Friday, 11 March 2016

Nigeria to Cameroon

The Afi Mountain Drill Ranch was our next point of call. This was somewhere I was truly looking forward to seeing as we had been told it was a must! We left Calabar to make our way North to the mountains. The road was filled with pot holes which made the drive slow going, but the country side was absolutely beautiful. Eventually we turned off onto a dirt road track that would take us to the ranch. This road was intense and we wondered how some of the overlanders we had met that recommended this place had gotten through, particularly the Oasis overland truck as it's extremely tall and with forest on either side of the road, it was even a push for our cars. But we made it through and it was definitely loads of fun picking the best lines to take.

We got to the drill ranch and felt so welcomed. Innocence treated us like celebrities and made sure we were comfortable before telling us about the ranch. His passion oozed out of him and it was hard not to fall in love with this amazing place and its staff. We were sat in the communal kitchen; sitting area which overlooked the magnificent forest covered mountains. This rustic, no frills, wooden structure that screamed Africa, was just what the doctor ordered. He told us about his time at the ranch, the animals, and the struggles they face daily. He then showed us around with a short walk through the forest to the toilet. You needed to pull a rope across the path to let people know the toilet was in use. Then a short walk to the long drop with a small shelter that offered amazing views of the surrounding trees while you enjoyed your time on the loo. It was also probably one of the cleanest toilets we've used in Africa! Then again another stroll through the forest to reach the shower, also a no walls, open air experience. Now this is what Africa's about! 

We met some expats from Abuja that had arrived for the weekend to escape the city. They told us they were hiking up the mountain the next morning. That sounded awesome, so we decided we would tag along. That meant we needed an early night, so we could leave early in the morning before the humidity and heat got too unbearable.
That night we slept like absolute babies! The temperature was nice and cool at night, so no sweating while you try and sleep. The air was clean and fresh; no pollution, no generators, no hooting horns... Just nature! The forest was buzzing with sounds of insects, birds and bush babies chirping the night away. And every so often you'd hear the Drill monkeys or Chimpanzees chatting in the distance. You don't get much better than that! 

We were up early to make some lunch for our hike and to meet the rest in the communal area. Eventually our guide, Chris, showed up and he got hounded by the expats for being late. We've gotten used to Africa time, so waiting half an hour or so after you've agreed a time, is pretty normal. The ranches Land Rover was going into town, so he said he'd take us all in and we could start our hike from there. But first we had to unload all the fruit for the monkeys and chimpanzees. So we all got stuck in and it was soon empty so we could all pile in. 

The hike was intense, as we scrambled up the steep mountain with the ground covered in loose leaves  making it difficult to get good grip. One of the guys we were hiking with was finding it rather difficult. He couldn't  catch his breath and he was absolutely soaked head to toe with sweat. The rest of us were dripping as well, as the humidity was crazy up there, but nowhere near what this poor guy was experiencing. Eventually he gave up so we instructed our guide to take him back down and ensure he was ok. As our guide was exceptionally quick going up the mountain, he could make it down and meet  us along the way to the top. We were suppose to reach a base camp and then turn back and make our way back down. But we hiked and hiked up the mountain sometimes losing the path. There was no sign of our guide, even after a couple of hours and soon we started to decend on the other side of the mountain. Nope, this was wrong. So we decided to head back before we got too lost. Eventually we found our guide, and he confirmed that yes we had taken the wrong route. We were pretty exhausted at this point (and our poor guide), so we decided to head back down and grab a cold beer in the town. But the scramble down proved difficult as well, with the leaves creating a nice sliding effect when trying to get down. Yip our bums took a bit of a beating. But it was so much fun, none of us were fussed about not making it to the base camp.
We got into town and were given a tour before getting a cold drink before heading back to our campsite.

Once back at the campsite we were able to see some of the drill monkeys being fed avocados. They were fascinating with their almost baboon like faces and watching the hierarchy of males dominate the younger ones. Such a joy to watch them and see the amazing work this organisation is doing. This is where they breed them and eventually get to release them back into the forest when they are ready to be reintroduced to the wild. To think, they started with 1 drill monkey in 1988 and now have 6 large groups of almost 200 in a group. We could sit and watch them for hours, but it was time to get some grub of our own.

The next morning we enjoyed an amazing cooked breakfast by the expats; eggs, beans, bread and avocados! A breakfast of champions!! They were such a great bunch, but we had to say our goodbyes as they were heading off that morning. It's amazing how we get to meet such incredible people along the way! 

We spent the day watching the chimpanzees get fed (there was one poor teenage boy called Mickey, who was different to the rest. He liked to stand like a human, so ended up getting beaten up by the others regularly. The poor chap wouldn't learn. But it was amazing to see him parade around!). We walked around the sanctuary and enjoying their canopy walk overlooking the forest. Unfortunately we couldn't walk the full length of canopy as some of it was taken away by a land slide. Innocence mentioned that a Canadian company had offered to repair it for a small fee, but the government has yet to do anything about it. Later that evening we met the founder, Peter, who had made an appearance at the Ranch as the Kenyan CNN news was there to make a documentary about their organisation and the problems they faced. It was interesting to hear their biggest problems were with the government in more recent times. A new government has just been elected, however this one has no care for forestry or illegal hunting and has therefore stopped any help they used to have. Forest fires are a major threat to the vegetation and there is now no one reinforcing the laws against this. The locals set fire to their farms to help fertilise the land, but many are unable to keep them under control, so they end up wiping out the little remaining natural forests. It's such a sad thing to see first hand. 

Peter was a force to be reckoned with! He was passionate about his organisation, but many years of being beaten down by the government, police, and the locals; he is finding it hard to be positive about the future of Drill Ranch. He most certainly said it how it was or how he saw things and heaven forbid if you should see things differently. But, I grew to really appreciate his honesty and openness, even if he was effing and blinding his way through. Such a character! I feel blessed to have witnessed such an incredible person, staff and organisation.

For our last day we attempted the hike back up to the top of the mountain with our guide, Chris. We were determined to make it to the base camp, as we had planned on our initial hike. Our poor muscles were still aching from the hike a couple of days before, so it took us a while to find our feet. But we made it to the top after sweating out more litres than we could drink. It was incredible and certainly gave us a sense of achievement!
We headed back to camp to enjoy everyone's company once again. We had fallen in love with this place! We were almost begged to stay and volunteer and help out. If we didn't have to move on, we probably would have taken them up on their offer! 

In the morning, we said our goodbyes and headed for the town Ikom, close to the Cameroon border. Here we spent a night in an ok hotel, that certainly wasn't amazing, but would serve us well for the night. As we had reached the town in good time, we decided to head to a local bar for a drink or two. After sitting down the sky turned dark, the rains were certainly coming. All of a sudden a massive gale force wind decended on the town, it felt like the tin roof of our bar was about to take off! There was dust everywhere, and people were running from the streets to get shelter. Then the heavens opened and a torrential downpour decended on the town. We watched as rivers appeared down the roads, people on a motorbike crashed in front of us (luckily all ok) and still with gale force winds. We hadn't seen anything like it. But the locals were over the moon, the first proper rains and the country certainly needed it. We on the other hand were thinking of the dirt roads we needed to travel on! Congo was going to be a nightmare. 

In the morning we got up early to head to the border. We have decided to no longer listen to what other people's experiences are with certain borders. We normally get seriously worked up about expecting the worst, but touch wood, we have yet to have any really bad experiences. So we had no expectations for this next border, no idea what to expect. But we would go and enjoy it, like all the rest!
As always, we got stopped a number of times before reaching the border. But all very friendly and still not getting anything out of us, so all was good! Then a customs official pulled us over and asked to see our passports. Like all the rest, we handed them over.... Not expecting what was coming! He turned to us and said, "Do you know that you have overstayed your entry by 2days?". What? That was impossible, we had a 30day visa and had only been in the country just over 2weeks. He then showed us that when we entered Nigeria, they wrote we had up until the 29th of February. We hadn't even noticed, as normally if you pay for a 30day visa, that entitles you to a 30day entry. Well, not in Nigeria. They have their own rules. 
We pleaded with the official, and he understood that this was not explained to us at the border. He saw how shocked we were so told us, not to worry or get upset, but he would let us continue regardless of our mistake. Wow! That was lucky! 
We continued driving, but there was yet again another customs road block. Crap! We decided to act dumb once more and hope for the best. These were a little bit more difficult to persuade. Giving them the shaking lip and an almost crying face.... He let us go with no payment!!! Amazing!!
Now it was for the actual customs post at the border. We went in with our normal overly friendly, overly happy attitudes (hoping for the best). The man soon spotted our mishap, but we distracted him with talking about the very hot pepper soup and our other experiences of Nigeria. We did get interrogated one by one by another official. But they seemed to enjoy our shenanigans and stamped our passports out if the country without further mention of our law breaking ways. Hooray!!! We still wonder how we got through without payment for our errors after being begged for money and gifts all the way through. We were most certainly very very lucky!

We entered Cameroon without a hitch and were soon in the most beautiful country! The newly tarred road was immaculate with forest on either side of the road and very little rubbish on the roads, which was a nice change to a lot of the other West Africa countries. Unfortunately we can't spend much time in Cameroon as we have visa restraints after spending a little too much time in Nigeria. Such a shame as this country looks and feels amazing! 
That night we stayed in Queens hotel (5000CFA = £6) which was probably the most uncomfortable to date as the beds were very uncomfortable. You could feel the wooden slats under the mattress and were only given one pillow. Ants had clearly made this hotel their home as they were everywhere. But it did have a comfortable lounge area serving cold beers. So Charles, Cat and myself played Uno cards with a few cold ones while Rob was being a bit grumpy and went to bed.

The next day, we spent most our time on the road until we got to town Kumba. We stopped off for some food and we were soon surrounded by kids as they were fascinated with taking selfies and videos, while they laughed at their own pictures over and over again. Such happy kids! The food was amazing and we enjoyed being out of the car as the roads had turned into a mud bath along the way, so we were all feeling a little battered. We were surprised to see the large number of Chinese workers putting in tarred roads. It won't be long until all of Cameroon's main roads will be tarred. 
We stayed once again in another hotel, Azi Motel, which was in contrast to our hotel before, as it was so comfortable. It was a little more expensive at 12500CFA (£15) a night. But it had air-con, working shower and toilet, a seating area in the room, a fridge, 2pillows, blankets... It was amazing! 
The four of us wandered down the road in search of some wine for our movie night, as I was craving something different to beer. We found a little shop that had boxed cheap wine. It was perfect. So we headed back and enjoyed an amazing night watching Django (a great movie, by the way), playing cards and listening to music. It's strange what a few home comforts do to lift your spirit while on the road.

The next day we headed for Limbe where we had heard Marimar Hotel allows you to camp next to the pool overlooking the sea for 2500CFA (£3) per person. We arrived and were glad to see the pool! We set up camp (in an area which looks like building site - not nice but doable as it had such a nice view) and soon dived into the pool to relax. We got chatting to a couple of girls from Holland who have come to Cameroon for work experience and research at the hospitals. It was fascinating to hear how daily they are tackling traditional beliefs and remedies against new age medicines and introducing these to the locals. They have to deal with other issues like the hospital only having running water for two hours a day; so patients (often with broken limbs), families and workers alike, have to fetch water in buckets every morning. Things are certainly very different here!
That evening we had a quick dinner at the restaurant and even enjoyed a delicious chocolate ice cream for dessert! Such a treat!

Our next stop was the capital. When we drove up to the presbyterian guest house, we were surprised to see a large overland truck with British number plates. Unfortunately they weren't in camp, but hopefully we would catch up with them later after heading into town to grab some dinner. We stumbled across an Indian restaurant, so we decided to bite the bullet and grab something nice and a little upmarket for dinner. It wasn't quite the standard you would find in the uk, but it was still really good! So we headed back, looking forward to meeting some fellow overlanders from England. 
They happened to be the family that we just missed when arriving into Togo, as they had to back track to Burkina Faso to get their Nigerian visa, as Togo and Benin weren't issuing visas to anyone. We ended up chatting the night away, swapping crazy stories of our travels and theirs. Such a fantastic family and sure we will meet them again along the way. 

In the morning we were on the road again. Heading for the Cameroon and Congo border. We drove and drove until eventually we came across a small village and would try to find somewhere to sleep. We drove up and down the town and saw signs for accommodation, but nothing more. On my iOverlander app it said a fellow overlander was able to camp on the soccer field by the church. So we headed to the church to hope for the best. We pulled up to a very closed looking church, it was a late Sunday afternoon after all. Just when we were about to consult our map again, a couple of white ladies came over from the school next to the church, obviously intrigued to see us as they never get tourists. We told them we were looking for somewhere to stay for the night, and asked if they knew where the Motel was that was on the sign down the road. They had absolutely no idea but were extremely kind and invited us to stay with them. 
We were so lucky!

We had the local children fascinated with our cars, saying they were going to have a car like this when they get older. We piled as many kids into the passenger seats and the boys took them up the path to their compound, where we were greeted with more people staying in this large communal building. They were all Spanish and were working for a NGO that worked with the local Pigmy people. They have a small hospital and school set up, and they help the local villages with their water wells and teaching the people how to maintain them. They were doing such great work and it was a pleasure to learn about them and their aims. 
That night we shared a few beers before they took us out for a meal. We enjoyed a large smoked fish with cassava (compacted into a long tube) eaten with your hand... Right hand only, of course!! It was devine, and most certainly the best fish we have had to date. Unfortunately Rob didn't go near it, but it meant their was more for Cat, Charles and myself to enjoy. It was delicious! I just love trying all the different foods; it's such a big part of learning about the African culture. Some dishes are most certainly better than others, but that's the beauty of it.

We woke up at the crack of dawn so that one of the guys we stayed with could take us to a reliable garage where Charles could get some welding done. He was going to a small village to help educate the locals on water well maintenance that day, so we had to be up early to get it done before heading to 'work'. 
We arrived at the village and sat in a lesson about the construction of the well. Of course it was all in French, so we couldn't really follow what was going on. But I enjoyed seeing how the locals do it. We sat in a mud and wood house with breaking wooden benches and a black board in front. There were only a couple of people that could write, so they made notes while the others just listened. They spoke about the pump having two one way valves and demonstrated to the class. After going through the construction of the pumps and going through a list of problems they might have and how to fix them, we went outside where they could put their new knowledge to the test and fit the pump down a well. It most certainly was interesting to watch, but unfortunately they couldn't get it working. This well had not been working for some time now as the local children had thrown sand and mud down it, blocking up the pump and causing it to malfunction. A problem that happens more often than you'd think, when water is so precious here!

While they were trying to get it installed, I was having a wail of a time with the kids. They were first scared of me and thought it was a great game when I pretended to come get them! Teasing these kids was such fun and they were loving it. Eventually, I pulled my phone out to take photos of them. They were lapping this up, as when they saw their photo they screamed with laughter. When I took a video of them... This was something entirely new to them and they now wouldn't leave me alone. Hanging on me and pulling me away from the grown ups. Such fun!

We unfortunately had to hit the road again if we were to make it to the border before sun down. We said our goodbyes and were soon on the road again. We eventually reached the border and were happy to find out they had an auberge there. That was until we saw it! The bed was well used with dirty stained sheets and pillows. We opted to sleep in our tents and use a room for a bucket shower... There was however no toilet, so we had to get a little creative being in the middle of a village. Lol! 

We decided we would head into town to enjoy a few beers before hitting the sack. We started at one pub and watched the locals play checkers, they were really good as well! We decided we would wander to the next pub where a police officer had stumbled out of the pub to wave us down and pull us over when we entered the village. Dealing with drunk police officers seems to be the norm here, but they have all been really friendly, so can't complain. He welcomed us into the pub, where we asked if they were serving food. The police officer ensured us only the strongest of meat was served here, luckily it was only beef and not some other meat like dog or monkey.
Our meat was served with a soup and boiled plantain (a green banana) which had a similar taste and texture to potato. This meal was amazing and even Rob was enjoying it. It was mega spicy, like most food in these parts as they absolutely love their chillis! But really good and just what the doctor ordered!

There was a man that walked into the bar that immediately insisted he buy us all a drink. We are so used to being begged for stuff that when we get offered something, it always feels like there's a catch. We thanked him, but ensured we were happy to pay for our own drinks. We paid for our meal and drinks and he was somewhat offended, saying we are in his country and he would like to welcome us with a drink. We sat chatting to him for a while as he explained he had come from Yaoundé, the capital, and was here to transport cows to Congo as they have a real shortage of cows. He insisted we go see his cows, so we wandered down town to see the massive cows. He was so proud of his work and how he was making a really good living transporting cows. Cat and I were exhausted so we went to bed while the boys stayed and had a few drinks with him. It turns out he was an extremely wealthy man and he was right, he was making a killing with these cows selling them for 700 000CFA (£830) each as he transported 80 cows in 3trucks every week! It turned out he was just a really nice man, no catch! How wrong we were!

Tomorrow was border day... We all wish we could see more of beautiful Cameroon! We didn't even scrape the surface of what this country has to offer, but we had to motor on! Goodbye Cameroon, you are one amazing country!

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