May 2007: My goal in Cameroon was to travel across the country to the Congo rainforest. I wanted to visit Dzangha Sangha National Park in the Central African Republic or Noua`balé-Ndoki in Republic of Congo (RoC). Noua`balé-Ndoki was my first choice because it seemed most remote. But to get to either park, the easiest way for us to do so was overland via Cameroon since CAR was unstable and RoC seemed too remote and expensive.  I had wanted to visit the Congo rainforests of Central Africa. I was drawn to an idea of mysterious dark forests with abundant wildlife, forest elephants, leopards and gorilla. The Congo rainforest was a place that few people I knew had been to with the exception of a missionary from my childhood home to shared stories with me of living among pygmy tribes. Before the trip I knew to expect bad roads, rampant corruption, extreme isolation in areas where few if any people would speak English and tropical diseases. I invited two good friends from Minnesota, Jason and Scott, who had never been to Africa before. Since there was 3 of us and we could pool our money to hire a guide, I found a local guy, Matt Koje  in Cameroon recommended by other travelers on the Lonely Planet Thorn. He was less a guide and more a translator and fixer, who claimed to have been to the places we wanted to go, so we agreed on a small daily fee for him to travel with us as our guide. We also agreed to pay for his accommodation and food. I devised our route and researched the logistics and Matta greed that everything was possible. So with all preparations made for the trip, we were off to Cameroon.

Our route in Cameroon

Crossing Cameroon in a Bush taxi & Corruption at Police Checkpoints

We had two weeks ahead of us. This seemed like a lot of time, but we had ambitious plans, and the roads were horrendous. Plus, we would travel by public transportation, which would add to the time it took us to cross the country. We started the trip by flying into Doula, a sprawling impoverished city that if you are not careful can such all hope out of you. We spent one night in a dingy hotel where we met our guide Matta Koje. The first order of the trip was to exchange money into central African franc, since we would be unable to do so outside the big city. There was also a lot of potential counterfeit bills out there, so I brought with me images of the correct bills and went with Matta to a black-market vender to get the best rate. 

For the next few days, we traveled from one bush taxi, name given to the public transport buses that are basically big trucks jam packed with people, animals and other cargo. The roads were long bumpy and the travel challenging. We also had to cope with corrupt police checkpoints. I was warned before the trip by other travelers that corruption would be an issue to against all odds maintain my composer and do not get angry because doing so will just make matters worse. Police checkpoints became more common as we traveled east ward in Cameroon and the most corrupt ones were in isolated long stretches of the road. Most of the police in these checkpoints would start drinking around noon and it was widely accepted that the more intoxicated they were usually by afternoon and evening, the more demanding of bribes they would become. It was common for drivers in these checkpoints to grease the palms of the police to speed things up but when the police saw us in the vehicle, they realized they could make a little extra money so they would request our passports and yellow fever card. My goal was to avoid handing the police our passport and yellow fever card, so I had my group make multiple copies of these documents to hand out at checkpoints. This was to keep the police from holding our original documents ransom. This worked most of the time but there were occasions where we had to show our original documents. The police would speak to us in French and in this situation, I would rely on our guide Matta, who was very street smart and assertive with the police. Matta was very effective in handling them and we would commonly spend 20 minutes rebuking all attempts by the police to demand a brine from us. They would try everything from demanding money outright as a gift to claiming our visa was incorrect or that our yellow fever card was incorrect or expired. These were clearly all lies, and we would smile and play along with their game and insist that all documents were in order. We even informed them that we were children of employees in the United States Embassy and that any questions could be answered by the Embassy. Even other passengers on the bus would intervene to denounce the police on our behalf when it became obvious what was happening and also because others were tired of being delayed by them. This process was exhausting for us and sometimes we would leave one checkpoint only to arrive at another just 5 minutes later. But we kept our cool and we never paid a bribe in the end. 

Our bush taxi crossing a typical Cameroon village

Loading the bush taxi. 

At the beginning of each journey, we would have to wait hours at the station waiting for the bush taxi to fill with people and cargo. The bus stations where usually unsavory places with bathrooms were always cesspools of overflowing sewage, and we spent a lot of idle time, playing cards, playing with children and just learning how to take things slow.

Me, Scott and Matta wasting away in a bush taxi station

Baggage of one of the bush taxi passengers

At night we would arrive at our destination late, always hours after the expected arrival time and we would have to take motor taxis to our hotel.

Motor taxis-typical form of transportation in town

As we went further east, the scenery became greener, roads ruttier and jungles deeper.  Yokadouma was There were no more bush taxis leaving from here going to our next destination of Libongo. We had a little extra time to explore Yokadouma, a rustic jungle town, with dusty roads and bush meat markets in town.  Our only goal in town was to hire our vehicle and driver to take us to Libongo. The problem was trying to find one for an affordable price. This allowed us a chance to walk around town. The bush meat market was interesting, and one man offered us elephant meat but the people in the market were not thrilled about allowing us to take photos. Everywhere we went everyone would turn to watch us and stare in curiosity. For most of Cameroon, we were the only foreigners,

Bush meat market selling monkeys, antelope….

Marketplace

Market place

Children with cigerettes in the marketplace

Local dress for women

Local dress for men

Usual sight of a woman carrying materials carefully balanced on their head

Yokadouma

As is the case in so many of the poor countries I have traveled to, I see children having fun and playing with anything available to them. They do not need expensive electronics or video games. 

Kids playing soccer in the mud with a deflated soccer ball

Kid with his wooden home made toy truck

We were able to find a vehicle and driver to take us to libongo. His car was tiny and completely ill-prepared for the tough roads but we didn’t have many other options. He blasted Congolese music and along the way he stopped to pick up, a pygmy girl he claimed was his girlfriend. The car was already packed and there was no where to sit but we wanted to keep the drivers spirots up in case he decided to abandon us so we agreed to let his girlfriend join. At first she sat on the lap of Mattain the back seat but later she sat on the driver lap as he drove the vehicle. We discovered that she actually was a prostitute that the driver hired with some of our money we paid him. 

Our vehicle to Libongo

Colorful hood decor of our driver

Baaka Pygmies on the Way to Libongo

The road to Libongo was muddy and cut through deep rainforests. Trucks carrying giant trees piled on the back were a common sight.  On most of the road, there were no villages just the occasion cluster of Baaka pygmy huts along the way that lined the side of the dirt road.. We stopped to visit them, and they were more than thrilled to receive us and show us their homes. My friend Jason and Scott brought loads of pencils and beef jerky sticks on the trip. These were very handy to give out as gifts to the Baaka. The baaka had no idea what either were, and we tried to explain to them what the pencils were, and we showed them how to eat the beef jerky by peeling the plastic away before eating it. They seemed to especially love the beef jerky.

The Baaka were cheerful and happy to greet us. They were very curious about us and we curious about them. Many of the women had sharp shark like teeth that I later realized was from them filing down their teeth to give them this appearance because it deemed to be attractive.

Baaka Pygmy Hut

Scott towering over the Baaka

Baaka woman with filed teeth to make them appear sharper

Baaka lady showing us the inside of her hut

Staying in Brothel Hotels

Once we were in the jungle, there were very few places to stay, and we couldn’t be picky. Sometimes we couldn’t find a suitable hotel and we would just camp outside in a village. Other times we stayed in a hotel. The hotels available were just simply roofs over our heads to keep us away from the rain.  Most hotels in this region doubled as brothels. In one specific hotel, the room was hot and lacking any ventilation. There were huge ominous looking spiders on the walls and cockroaches on the floor. The bed was a flimsy wooden board with stained sheets. I set up my tent and air mattress on the bed to not only protect me from the insects in my room and malaria infested mosquitos but also from bed bugs and lice living on the bed. At night, I had trouble sleeping because a board on the wall was cracked a gaping hole in the wall opened into the room next to me where I could see a man with a prostitute having sex while playing very loud music including for some random reason a lot of Michael Bolton songs from his radio.

Brothel Hotel

Our bathing water brought to us in a bucket from the river at a hotel we stayed at

My hotel room with my tent set up on the bed to protect me from the inside of the room 

Nightlife in the Jungle

Every jungle village had at least one bar with raging Congolese music coming from giant basey speakers, which would attract the locals who mostly couldn’t afford to drink but would nonetheless dance to the music. In one bar, we sat at a table drinking warm beers while listening to Congolese rhythms and village kids swarmed into the bar. Some of them were as old as 5 in appearance. They bumped and grooved to music like professionals, and we were astonished by the dance floor prowess these kids possessed.

In another village with a camp of Baaka pygmy huts on the outskirts, we organized a baaka celebration with the chief. In exchange for a bag of rice and a bucket of locally made moonshine, the Baaka chief agreed to perform a Baaka celebration for us with dancing and singing. At night fall the Baaka, with face paint and torn rags they wear as clothing, played music with instruments made from the forest, while they danced and sang in celebration.

Children dancing in the Bar

Baaka Pygmy Village Performance

Woman in Bra Dancing

Me with Baaka Chief

Me in background watching the Baaka performance

Journey Down the Sanga River to Central African Republic and Republic of Congo

When we arrived in Libongo, a grimy river border town on the Central African Republic (CAR) border, we began arrangement to prepare a motorized pirogue to Bomassa, Republic of Congo (RoC). We let Matta haggle with boat drivers without us because the moment we were spotted by them, they would typically drive up the price. We also had to get an exit stamp from Cameroon immigration and of course they wanted to charge us for this. Once again weavoided paying a bribe when I explained that we were not authorized to pay any fees to government officlas and that they would need to seek permission from the US Embassy.

We secured a pirogue with a motor for the long 6 hour journey down the Sangha River. The price was expensive byt we didn’t have many options in town and the boat driver knew this. 

The journey to Bomassa, RoC went through pristie rainforest with no signs of villages or even other boat traffic. It was remote and the countr was wild. On the most part, we slept and relxed on the long boat ride. We stopped once when we saw a village on the CAR side of the river. As soon as we landed the whole village came out to greet us including the village chief and It was apparent that we might have been the only foregners to ever visit the village. 

Scott having a nap on the Sangha River

Mighty Sangha River

The villagers enthusiastically showed us around their humble village. The village was very remote, no road access or electricity. The chief shared some homemade banana wine with us that tasted like gasoline.  We presented pencils and beef jerky bars to the villagers as gifts and continued on our journey down the Sangha River to Bomassa.

Group photo with the CAR Villagers

Village Boy

Chief Drinking Banana Whiskey

Kids holding pencils we gave them

Pretty village girl

Wasted Trip to Noua`balé-Ndoki National Park. in the Republic of Congo 

After a long and expensive journey, we arrived to Bomassa, a small river village in the RoC, where the headquarters of the Noua`balé-Ndoki National Park is located. When we arrived at the park rangers looked at us like we were ghosts. They were not accustomed to foreigners arriving independently. They were immediately rude to us and asked us if we had reservations. They were very adamant that a reservation is required. I explained that we didn’t and that I was unable to contact park authorities prior to the trip and that we do not need a cabin or lodge. We have tents and our own food. The rangers declared the park was full. When I pleaded with them, they stated the decision was up to the warden who would maybe arrive sometime in the next few days. Sadly, we had to decide to gamble the trip on the warden’s decision or return with the motorized pirogue and try and visit another national park. But the pirogue operator needed to return with or without us. I did not expect to be treated so poorly by the rangers and was extremely disappointed that the park it turned out was only available to wealthy package tourists who book expensive packages in advance and arrive by airplane for thousands of dollars. The rangers made it obvious that budget backpackers were not welcome. So, we headed back to Cameroon with the intent to visit Dzangha Sangha national park in the CAR instead. The only problem was we didn’t have a visa for the CAR, and we would be reliant on the good will of the immigration officers, who would almost definitely expect a large bribe from us for showing up without a visa.

On our return journey up the Sangha River, we passed through a severe thunderstorm, and we were pounded by severe weather. For hours, it rained and thundered, and we were pelted by freezing rain in our exposed boat. Then the worst happened as it became dark, our motor died and now our plan on visiting Dzangha Sangha was in peril. Our guide was now visibly angry and frustrated and threatened to quit and go home. As we arrived to Libongo, we had to make the choice of abandoning Dzangha Sangha, which was further down the river still a few hours away and instead stay in Cameroon. We decided we would visit a national park called Lobeke, a protected area of the Congolese rain forest on the Cameroon side of the river. We stayed in Libongo for one night in a hotel and decided to make arrangement to enter the national park in the morning.

Storm on the Sangha River

Misery on the Sangha River

Lobeke National Park-Disaster Turned Opportunity

In the morning we had a renewed sense of hope after we learned that we could arrange a cheap trip into Lobeke. We found some rangers in town with a 4WD vehicle, and no prior arrangements were needed. In fact, there were no hotels or tourists in Lobeke. It was completely wild, and we could camp in the Bai’s, mineral lick clearings in the forest where the wildlife congregated to consume salt rich water and clay.

An old logging road led into the forest but despite the road, the forest was in pristine condition and there were no settlements. After a few hours of driving, we came to a turn off, an even smaller road which we drove for as long as we could. In some cases, we had to remove fallen branches and clear the road. When we arrived at a fallen tree that couldn’t be cleared, we turned to walking for the rest of the way to a bai, where there is a raised sleeping wildlife watching platform, where we would stay for a few nights in our tents.

Our jeep navigating small jungle choked roads in Lobeke

Kid selling a lizard on side of the road near Lobeke

Lobeke far surpassed my expectations for wildlife. It was simply stunning. The InfrastruX was very basic and maybe non-existent. But it didn’t matter because in Lobeke we found what we traveled all the way to Cameroon in search of, the Central African forest and its wildlife. We slept in a rickety wooden platform overlooking the bai and from the bai we saw forest elephant, forest hog, antelope, and other animals. We heard and saw monkeys, and even chimpanzees. We hiked for hours between Bais during the day with pygmy and ranger guides. On occasion we would encounter other pygmies hunting in the park. Our rangers seized a bundle of dried bats that one pygmy man had claiming it was illegal to have them. Then the rangers consumed them and saved the rest, likely to sell outside of the reserve. 

Jungle clearing-bai

Forest elephant

Hundreds of African grey parrots

Where we slept on the wildlife viewing platform

Playing cards with all of the down time we had in between hikes

Matta holding the dried bats our rangers seized from a pygmy hunter in the jungle

Jason and I posing next to a giant tree

Jason and Scott like most people I travel with, abhor snakes. I on the other hand love them. When we came across a green venemous tree viper on the ground, I was ecstatic. Scott was not. When I crouched to photograph the snake, it fled from me and started fleeing towards Scott. Scott in turn fled from the snake but the snake kept chasing Scott for a few hair-raising moments before fleeing into the forest. Scott was traumatized but I found the scene to be hilarious. 

venemous tree viper

Being Charged by a Silverback Gorilla 

On our walk back from our camp to the vehicle I was excited to see a giant elk like deer called a Bongo come crashing through the forest in front of our path. But I did not expect what happened next in my wildest dreams. Only minutes later, we heard what sounded like a t-Rex roaring in the jungle. It was loud and sounded monstrous. Our pygmy guide whispered gorilla. He then motioned for us to follow him further down the trail. I whispered to my friends what I had read, do not run if we are charged by a gorilla. Hold your ground.” I had read gorilla will bluff charge but providing you don’t run, they will back down. But run, and they may attack, push or bite you in the back or legs. Our pygmy guide had explained that one of his friends had been killed by a gorilla in the forest.

The screaming in the forest grew closer and louder. The pigmy guide looked into the jungle and motioned for us to follow. he was i sight of the western lowland silverback gorilla. I crawled towards him, while my friends stayed back. I had my camera out ready to photograph the gorilla. I could see his fierce face, bearing his giant fangs. He looked like King Kong to me, and he was staring right at me only 20 feet away beating his chest. The guide offered to take a photo with my camera for me on the other side of a bush that blocked a clear view of the gorilla. I declined and told him I can do it. I crawled forward to the other side of the bush trying not to anger the gorilla, but it was too late. The gorilla charged me and came chasing towards me screaming and pounding its feet. I did the opposite of what I said to my friends. I ran as hard as I could and hid behind a tree. Then on the other side I saw the gorilla again, who spotted me and charged me again. Once again, I ran, and I felt the gorilla gaining on me and expected it to pounce on me at any time, but it didn’t. I found another tree hid and turned around to see the gorilla leading the rest of its family away from us. The gorilla was simply defending its family. And I never did get a photo, but I did get some good memories.

Traveling to the Atlantic Coast of Cameroon-Kribi

After an amazing stay in Lobeke, we traveled from Libongo back the way we came. In Yokadouma, we decided to take a train back to Doaula instead of a bus.The journey would take longer but it was more interesting and comfortable than the bus.  From Douala, we traveled to kribi and stayed at a beachside hotel near the waterfall that flowed into the ocean. 

Kribi waterfalls on beach that I almost drowned on when swimming across the river

Traveling to the Atlantic Coast of Cameroon-Limbe

After Kribi, we traveled to Limbe, another beachside town that is closer to the border of Nigeria and on the flanks of the active volcano, Mount Cameroon. This was a great place to explore, and we indulged in fresh sea food, and hired a taxi to take us into the rainforest on the Nigerian border where we hired a guide to take us on a 5-hour round trip trek to a remote towering waterfall-Bomassa falls. In the village we negotiated the price of the trek with the village chief and it seemed everything went well. We had the time of our lives swimming in the falls and on our return, the chief demanded more money. When we explained we had a deal, villagers started throwing rocks at us and our car as we sped off.

Mount Cameroon Volcano

Local fisherman

Hiking on the lava fields

Bomassa Waterfalls

The three of us swimming in the Bomassa Falls

Our last stop after spending two weeks in Cameroon was Douala, where we spent one night before catching a flight on Air France to Paris. 

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