Uphill to Bamenda
End of the road
I decided to take the high road, up to the hills surrounding Bamenda. Told that the tarmac road would end at a bridge after 10km and from then on it is ‘a road is under construction’, I was unsure how hard it would be. The last ‘road under construction’ was little more than a long mud-pit, un-cyclable. But this road-in-the-making was being constructed right now. By the Chinese. The government may care little about the state of the roads in the Anglophone west, north-west. But the Chinese care little for politics. If there is a job needing doing and money to be made, they will do it. It’s business. With this I was a little more optimistic.
After an enjoyable ten smooth kilometres, winding along the tarmac cutting through the wall of thick grass and tall trees and hanging, twisting, entwining vines, I crossed a bridge. A bridge over a river. The water deep and black. On the otherside, there was no more tarmac.
Initially the road was roughly laid with rocks. It was bumpy as I slowly made my way uphill. Weaving from left to right and back, trying to find the least rough route. Then the road would level out, the rocks would finish and I could pick up speed a little. Until a village emerged and the earth road would become rutted with motorcycle and truck tracks. From somewhere out of my eye-sight, my eyes being focussed intently on picking out a path and avoiding potholes, I would hear a small child’s voice shout out, ‘Ni hao!’ Yes, the Chinese have definitely been here. ‘Ni hao’, I call back, ‘Bonjour!’
The road then widens out. It is double the usual width and the earth has been flattened. One step closer to a paved road. But it was flattened a while ago. I know this because already the earth has become corrugated and I have to slow down, even if it’s downhill, so that I don’t rattle the bike to pieces. I turn round a wide bend. The wide road takes one path round the hill. With huge heaps of dirt piled up in front and a digger lying unused, I am forced to take the smaller, original track.. As I wind uphill and it gets steeper, I am forced to get off the bike and push. Push. And drag. And sweat. I hear an engine. Not a smooth purring well-oiled engine. But a shuddering two-stroke of a well-used motorcycle. The moto approaches, we both divert from the colliding path. I stop as I cannot push on this rough part of the track. The moto bumps slowly past me. Then we return to the orginal worn trail.
The track rejoins the clear, width earth road. Soon enough I round another bend and here are trucks. And diggers. And lots of people. Locals in dirty trousers and once-white vests. A Chinese man, or maybe two, in a cleaner shirt and safety helmet. The locals might say hello and wave. But more often they shout, with a thumbs up, ‘Hey Baby, What’s up?’ or ‘My Sister!’ The Chinese might look at me with a bemused expression. But more often, they don’t see me at all – they are looking intently at papers or the work being done.
I am then diverted down another track. This one is more overgrown. Slowly the forest is restaking it’s claim. As it winds downwards past a steady stream of water rushing off the steep hillside, the track becomes thick with wet mud. It is only possible to continue on one of the tyre tracks, but these are slick with slippery mud. The mud covers the wheels and the brakes and I go as slowly as possible. But I slide into the edges of the tyre track and my front pannier jams against it. The bike slides on down, but now the pannier having been forced off the rack is lying in the thick wet mud. I stop when I can, lay the bike down and slowly retrieve the pannier. My trainers now thickly covered in mud, I am bigfoot. My bike and panniers and also covered in mud, they are orange. They once were black.
Eventually I make it through the quagmire. Best I can, I scrape the mud of my shoes and off the tyres with a stick. Ready to go again.
There are several more sticky or slippery tracks like this. But it makes the other parts seem easy. So when the track is hard and the direction is downwards, I let gravity do the work. But I become overconfident and misjudge the ruts. There is a thud as my front wheel plunges down. The handlebar bag vibrates wildly on the front. The front wheel comes up out of the hole and then another thud as the back wheel hits it. Crunch – I look sharply over my shoulder to see my pannier somersaulting down the track behind me. My pannier with the laptop in. I stop. I swear. I collect the pannier. I reattach it. I put it out of my mind and pedal off. Slow down, I tell myself. This isn’t a race. But already I am averaging less than 10kmh. Not including breaks. But because I’m going so slowly, I don’t have many breaks. I don’t think I deserve them.
I have a long break at what seems the top of the hill. While drinking coke, the bar fills with workmen. I talk to Kerrick, one of the workmen. Kerrick is a student. It’s the summer holidays so he is working part-time on the roads. As are most of the others with him.
I leave the bar and pedal off, loop wide along a flat track that takes me towards the next valley. It is more open here and I can see for miles. Eventually the track improves and I can freewheel fast into Widekum. A small town in the midst of these hills Houses are perched on the hillsides, reflecting brightly in the sun contrasting against the dark green grass. I stop for a late lunch before carrying on. By now it is clear I will not reach Bamenda today. I aim for Bali instead. 20km less.
Hitch a ride?
There is no sign of construction or improvement to the road after Widekum. The track winds it’s way upwards. Always up. Looping wide onto the next hill and then switch-backing to gain more height.
The track is mostly too rough to cycle on. I push slowly. A truck stops alongside me – they will give me a lift. I refuse. They will be me a lift just until the tarmac. I refuse. I say I am ok. They say they understand. It is for the challenge. To see for myself. They drive off. Several bends and the top still nowhere in sight I wish I had answered differently. I keep on pushing. I push on.
With relief I reach the top. I look out at the ridges of hills disappearing gradually into the misty distance. I admire the view but know that soon this hill will be enshrouded in a wet mist too. I cycle on and eventually reach the tarmac. By now it is raining lightly. By now I am very tired. I check the distance I’ve done. Only ten more kilometres.
The last stretch a long one
But it’s not 10km. It’s more. And I may now be on the tarmac but now it’s a rollercoaster of steep ups and steep downs. I cannot speed on the downs because the road is wet now and I don’t trust my muddy tyres and brakes. I cannot cycle on the ups because they are too steep and my legs too tired.
What I expected to be a easy 30minutes takes more than two hours. It is getting late and I don’t want to be on the road at dark. I don’t have time to rest. I keep crawling along.
I should have stopped in Batido when I reached the tarmac. I saw a sign for a hotel there… I should have stopped in the last village. Too small for a guesthouse, but I could have camped. But instead I have persevered. Determined to reach Bali. I am foolish in my tiredness.
Eventually I come to a long downhill. Only two kilometres to go. Perhaps Bali is at the bottom. I really hope so. I reach the bottom and there is no town. Not one house. I am on the brink. The brink of complete exhaustion. I slowly get off the bike and once more start pushing. As I round the corner, I see houses. I see people walking on the road. I stop and ask where Bali is. At the top of the hill. I am relieved to hear this. But I look up at the hill. I’m not sure if I can make it. The last hill, the steepest hill, I take three steps and rest. Three steps and breathe heavily. Three steps and feel my heart pounding. Three steps and feel my chest tightening. I mustn’t start hyperventilating. I don’t want to cry. That last hill, in the darkness, I thought would never end. But it did. It ended at the market crossroads of Bali. It is busy and men are calling hello to me. I collapse over the handlebars and try to calm my breathing until I can talk.
Where is there a guesthouse? Down that hill and up the next then take a left. I look over into the darkness and want to cry. Is there another? Yes, near the hospital. Is it closer? Yes. Good. I need food. I am led to a bench in front of a house. I sit down and still I am trying to breath normally. What food do you have? Fufu. Nothing else? No. Ok, Fufu and coke then. No coke. I hate fufu. I need sugar. Again I am on the verge of tears of exhaustion. The lady dishes me out the corn mash and cassava leaves and seeing my reaction goes in search of coke. I eat a few mouthfuls of fufu but can manage nothing more. I hate fufu. I neck the bottle of coke. I pay and go in search of the guesthouse. No-one else seems to know of it. But I follow the sign for the hospital down a dark path. I have never felt so alone. Alone, in the dark in a strange town. A stranger in the darkness. Walking blindly down the pitch-black side-streets. I walk until I see a light. I slowly wheel the bike towards the light. It is the hospital. I can see no guesthouse. If I wasn’t in a town I would just push my bike off the road and camp. But this is a town and although I can see nothing, I know there must be houses and people not far away.
A guesthouse or a hospital?
I lean my bike against the wall and walk into the hospital. Could you tell me where there is a guesthouse? ‘This is not a guesthouse, this is a hospital.’ I may be exhausted and a foreigner, but I am fully aware this is a hospital, I think. ‘Where is the nearest guesthouse?’ We don’t know, you should go to the market on the main road and ask. I have just come from there. My shoulders slump. The last drop of energy drains out of me. I see a bench and just manage to collapse onto it before the tears start rolling. Don’t cry, the nurses say, we will find you a guesthouse. I am not crying because I am upset. And I try to laugh at myself. Laugh in spite of myself. I am crying because it seems to be the only thing left that my body is capable to doing.
The waiting room is empty except for me and an older lady, the receptionist and three nurses It is empty except for the bench lining the wall and the chair and table where the receptionist is sat. I wipe away the tears. I hear the nurses conferring. One then says they will show me to a guesthouse. I am led out of reception. I walk along the corridor, bumping into the side wall because my legs are so weak they won’t go in a straight line. I collect the bike and am shown to a room.
This is not a guesthouse. This is a private room at the hospital. There is a metal bed, a cot, a tray covered with a thick layer of dust and a bench in the room with flaking mint-green paint walls. I am brought a bucket of water and told I will need to leave early. This is part of the hospital the nurse says, not really a guesthouse. I may be exhausted and a foreigner, but I am not stupid. Ok, what time? 6.00am. I nearly collapse again. Ok, I reply. I see two cockroaches scurry under the bed into the shadows. I am glad I am just tired. I wouldn’t want to be really ill here.
I wash and crawl onto the bed. My hair is wet and it is cold up in here in the hills. But before I drift into a restless sleep, there is a knock on the door. It is the doctor. They are concerned about me. I tell them I am fine and just need to sleep. The doctor says I can go to his house if I would prefer. I look back at the bed, which I think I can manage to reach before my legs give up. Leaving the room now is out of the question. No, I am fine here thankyou. And I am finally left to sleep.
There is a knock at the window in the morning. The nurses have left me to sleep until eight. I pack up and cycle the remaining 20km to Bamenda. With a new day, the clouds have gone and the sky is a bright blue. The air is crisp. I enjoy the views. There are more hills. Some I can cycle and some I walk. I am relieved to reach town though. It’s time for a few days to rest.
Bamenda is the capital of the region. It is located among the hills. I am staying at the Baptist Mission Resthouse. I have a clean, bright dormitory to myself. Best of all though is the backdrop of the houses perched on the clifftop with the water cascading down. I see this every time I leave the resthouse. The cliff is hazy in the morning. In the afternoon, when it has rained the cascading water no longer looks white, but a muddy orange of the earth. If it hasn’t rained, the sun shines against the cliff and the rocks reflect brightly and every ridge and crevice is sharp.
I rest in Bamenda for four days. This is enough time to regain my strength. Enough time to convince myself to take the scenic route through the hills – an extra three days and many more miles. It may not enjoy the uphills much. But I know the scenery will make up for it. But the deciding factor is that I know I will always regret it if I don’t. Even if I hate every minute, it is better than not knowing. Better than wondering what if….