Thursday, March 17, 2011

Autoroute du bois

If our bodies have been coping very well with Africa’s heat, dust and humidity until now, our electronical equipment hasn’t. After the camera and the GPS, now it’s time for the external hard disk, the communication system and several cables to cause trouble. Our time in Yaoundé is spent on looking for cables and the like. We leave late one afternoon towards Bertoua, from where a gravel road will lead us to Yokadouma and Congo-Brazzaville. Unfortunately, the tarred road to Bertoua degrades after Abong Mbang and turns into a slippery and dusty nightmare after Doumé. Apparently the sealing of the road is still unfinished… We arrive after dark in Bertoua, luckily the GPS directs us directly to a comfortable hotel. This is probably going to be the last electrical power and running water we’ll encounter for the next week or two.

We set off early morning towards Batouri. We don’t dare to speak it out aloud, but the gravel road seems reasonable and the sky remains more or less blue. Little traffic here, except for aggressively speeding logging trucks and a few heavily overloaded minibuses that creep slowly over the hills. Stretches of dense forest alternate with open tree savannah and there are far more villages bordering the road than we expected in this supposedly remote area of Cameroon. The people are mostly Bantus, but surprisingly there are also quite a lot of cattle-herding muslims that look very much like the Peul or Fulani in the North. Batouri doesn’t count a single square meter of asphalt, not even at the modern fuel station, where we get first-hand information about the road to Yokadouma. It should be a little bumpier than what we rode this morning, but not too bad either. Indeed, the weather remains dry and to our pleasant surprise we make it all the way along the border with the Central African Republic to the dusty logging town of Yokadouma before dark.

After a not so fruitful visit to the joint governmental/WWF office in Yokadouma, we set off for the headquarters of Lobeke national park in the village of Mambele, 160kms south along the road to Congo. Once again it’s a dirt track being used and maintained by the Cameroonese and Congolese logging companies to whom parts of the forest have been conceded. Villages become fewer in number and when we stop for lunch, well-hid monkeys are playing and screaming in the towering trees all around us, while we are hunting the many beautiful butterflies with our camera.

In Mambele, the conservator of Lobeke NP and his team are not inclined to let us ride the bikes for more than 100 km along a narrow forest track to a tourist camp at the Sangha river near the 3-country-point (CAR, Cameroon, Congo) for fear of us being blocked by fallen trees. We finally agree to be taken into the forest by a car next morning and then walk to swampy forest clearings with good chances of seeing elephants, buffalos, gorillas and antelope species. Our guide, the eco-guard and a porter draw our attention to whatever flies by, hangs or stands around and tell us everything they know about medicinal use of tree barks and plants. Rheumatism, by the way, is supposed to be rare here and can best be cured by a calming ointment of elephant dung…

 We spend two nights at the miradors (platforms) with a great view on the stunning landscape and are rewarded with sightings of buffalos, bongo’s, sitatungas, several monkey species, parrots, eagles and other birds, but no elephants or gorillas, although there are abundant signs (dung, traces, sounds) of them being around. On the way back, however, we catch a glimpse of a silverback roaring at us before he flees into the dense bush, following his female and younger family members. Impressive!

Black-and-white colobus monkey;other common species include grey-cheeked mangabey and greater white-nose monkey.

Male sitatunga antelope.
Early-morning view from the mirador at Djangui (Greater Savannah).
After we get back to Mambele, we need a couple of hours to get clean. Isabel dresses up, since we’ve heard there’s a celebration with catwalk defile for (a still badly needed) International Women’s Day (8th March). In town, people are gathering for a drink. We meet up with our guide Betti and porter Valentin and continue the interesting discussions we’ve been having earlier these days. The image of the park’s future being painted by our guide is grim: corruption, bad management, ongoing poaching, little benefit of eco-tourism income for the surrounding population, migration of animals towards Congo… we feel like WWF is not following up well enough on the project they started here years ago. Later that night, it turns into a great dancing party in the local bar. In particular Congolese Werrason sets the place on fire…

For more pics, see album "Autoroute du bois".

With a slight hangover, we leave late for Socambo, the border town at the Sangha river. Luckily, the magnificently scenic road – that goes straight through the park – is even better here, due to less traffic and recent maintenance. When we finally arrive in Socambo, the last ferry is about to leave, so we take our time to arrange the paperwork today (and manage to avoid the repeatedly asked for “tax” or “fee”), spend the night in a very rustic riverside hostel and cross the Ngoko river tomorrow.

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