A real Sunday afternoon ride to Oyem, Cameroon awaits......
16th March 2014.
As always happens, in this wandering life, there comes a time when it feels right to move on….. It was Sunday morning, and time to leave Libreville, and head for a new country Cameroon!
I must say my left leg wasn’t getting better, and now as the source of some worry for me. This was the injury from my fall in the Congo, some 5 days earlier. What worried me was that it seemed to be internal infection that was causing internal swelling that was restricting circulation in the leg. From the outside, other than the leg being swollen an bruised, it didn’t look infected. Waking up in the morning, I was barely able to stand on the leg, as the blood flow increased to the leg, causing excruciating pain. Well I had started a course on antibiotics a day and half earlier, so this still had to work it’s magic, so I concluded time was needed, before I took the next more serious intervention. It was worrying though, and the pain also drains one’s battery, a little more than if things were normal.
I’d finally got my head around having to go back, (along the N1) for almost 200 kilometres, the same way I had come, to connect with the N2, that then headed north to the Cameroon border. My map showed a great short cut that would reduce the double back by some 250 kilometres at least, but I had struggled to find positive information and details of the road. There were two issues: First, it was a secondary road, and so was the road surface OK? It having rained quite heavily overnight, I didn’t want a Point Noir, Congo replay, just yet! The second issue was that my map showed that the road had a brief excursion into Equatorial Guinea, and I wasn’t sure whether there was a formal border post or not, whether it was even open, and lastly whether I’d be allowed in as a few hours transit, without a visa? All I read about Equatorial Guinea didn’t sound positive, and I did sense that this I route would almost guarantee an ordeal, of probably sizeable proportion, and so needed to be well thought through. I decided to ride without delay to the turn off for this secondary road, and then ask the Gendarme / Controle people, about the route? So with this uncertainty, and thinking it a good idea to get out of Libreville, before the traffic was too heavy, I was up early, with a plan to leave by 7am.
As I loaded the panniers onto the bike, it hit me how I have been living in this very humid, equatorial climate, for a few weeks now, and have got pretty used to it… With the rain last night, there was this steamy feeling around, even though it was early morning, and I had to dry down the bike saddle which was still very wet. The trade mark, grey clouds all around, looking like the rain hadn’t quite finished, but my experience now, said, that it was almost certainly over at least for the morning, and probably blue skies will take over the stage setting in an hour or so….. It then occurred to me that this constant heat and humidity, combined with the uncertainty that it could bucket down anytime in the day, creates an uneasy weather feeling within me. It’s not a relaxing or seemingly healthy climate for me, and then if you add the fact that the daylight hours hardly change over the year, and the angle of sun, doesn’t make for nice long dawn and dusks, and limiting photographic creativity. I think I’d find it quite ‘boring’ and oppressive after a while, but for most around me that’s all they know. For the moment is was just what it was, and I was happy to feel I was in experiencing a whole new weather environment. While Uganda was very similar latitude, I did spend quite a lot of time in the mountain areas, above 1800 metres, and this elevation difference makes a huge difference, to most sea level, or just above where I am now.
It felt good leaving while the village around me seemed still fast asleep enjoying a Sunday lie in, or Saturday party recovery. What did shake my relaxed, free, context, was suddenly the presence of four police guys, complete with rifles, and mean looks on their faces, as I came around the first corner, literally 500 metres from my hotel. They sternly signalled me to stop. I tried the normal, friendly ‘Bonjours’, but these guys were on a mission, and serious one, that seemed beyond their government duty, mandate. The one guy, aggressively pointed his rifle to where I must move my bike to, park it and then return to ‘them’. I did as instructed, not removing my helmet, and then they demanded passport, travel documents, and had lots of questions. Seeing I had everything in order, the one who liked his rifle, demanded Fr10 000, and when I asked what for, he said in French, what I think was the equivalent of ‘Road tax’. Now I hadn’t paid any form of 3rd party or road usage tax, like I had to in some other countries, so just mumbled that I had paid, already and I was off to Cameroon today. Well he pointed his rifle at my Cape Town number plate, hitting the plate with the barrel end, and indicated that I was foreign and had to show my ‘factura’ for having paid the insurance. I called his bluff by showing him my Carnet de Passage (the vehicle transit permit) and that seemed to work as he lost the will to take me on… He still demanded the Fr10 000, and then I switched to my, ‘no money’, ‘no house’, and ‘no friends’ story, also adding a visual of my gashed and swollen leg, ending off saying who hard life on the road was! Well it worked again, and even this tough, virtual bandit’ weakened and I saw a glimpse of compassion, and with that he beckoned me on…. I was free to leave Libreville, a city not living up to its honourable name! I had enjoyed the city, far better than most other African capitals, and I wanted to get a few photos that I’d missed. With it being a quiet Sunday morning, and low-ish sun, as I road along the wide, empty, beachfront esplanade, I thought my timing was perfect. There were lots of runners out on the road, something that I had seen each morning I was out walking, but very unusual for the other capitals I had visited. I took the photos of the impressive, slavery / liberty memorial below, and then turned taking photos of a huge, and equally impressive modern building. As I clicked the first one, I heard loud shouting from across the road, and saw a fully armed guard protesting. I decided to stop photographing and just return quietly to my bike, but this guy had a mission and that was to reprimand me and confiscate my photos. Well after acting as if I hadn’t heard him with my helmet on, he rose to the challenge, running, and was soon right down with me at the bike, ranting and raving about how I can’t take photos. He demanded that I delete the ones I had taken, and that plus the fact that I got onto one knee in apology seemed to adequately reward him for his energetic mission. Gee, this was most unlikely start to my relaxed Sunday ride. Pulling in for petrol, into a Total service station, that looked like it was just opening, I opened the cap, and the next thing is the attendant is demanding money. I assured him, that I had cash and would pay, but he insisted on some payment upfront. I had noticed they were the only service station open of about four in the immediate area, and wondered if he wasn’t demanding his early opening fee, thinking I was in desperate need of petrol. I didn’t quite understand his French reasoning, but I’m convinced he was asking for a ‘gift’. Pissed off with all this so far, I started up the bike and roared off. I knew I’d find something open a bit further towards the outskirts of the city. Well it’s not the most relaxed ride out of Libreville, but the city, roadside, traders were just waking and passing a roadside kitchen where the lady in charge had wonderful looking baguette sandwiches in an immaculate retail display, designed to entice passing motorists like me, looking for their burst of inspiration to start a long day on the road. I couldn’t resist, so stopped the bike, and made an event of it… Next to a huge pile of fresh baguettes, she had a wide variety of ingredients, from pate, eggs, onions, tomato, avocado, etc, for choosing one’s custom sandwich, which she then made in front of you. She was there complete with young kid strapped to her back, but business was humming. She must have seen the delight on my face, as we bonded and I sensed she wanted to make me the best sandwich for me… She finished the production, offering me a toppings choice of mayonnaise, olive oil, or some sort of aioli. All for less than $2, I said she could keep the nominal change, and I went to sit on the wall nearby and take in my informal, roadside restaurant ambiance. The sandwich was ‘perfect’, and half way through I gave her the ‘Si bonne’ thumbs up that took our bond to a new high! It was so good, I’d have another one, and knowing exactly how it worked this time, I indulged in a real customised special, and my, smiling, repeat buyer, tourist status, clearly moved her to a new high for her morning. All strangely uplifting and humanly inspiring, as I sensed we had bonded, and I felt this warm feeling within, that I often get in situations like this. One of feeling really lucky to be ‘out here’, where normal society ‘says’, I shouldn’t really belong, yet experiencing this basic, yet maybe irrational, equality, while each knowingly, also moving the others’ life beliefs. With this comes a very rich and intense sense of overall wellbeing, that makes me wonder if those bandit police even know exists?
I was soon at the turnoff for the secondary road to Equatorial Guinea, and luck had it that there was an English (basic) speaking Gendarme guy who was friendly and helpful. He not only didn’t recommend I took the route, but said it wasn’t open anymore, as conflict with Equatorial Guinea had closed the border post in that area. So my decision was made, and I moved to the much longer route plan, for which I had prepared myself. It was about mind-set, and I had talked myself into treating it as a long ‘Sunday afternoon’ ride, in one of the world’s last big equatorial forest environments.
Well it turned out to be exactly that: More than 400 kilometres of winding, hilly tar road that snaked its way through the dense forest, passing through the occasional, relatively sophisticated villages. There was very little traffic on the road, so the stuff, Sunday afternoon, recreational motorcyclists dream about. For me, it was about getting to Oyem, a town close to the Cameroon border, in one piece, and not taking on, grand prix thrill, challenges. The other issue being that both my tyres are nearing the end of their safe riding lives, and so this was about nursing them to Lagos, and not taking chances with their reducing road adhesion. I learnt this a long time back in my bicycle touring: Looking after the bike, rather than pushing the equipment to its, thrill limits, is what touring requires.
Well, I have been raving about the equatorial in a few previous blog posts, but today the forest was really at its most hugest and most awesome best. I did stop to try and capture the feeling I had, but each time as I moved to push the shutter button, I couldn’t: It was hopeless in even trying to capture one dimension of the magnificence. There was the height and stately presence of the large trees, then range of vibrant, deep green colours, then the variety of leaf type, from fine fringes to huge broad leaves. Sometimes as I looked to the side I couldn’t see through the density of the trees beyond the first line, it seemed like it was just a totally filled composite of varied trees, each occupying a space that best fitted its needs, but all in a fight for open air and the unreachable blue sky. Every now and then, the road works had scarred the forest, exposing the blasted away rock, or read earth, hill face, creating a harsh, visual contrast. This destructive scarring, enabling man to have a more direct and easier route to his varied destinations, outside the density of the forest where nature has naturally forbid, humans, the ability to co-exist.
For a few hours the road shared a valley with a medium size, Central African river, and obviously having had trouble with washed away and flooded, tributary bridges, road works were still under the go making for slow progress, but at least forcing one to taking in the raw beauty of the chocolate brown, river environment.
At each river viewing I excitedly scanned the area hoping for wild life or water bird sightings, but sadly my expectant enthusiasm waned as each viewing produces a wildlife, nothingness. I must say, in Congo and now Gabon, I have been amazed at the complete lack of bird life. It made me realise that one of the significant ‘entertainment’ value aspects for me about motorcycling in the wilds of east Africa was the continual sightings of a huge variety of birds, and even often wildlife. It’s this expectant mind-set, almost a game, that nature allows one to enjoy. A game that keeps one interested and always on the lookout for that special sighting, this dimension is important for me. Water spots always increased this entertainment, but here it seems the environment is animal and bird, sterile. The sad possibility that this seemingly perfect wild Africa terrain has been raped of its birds and wildlife seems too hard to believe. I am hoping that a more informed specialist will tell me the reasons are less about human intervention, and more about natural suitability and preferences.
At my ‘lunch stop’ I had another simple, yet ‘spiritual’ human experience: I was hungry, tired and thirsty as I rode into the town of Mitzic, and was struggling to find something inspiring, both in the informal pavement side offerings, or the more formal ones with tables and chairs. It was Sunday lunchtime, and the restaurants were overflowing, with people socialising in their locals, and beside the holistic offering not inspiring me, it is sometimes quite intimidating stopping and entering one of these local joints, as a solo tourist, with zero belonging, medals or connection points. If I’m in the mood, it provides a challenge and entertainment, and is very often the source of rewarding cultural exchange, but when the less gregarious, / confident side of Howard is dominating, I find it best to avoid. This was avoiding time, but as I rode by I noticed a guy selling coffee, from a ‘Nescafe’ cart, and he must have seen my connection as he said something to me. I stopped 25 metres down the road, pared the bike and helmet and went to explore his offerings. Well I got the same skilfully made coffee as I had in Brazzaville (described in an early blog posting), and yes, complete with sweetened condensed milk, and then a further offer of two or three sugars! I’m sweet enough, so declined the latter, and asked the guy how much it was! Didn’t quite understand the price he said, but gave him Fr500 ($1) and he struggled for all the change, but after he had given me Fr200 back, and was still looking for more, I told him he could keep the rest. He was so genuinely happy with my small gesture, I just thought how great his attitude was. Mostly in this situation, I experience the vendor as almost holding back on change knowing tourists pay way over. As I walked away I asked him if I could take the photo below of him and his Coffee trolley, and he was very taken and accommodating.
I then walked around a few of the food vendors, and was attracted by a baguette sandwich maker similar to what I’d had earlier. I was about 6th in the queue, but surprisingly almost all those ahead of me were teenagers in school uniform, clearly getting a lunch snack on the way home from school.
With less ingredient choice and less care going into the final product, this operation was less, customer delight, focused, and all of ‘us’ were just treated as ‘means to an end’, commodities. It also cost twice what I paid previously. This was a larger town, and as ‘we’ often find the increased ‘push for a buck’, and time pressure of big cities, often comes in conflict with the elements of customer experience, and the human touch.
Anyway I walked back to my bike, to have my sandwich and coffee in solitary, and relative, un-stared at, peace. The coffee was as good as one gets from its instant ingredients, but was just what I needed, and so I decided to go back for a second cup. As I approached he approached me with a just made cup, and seeing I was needing another gave it to me. I reached for some money to pay, but he just waived me away, with a firm message that this second cup was on him, and the cost would come out of my earlier tip. It wasn’t the time to protest, I sensed this guy wanted to live by the sanctity of his soul, which was clearly feeling abundant, from the day’s activities, our interactions, and his motives for business. It was time to step up to the hand of equality he was offering me, such a refreshing change from the many hands of lowly begging, or the expectant patronage, I have experienced on this African expedition. He could see from my warm reaction that I valued him, his product, and the fair service he was we , both knew we had shared something simple, yet very special.
I finally rode into Oyem at just after 4pm, and it had been a long riding day, having covered nearly 600 kilometres on twisting roads.
The town was a typical mid-sized ‘African town, with a central semi-1st world infrastructure, centre de ville, surrounded by 3rd world sprawl, of struggling physical infrastructure, but vibrant community activities, from markets, informal pavement shops, to bars, restaurants, and clubs. I soon found, probably the only half decent hotel in the town, and with a multi storey accommodation section, and only one car parked outside, I knew the negotiating power lay with me. As I got off my bike to go and negotiate, I had to admit that my left leg had worsened quite significantly over the day’s riding, and I was reduced to a very painful hobble. Hmmm, this wasn’t good news and time to take things seriously.
The hotel worked out well, and after a pleasant enough meal in their restaurant with a view of the nearby lake, my priority became getting my leg in the air and rest. I was in need of medical treatment beyond the antibiotics, and my mind was occupied on what could be wrong, besides the obvious, and then how best I get connected to the right medical expertise. This was all a bit disappointing, and I started down the path of getting angry with myself for not taking more serious action earlier, but thankfully concluded that that would be a wasted journey, before it negatively affected by fighting back spirit.
Sleep and rest were now the only goal.