upcoming April elections. The atmosphere is heated, with decorated speaker cars being parked along the road, young men chanting and the presence of a well-prepared police force. In the center of town, traditionally dressed horses are lined up as if they were expecting some VIP. We don’t stay watching. As in Jos, little is needed in Bauchi for riots to be sparked.

Yankari National Park allows motorbikers to ride the 40km of tar road from the gate to the Wikki Lodge. Along the road, we stumble upon a herd of fluffy waterbucks. We haven’t come for a safari though, having heard that game are rare and shy because of ongoing poaching. The main attraction here are the Wikki warm springs. It’s a weekday, and we have to share the springs only with a family of thirsty baboons. At least they aren’t shy…

After Bauchi State, we go further northeast. The temperature rises slowly, vegetation gets more arid, roads are a little more potholed and herds of cattle and camels grow bigger, all of which indicating that once again we are entering the Sahel. Borno State is particularly known for its legislation based on Sharia. We are shocked to see 3 year old toddlers wearing long headdresses, but otherwise men and women do not seem to interact any differently at first sight. A female senate candidate is even particularly well represented on the billboards. However, alcohol is not available and women of easy virtue, prostitutes, hawkers, harlots and commercial sex workers (sic!) are not allowed in our hotel in Biu. It is known that some people, including the Bokko Haram sect, wish for a stricter adoption of Sharia and have resorted to violence and terrorism to obtain their goal. All of this explains why the special forces manning the road blocks here are – unlike Operation Safe Haven in Jos - conducting Operation Flushout II!

For more pics, see album "Nwanne di na mba".
Riding through Maiduguri, we are happy to find shadow under the nicely smelling neem trees lining the boulevards. Even on the market the atmosphere is friendly. The Immigration Services stopping us on the road towards the Cameroonese border genuinely wish us a safe journey. We are about to leave Nigeria – via the horribly degraded road through the semi-desert on the shores of Lake Chad - but with a good feeling. So much for Operation Restore Our Reputation Abroad. Ok, I have to admit, we aren’t blind: locals pay bribes at virtually all police check points, one policeman from notoriously corrupt Lagos asked us for one but didn’t insist anymore when he saw Isabel, and the filling stations other than the state-owned NNPC are blatantly cheating with wrongly calibrated pumps and incorrect pricing. But even organized stealing goes with a smile and a joke. Nigeria has certainly left an impression.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The rains down in Africa

Yesterday morning Nicolaas was laughing at me for suggesting it might rain... Unfortunately I was right. Last night we were hurrying to get everything in safety, getting soaking wet up to our underwear in what was our first serious tropical rain storm. It came more than a month earlier than expected... The race to keep ahead of the rains and resulting muddy roads in Cameroon and the Congos will start as soon as our stuff has dried.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Happiest people in the world!

When we get back to our hostel after eating out, 52 year-old Joerg from Germany has arrived with his BMW R1200GS-Adventure. Our bikes look like ants next to his beast. He isn’t happy with the weight though, complaining mostly about its poor handling in the sand. Boni, read this! We exchange stories over a beer and of course we team up for the ride to the Nigerian border. According to what we’ve heard from fellow travelers and locals, the road via Nikki is less terrible than the road via Kandi. So after having met half of the zems (motorbike taxis) of Parakou during breakfast, we hit the tarmac towards Ndali. Tiresome slaloming due to the many potholes and crazy car drivers. This is motorbiking 2.0. From Ndali, a dusty but rather good gravel road leads all the way to Nikki. At the Benin customs office, Isabel has a flat tire. Luckily, there is a repair shop nearby. I take out the rear wheel and have them pull off the tire.
As usual, I can hardly resist the urge to take over when I see them working the tire with the levers. “Doucement!” Not enough… When the rear wheel is mounted, it turns out that the brake disc is slightly bent due to the rough handling. I don’t try to hide my consternation. No way are we going to pay for the repair, unless they pay for a new disc! I hate to see that one of the young boys gets the blame, since it is not his responsibility. Luckily, we later find out that it affects riding far less than anticipated.
At the Benin border police post, we happily greet the tarmac that starts on the other side of the bridge. Nigeria. What are we going to find there? We have had a lot of warnings: from our own Dpt of Foreign Affairs, from the “Dangers and Annoyances” Chapter in our Lonely Planet, from worried West-Africans and fellow travelers wanting to avoid Nigeria. At the same time, we have heard from others – who wanted to check it out for themselves – how hospitable they have found the Nigerians to be. If we allow this rather developed country to scare us, how will we then be able to cope with our main challenger, the Democratic Republic of Congo? And finally, the objectively most dangerous country on the trip lies already behind us: the death toll on the road is presumably nowhere as high as in Ghana. And since most deaths while travelling happen in traffic…
The Nigerian border officials are admittedly slow and thorough, but certainly as welcoming, polite and friendly as most we have met so far. It seems though that they are quite unfamiliar with “tourists”, seeing far more aid workers and businessmen than travelers like us. A little tense, we enter the border town to change some money, having been warned never to use a credit card in Nigeria. We decline the ridiculous exchange rates offered by the black market money changers, but we find a lot of friendly people, and unexpectedly given the introduction of Sharia in some parts of Northern Nigeria, also some Muslims drinking (some even excessively!) in public. The prejudices are further mowed away with every chorus of children and adults greeting us heartily when we pass by in small and larger villages alike. The manager and personnel of a local bank – closed on Friday afternoon – are prepared to open up to help us. Only, they don’t change foreign currencies.
From Kosubosu, the road degrades into a dirt track. Our speed slows down and Joerg starts to complain about the sandy stretches. We think back of how much we have learned since our off-road course in Mauritania… We are getting low on water and the sun is starting to set, while the road gets bumpier and more eroded. In the village of Gwasero, I stop at a corner of the busy market, just in front of a stall selling antelope and feline skins, skulls and medicines. In less than 1 minute, a mob of hundreds of people gathers around me. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel threatening at all, even though nobody seems to speak English. It doesn’t take long however, before 2 chaps start helping us out, changing a bit of CFA into Naira at a very honest rate and directing us to water sachet sellers. The tarmac is not far anymore, they say, but we suspect them not to want to discourage us.
After Joerg has dropped his 300kg mastodon a second time that day, we feel like finding a place for the night. In the first village after Gwasero, we halt near the well. A mass of people accompanies us to the chief of Kura, who receives us in his audience room. We are offered to stay the night in the very place.  

While the elders gather in front of the house and the Quran teacher disciplines the children approaching the bikes, someone brings us a large bag of food, tea, sugar and cacao powder. Joerg asks if he’s allowed to smoke and gets offered a package of cigarettes right away. The hospitality nearly makes us cry of joy and gratitude.
After a quiet night, the muezzin calls for prayer and we thank the chief for his hospitality. One of our gifts is a well received photo session of the elders and the children. We see hardly any women outside. From Kura, it takes us another couple of hours to reach Kaiama, where the terribly degraded road abuts the tarmac. We come across Nigeria Police and Immigration Services twice, and the second squad doesn’t want to let us go without warning his officer in command. At least two hours and a lot of wrecked nerves later, we are allowed to leave the office. They’re thorough, we’ve said it before.
The road after New Bussa – where the mighty Niger river is cut by the Kandji dam – is perfect. Mokwa must be hell on earth: slums, waste, dust, road construction works, heavy traffic and awful collisions… Luckily, our hotel is a safe and rather quiet haven, thanks to the helpful owner, barbed wire and the machine gun-armed guard. From there, it takes us another long day on the road to reach Abuja. To make things a little more exciting, Joerg decides to cut his finger while slicing bread. Pretty bad, but he’s fine with the temporary bandage that Isabel offers him. Abuja announces itself by the towns that keep on following each other and our speed is suffering a blow until we enter the clean, 6-lane highways leading to the city center. It seems as if Abuja is lying on another planet than the rest of the country. Spreading over several valleys amidst isolated hills, the city was built in the 1980’s in an attempt to reconcile the rivaling North and South and allegedly modeled after Los Angeles. Impressive.
For more pics see album "Happiest people in the world"
Thanks to OpenStreetMaps, our GPS leads us to the Sheraton. We’ve heard from other overlanders that the hotel runs a campsite. The staff is very professional and helpful, but at the reception, they don’t seem to know what we mean at first. After a few phone calls, we are escorted to the back of the hotel premises, where we see South-Africans Andrew and Claudia, whom we met in Benin, and the Dutch/American couple Stanley and Julia with the kids, whom we first met in Ouagadougou.  Following days, we spend listening to each other’s stories, trying to obtain visa for Cameroun and Congo-Brazzaville and contacting my cousin Cyril in Jos. Tomorrow, we’ll head for Jos, which has been the scene of violent ethnic tensions for years. Cyril has ascertained us that we will be safe, as long as we don’t ride at night. For convenience and safety, we’ve bought a Nigerian SIM card. But what will help us most: according to a New Scientist survey, the happiest people in the world live in… Nigeria!


After the hot and boring road through central Togo – where arid teak plantations provided a rather depressing sight – the North welcomes us with its rough, stunning mountain scenery. On the expiry date of our visa we set off from Kara to leave Togo via the Koussamakou region, which is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004 because of its well-preserved Tata Somba fortified huts and lively animist culture. It turns out that UNESCO affiliation is no guarantee for quality and good organization. We spend about an hour trying to convince the “officials” at the entrance gate that we’re not going to take one of the overpriced, supposedly obligatory “guides” with us, some of them being obviously drunk…

Benin doesn’t miss the opportunity to make a better impression, with a friendly customs officer – although not in possession of a stamp for our carnet de passage – and friendly gendarmerie – although not in possession of a duty car any better than a wrecked old pick-up truck without wheels. Our GPS directs us straight to the hostel in Koussoukoingou, run by the Sisters of the Holy Heart of Mary. They welcome us with open arms, particularly the warm-hearted Soeur Marguerite. The boarding school girls help prepare the room while we sit in comfortable chairs and watch the sun set over the valley.

Next day we attend mass, which gives us the opportunity to hear the schoolchildren sing in church, before we start a tour of the village with Crépin. He’s part of a group of local guides who work in cooperation with the Benin Ecotourism Concern. Together they’ve managed to find a balance between stimulating people to care for their traditional culture and patrimony while at the same time allowing for modernity and progress. The parish priest invites us for lunch at the Sisters’. He brings a bottle of Ricard and the copious meal is accompanied by cool beers and South-African wine.
Not only do the Sisters take good care of their children and guests, they surely take good care of their Father and themselves as well. After our afternoon walk with Crépin through the valley, a dish of fresh guinea fowl with traditional “igname pilé” (mashed sweet potatoe) helps us regain strength.

After Koussou, we head for the Pendjari National Park, which is supposedly one of the best wildlife reserves in West Africa. At the entrance gate, we are disappointed to hear that motorbikes are not allowed in the park. Unclear if this is an official rule or a whim of the officer. Anyway, we ride 40 km back over the gravel road along the Atakora Range towards Tanguiéta, where we organize for a hotel to leave the bikes. We negotiate a fairly expensive one-and-a-half day car safari and next morning at sunrise, we enter the vast park with our driver and guide Loukman. At first there are hardly any animals to be seen, since the dry grass is still high in most places – despite extensive burning in others. But then we start seeing kobs, topis and other large antelopes, warthogs, baboons, vultures, wild guinea fowl,… At the wells and swamps, we see hippos, crocodiles, marabous and several stork and heron species. But nothing compares to our encounter with a large solitary male African elephant. It is graciously grazing the tree tops, merrily destroying them and leaving the place like a battlefield. During the afternoon, when all animals are hiding from the burning sun, we take off on a dugout canoe trip. With the help of the prying eye of our guide and boatman we discover hundreds of brightly colored birds, varans, and a few velvet monkeys.
South-African overlanders Claudia and Andrew have already set up their comfortable bush camp when we arrive at the Yangouali “camping”. Except for a signpost, it doesn’t have any infrastructure… While Loukman spends the night on the hood of his car, we talk until late into the night. We have a sound sleep afterwards, only occasionally disturbed by roaring lions. 
Next morning we’re anxious to find them on our route out of the park. Instead we’re treated to sightings of herds of buffalos and elephants and a glimpse of a solitary cat, fox and Pattas monkey. Back in Tanguiéta, I take the bike for a test ride after a few minor adjustments, but I enjoy the single tracks through the yam and cassava fields so much that I add nearly 60 kms to the odometer.

From Tanguiéta, we plan to ride to the village of Tanéka Beri, where Eco-Benin is running another tourism project. After much asking around along a dirt track we find the village, but nobody seems to understand what we are talking about. Not without leaving a few presents for the village chief, we continue our journey to the regional capital of Parakou. Our last stop-over before Nigeria, land of internet scams, corrupt police, kidnappings and ethnic tensions. Let’s treat ourselves to a nice dish of antelope first…
For more pics see album "Benin"