Monday, January 23, 2012

Northern Cameroon

Wow, I've been really busy since leaving Chad. I left James in the SIL compound for an early attempt to get into Cameroon, having heard mostly bad stories about the border crossing. In fact, it turned out to be one of the easiest I've done in Africa. Maybe because it was a Sunday or because I was there not long after it opened there were very few people and in the offices getting stamps there was only me. I guess the locals freely cross. They are rebuilding the road from the border to N'Djamena so it was a 10 minute ride or so on dusty gravel road to the bridge over the river that marks the border between the countries. I had to get stamped and checked at 3 offices on the Chadian side and only at immigration on the Cameroon side. The whole process took about an hour.
The city of Kousseri is on the Cameroon side (many consider it to be a de facto suburb of N'Djamena) and I went immediately to the bus station and caught a bus south to Mora. It took 5 hrs on a paved but very pot-holed road. It is considered to be the worst road in Cameroon (but we know that the real worst is the Mamfe road from Nigeria and we have the photos to prove it!) but if that is the worst to come then I am laughing. I've been on much worse and having a bus driving very tilted half on and half off the road to avoid the holes is nothing new. Not that I'm a fan of 5 people across on benches meant for 3 ½...
Nevertheless I made it to Mora in good time and good spirits to meet my first couchsurfing host, Liz, who is a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Mora is a small town and an administrative centre in the extreme north province of Cameroon. It was a German town during the colonization and there were supposedly some ruins and a graveyard but I never got to them. It felt so different and much nicer than being in Chad. The landscape is slightly greener though just as dusty and things are still made of mud brick. The people are still mostly Muslim but the style of clothing is brighter and less covered. The most similar look to the land and people to me I guess would be Mali again. Cameroon is technically biligual (French and English) though the English is way far south from where I am but people definitely do speak more English here than in Chad.
The extreme north of Cameroon is a thin sliver of land so the Nigerian border and Chadian borders are both very close throughout the area and the influence is significant. The gas here is smuggled over from Nigeria as are some other goods. This may be where most of the English language is coming from too... Nomads from Chad will cross through Cameroon from market to market and into Nigeria to sell their cattle. And apparently there is still no night traffic because banditry is still a significant problem in the area as well.
I hung out with Liz, who introduced me to the other volunteers in town, another PCV, Martin, and an English gal, Louise, with the VSO. While all were full of good advice on what to see in Cameroon, Louise quickly started throwing together an itinerary with phone numbers of contacts along the way. Perfect :)
So I spent the night in Mora, had a walking tour of the area the next morning with the girls and jumped on the bus another 1 ½ hrs south to Maroua, the provincial capital, to stay with a Canadian VSO, Gabrielle. She had no idea who I was really but we got along well and she has let me use her place as a base to leave most of my stuff while I use Maroua as a jump off point to smaller places in the area.
After spending the night in Maroua, early the next morning I jumped on a squishy minibus 3hrs east to Pouss. I was in this rushed schedule because this was Pouss' market day which Louise would not allow me to miss. It was actually really cool though I had no idea what I was getting into at the time. I learned later that Pouss is the largest market in its area, and as it is literally right across a small river from Chad, pulls in interesting tribal groups and nomads from Chad and Cameroon. It was a bit funny to think that although I was watching them and thinking how cool the women, as tall as me and with their facial tattoos and big nose rings, looked carrying large calabashes of milk on their heads, people were watching me, the only white guy around in my funny clothes and carrying a bag on my back.... Not that other foreigners don't come, there just weren't any there that day. There is a volunteer in the village that wasn't around that day. The cattle that they trade are the ones with humps and massive horns. I know I've seen them before but can't remember where...
Unfortunately it wasn't really the kind of environment where you could really freely go up and take pictures of people's faces (or at least I'm not that kind of person and I got yelled at trying to take a pic of a cow) so i don't think I have anything that clearly shows the tattoos.
In Pouss there are also some traditional mud homes that are very large, hollow, bee-hive or almost lotus-flower shaped. As it gets up to 50C in the summer here they are wonderfully cool inside and it's unfortunate that the people have decided to live in concrete ovens or outdoors now instead. I had been told to wander around and try to find them and while I wandered through the village away from the market I met a guy who could speak English and was friends with the volunteers I knew and he decided to drive me to see these homes (which I wouldn't've found otherwise) and then take me to his home for lunch before sending me back to the market. :) Like Mora, Pouss also has a sultan, though the last one recently died and they're have having trouble figuring out who's next. People here have the choice of deciding matters by traditional law (determined by the sultan) or by Cameroonian law.
I'd been told to start thinking about leaving Pouss at 2pm to be sure of catching a ride back 12km to
Maga where I was to stay with another VSO volunteer, Odette. There were a number of trucks leaving the market so I went on the most beat up wreck ever. It looked like someone had put wheels on a rusted out shell of a pickup that we see all over the place. It had no windshield and I had to hold the passenger door closed. The cabin was totally gutted inside, you could see through the floor and the engine was steaming the whole way. We had goats and women in the back, guys hanging onto the side, and ducks tied to the roof (which kept poking their heads in and flapping their wings in through the “windshield” until the driver got fed up with being smacked and had them moved). It was the structurally worst vehicle I've ever ridden in and it actually made it to Maga. Awesome.
Odette was also awesome. A tiny older lady, she'd spent 2 years in Pouss, went home to Quebec for 1 ½ years and decided to return to Maga. She knows so much about what is going on in the area that it was great to just sit back and become informed. She's also travelled quite a bit around the world as well so it was nice to chat a little about everything in the evening after our walking tour of everything Maga.
Lake Maga, which has hippos and a thriving fish industry, is totally artificial and like the town itself, was created from nothing back in the 80's. The project seems to have worked out quite well as it has stabilized the drought/flood cycles of the area better, has created a fish industry (a Japanese/Cameroonian fish farming and freezing area opened up last Nov) that supplies the region (including N'Djamena), and also allows the area to be the rice growing centre of northern Cameroon. It's weird to see rice not growing in terraces. Millet seems to be the main staple otherwise.
After a night on Odette's floor I went back to Maroua to find Louise sick at Gabrielle's (she'd come down for work but couldn't do it in the end) so we both ended up staying over. She thinks it's malaria.
It seems they've all had malaria and typhoid at least once each.
The next morning I took off for an overnight trip to Rhumsiki. Rhumsiki is the most famous and touristic destination in northern Cameroon. From Maroua I caught a minibus to Mokolo, 1 ½ hrs away. On that minibus I met a Dutch guy working with SIL Cameroon. How weird is that? In Mokolo I had to negotiate a motorbike to take me the 50km further to Rhumsiki. The road to Mokolo is smooth, the road onward was supposed to be a terrible dirt road.
With memories of Abeche still in my head I made sure to really check that I was getting on a good bike. What I should've been doing was checking the sanity of my driver. He was nuts and apparently thought that the road was his own personal race course. The road is terrible, and going in a shared car or van would be slow and hellish I think. With a motorbike you could zip around many of the problems but that didn't mean we needed to do it so fast! I think we were going for the tourist record. It took just over an hour on a road worse than the one to Ouara and was the scariest motorbike ride of my life. There were some very rough rocky sections that you have to crawl over but at other times he'd be up at “crash and die” speed.
The approach is beautiful though as about halfway along you start to see the rock formations that the area is famous for. The volcanic plugs sort of randomly dot the landscape for many km surrounding Rhumsiki. They probably weren't as numerous or concentrated as I'd expected but it was still cool. You can do trekking to the local villages and down into the valley but I just found a place to stay and hung out locally. Being the most touristy place in the north, I was a little surprised to find out I was the only one to arrive in Rhumsiki in the last 2 days. There was nobody but me so I was the main dish for the guide touts that wanted to take me on their little tours of the sites. No thanks. Touristy witchdoctors are not for me. Anyway, I just wanted to relax and stare at the rocks from a nice lookout point, so eventually they got bored of me and went away. You can tell they do get tourists though as there are little craft shops, a few tourist restaurants and the kids ask for gifts, pens, etc. In short, it's well on it's way to being annoying, but since the actually number of visitors is quite low, it's a far cry from overdeveloped or obnoxious. It's just the first time I've had to deal with that this trip.
So instead I sat and stared and got mobbed by some kids walking home from school. In the end 2 of the boys decided they would accompany me to the top of the Rhumsiki hill that overlooks the town. By the time we got to the base of it 2 had become 4 and halfway up that had doubled again. Only the original 4 continued to the very top with me though. They found the route and were really good about protecting me from falling off the edge. My sandals are not the best for climbing up slippery stone slopes. They taught me French, I taught them English, everyone laughed and had a good time. The view was nice from the top but it is harmattan season so the sand is in the air and the haze really blocks a lot of the view. Rhumsiki is also right on the border with Nigeria and I guess during the treks people will technically cross over the line but it's all just open space out here. There is a market on Sundays in Rhumsiki so I guess that's when the tourists show up, otherwise very little was going on in the village.
The next day I had to face another death-defying moto ride back to Mokolo with my same driver (you arrange for when you want them to return to get you) and then back to Maroua. The ride was only awesome because it's over and I survived.
The next day I left Maroua to go 2 hours south to a small town called Guider. From there I got another moto taxi (I'm starting to get really sore from all the bikes!) to Kola Gorge, the local attraction that had also been recommended to me. Kola is kind of bizarre in the sense that you would never suspect it's existence based on the surrounding landscape. From sandy and dry land with a few bouldery hills here and there the gorge manages to suddenly drop into the ground. It's probably only 50ft deep at most and 10ft wide, but made of smooth blue/grey stones. There is a small stream, just deep enough now to get your feet wet) that runs through it and has carved out some very smooth whirlpools sideways into the stone. Really the whole thing was on the dinky side, but challenging and fun for me because we (my moto driver and some locals that wanted to guide/follow me) climbed down to follow the stream and then up and over to another section to check out some “rooms” that had been carved out by the water. Wet, sandy sandals are not good for bouldering, especially as I had to do it all with my big backpack on! Somehow I'm still alive and not a wreck (a trend I hope to continue!). Back at Guider I caught another minibus 1 1/2hrs further south to Garoua for the night.
From Garoua it was 4 1/2hrs farther south to Ngaoundere. You might think that all these bus rides are not very long or far, but I've had to wait an average of 1 ½ hrs for the transport to fill up before it leaves, so it takes quite chunk out of your day just to get even a little way down the road. Ngaoundere is the biggest town so far and is the northern terminus for what is supposed to be a very nice train journey south to Yaounde. I've wandered around town now and find it thoroughly uninteresting actually. It's supposed to be nice because it's on a plateau and so a few degrees cooler, and the surrounding countryside is looking a lot more savannah than sahel with more shrubby vegetation and dirt than sand.
I will not be taking the train out of here unfortunately. I will instead make my way south and east by road along the CAR border and hope to cross over briefly sometime in the next few days.
I've recently been eating quite a few avocado sandwiches as an avocado is 20 cents and a baguette the same. Yum! The grilled meat on the street in the evenings is also great. I'm still very, very dehydrated though :(

Kola Gorge


My Rhumsiki guides

Overlooking Rhumsiki

The vehicle that should not be, at Pouss market

Traditional architecture of Pouss

Pouss market

Pouss market

Pouss market


At 1:17 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ammon,
Awesome seripticious pictures!!! I get tired just reading about what you are doing!!! I have to get my map back out to track your movements again. Have you noticed any difference in attitudes this time as compared to last time you were in Africa? You were frustrated by the lack of motivation to take charge of their own lives, and expected so much for someone else to fix everything for them. Sort of a welfare culture mentality.
Does there seem to be much cultural variation as you move about, or is it more subtle than that. The dress colours were amazing as you said but would make your eyes bleed if you were hung over. Lol The adventure seems so amazing. Noticed you seem to find lots of company to stay with. Just my cynical eye, but are you mostly staying with females? Enquiring minds want to know.
Anyways, great to see you back out their, and doing well.

Bear Hugs and Love as always
The Bear


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