Miles on the clock: 39,585
Stateless pigmies lived in the handful of scruffy villages lining the 20-miles of no mans land between Congo and Cameroon. I was muddy and shirtless when I rounded a corner and unexpectedly arrived at the makeshift hut housing the immigration office. It looked like a makeshift slum house but an immaculately dressed guard stepped out and started shouting at me. His furious French was to the tune of: How dare you arrive here in such an indecent state. What if there had been women here. Go away and put a shirt on.
I wheeled my bike back around the corner to dress. While doing so I spotted two village women emerge from the bushes with water containers. They wandered off down the track; topless like me.
I was experiencing hunger cramps when I arrived at a jam of ten or so trucks, each with formidable trunks of African hardwood strapped to their backs. The path had become a cloying pit of rich red mud. I watched as some of the trucks wiggled hopelessly halfway into the foliage in their attempts to free themselves. It was odd to see 20-ton vehicles sliding slowly sideways while their wheels span uselessly within the eternal embrace of re-moulding mud.
Barefooted men squelched and sucked their way up and down the problem with their trousers rolled to the knees. I joined them and was soon speaking to Gilbert: a friendly man in his 30s from Cameroon’s Anglophone southwest. Gilbert was on his way back to the capital having delivered barrels of petrol to power the generators in the region’s various telecommunications towers.
It was early morning when I arrived in Djoum and managed to better stock my food bags. A petrol pump attendant mentioned something to me about the border with Nigeria (my next destination) closing due to Ebola. There was no power in the town so I couldn’t verify this with the internet. I tried to bury the potential roadblock in my mind while pedalling onwards along a rattling stony track.
The path climbed and the jungle thinned but my fretting increased about what I might do if the border rumour were true. Little Bastard’s (my bicycle’s) frame cracked by the seat post again and I was forced to stand on the pedals. My strength sapped quickly.
I nearly reached Sangelima in a day but darkness fell and I was forced to camp. A small, well-hidden clearing in the forest seemed a comfortable home for the night. Too exhausted to fire up my stove, I ate sandwiches of stale bread with tinned sardines. The fish must have been expired because I was up throughout the night continually evacuating both bowels and stomach. The feeling of weakness by morning was forgotten in the relief of leaving that horrible camp spot, so sullied by my night’s activities.
I looked into flying to Ghana and continuing through Burkina Faso and Mali. However, borders were closing so quickly that I may become again stranded and a second flight would not only be expensive but would also be a tough pill to swallow. I eventually booked a flight from Douala to Dakar in Senegal. I gave myself two days to cycle the 160 miles to Douala.
Those two days were spent distracting my mind with various ways to justify my decision to fly over most of West Africa. Justify to whom? Nobody cared but me. I was holding myself to some strange standard that had no definite root. In Douala I wrestled two child’s bike boxes into one full size one with a whole roll of tape. By the time I’d dismantled my bike and got a taxi to the airport, I was feeling low. I had somehow failed myself. Dakar to England seemed like a cheatingly short hop across the Sahara and Iberia.
The plane took off and I put my MP3 player onto ‘shuffle mode’. We flew into the low, grey morning mist. As the plane broke through to the serene blue-and-white world above, Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” came through my earphones. The tranquil scene outside the window twinned with the stirring music made my mind exhale. I slouched comfortably in my seat and fell asleep.
I was keen to reach Yaoundé and get on the internet. The next few months of my life would hinge on what I found there and what subsequent decisions I made. I sped past numerous roadside vendors flogging fat snakes, porcupines and other bushmeats. The animals all hung from tree branches by their necks and span slowly in the warm breeze.
There were an increasingly frequent series of roadblocks on the way into the capital. At each one I was stopped and my passport was inspected. Many asked me absurd questions and treated me with suspicion. In the eyes of the police, my burned and bearded face looked Arabic and the high security alert was due to recent cross-border raids made by the fundamentalist Islamic group Boko Haram. As I cycled through the suburbs, many people shouted “Arab” and “Boko Haram” at me.
The regular backpacker haunt was deserted. The large, officious Cameroonian woman in charge chanted a mantra of rules at me. She then suggested I pitch my tent as close to the building as possible as Boko Haram had recently made a number of nighttime attacks in this part of the city.
In an internet café I assessed my options. I was approaching the end of a geopolitical cul de sac: the border with Nigeria was closed for ebola, Niger’s for Boko Haram, and Central African Republic’s for a civil war. I would have to fly. But to where? I was long beyond the point in my trip where I thought I could avoid planes altogether. However, a flight could bring forward my homecoming considerably and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. I didn’t know if I was ready. Didn’t I have to cycle the entire length of West Africa?
Archie and I had passed three months together, perhaps the most fraught of my journey, without an argument. While canoeing down a river in DRC, we’d gelled as both expedition partners and closer friends. As a pair we’d both had an excuse to mentally bury our moments of weakness and self-doubt. The strangely childish compulsion to appear manful before people you know can be useful at times. I had enjoyed sharing my adventure for a decent length of time. The stark isolation of the jungle felt deeper still after his departure.
Hamid’s freshly laid tarmac bore me into town where I found an internet café. Since Nigeria’s four cases of Ebola in Lagos, Cameroon had officially closed all their land and sea borders. The discovery of this future problem tempered the happiness I got from reading ten-day-old ‘happy birthday’ messages. I pedalled on towards the capital, failing to compartmentalise my concerns.
It was a Thursday afternoon, it was not a national holiday. And yet, the villagers of Cameroon were all stung along the roadside drinking palm wine. I politely refused all but a couple of the many invitations I received to join them. The next morning, by 8.30am, it was the same. Idle people in various horizontal shapes with ever depleted canisters of alcohol next to them. Cameroon produces and consumes more alcohol per capita than any other African nation.
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