Navigating Cameroun – Conclusion

Navigating Cameroun – Conclusion

Back in 1980 I was working in Sokoto in north-west Nigeria and together with two British friends, Ed and Hilary, decided to take a holiday over Christmas in northern Cameroun. This was when the Ahidjo regime was petering out and there was some hope for a better future. We divided tasks: we would all go in my friends’ car and they would share the driving; I handled booking the accommodation and the foreign exchange.

From one side of northern Nigeria to the other is quite a haul, so we broke the journey, first overnight in Kano and then in Maiduguri (a place it’s now virtually impossible to visit as it’s in the centre of the region terrorized by Boko Haram).The journey wasn’t entirely plain sailing as, despite the fact that Nigeria is one of the world’s major oil producers, it regularly runs out of petrol. At some point between Kano and Maiduguri, however, we did find a tanker unloading at a bush-station and were the very happy first customers to take advantage of this.

After an overnight in Maiduguri we crossed into Cameroun. On both sides of the border we were on excellent tarmac roads, but the crossing itself took us on a dirt track and through a shallow river in which local villagers were doing their laundry. (I suppose that gives an extra dimension to the title of this piece!) We then made our way to Waza Lodge, near the border with Chad and in the middle of a superlative wildlife park. Two nights there.

As it was now evening, we behaved like proper Brits and headed for the bar. Then the main Christmas meal, a multi-course affair that the French take on Christmas Eve (and the Lodge was run by a Frenchwoman). Pretty splendid, with only two drawbacks. First, Ed is a vegetarian and the only way they could cope with this was to serve him cheese—for pretty well every course. Second problem, the taped music, namely Boney M.

Now, I have a lot of time for Boney M—“By the rivers of Babylon” is really beautiful—but they were playing “Ra Ra Rasputin”, over and over again, and pretty loud, until someone put a stop to it. At which point more cheese arrived for Ed.

Waza turned out to be one of those wildlife parks you can drive around in your own car, equipped with a map and safety instructions. We set off and almost immediately found that the dirt track we were on was blocked by a giraffe. Wanting to check us out (though none of us had our ID with us), it stepped forward and bent right down. I hadn’t realized how huge a giraffe’s head is; it filled the entire breadth and depth of the windscreen (OK, it was a small car—twin of my own beloved Beetle–, but even so…!)

After a moment or two it reared up and skittered off. I looked round and saw in the bushes to the left of the car a lioness, presumably the cause of the giraffe’s hurried departure. She made eye contact, turned her back on us and took a prodigious pee before stalking away.
“Well,” said Ed. “Shows what she thought of us.”

“Understandable,” I replied. “She was probably intending to invite the giraffe for breakfast.”
A good beginning: we’d already seen two wonderful animals and things were about to get better. The track took us up a rise; ahead was a long gentle descent, and to the left at the bottom the map told us there was a stretch of water. (Northern Cameroun is very arid, but Waza is fed by Lake Chad; years later I read that the wildlife park had to close, as the Lake receded and the animals decamped in search of water. We were blessed to visit it when we did).

As we started the descent, a herd of elephants appeared from the right, crossing the track. About a dozen of them, with the youngsters clutching their mothers’ tails with their trunks. Watching them pass was a truly miraculous way to start Christmas Day.

Back at the lodge for lunch (cheese for Ed) and then my friends decided to take a siesta. I was chasing a deadline to finish my first book on Nigerian theatre, so shut myself up in my chalet, turned on the air-conditioner and scribbled about Soyinka (this was in 1980, way before the laptop had been invented).

The next morning we set out for our next destination. A fine tarmac road for much of the way, but then a dirt track that at one point—a steep downhill—was so eroded it had degenerated into a flight of stairs. How Ed and Hilary navigated it I shall never know, but we made it to the Kapsiki.

This is a plain on which are dotted around very high volcanic plugs. If things go according to plan, these should be illustrated in this week’s column, to give you an idea of what I meant when I said that Cameroun is a country of outstanding natural beauty

Chris Dunton

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