Tuesday, 28 April 2009

If I could buy Stanley a beer

Countries Visited: 16
Distance Travelled: 16582km
Litres of fuel bought: 2408
Punctures repaired: 5
Food poisonings: 7

We eventually escaped Abuja, leaving Julian and Peter to enjoy their fourth week at the Sheraton. We had one night in Katsina Ala in Nigeria before making a run for the Cameroon border the following day. The going was good until Takum where we turned off towards Bissaula. The road changed to a dirt track with deep ruts and puddles, it had taken us six hours to reach Bissaula when we'd estimated three. Berwyn and co. the group that had taken this route a couple of weeks before us were still the talk of the town. "We had some of your people come through recently, do you know them?" was one of the first questions we were asked by immigration. We were told we should have had our Carnet stamped out in Takum, but there was no way we were going to do a eight hour round trip for that, the police told us it wouldn't be a problem. We left Nigeria with a warning the road was in a "terrible state". We knew that one section of the road had taken Berwyn five attempts, so with a much heavier, although more powerful vehicle we were concerned. We'd now been stamped out of Nigeria, so there was no turning back.

The reports held true, the road was terrible. Some incredibly steep climbs and descents, river crossings, badly rutted roads with serious rain damage, dangerous cambers, loose rocks, puddles and a bit of mud to polish it off. Everything a 4x4 enthusiast would dream of, but we just wanted to get to Cameroon! Stanley behaved impeccably, this unstoppable machine doing what seemed impossible, even climbing the "big hill" we'd been warned about on the first attempt, a ridiculously steep climb over loose and uneven rocks for about 1km. We breathed a sigh of relief at the top wanting to give Stanley a hug and buy him a beer. Still, no rest for us, we were aiming for Nkambe. This wasn't to be however, after nine hours of driving that day we ended up bush camping for the first time since Northern Ghana before we'd even reached Cameroon immigration.

We officially entered Cameroon the following day at Ako where we were stamped in before heading on to Nkambe, the road improved but still very hilly. We had a phenomenal climb on a dirt track, from 400m to 1600m in the space of about 12km. We had to stop twice to let Stanley cool down as he was overheating! We were jumped on by Roy and Michelle as we arrived at customs in Nkambe, a Brazilian couple who had been on the road for over two years on a world tour. They were considering crossing to Nigeria and wanted information about the route.

We carried on along the Ring Road - a circular route through the spectacular mountain scenery of north western Cameroon - to Kumbo. The road had vastly improved, so Stanley decided now would be a good time for the stabiliser bar to break again. We limped along to our destination where we stayed in a hotel with a difference, no fan or air conditioning, we even had hot water for the first time since Northern Senegal! We were now at almost 1800m and although the sun was still blisteringly hot during the day the air temperature was relatively cool. We wore jumpers that night, not because we had to, just because we could!

The following morning, after some asking around, we tracked down Victor and his welding shop. His team sprung into action putting Stanley back together, with a brief interlude while there was a power cut. Not impressed with the previous job and the fact there was only one strengthening bracket they added another. Victor guaranteed that his workmanship will last until the car returns to Europe. I can't see myself going back to Kumbo to get it fixed if it does break again. Still, I've got his email address so I'll let him know either way.

We pushed on towards Mount Cameroon with a stop in Bafang, we then decided to delay another day in Limbe for more food poisoning recovery. Three days of driving for nine hours per day had taken its toll. Despite the fact we were right next to Mt Cameroon we couldn't see it, it was totally shrouded in cloud. We ate in "The Fish Market" that night, a spot on the beach where the days catch is grilled over a fire and served up on a plate. A lovely meal sitting at a table on the beach. The electricity failed so we were eating by the strobe lighting of a storm over the mountain. The wet season has been gaining momentum, with spectacular storms most evenings since our first rains in Hohoe. Then came the tell tale strong gust, a 180 degree switch in wind direction and everyone sprung into action. I've never seen anything so efficient in Africa as our plates were grabbed and we were taken to a table with a roof. Table clothes were cleared as everyone was frantically battening down the hatches. A couple of minutes later the rains hit like a sledge hammer. We were joined at our table by a guitarist, the lightning illuminated Hannah's grinning face as we were then treated to the very surreal experience of eating seafood in the dark in the middle of a huge storm while being serenaded to the sounds of Bob Marley and The Eagles. We had a brief five seconds of electricity before there was a flash from the power cables over the street and sparks rained down onto the road knocking out the towns power once again.

Mt Cameroon is an active volcano, the most recent eruption in 2001. It shoots straight out the sea to 4095m in height, probably quite impressive if you could ever see the top. It does unfortunately also have the reputation of being the second wettest place on the planet, receiving over 10m of rain a year at the peak, even more rain than Manchester! Buea is a small town sitting about 1000m up Mt Cameroon and the starting point for most climbs. It's handy being at altitude for two reasons, firstly, the climb to the summit is shorter, and secondly, most of the hot sweaty walking through the rainforest circling the base is eliminated. We arranged a guide in Buea with two porters, feeling slightly guilty having other people carry all our stuff but we're not very fit at the moment! Especially as we had to take three days supply of water, 18 litres. The aim was to get up and down in two days, but we allowed the extra day in case we were struggling. Amadou, our guide said we wouldn't have to start too early, he'd be back at 7am the next day to give us time to eat our breakfast. I think they're early risers around here, we had the school opposite singing hymns at 6:30 the previous morning.

As promised, Amadou arrived with Joseph and Thomas, our porters, at 7am, unfortunately our alarm hadn't gone off, so we eventually left at 8:30. Really good walking weather for this part of the world, overcast with light rain. We reckon you can judge how hard a walk will be in Africa by the guides footwear, if he's wearing flip flops, it'll be hard, if he's wearing trainers, it'll be really hard. Our guide was wearing walking boots, we were worried. The only saving grace was he was carrying three days supplies and we were carrying a bottle of water and camera between us. We set off and the pace was ok, the porters shot on ahead carrying all their stuff and ours. We were quite lucky as the day remained overcast with high cloud, the rain cleared giving us amazing views from the mountain. The guide was saying it's the best views he's ever had from the mountain, and considering he'd been doing this for 30 years that's quite a statement! He and porters were all taking photos with their phones so it was clearly unusual. The walk started with a gradual ascent and seemed to get steeper and steeper. Scrambling up a very steep slope of volcanic rock and tufts of grass we eventually reached "Hut 2" at 2860m after just over six hours. This was where we'd be spending the night before making a charge for the summit the following day. We spent the night in the rat infested hut, it wasn't particularly pleasant hearing rats scurrying past your head in the dark. We also lost a packet of biscuits and a loaf of bread to them before we found hooks on the ceiling to hang our bags from.

The higher sections of the mountain look a little like scenery from the Lake District or Scotland, this was even more true when we woke up the next morning, it was wet, windy and cold, it could have easily been an English summer day. Craig and Lou had given us some Kendal Mint Cake before we left which we'd decided to eat on route to the top, so this all felt very fitting. Unfortunately it wasn't to be, the summit had inconveniently placed itself 1235m higher than my knees were willing to go. They'd been sore the previous day on the way up and were still painful in the morning, we decided the final ascent would be a bad idea and started heading down instead, enjoying the mint cake of course. When my knees are bad I find walking down stairs difficult, so a 1860m descent wasn't ideal! Still, we hobbled along slowly eventually making it back to the bottom in time for lunch. Amadou, spent most of the two days ranting about politics, moaning about the corrupt Cameroon government. We were told many times what cruel rulers the Germans were, how French systems breed corruption, which is why most of French Africa is such a mess, and how good the area was under the British but they left too early and should come back to help sort it out. He seemed very proud of the British post box in Buea.

The following day we headed for Yaounde to sort out more visas. We'd been told we could stay in a Benadictine Monestary on Mt Febe for free, so that's where we are now with great views over the city. Unsurprisingly, we've timed yet another visa application with a public holiday forcing us to pay the express fees for the Gabon visa.

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