Into Cameroon, a Yaounde hospital room for my hotel, and a whole new 'ordeal' begins........

"Into Africa" More than a Motorcycle Adventure
Howard Fairbank
Sat 22 Mar 2014 07:19

03:52.28N 011:30.64E


Flag of GabonCameroon


17th March 2014.


Getting up in the morning, I could feel that things had got a little more serious, and I had to be honest with myself an admit that the antibiotics were not winning their battle…. Everyday my leg was getting worse, not better. Walking to the loo was now a debilitating experience, as the increase blood to my leg, flow from being upright, tried to find its way to infected areas previously not reachable when I was horizontal and sleeping. There and then I committed myself to finding professional medical care by the end of the day. Best bet was the Cameroon capital of Yaounde, nearly 400 kilometres away, but I had this passion plan, that I wanted to visit the apparently attractive, seaside town of Kribi, and then the commercial capital, Douala, before Yaounde. This route gave me a great ‘circle’ of exploring, without needing to double back. This decision to turn off the N2 to Yaounde, would only have to made at Ebolowa, some 200 kilometres from Oyem. So I decided to see how things went to Ebolowa, and then also to get information on the quality of the dirt road from Ebolowa to the coast before deciding. I did remind myself that my leg was the top priority, not the anticipated delights of Kribi!


It was foggy outside, and as I loaded up the bike, I even felt a bit cool, wondering whether I needed a long sleeve top today? In my pursuit of motorcycling freedom, I forewent  the standard motorcyclist leathers and overdressing, and almost since leaving Lusaka my trade mark black ‘T’ shirts have been the chosen gear for the day’s ride. I can almost hear all the safety nuts, chairs rattling as they stand up to protest and then scold me on the unsuitability of that attire! Well, that’s me, and what I feel comfortable wearing. My slow speed, and conservative riding style goes hand in hand for a  holistically, comfortable, Africa formula. (This has nothing to do with the prevention of injury in the mud, soft sand falls I have had.) Africa is about feeling it on one’s skin, and not from inside the leather sauna of traditional, heavy motorcycle gear. Continuing on the subject of ‘enforced’, uniforms….:


I was soon on the outskirts of Oyem, and the pavements were full of kids in ‘interestingly, ‘cool’, Africa friendly, school uniforms, walking to school. I had to get a photo of these contra colonial, uniforms, but I didn’t want to offend the kids, so this would need to be about a win-win, adult to adult, sharing experience.


I targeted my ‘man’, walking on his own, pulled up, and opened conversation in my best French. I told him right up front that I really liked his uniform, and it was the best I’d seen in ‘the whole of Africa’! His name was Phillip-Jean, and after his initial surprise at my initiative, he was soon relaxed and we were having a great conversation in pretty good English. He told me he was “twenty eight” years old, but I suggested he meant “eighteen” and he coyly agreed, seemingly reprimanding himself on the vocabulary mistake. Once he heard I was from South Africa he wanted to know a lot about the country, as he said he really wanted to go and study there after high school. South Africa has a lot of aspirational value for younger people in the less sophisticated countries, and I have met many who have studied, worked and lived in South Africa who talk as if the country is like another dream world…. It invariably boils down to work, jobs, and aspiring affluence, little thought given to cultural fit, and political issues. Interesting our relative perspectives hey! It was time to get my photo of the best contra-northern hemisphere, colonialism, school uniform I had yet seen. It was ‘cool’ in every respect, seemingly perfect for the equatorial school environment, compared to the totally inappropriate striped, dark blazer, tie and grey flannels I’d seen almost everywhere else. Probably French creativity also had some thread in the design?    



A good school friend of Phillip Jean’s arrived, introduced himself and joined in the conversation, and what struck me was how relaxed and keen to speak in English they both were. It was almost as though they were hungry to practice their English. On talking about this, they both said the standard of their English teaching wasn’t good, but they both wanted to learn to speak better, but seldom get the chance. I was drawn to the friend’s attire: Over his shirt he had a fleece top, and when I pointed to it, he said he was very cold this morning! Another relativity hey. It made me wonder what the coldest temperature these guys would have ever experienced here near the equator? Maybe 12 degrees C.


Whether it was because I was leaving Gabon, or because of problems with travel to and from Equatorial Guinea, the Gabonese road blocks / control today were irritatingly, painful. As I said in previous postings, I’d manage to read the control mind-set, and largely avoid being called back to stop and produce all my documentation. Well today was different, I was stopped at all of the first three control points, and asked for my documentation. The last one was horrendous, where, not only did they want the documentation they made me open all my panniers, and all the containers inside them, even my small waterproof container that I keep matches in for lighting my stove. I must say the guy was clearly after something, and thought I was a prize catch, but he didn’t pass the ‘appropriate search’ test, if he used my, presented profile, as the match. I often thought that these guys are so bored, searching someone like me provides entertainment, and then they also get to see just what a motorcycling tourist does carry with him? He didn’t seem to have an obviously aggressive, vindictive streak in him, neither was there an obvious bribery / corruption motive. I was there, ‘entertaining’ him for almost half an hour…..


At the last of the three road blocks, the guys were bribe focused, and tried a few different money angles, of which only the last one challenged me: Looking through my passport, he asked me where my Gabon stamp was? I showed him the incoming one from the Congo side, which he hadn’t seen, but he switched the inquisition to saying I needed a control stamp for Bitam, a small town about 25 kilometres back.  I was worried I’d missed a stamping point, but insisted I didn’t, and after lots of weak squeezing for payment in lieu of the stamp, he dropped the issue, and let me carry on. This all heightened my attention to the mission of now getting out of Gabon without hassle, and being alert for unexpected traps for vulnerable, country leaving, prey. In the end, to my surprise, there wasn’t even an immigration control point, just customs, and I didn’t even need an exit stamp for leaving Gabon!


My travel guide for West Africa only starts at Cameroon, and what I had read about Cameroon was the source of my increased alert.  Being 2008 vintage I was aware that the content may not accurately represent the current situation, but there were lots of warnings that Cameroon is even more of a police / control state, with severe restrictions on even public domain photography. More disturbing was that fact that unofficial, criminally motivated, controls and hold ups were real possibilities and cause for alert.


I was soon crossing the bridge across the Ntem River which divides Gabon and Cameroon, and felt this mixture of relief, excitement, and apprehension as I saw a lone hut ahead.


With this view I cautiously approached the, ‘bandit hideout’, looking, single shack, immigration office with caution. Well the informally dressed guy inside was very friendly, casual in demeanour and to my surprise there wasn’t a form to fill in, and within minutes I had my entry stamp and he was wishing me “Bon voyage en Cameroon”. He told me customs was two kilometres further on, and I did think well maybe that’s where the real action will begin?


The Customs point was a much more formal affair, and there were quite a few trucks stopped around it, seemingly waiting to clear the process. There was no queue, just the official busy with some paperwork, but I could see he felt I was now the priority. I told him I was on a motorcycle, and he just locked straight on to my Carnet de Passage. I produced it, and he went straight to a new page, signed where he had to sign, stamped it and with another “Bon voyage en Cameroon” I was out of there in ‘Africa record’ time. Gee, was Cameroon the new standard for Customs and Immigration friendliness and efficiency, and my guide book out of date? Let’s hope so, I (maybe) fantasized!


Cameroon did feel different, and yes, there were a lot of road controls along the way, and yes they were very intrusive, but from a motorcycle perspective, each time, I was waived through courteously without words even exchanged. I’d read about the aggressive tyre puncturing, road barriers, but now seeing them did give me a whole new perspective. This plank of wood, generously populated with large nails protruding up from it, with the one end tied to a piece of rope that the guard can then pull out across the road to immediately incapacitate any unwanted entrant’s vehicle. A simple yet lethal device, and clearly one, whose visual meanness, is probably the most effective deterrent.


I eventually reached Ebolowa, and without any road signage, and some ineffective searching around for the road to the coast, I settled to ask this elderly guy sitting relaxing on a bench under a huge tree. Well, after his initial surprise at me stopping to talk to him, we struck up a good rapport, and he turned out to be a very knowledgeable guy with regard to the roads, the scenery and my options. I was thankful that without factoring in my leg, he persuaded me that going to Yaounde first was the best option. My decision was made, and the priority was now to get to Yaounde and find ‘the’ hospital.


Arriving at the outskirts of Yaounde, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In hindsight I realise I was expecting a lesser city than most of the other African capitals I had visited…. Not sure why that was, but all I had read, and my prejudices and assumptions had created this expectation. Well at the outskirts reality delivered on expectation, but as I got further ‘inside’ the metropolis, things changed, and by the time I was in the large downtown area, I was amazed at what I saw: Huge boulevards, lots of tall new buildings, mixed in with old stately ones, and a big, buzzing city. The traffic was heavy, but somehow the traffic lights and huge roundabouts were dealing with it all, and traffic was flowing remarkably well.


So how was I ever going to find ‘the’ hospital in this sprawled out busy-ness, I thought. The task, just like finding the Nigerian embassy in Libreville seemed daunting without an address, map, nor GPS mapping tools. Well, I did it then and I’ll do it again here: “Just follow your gut, mate!” My gut gave an apprehensively soft, yet warm, “he’s right” response, and my ride continued to take me deeper and deeper into the city centre. I did a few complete 360’s around one or two of the roundabouts just to make sure there were no ‘unlikely’, yet instant, mystery solving, ‘Hospitale’ signs, but there weren’t. At the next traffic light, my gut resisted, saying I have brought you this far, now is a good time to ask someone? I looked down at the cab driver behind the wheel in the car also stopped at the traffic light next to me, and asked him which was the direction to the hospital? Immediately, from his animated response, I knew I was close, and then he pointed, in a direction off left, and added a whole lot of French verbal content, which I didn’t get. I thanked him, just as the lights turned to green, and with spirits up, I almost wheelied off to be first away to cut across four lanes of traffic to get the exit he had pointed to…! Well it’s never as easy as it first appears: There were two exits coming off there, large roads too, but my gut took over and said: “hey, follow me again”. It felt good, and then about 1 kilometre along I saw what was the ‘Red Cross’ building and after checking it out, I concluded, even if it was some form of medical treatment house, it wasn’t the one for me! Maybe this is what the guy at the traffic light had meant? I asked a passer-by, where the hospital was, and to my delight he pointed to a pink building a few hundred metres ahead, and aid in French that that was Yaounde Central Hospital! I’d done it again, and while seemingly an insignificant win to the GPS-ers of the world, I sensed that my gut took a bow, and thanked me for my _expression_ of trust and it’s opportunity to build even more, real human wisdom within. This story is a protest against instant gratification, artificial intelligence, approach, and a demonstration of the power of the gut, and experiential wisdom, that technology cannot replace, nor rational logic explain…. Back to the hospital!


Well crowds were streaming into this strangely, pink building, and I parked my bike as close to the big black security guarded entrance gate as possible. The stares increased, as I got off, locked up my helmet and hobbled painfully up to join the stream. “How long would it take me to be sitting in front of the right doctor, getting the right medical care here?” Looking at the crowds, and their demographic, logic was far too pessimistic for a man in desperate need of assistance, it was time to bond with my gut again… We hobbled in, and seeing the reaction from those around me, I did think that, ‘more of a hobble’ would be more effective than, ‘less of a hobble’, and so a slight adjustment was made. I saw a sign that seemed to say emergencies / trauma, and so with one further hobble adjustment, I approached the guy at the door, and he seemed to indicate I was at the right place, and can just go in. There were others queued there, but my out of place-ness, must have scored some priority as I was soon being questioned by an attentive, male nurse. I passed his test, and was taken through to the next door room, told to sit on its operating table, and wait for the doctor! Gee, it was now 14h05, and I was way ahead of where I could ever dreamt f being, but still not ‘there’ yet!


Within 15 minutes, the doctor arrived. A young, fresh, enthusiastic, yet clearly overworked, looking guy, who I could have mistaken for a nurse assistant, but he almost impatiently confirmed in fair English, that he was the doctor. Lots of questions, which ended up with me taking out my camera to show him visual of the where, how and when’s? From his probing questions I sensed this guy was a practised detective, and would be able to help. He came to the end of his questioning, and for the first time looked me in the eye, with a seriousness, and look of real African empathy and sincerity and said: You must stay in the hospital, until you are better. Because of your age, the risk of serious problems is too great. You have to stay.” I had this strange bitter sweet feeling. The thought of spending time in any hospital, never mind this specific one, was not positive nor a remote part of my plan, yet the sweet peace, came in that, I knew he was right. My leg was serious, and I needed a serious intervention to prevent serious moving to critical or worse.


I respected his rapid and informed reading of the situation, and this in itself gave me a confidence to capitulate, and volunteer for another whole new, Yaounde Central Hospital, adventure. Well at least I had no hotel room to search for tonight, but where and with whom, I’d be sleeping, and what was for dinner were big, scary unknowns….


Checking out the extent of the inflammation and swelling of my leg which was very painful to touch, the doctor grabbed a pen and proceeded to draw an ink line around the infected area, adding that only when that has substantially reduced can I go….There was no set date, it was about an unknown journey, and the need for tangible progress.  


With a new ordeal just about to begin, I’ll start a new posting, dedicated to my ‘Hospital adventure’…….