For me, the relief of arriving at a beautiful beach after many hard weeks’ slog is surpassed only by the relief of finally leaving it behind. It’s so energizing to be Back On The Road. You feel immediately invigorated and refocused. The kids pick up on the excitement, and they were sitting together on the bench seat behind the cab grinning to be once again driving into a new city, even one as generally grimy and mouldy-looking as Douala. If Yaoundé seemed part city, part garden centre, like that great MacArther Park cake of green icing, Douala is the one that got left out in the rain.
What I at first thought was a poster advertising an exhibition of 18th century portraits, turned out to be a very posed pic of Cameroon’s First Lady Chantal Biya, looking for all the world like a cross between Marie Antoninette and Felicia Mabuza-Suttle. Big hair, big handbag and way too much leopard-print-clasped cleavage. Interestingly, the bilingual copy on the alternating ones of her husband had ‘Welcome and thank you Mr President’ translated for the Anglophones as merely ‘Welcome’…
We arrived in the smog of Douala braced for a challenge: we’d been warned by the southerners that life in the city is very different from the gentle pace of the country, and to be prepared for scoundrels of every description. But we desperately needed to boost our used oil supplies so had no choice but to dive in. Roadblocks were still fairly relaxed, foreigners seem to have a ‘Get out of jail free’ card that often gets you waved through: you pass go and are not expected to pay like the locals.
We first approached the restaurants listed in the Lonely Planet, crawling down the Rue de Liberté through the Akwa district in blistering heat and humidity, between the tooting taxis and distorted music blaring from the speakers of a cellphone promotion taking place (complete with dancers) right in the middle of the main road. I explained our mission in French to various restaurant owners and they promised to save their old oil for us till our return the following week.
The most fascinating of these was the gentle Mme Nal, with her folded hands and an elegant chignon, who with her husband, is proprietor of the Mediterranée Greek restaurant and still works a 12 hour day there, every day. They arrived in Douala in 1954, 6 years before independence, although she was careful to note that Cameroun was a Protectorate, never a colony. Suave and dapper Monsieur Nal said, ‘Then it was paradise; now it is more like hell.” Mme Nal told me she never sets foot on the street because of thieves, but always steps directly from the restaurant into a car. This means that we probably saw more of Douala street life in 2 days than she has in 60 years.
In one of his theatre shows, Sampson described the effect of ‘Fear Goggles’, a parallel phenomenon to the British ‘Beer Goggles’, which particularly affects white South Africans. ‘Beer Goggles’ make you think that the person you meet when you are drunk is far more attractive that they actually are; ‘Fear Goggles’ make you think that the place that you live is far more dangerous than it actually is. After a sweaty day pounding pavements, we drove out of town at dusk and pulled over to eat. While I cooked vegetables, Sampson wandered down the road with the kids and came back with the most delicious street-cooked grilled fish and slap chip feast bought for a song from the friendliest ladies imaginable. We felt really full for the first time in ages.
Sampson, a veteran of Glastonbury, Rustlers Valley, OppiKoppi and Up The Creek, says the atmosphere of an African city by night is like a music festival with added Greenmarket Square topped with a dash of nightclub. You can’t beat the vibe. Check out this amazing recycled statue gracing a roundabout on the way out of town: Emmanuel would have loved it!
30km on further west, we pulled up outside a banana plantation and asked the security guards if we could park off the road, on other side of their boom, for the night. They were delighted to tour the truck – “We only ever see this kind of thing on TV” – and agreed with alacrity. Only in the morning, did I see the sign outside and realised that it had happened to me: ‘The Man from Del Monte – he said yes!’ (That was just for British readers of a certain age.)
Somewhere between Douala and Limbe the world shifted a fraction on its axis and everything went Anglo. Suddenly, the bilingual signs had English first, French second, and the bread being sold at the stalls by the side of the road was square and doughy – baguettes were no more. It was also our first sighting of bowls of heaped gari for sale which is manioc in grated, dry-fried form rather than the milled flour used to make fufu. Here it is yellow or white depending on whether it’s been prepared with palm oil or not.
The kids were thrilled that they could now read the billboards and understand more of what was going on. I, on the other hand, was disconcerted to find I was disconcerted: my patter in French was now so slick, I found it difficult to switch into English gear. At one point that first night, I found myself talking in French to the security guy who was Francophone, who was then translating into ‘pidgin’ English for the other guy who was Anglophone. I was being translated into English?! I suspect Pidgin is to English as Afrikaans is to Dutch – it sounds a bit like children making it up. For us, it’s occasionally comprehensible but definitely a different language.
After months of trying to decipher both the language and bias of Radio France International, radio in plain English was an unmitigated joy. It was the first time I heard discontent expressed about President Biya; Anglophone Cameroon is the seat of opposition to his 30 year rule.
Limbe has a unique feel. After driving through miles of orderly palm plantations to arrive there, it felt lush in all senses. The wild green forest sits barely contained on the surrounding hills, panting in the heat, threatening to overwhelm the suburbs. Just below the surface, there is a somnambulant sleaziness, which, on first acquaintance, made the populace seem sulky when they were perhaps just too hot. The black sands of Down Beach sit glowering at the oil rigs in the harbour, resenting their ruination of the view of the Equatorial African island of Malebo in the near distance. And over it all, breathes the shadow of volcanic Mount Cameroon.
We cruised round looking for restaurants likely to give us oil and walked straight into the most welcoming person in Limbe: Pascaline at The Frenchy’s. A petite, voluptuous and stylish Anglophone from NE Cameroon, she’d married the eponymous Frenchman and come back from Paris to open this chic cabaret bar with him only 3 months ago. Husband Jérôme describes her as simply “adorable” (the word is so much sexier in French) and we have to agree. I have never met anyone so warm. Pascaline unselfconciously holds your hand from the first. Her beaming hospitality quite transformed our impression of the place.
We spent the afternoon at the Limbe Wildlife Centre http://www.limbewildlife.org. As the former Victoria Zoo it had housed a collection of animals in appallingly small cages, now in their turn put on show for the visitor. Currently, NGO Pandrillus does an amazing job of rehabilitating rescued primates and releasing them back into the wild whenever possible, as well as educating locals about the importance of conservation. Our impressively erudite guide Dede Tatou had an answer to Sampson’s every question about the gorillas, chimps, drills and mandrills residing there alongside the odd croc, bok and duiker. I lagged behind feeling compromised, as intelligent chimps, who looked as incensed as I’d be to be so enclosed, threw stones at passers-by. I found it particularly weird watching Cameroonian tourists watching blonde American girl volunteers playing with the baby chimps… who were the exotic specimens here?
We parked in the lot behind The Frenchy’s, and, after cooking supper and watching ‘Carry On Up The Jungle’ in poignantly sweltering heat, put the kids to bed. For the first time since leaving home, I put A Dress and Lippy on, and my hair Up (in two handfuls of clips) and went out at 9.30pm. An event indeed. In the airconditioned bar, all padded red leatherette seats against a classy black and white, chrome and mirrors backdrop, a live band was crooning a selection of African standards such as Malaika. Sampson celebrated with a Malta, a non-alcoholic Guinness very popular here, and I had fresh watermelon juice in a cocktail glass. We sat at a high table and chatted with Jérôme, while Pascaline, in 4 inch heels, greeted each one of her guests with four air kisses. It all felt terribly grown-up.
Missing: pic of us four at The Frenchy’s – please send Jérôme!
The next day, in between school, I was writing and editing and trying in vain to load my ever-increasingly-overdue blog. It was supremely frustrating that ‘a week’s internet access’ lasted only 5 days, and the ‘24 hour connection’ I bought at 4pm yesterday expired at midnight. Sampson spent the morning filming a terrifically friendly Nigerian boat builder called Stephen Asuquo, who was crafting an 8m canoe from mahogany, by hand.
In the afternoon, the kids and I took a walk through the shacks behind the club down to hot sands of the black beach, where the fishing boats all tried to outdo each other with the profundity of their names, such as “A Man is a Man”. The ubiquitous plastic litter looked so much more colourful and invasive against the raisin-dark sand, like OTT Christmas cake decorations. We liked the run down but heroic air of Limbe’s beachfront, which showed a defiant gaiety in its rainbow bar umbrellas and crumbling colonial colonnades. Passing pedestrians stopped to chat, including Mushtak who was most interested in Ruby’s future as his potential bride. It turned out he was quite the trendsetter…
The next day, a huge storm hit at 8am, making us feel all cosy inside the truck as we had our breakfast. The rain poured down all morning, making us very glad of our HiTec waterproof gear. The Orange shop in the centre of town told me the whole network was down country-wide and, as MTN was apparently no better, sent me to a specialist internet-only services shop, which was closed. As we drove south, I failed to snap a non-blurry photo of the customized umbrellas moto-taxis rig up for their pillion passengers.
We headed to the wide beach at Mile 6, which used to be a tourist hotspot, and is now abandoned except for restaurant on the end which has been taken over as club for refinery employees. I walked along it, half fascinated by the consistency of the sand – which was like a chocolate brownie mixture before you put it in the oven – and half horrified by the sheer mass of plastic debris thrown up by the sea. We ate a subsidised lunch of chicken and chips (seeing a pattern here?). When the tide came in, it was like paddling in chocolate mousse.
As we drove further along the coast, the spectacular scenery was interspersed with industrial grunge. There seemed to have been zero town planning to group ‘residential’ separate from ‘refinery’, as all were mixed up together. Cameroon has a bad habit of unfinished buildings; Angola had a similar one of enclosed empty pieces of land, vast plots pointlessly surrounded by overgrown walls. Covered in creeping black mould, fighting a losing battle against the damp, many buildings tended to look dilapidated even when they weren’t.
The exception was the immaculate Hotel Seme Beach, rising five storeys over its exclusive stretch of shoreline, clad in pristine blue and white tiles. The grounds boasted mosaic benches, pedaloes, a spa, a shop, a nightclub, and even, much to Ruby’s delight, untethered horses nibbling the green lawns. Sampson and the kids enjoyed a swim in the cold spring-ridden sea while I indulged in half an hour of their free wifi. Proprietor Jan was kind enough to interrupt his conference to visit the truck and invite us to stay the night, while Chef Justice donated a 12L of used oil.
Jan also gave us a continental breakfast, and we would have loved to have taken up his offer of free spa treatments as well, but the pressure was on to get to Nigeria before our visas expired next week. So instead of indulging in a massage, we got on the road back to Douala. I’d been driving on the way here, so Sampson wasn’t prepared for the sets of speedbumps on the highway. When he hit the first one, I was propped up on the bed in the back trying to write. I managed to hold onto my MacBook Air as it soared upwards, but then crunched my glasses’ case on the way down. So, the laptop didn’t hit the roof, but the same could not be said for me… Grrrrr.
I love travelling. I love how it makes me USE my life. At home, I seemed to get so tired by the daily grind, that even making the effort to go to town in the evening to see some theatre every once in a while was beginning to get beyond me. I was hating becoming so middle aged. But now we are always moving moving, always experiencing, always learning, always having our expectations stymied, constantly challenged. I love being humbled by circumstance, being amazed by people, being delighted on a daily basis by anything from sliced pineapple to uncalled-for kindness. Hardship doesn’t seem so hard on the road. We have no sofas to flop onto, no TV to zone out to, so somehow we don’t need them. I don’t miss the space of our kitchen, I appreciate how the lack of space means I make less mess. I don’t miss things, just people. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t mind a Truck Of One’s Own occasionally, to write quietly within.
Douala was as sticky and intense as ever, and as quickly as possible we collected oil from the accommodating Christine at Saga Africa, and from the Mediterranée, while we drew a blank at a couple of others. Mme Nal insisted on giving a free pizza to the children, which made their day. We then headed out of the CBD to find Tractafric Motors Cameroun, a sister Mercedes Benz specialist recommended by Stéphane Vautherin from Tractafric Motors Gabon who’d bumped into us in Libreville. Sampson spent an hour struggling through the most mental traffic ever to reach the industrial area.
It seems that in Cameroon, moto-taxi bikers grow up to drive Toyotas and employ exactly the same techniques – swerving through impossibly small gaps in the traffic – then, ten years later, graduate to buses. Sitting in the passenger seat while Sampson tries to negotiate all this on the ‘wrong’ side of the road can be TERRIFYING. Rush hour in Douala was definitely the craziest traffic yet, but locals piled up to five on a bike all seemed mellow in the midst of this honking chaos – such is the Cameroonian personality. Hundreds of them made a swooping slalom between the trucks and the taxis with a zen-like calm, ebbing and flowing around us, somehow floating above it all, trusting in something higher perhaps.
We arrived in the industrial park, only to find Sampson had got the directions wrong and we’d have to retrace our steps. We stopped to ask the best way back and a group of young men who’d been playing football in the wide street came over. Two got up simultaneously on each side of the cab and were giving confusing directions that made no sense. Thank goodness, Zola sounded the alarm with a piping shout: “They’re on the roof!” While those two had distracted us, others had climbed up over the bikes on the back and started rifling through the stuff strapped down on top, throwing down our blue plastic drum.
I was so incensed – it was 4pm, broad daylight and there were security guards standing around watching – that I responded in my usual cautious fashion. Without thinking I swung open the cab door, jumped down and was off down the street after them shouting indignantly. “OY! That’s for washing my children’s clothes! Give it back right now!” They abandoned the drum in the middle of the street and I rolled it back, remonstrating with the guy who’d been giving me the dodgy directions in the strongest terms I could manage in French: “That’s… not polite!”. I think they let me have it back because they were amused by my vitriol. Either that or they felt a smidgen of awe for this small woman who could not possibly take on a large group of 20 year olds but seemed up for it anyway, so was probably half-witch. SIGH. I’m so turning into my mother…
The kindly Germain, a security guard from the Volvo plant round the next corner escorted us back to Tractafric – it took 90 mins to do 3km to the other side of the highway, but at least that gave us time to cook supper on the way. We arrived about 7pm and were rewarded with the sounds of a choir, like the heavenly host, soaring over the warehouses from the Catholic Church next door. This was counteracted by the screaming of a woman being beaten by her husband to whom the Tractafric security guards ran to attend at midnight.
A team of ten expert mechanics spent the whole of the next day giving Big Reg the once over: they removed the filter we had replaced in Edolowa, which had already collapsed due to the residue from the coagulation, as well as checking the brakes, greasing all the nipples (look it up, non-mechanics), changing the oil and blast cleaning the radiator. Both kids were suddenly unwell with earache, and thankfully spent most of possibly the hottest day so far dozing in their beds.
I made them scrambled eggs with my first self-sprouted lentil salad – thanks for the tip Rachel Bray! – and finally managed to load a blog in the airconditioned lobby. After a test drive, Jean-Claude pronounced that all was in order and we were bracing ourselves for another drive through rush hour traffic to find a bank when Directeur Thierry Schoonbaert came out and said there was No Charge. I was so relieved, I nearly fainted; Monsieur Thierry took my perhaps over-effusive hug most graciously. Many many thanks to Monsieur Frédéric Hebert and Transafric Motors Cameroun for their generosity. They could have easily charged us anywhere between 150 000 and 300 000 FCFA for the service (R3000 – 6000) and their support allowed us to give the kids a half decent Christmas, as well as guaranteeing our safety for the rather more challenging road ahead. Big Reg hasn’t overheated since.
We filled up with water, showered, had supper, got the kids to bed and once again set off in the more civilised temperature of 8pm. Moving on.
Written around Dec 7th