Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Tuesday, November 13, 2001 23:14:21|
Central Africa 2001: 3 - Sao Tome to Douala, Cameroon to Maroua, Cameroon
Sao Tome & Principe is the first country on this trip that I would recommend for tourist purposes. There are secluded beaches with golden sand, lush forests, mountains up to 2,400 meters, waterfalls and a reasonably well maintained and painted colonial capital city, also called Sao Tome. The whole country's population is about 140,000, with 5,000 of these residing on the island of Principe. The people are friendly; the pace leisurely and there is apparently some of the best fishing and diving in all of Africa. It was like being on holidays from our main trip!
The temperature here was surprisingly cool with ocean breezes, even though the equator runs through Sao Tome & Principe. Prices here are quite reasonable.
Our taxi driver joined us for a few beers when we returned to the hotel at night after an extensive tour of the small island, then picked us up again in the morning. We went to the airport to check in, and then he took us for another tour at no charge around the area the airport is in while we waited for our plane. Customs and immigration were delightfully simple and pleasant, and we even were able to wait in an air conditioned lounge - the first we had encountered outside of first class. The flight back to Libreville was the same 45 minutes late as it was coming, but was very smooth.
Once back in the Okoume Palace Hotel we tried to buy a ticket from Douala to Maroua in Cameroon, but they couldn't get the computer to connect. I tried the business centre for internet, but they don't have internet, so we took a taxi to the travel agency that helped us with the Sao Tome tickets, Mistral Voyages. They were once again very efficient and we got tickets for Saturday early in the morning. We are moving quickly here, as we have no way to get from Maroua to N'djamena, and then must figure out how to get from N'djamena to Bangui in the Central African Republic. These were some other flights that went down with Air Afrique.
There was an internet centre in the same building as the travel agency, so I got a GPS reading, but could not access Yahoo so had to give it up. I'm not sure when there will next be a chance to send an email.
On Saturday morning we were up early for breakfast at the hotel, and a lift in the hotel shuttle to the airport. The formalities to leave Gabon all went smoothly and we boarded a small plane for the 50 minute flight to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea which is located on Bioko Island. The international airport was a shabby concrete building, badly in need of paint, without windows or any other amenities. It looked very much like a lot of bombed out buildings we had seen in various war zones!
Apparently the visa service who did our passports assumed that because US citizens need no visa for Equatorial Guinea that Canadians didn't either. Wrong! While the immigration police were polite enough, they relieved me of my passport and escorted us to a nearby restaurant across the stretch of mud behind the terminal building that served as a parking lot. Using the "when all else fails have a beer" theory, we did just that.
It was stifling hot and humid, and more depressing for thinking that the view of the muddy dirt behind the dilapidated terminal may be all we have for the next ten hours; however a plan gradually came to mind. I waited until the mob from a Cameroon Airlines jet which came in behind us were processed, and went and proposed to the immigration police that one of their members accompany us for the day. We would pay the taxi, and the official, who would double as tour guide. After some discussion the plan was accepted, and I was issued a "day pass" sort of visa as they still wanted to hold my passport.
This being agreed upon, I then requested the required currency declaration forms. The advisory I have from the Canadian Foreign Service web site said, "The local currency is the Communauté financière africaine (CFA) franc. All currency in excess of 50,000 CFA francs or US$100 must be declared on arrival. This requirement is not clearly posted. Failure to do so may result in delays and/or confiscation of any undeclared cash and possible prosecution. The export of foreign currency is limited to the amount declared on arrival, and the export of local currency cannot exceed 50,000 CFA francs." No one seemed to know of any form, or even of the regulation. I asked several people, as I had been told this was used to extort money from travellers, and finally the chief of the immigration people said it would not affect us as we were in transit.
Having been satisfied on this count, I headed back to the bar to get Tim and give him the good news. Meanwhile, our "guide" arranged with a taxi to drive us around, the first stop being another bar while we waited for the policeman, whose name was Ramon, to change out of his uniform and put on civilian cloths. We had five hours to kill, and were not permitted to go to a number of areas on the small island, but we did drive up and down pretty well every street in Malabo, then out into the country to visit a couple of cacao plantations. We had a good lunch at the Hotel Bahia, right on the very pretty harbour Malabo borders. The colonial city was something like Sao Tome, but not in as good a state for repair.
We ended up at the French Cultural center, where we were joined by Alfredo, the police fellow who helped me arrange for Ramon to take us around. Ramon gave us his phone number and said to call if we had any problems, as they were going home from the cultural center and the taxi was to take us back to the airport. This gave us a wonderfully warm false sense of confidence!
Back at the airport the terminal resembled a bombed out hulk even more. There wasn't a soul around. I explored the whole building - there wasn't a single bench or seat anywhere a passenger could sit on, the furniture being confined to two small police offices and a plastic patio chair in each of the two immigration booths. The floor in some areas was dirt, in others is was rough decayed concrete. Feeling a little apprehensive, I headed back to the bar where Tim waited with our luggage just as darkness fell.
At 8 PM, two hours before our flight time, I once again ventured out of the illumination of the single fluorescent tube in the bar into the pitch dark of the night. There was not a single light in the parking area or outside of the airport building. I nearly took a header into a large puddle as I hit a step while groping my way to the terminal. I may as well have been going through a coal mine shaft with no light! Inside the building, a dull glow from the direction of the police office gave some hope. Lights were very sparingly used inside the building as well!
Once in the police office, I asked the fellow in charge about my passport. I assumed he was in charge, at any rate, as he was in just a shirt and pants (no uniform) and was sitting where the fellow in charge when I'd been given the temporary pass had been sitting. It was a whole new crew of police. Spanish is the language of the country I was able to communicate better than in most countries, so they did get the message that we'd been with Ramon and Alfredo for the afternoon, and with the blessing of the shift captain at that time. The officer looked up at me and said in English, "Give me money!"
Taking this as a subtle indication that there may be some difficulties ahead, I inquired as to the whereabouts of my passport. There was head shaking all around - no one had any idea. Eventually, the delightful fellow in charge told me to go away and come back in one hour. Becoming somewhat accustomed to immigration police telling me to go away, I did, back to the bar. Responding to the crisis, I had another beer and briefed Tim to be ready for a serious shakedown that appeared to be brewing.
When I returned to the immigration office in 45 minutes, it was once again deserted - everyone had gone to the departures side where passengers for our flight were being "processed". A search of the arrivals section confirmed no one was there, so I went back into the office and searched the drawers, unsuccessfully, for my passport. Finally, I went to the departures side, and picking the most sympathetic looking of the lot of them asked him about my passport. He said to meet him back in arrivals, and opening a locked office produced my passport. He then demanded payment of 30,000 CFA - about $US 43. I refused, and he locked my passport up. There was no yielding on price! I had him phone Ramon, and Alfredo, and they both said I'd have to pay, as best as I could make out. I didn't have enough CFA left to pay him, but Alfredo told him to accept $US, so he got $20 plus the rest in CFA, leaving me one CFA 10,000 note. Having seen the major shakedown of all passengers going on next door, I offered him my last 10,000 to steer us through the proceedings. He agreed.
Tim was standing guard over our two bags while all this was going on, and had got a pretty good feel for the methods being used. Our man, true to his word, got our exit tax paid, passports stamped and past the luggage search. At each stage money was demanded of passengers on their own, all but the exit tax being for bribes. It turned out to be 10,000 well spent.
It turned out he couldn't, or wouldn't, assist us through the final step, though. One by one each passenger was ushered into a completely bare room that looked like a grenade had recently gone off in it. There was nothing in the room, not even a notice on the wall! On a cement ledge running along one wall of the small room sat a venomous looking black woman, leaning against the wall with her feet out in front of her on the ledge. "Currency declaration!" she demanded. She was totally unimpressed with the facts that it had proven impossible to declare currency as no one had a form or would get one, that we were told that it wasn't necessary for being in transit or that we had been accompanied by the police all days. She said she was customs, nothing to do with police or immigration. Everyone we later spoke to had received the same response from her.
As I had every intention of declaring my currency on arrival, the bulk of my cash was in my vest of many pockets which I was wearing. One of this grotesque creature's henchpersons had gone through my suitcase before I was given my audience, and had failed to detect my backup cash stash in the false bottom of my case. Senora personality then started patting each of my pockets, having me empty each in turn on her quest for my cash. The wallet containing over $6,500 was sandwiched between a book in an inner pocket and spare video cassettes, batteries and the GPS in two outer pockets - she missed it.
After the search, our policeman, who was still with us, did intervene a little on my behalf, but he seemed as terrified of this person as anyone. She demanded $100 anyhow, just on principal, having found no cash. I offered $5. She said no. I said $10, and that was my final offer - not being at all certain as to what I would do if it was not accepted and I couldn't leave the country. She said OK. No way was I going to pull out my still undiscovered wallet for the $10, so I turned to Tim, who was the next victim up, for a loan. He only had a twenty, so I handed it to her and said it was for both of us. She told me to get out, which was a nice change from being told to go away, and then she ordered Tim in.
Unfortunately, Tim was less lucky, and his hidden reserves strapped to his shins were discovered. She kept the $20 from me, and he managed to negotiate an escape for $40. It turned out after talking to others that we really did get off cheap, whether because we hired the policeman or not we will never know, but there was sure a collective sigh of relief when the plane lifted off the runway on time getting us clear of that dank, dark den of thieves.
As we went to board the plane, both Tim and I were relieved of our carry on bags. It was sudden enough that neither of us had time to think to get important items out of them. They sat on the tarmac as others boarded the plane, so I took a seat where I could see them - although it was quickly getting dark. Suddenly a man ran to the pile of luggage and grabbed two cases, one which looked like mine. I jumped up and went to leave the plane, but was informed that if I got off I wasn't getting back on. Willing to lose anything rather than to go through the extortion process again I went and sat down,
It was only a 30 minute flight to Douala, Cameroon. After a few minutes of fairly severe turbulence we landed. Tim had left his vaccination certificate in his now checked bag, so had to bribe his way past the dragon lady in charge of that, but otherwise all went well. We cleared customs, were greatly relieved to find that our cases and contents had arrived We taxied to the Akwa Palace Hotel where we got two of their last rooms. At just past midnight I folded myself into a short, single bed thankful that the evening's set of hurdles were over.
Our departure from the hotel was at 6 AM, then back to the airport for our flight to the city of Maroua in the North of Cameroon. African airports seem full of self appointed guides, so we got one to show us where the domestic departures area was. It involved going back through the "do not enter" door from whence we had come into the ticket and tax area, past the machines and people who had carefully gone over our luggage and to another part of the building. Apparently having gone through security once was fine, even though we were back on the public side of it! For a small tip the guide showed us into the first class lounge, where we were the only passengers. The flight was good, with two stops, and arrived on time. We had been warned in publications that Cameroon Airlines was notorious for not being on time, and for poor maintenance, but the experience with our two flights to date was that they were right on time and that the planes were clean, comfortable and seemed well looked after.
On arrival an English speaking fellow approached us at the airport selling tours. We asked about a car and driver to go to Nigeria then to Chad. He thought it could be arranged, so we went with him. His driver had a four door pickup truck full of wood, so my suitcase was held on the lap of the agency fellow in the front seat. He found us a hotel, took us to meet his boss at the travel agency where a deal was struck for a 4 day tour to end in N'djamena, arranged for a money changer to come to where we were having lunch to convert dollars, and delivered us back at our hotel. We were both tired, so used the rest of the day for reorganizing, washing clothes and I had a swim. It should be good for drying clothes here - hot and dry. We are in the Sahel region, just south of the Sahara desert.
Unfortunately, the air conditioner in my room was a barely functional unit that, though necessary, sounded like a restaurant trolley full off dishes being dragged over a washboard road, and that was just when the fan was on. When the compressor kicked in it sounded like steam locomotive no. 9 coming up the grade hauling several trolleys of dishes! Needless to say, not much sleep.
In the morning our guide and driver were there half an hour before the appointed time, so they waited while Tim and I had breakfast. A word of caution here - telephoning from this area is a touch expensive, about $US 6.50 per minute. I'd tried to call Costa Rica unsuccessfully, and the charge was CFA 24,500 - about $35. Apparently contact had been made four times, but it never lasted long enough to transfer the call to me. When I protested the charge, I go a shrug and the statement that they did their part and dialled, and that the phone company problems certainly couldn't be blamed on them!
We headed out of town on well paved, fairly deserted roads until the town of Mokolo, where they turned to dirt. We then skirted the Nigerian frontier until coming to the town of Rhumsiki (one of three local spellings for it). This is the home town of our guide. We checked into the local hotel - there are two, we chose the one owned by the village as the other is owned by the government and apparently the profits are exported. We were the only guests and as far as we could later determine the only white people except one in the village.
After some beer and a lunch of stringy chicken, a donkey was hired for Tim, as he'd had a stroke before coming on the trip and suffered from a bad leg. We headed off on foot for the Sunday market in this small town of 2,000 people. The market had some stalls selling basics, but it seemed the main reason for being there was so the men could socialize and drink the local beer. There are two types - the one made from red millet - red beer, and the one made from white millet - white beer. The later is served hot. It is drunk from communal bowls, which are passed around from person to person. We gave them both a try, but decided that we would stick to the excellent Cameroon beer served ice cold!
We wandered off to an area where there were three very primitive looms in action, taking the raw cotton grown in the area, making the thread and weaving garments from it. We also went to the village wise man to have our fortunes told by live crabs. According to him the rest of the trip is going to go well for us. He is apparently in great demand, being he only soothsayer in the area.
Rhumsiki is one of 28 villages of the Kasiki tribe. 12 of these villages are in Nigeria, but the police and border people don't worry about the frontier until past the last of the villages due to the number of people wandering back and forth. There are no roads, only foot trails up the steep, mountainous cliffs. We were going to head off into some of the Nigerian villages, with Tim using the donkey to descend and return from the approximately 1,000 foot drop to the valley floor. Once we got to the beginning of the steep drop it was decided that there was no way Tim would be able to stay on the donkey for the descent - he was having enough difficulty on the more level ground. (There were no saddles or anything else one might hand on to) He decided to forego the trip, so I headed off alone with the guide.
Once down to the valley floor there was a maze of paths, which our guide had little trouble negotiating. In the first village we sat and rested for awhile in a wood carver's house, and then we walked past two more villages and up another valley, where we made the steep ascent to the top again. Damned near killed me! I was gasping for air when we finally topped the hill. As we walked along, the guide would pull up peanut plants and we would eat the raw peanuts. We were also walking through areas of natural lavender.
Dinner was an experience. Our guide left us in the hands of our driver and the fellow who procured the donkey for Tim while he went off for dinner with his parents. We drove a couple of kilometres out of town to what we were told was a restaurant. It was tough to tell, as there wasn't a light to be seen. The truck headlights picked out a lonely table by the parking area, and someone came to light a couple of candles on it. We recognized he owner as a fellow with whom we had talked at our hotel in the afternoon, and who spoke passable English. He explained that he had no electricity, and told us what the menu for then night was. There were no choices, so we said that would be fine - and ordered a couple of beer - which required the owner to get on his motor scooter and head off somewhere to buy them for us.
The menu was home baked bread, onion pizza, beef brochette and some other things which we really never did identify. At any rate, it turned out to be an excellent meal, served under a bright canopy of stars. There was no moon, and so it was never possible to determine whose footsteps crunched passed us now and then, but it was fun. We ate with the donkey man and our driver. The conversation was in pidgin English, French, and Spanish, which the donkey man had a reasonable understanding of. When we returned to our quarters for an early night!
Unfortunately, once again sleep was not in the cards. A donkey stationed himself outside my window and brayed loudly every ten or fifteen minutes. The poor thing sounded to be in terrible pain, and wanted to be sure I knew it. I looked for it in the morning, but it was not to be found. It probably works night shift and was sleeping.
As we were having breakfast a couple of village people came with gifts for us. One fellow who had gone around with us yesterday brought each of us a colourful porcupine quill, and then someone else showed up with a locally made cloth bag with a papaya in it. We were also presented with a bouquet of local vegetation including the red and white millet. There was a general turnout to wave us off - a very friendly and hospitable place.
Actually, this entire part of the country tends to be that way. The roads we are driving on are relatively deserted - a car every couple of hours perhaps. The towns, even those of 8-10 thousand people, seem to have no vehicles other than the odd motor bike. Yet many people in the towns and on the road in the country give a friendly wave as we go by. The young children get really excited, and start yelling "maserah, maserah", which I am told means white man. We are a bit of a rarity in this region.
We stopped a few miles from Rhumsiki to hike something over a kilometre into the Nigerian village of Schko. Once again there were no border police or even indication where the border was, other that some rocks laid on top of each other. Once again the people were very friendly, and the pastor who looks after the tiny church even offered it to us to sleep in if we would like to spend the night in the village.
Returning to our vehicle, we continued north along the Nigerian border. We stopped in Molokai for lunch and to mail postcards, then on more dirt tracks to the town of Mora, where we hit pavement again - but very pot holed. There was more traffic now, a heavy truck passing every five minutes or so. This is the main route to N'djamena in Chad, and most of the trucks were carrying containers from the port at Douala.
We checked into the government (and only) hotel at Waza at about 3:30. It had the same type of rondavels, but was not as well kept as the one in Rhumsiki. Tim got a room with an air conditioner that worked; I tried two rooms without success, settling for the one with the largest bed - which was still very small! On the way up the highway near here we stopped to watch a tribe of baboons cross the road, and saw gazelle and other deer look alikes. The national park here is supposed to have more game than any other in Central Africa.
In the morning we set off into the park to test the reports, and did see antelope and gazelle in quantity, an ostrich, and lots of birds but nothing else. An elephant had pushed a tree over across the road a short time before we got there, as evidenced by a pile of bowling ball sized fresh turds near the scene of the crime. The park guide, who is compulsory here, a wizened little old fellow of indeterminate age, headed off with our guide to try to track the elephant, quite unsuccessfully. They also found sign of lions and had a similarly unsuccessful hunt for them.
After our guide, who was standing in the back of the pickup truck staring knowingly out over the vast plain, failed to notice a large herd of gazelle quite near to the road, I figured him to be sufficiently myopic that I doubted that he could see the limits of out truck clearly. Everything we saw was spotted either by our driver and guide, or by Tim and I with our own bad distance vision. We gave the poor old boy a good tip at the end of our run around, in the hopes he might use it to invest in glasses to he might enhance what was left of his career, or at least be of some reasonable value to future clients.
We decided there really wasn't enough going on here to warrant the second day which we had booked, so checked out of the hotel and headed for N'djamena in Chad. This was up the strip of road from Waza to Kousseri which the Canadian Foreign Affairs department describes as follows:
"Armed banditry is a serious problem throughout the country. Particular attention should be paid to travel on routes in the Far North Province near the Nigerian border. Visitors travelling between Waza and Kousseri are strongly advised to travel with the military escort which travels daily in each direction."
We had checked with various people, and apparently the last incident of the robber gangs was a year ago, before the army moved in to clean them up. We had no problem, the road was good, and we covered the distance in about an hour and a half. The Chad border people are trying to compete with those in Equatorial Guinea for the robber of the year award, but after appropriate coin had changed hands we were stamped in.
N'djamena, Chad was a big surprise. We had heard that Lake Chad was drying up, and that this area was largely desert, but we crossed three big rivers that flow from Lake Chad, one of which is the Cameroon/Chad border and the other which runs alongside our hotel in N'djamena. We have excellent accommodations here at the Hotel du Chari, a Meridien hotel. I spent an hour trying to send an email without success on the hotel system, although I did get a GPS position out, so after a few drinks and a great meal Tim and I turned in. For any of you who may not know, these notes and the GPS positions go to the web site that my son built for me as a 60th birthday present. The address is www.talisphere.com/travel
Just a note. We have been surprised on this trip by the absence of mosquitoes. They were bad as dark fell in Malabo, and they were out in true force at Waza, but other than that they have been conspicuous by their absence. We ate at the outdoor restaurant near the river bank last night without seeing one.
We had hoped to fly to Bangui, in the Central African Republic from N'djamena, but that has proven impossible - there are no flights. We must now find the best way back to Douala, then come back to Bangui, then back to Douala and onwards from there.