Sunday, 3 May 2009

Into the Southern Hemisphere

After a couple of days dodging taxis in Yaounde, we had Gabon visas and set off towards the border. The taxis in Yaounde were terrible, dented, yellow, un-roadworthy scraps of metal zooming all over the place as if they owned the city, we were glad to escape. Out of the cities however it's been delightful, once we'd cleared the terrible roads near the Nigerian border we unexpectedly had beautiful smooth tarmac pretty much the whole way, snaking through the hills and forests of Cameroon with almost no other cars on the road. Such a pleasant change after Nigeria! As we knew was likely to be the case, we were stopped regularly by the police to tell us that right-hand drive vehicles are illegal in Cameroon. Fortunately we had our argument prepared and on telling them that it's fine for tourist vehicles in transit, most of them seemed happy enough. No idea whether this is actually true or not but it seemed to work!

Cameroon has been the first country in Africa where we have seen clear evidence of huge commercial farms. Mile after mile bananas, rubber, pineapple and palm nuts. Fields of tea stretching over the hills round the ring road and at the base of Mt Cameroon. I was very excited to have my Tole tea in Limbe in the morning, then drive past the Tole plantation later that day! The shops even stock packaged Cameroonian products such as tea and coffee. Most packaged products in shops usually come from Asia or Europe, even things they should be able to easily produce locally are shipped in from Indonesia or China.

The wet season peaks in May in Cameroon and April in Gabon, so we joked we'd be due to hit the worst of it on our journey across the border, and we did. The first time we'd had to drive through torrential rain, to arrive at a flooded hotel in Ebolowa, we had no electricity or running water due to the storm (We should have gone somewhere else on hindsight). Another hassle free border, customs was very quick the Cameroon side as the officials were playing a game and the guy dealing with us had to get back to it.

Across the border we headed for Oyem where we planned to stay the night. Accommodation is notoriously expensive in Gabon so looking for a cheap option we pulled into the Catholic Church. Approached by Victor, the local bishop, we asked if we could camp, "No problem", was the response so that was us sorted. We got out our table and chairs and he asked if we'd mind if his family joined us, so we all sat down and had a chat about the trip. Victor asked if I liked beer, and promptly sent a boy off to buy one, I figured I should probably pay so when the boy returned I gave him some money, and he went off again and came back with another two large beers. After a couple of glasses Victor started insisting that Hannah and I went to meet his mother, so we were marched across town to meet his mother and visit his fathers grave. On the way back he said we should go into a bar for some more beer as his father was there, we decided that we probably shouldn't be plying the local bishop with any more beer at this point and persuaded him to return to the church. Much to Hannah's dismay he told us that his dogs would guard us all night so we'd be very safe (Hannah dislikes dogs), and very obediently, they did, sleeping next to the car all night.

Setting off the next day, with the Equator just a few hours away the countdown to the southern hemisphere started, stopping for the obligatory photos at the sign. We carried on south, and it seems Gabon only makes good roads in the northern hemisphere, as it rapidly deteriorated then turning to dirt road again for the long drive to Franceville.

Gabon is one of the wealthier countries in Africa and relatively stable being run by President Bongo for the last 40 years, a great name, and an "exceptional man" if the posters at the border are to be believed. It is very rural, a similar size to the UK, and has a population of just 1.4 million. Once we started heading east towards Franceville the country just seemed deserted, few signs of life other than the road.

Bongo, being persuaded that ecotourism was the future turned 10% of Gabon into National Park overnight in 2002, in a country where no parks existed before. This has been the first country we've seen any sign of mammalian wildlife outside of parks since Mali - the Muslim north has an advantage as Muslims don't eat bush meat. Since then we've seen an amazing variety of dead wildlife for sale at the side of the road, from rats and snails to deer and monkeys. It's been good to see living monkeys and antelope again in Gabon. We had a night of unofficial camping in the Lope National Park in a quarry where we watched a troop of monkeys dance through the trees as we sat down for our evening tea.


Blogger richard jones said...

Sounds wonderful as I lie in my bunk on the river Deben. It's cold and we've got the chercoal heater going . This is my first ever blog! You're parents made good speed back to Dover y'day.

5 May 2009 at 06:25  

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