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

1 comment:

  1. Ik ben blij dat jullie door Nigeria zijn en het is fantastisch om jullie avonturen te lezen, om niet te zeggen dat ik gruwelijk jaloers ben.Voor mij is het bijna gedaan,ik wacht hier in Oujda,Marokko op mijn ferry naar huis,maar ik ben nog niet klaar met Afrika,zoveelis zeker, groeten Tony.