Time to hit the hills.

Time to take on Cameroon’s Highlands.

Top Speed

I cycle out of Bamenda, refreshed after the rest. The road sweeps around the green hillsides and I look out down the valleys into the distance. I am reminded of an English summer on a crisp, clear morning before the sun warms the air. But when I look closer I see palms and women selling bananas outside their corrugated-roof homes. And the grass never grows this tall in England. In England people use lawnmowers to cut the grass. Here people use machetes, if they cut the grass at all. This is Cameroon. It is beautiful.

There is a long hill up to the spread-out village of Sagba. I push my bike up slowly and eventually reach the top. I am in no rush and take regular breaks to admire the view. I also need regular breaks to rest and cool down and gulp down water and let my pulse slow down.

Downhill on Cameroon's Ringroad
Downhill on Cameroon's Ringroad

Free-wheeling down into the next valley I overtake a couple of trucks and several motorbikes. Without trying I reach 67kmh (43mph), my top speed on this trip. It is a real adrenalin rush going so fast, especially when you don’t know if round the next bend the road will be there at all. Hitting a pot-hole or dirt at this speed would be disastrous.

In Ndop the road levels out and I have a pleasant ride across the wide valley floor. The valley is a patchwork of fertile fields. Men and women are farming here. In the distance behind are the hills I have just come down from. Ahead are the hills I will soon have to go up. The hills on the horizon limit my field of view and I feel like I’m in the bottom of a basin, whose rim is going to be very hard to get over if I am to see what is beyond.

I come to the village of Bambessi. I suspect this is the last village before the climbing the rim. It is. So I stop at a bar and drink a coke. A well-spoken, English-speaking man introduces himself. He not only speaks English, but speaks like an English man. Emmanuel works for the British Council. He lived in England for 19years, first studying in Reading and then working in the region. He has lived in England longer than he has lived in Cameroon. He is on leave and spending the week in his home village with his childhood friends. They tell me about the route up to Jakiri and of the beautiful view from the top of the hill looking over the Lake Bamendjing. It is an artifical lake. It was created in the 70’s by damming the river to provide local power, with no concern for the environmental effects. But as is so often the case, the locals have learnt to deal with the effects and so the situation remains.

Cameroon’s Beer Obsession

By the time I reach the top of the hill, I catch a glimpse of the lake before the dark clouds gather and release a deluge of water. I am soon soaked through and cold too. Coming to the village of Wainamah I stop at a bar and wait out the rain. The local men are sat handing round a bottle of milky liquid. It is palm wine. While I am there, they have consumed three bottles between then I strongly suspect they had drunk at least three before I arrived. They are jovial and two of the men are slurring their words I cannot tell which language they are speaking let alone understand what they are saying. Cameroon’s people love their alcohol. Especially beer. But if beer is unaffordable, the locally-made palm wine is an acceptable substitute. It is not unusual to see several people sat in a bar at 9am eating breakfast with a bottle of Castel or 33 Export of preference. But whereas most West African countries have one or two choices of beer, Cameroon’s choice is wider than in most British Pubs.

Early Morning On The Road to Foumban
Early Morning On The Road to Foumban

For my second day touring through Cameroon’s Highlands, I was told that ‘the road is downhill all the way to Foumban’. I had been looking forward to this day. Dreaming of free-wheeling down endless miles of quiet earthroads, winding through the hills while admiring the views. What a shock I had. I should have known. It was downhill… to begin. But the road was rough and I had to concentrate on choosing a route along the track rather than looking out over the hills. And then the road was a continuous series of sapping ups and downs. It is true, the scenery was beautiful. The sky was clear, a bright blue and the contrast of the orange earth and green hills and fields reminded me of cycling through Guineas’ Fouta Djalon region.

A Doctor’s Home

On arriving in Foumban I was directed to a cheap hotel and entered the compound just as the rain started. I was shown the way by a Herman, who first took me to his family’s home to meet his brother’s and sisters. His father is a doctor at the hospital. Herman said he spends all his time working. That’s not surprising given that he’s the only doctor at the hospital. At a hospital in a town where there are always lots of people needing treatment.

Herman (left) and his family, Foumban
Herman (left) and his family, Foumban

The following morning, Herman is waiting at the hotel for me. I go to his home for breakfast and meet his parents and older brother Eric. Whereas Herman wants to be a doctor, clearly influenced by his father, Eric studied Chemistry and is now trying to get a visa to work in England. This family is well-off by African standards. There are mobile phones and a camera, a large TV and smart clothes. But their home is modest. It is one thing I have consistently noticed on my travels here. Few people have truly grand houses, even those that could afford them. The need for ever bigger homes seems to be a British obsession.

Breakfast in Bafoussam

I expect and easy, short day to Bafoussam now that I am back on tarmac. The distance is not great, but I struggle greatly. By the time I enter town, my legs are very tired and I stop at the first hotel I see. I need another day to rest. Having decided that, I now have time to relax, read, eat well and sleep.

Initially I am bored by Bafoussam. An uninspiring town with congested roads, hundreds of street stalls and plenty of well-stocked shops. It’s not a bad place to rest. But there’s not much to do either. But I had arrived mid-afternoon, always a quiet time as it’s either too hot or raining too much. The following morning I explore the back streets and find a town buzzing, full of life.

I see a long shack with ‘cafe’ written on the side. I go in and sit on the one bench running along the front wall. I am facing the second workplace of four in a row along the back wall. Each workplace looks the same. Each has bowls of fresh salad and piles of plates and mugs. On the wall behind, the menu is written on a small blackboard, surrounded by posters of football stars and icons. Stacks of carboard egg crates lie beside the workbench. On my right in the far corner, a TV is showing a football match. From my left I can hear the sounds of hip-hop emanating from the loud-speaker. I order coffee and omelette with salad. These are my favorite cafes. Good, fresh local food at local prices.

Finding Form

After Bafoussam, I am heading to Yaounde. It should take 3-4 days. I spent a lot of the previous day trying to figure out why I have been struggling so much with the cycling recently. Even when the roads have been good, I have found the hills hard. When I was in Spain, I thrived on the hills. I am fit and well. As fit and well as at any point on this trip. So when then is it so hard. I eventually come to the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with my legs and so it must be my mind. For many of the hard parts of the journey, I have had company. And since I always enjoy a challenge, I probably found it easier to push myself.

So I leave Bafoussam in a completely changed frame of mind. I am going to attack those hills and push through the pain and burning thighs. I’m not going to let them defeat me. I also remember my iPod. I haven’t listened to music while cycling in over 5000km. It’s time to put on some rock tunes and start pedalling to the beat. And what a difference all this makes. It probably helps that it’s now, finally, mostly downhill! And now I am enjoying the cycling again. Two days in a row I happily cover over 100km each day. Checking the map, I realise it’s only 60km to Yaounde. I should be there by lunchtime of the third day. I am tired as I cycle into Yaounde. But it’s not the exhaustion I’d been feeling before. But a good tiredness that with a couple of hours sleep and a good meal will have me ready to go again.

Bike Repair Fiasco

Worn rear sprocket - after 15,000km
Worn rear sprocket - after 15,000km
But I cannot leave Yaounde immediately. I have a visa for Gabon to get. I have to replace parts on my bike….

The bike maintenance and repair should be simple. But without a good bike shop to go to, this turns into a five day epic of perseverance and pain, coated in oil and sweat. I could probably write a whole update on this but I shan’t bore you with that. Thankfully I had some great advice from the guys on the CTC bike forum and from Rohloff product support.

And if I’m lucky, I can collect my visa today and be gone tomorrow. We shall see.

Next Stop – Kinshasa

Next major stop, Kinshasa, 2,000km south. But first I have Gabon to experience. And then have to find my way across to the Republic of Congo, trying not to get lost on the small, overgrown tracks and hope there’s no breakout of the Ebola virus, which occurs periodically in the region. And then once I cover the many miles to Brazzaville in the continuing rainy season, I then have to take a boat across the Congo river to nearby Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, trying to avoid theft, bribery and corruption – a major challenge. And just so it’s not too easy, I have to be in Kinshasa before my visa expires.

So, all going well, you’ll be hearing from me, from the banks of the Congo, in early October. Perhaps before, but I can’t promise…. It’s either going to be truly amazing or horrifically awful. Either way, I’m looking forward to it!!