Saturday, April 21, 2001

21/04/01 Out of Africa

Well, there's not much other news (as far as I'm aware, at least) so you're going to get my African diary. All those of you (and I know who you are) who thought I'd explode were in fact wrong: I really loved my time there and I'll be going back as soon as I can (ie whenever Michel will pay for it).

Cameroun 04/4

Traditional trip from Hell, starting with getting up around 3am to get to Satolas with my 40 kg of luggage so as to catch the first leg of the flight, through to Brussells. Where we spend a fascinating 3 hours waiting in the terminal for our boarding call, followed by an even more interesting hour or so on the tarmac whilst the luggage of a non-showing passenger is identified and unloaded. (Which means, of course, unloading and then reloading the entire contents of the hold.) At least it's comforting to know that some things really are eternal, and airline food hasn't improved while my back was turned.

I still think Sabena's a bit cheap for dishing out plastic cutlery with the food, though. (SABENA apparently stands for "Such A Bloody Experience, Never Again)

Happily surprised to find that the cellphone works (more or less) in Yaoundé so we're able to call the hotel from the airport to find that, as usual, Michel is totally disorganised and we have to get from A (the airport) to B (the hotel) under our own steam, which we do in 3 taxis. Despite being ripped off by the porters who latched onto us as soon as we got into the terminal. (I say "ripped off" but it's not really true, they did get us around - rather than through - customs. Which, considering the contents of our luggage, was probably just as well. Otherwise we'd still be in the terminal.) Odd personality - you get quoted a price, haggle and get abused, but once things are alll settled there's no problem. Odd to me, anyway. Temperature around 28° and humidity 75%, so not too bad: better than Hong Kong anyway.

Dinner at a Camerounais restaurant - ate crocodile, which is fairly gelatinous (rather like lamb shank, really) then back to the hotel to squash a few cockroaches before bedding down ready for tomorrow's trip, when we leave at the crack of dawn (about 9am, to be exact) for Nyos.

Cameroun 05/4

11am and a minibus of the aptly named Vatican Express Cab Co (our friendly motto: "Honk when you hit someone") delivers us - more by luck than good management - to a meeting with the Minister - no less! - of science + research where I for one discover that the mission was cancelled on Saturday, only to be reinstated this morning. Much pointing of fingers and slinging of mud trying to establish that no-one's actually responsible for the total lack of organisation. The current plan is to get as far as possible this afternoon in the minibus and RDV with a couple of 4x4 pickups tomorrow for the last leg of the trip.

The road code is fairly rudimentary: honk like mad just before overtaking or arriving at an intersection and then - insofar as the vehicle allows - accelerating.

Arrive after the easy part of the trip - 400 km to Boufassam. Only a couple of hundred km to go. Incredibly lush countryside, with unbelievably red soil. Numerous police road-blocks (we were advised not to travel after dark): the country won "Most Corrupt in the World" twice running a couple of years ago.

Cameroun 06/4

Bafoussam looks like a town which started on a building spree about 30 years ago and then abandoned it 6 months later. The Hotel President, where we spent the night, is a monumental pile, plonked as if by accident in a shantytown, which has evidently never had a cent spent on upkeep and which is slowly crumbling away as a result. Enormous rooms with a 4m stud, electrical cables festooning the ceiling, and only cold water in the shower. (Although oddly enough there was hot water in the handbasin, the plumber must have been a twisted genius of sorts.) At least the flush toilet did, although going on the evidence that must have been an intermittent state of affairs.

Heading further north now, up into the highland plateau where the tea and coffee plantations are. (At least you can get a decent cup of coffee here - in fact it's likely to be better than in France.) It's also the muslim zone, so there are little lath and red mud mosques every couple of kilometers.

The interior of the minibus is adorned with various uplifting slogans like "no conversation with the driver", "no fighting" and "no vomiting" but the one I like the most reads "do not send your head outside".

Climbing higher and higher now, towards 2000m, and we left the tarmac behind a couple of hours ago. This high up there's less planting and more pastoralism, with the emphasis on impressively-horned cattle.

We perhaps made a mistake in leaving today as it turns out that the President (can't remember if he's one of the "for-life" variety or if he gets ceremoniously re-elected every few years) has sent the PM off up here to see exactly how the money allocated to get the road up to Nyos has been mis-spent or diverted, and as a result we're permanently held-up behind the ministerial motorcade. Still, we've hopes of making it to camp before nightfall.

Cameroun 07/4

Not yet 11am and already I've been up for 5 hours. They believe in early rising around here. Bloody frightful. The good news is that there is a shower, with a magnificent view over the lake, but I'll spare you the sordid details of the other toilet facilities.

Still, I don't regret coming for one instant. We arrived just after sunset to see the jet of water rising against the mountains behind: a really fantastic sight. So far this morning I've shot off 3 rolls of film, so when someone next makes the trip into the village for supplies I'll have to see if they can't pick up another half dozen. I'll have to keep some in reserve for the return trip, if only to get some shots of the termite mounds to keep Malyon happy.

Brings home to you just what a poor, disorganised mess this country is when you realise that not far from us there's a little army barracks, with two lorries. A month ago one of the lorries broke down, and two weeks ago the brakes failed on the other one and it went into a ravine, where it rests to this day. Despite repeated calls to the MoD in Yaoundé they still haven't got any spare parts, the military base 3 hours away has neither the spare parts nor the money to buy them, and they're dependent on the camp here to send them food from time to time. Occasionally they send someone out with a Kalashnikov to get some dietary supplements in the game reserve. (The captain of the garrison stopped by tonight - informally dressed in a shocking-pink tracksuit - and was very pleased to find that there was freshly killed pig on the menu.)

What's surprising is that there are still a lot of serious people who really want to make the country work - "like a normal country" - and who work their arses off just trying to do their jobs so that it does, somehow, carry on.

Cameroun 09/4

Well, after two days hard work I've finally got communication sort of established between the station and my PC via a pair of packet radio modems. It's not particularly reliable, and certainly not fast, but it works sometimes. Things haven't been helped by the fact that my HP is not 100% hardware compatible with a standard PC (from HP I suppose that's not really a great surprise) and the radio modems aren't really transparent either. Never mind, I've only wasted a day or so.

Our two septuagenarian geologists are in heaven. They came over to check on the natural dam at one end of the lake to see if it was likely to give way in the near future and, if so, what could be done about it. The elder of the two, Pierre, is tall, skinny and has a habit of going into long rambling discursions of an academic nature. Very nice chap. Anyway, he spent much of yesterday abseiling around a 50m cliff, apparently just for the fun of it. Despite a bad back and an iffy hip.

To add to the pleasure they've found a cave under the dam, which they plan on exploring tomorrow. With an open invitation to any other members of the team who might feel like coming along. I think I shall pass - speleology is not one of my hobbies.

We've been very lucky with the weather so far: apart from the two days on the road we've had no rain. According to the hyper-precise temperature gauge I have beside me the temperature at 19:15 is 26.1742° so during the day it doesn't get much over 32 I suppose, and at 1100m the humidity is supportable. And although there's no shortage of insect wildlife there don't seem to be any of the biting or stinging variety. The ants get to about 25mm long though, and I've just seen a beautiful moth, snow-white all over except for a fluorescent red face.

Cameroun 10/4

The food is excellent: mainly European-style but with a local flavour (much of it due to the heavy use of chili peppers). The vegetable of choice is either potato chips or fried plantain - a bit reminiscent of kumara, really. Lots of fruit - bananas, mangos, watermelon, pineapples and oranges - and plenty of wine (Château Cardboard from Spain), beer and whisky. Alas, no gin, and definitely no dry vermouth.

I do find it difficult getting used to being waited-on all the time, though. There's one guy whose job it is to pour the coffee at breakfast, another who hands the bread around, yet another couple who serve the main course and then there's the beer gofer. If I so much as sit down after grabbing a beer and start swigging from the bottle Pius yells "Trevor, no! Marco! A glass for Mr. Trevor!" (This is Anglophone Cameroun, remember.) I'd better not adapt too well or I'll have problems at home.

A couple of demented toads seem to have the idea that our home is theirs and spend much of the evening hopping about amongst the tents looking for a place to call their own.

Cameroun 13/4

Well, it's been a busy few days. After complaining bitterly about the lack of rain I now have to eat my words as the thunderstorms started on the 11th. The clouds just sort of sneak up on you and before you know it it's pelting down - horizontally, if you're unlucky. As I said, we had the first one Wednesday afternoon, and when I got up on Thursday and went in to the tent which serves as a computer room I found it awash. No harm done, fortunately, and at least I now know how to batten down the hatches properly (or whatever it is you do with a tent - there are lots of toggles and things involved).

Marcus, our chef, has really excelled himself lately. Pierre was getting quite attached to one of the camp cockerels - upset when it turned up on the menu as a rather nice coq au vin. Preceded, may I say, by hedgehog in a slightly piquant sauce. First time I've ever eaten that, and I must say it was rather nice. Then yesterday, as Michel Halbwachs, the guy who runs the show, had to head back to France, Marcus arranged a special treat - spit-roasted kid. First thing in the morning there are a couple of little goats gambolling around and bleating happily, come lunchtime there's one goat less and a goat-skin drying in the sun. It was excellent, but I must admit that the tripe and "organ" soup which preceded it wasn't really to my taste.

Tomorrow is a big day: the villagers from Upper Nyos (they're the ones who escaped the '86 disaster) have all been invited for a look-around to see how the project is getting on, and then in the evening we're all invited to the village for a party. That should be interesting. But it doesn't leave us much time, unfortunately, as on Monday we have to head back to Yaoundé for a meeting on Tuesday with a couple of ministers (science and mines, I think) to give a progress report, and then we fly out on Wednesday. I'll be sorry to leave, really. At least with luck I'll have time to pick up some presents for the kids and Margo - I have some very interesting rocks (pyroclastic splatters from the eruption which formed the lake about 100000 years ago, and a rather pretty but very fragile olivite occlusion in a basalt node which Pierre tells me came up from about 70km below the surface) but I get the feeling that they might not be enough.

Anyway, I'd better get back to work: it's already nearly 11 and I need to test the Inmarsat link again as Michel is really looking forward to starting the thing going by pressing a couple of keys on his PC in Chambéry.

Cameroun 14/4

Well, it's getting on for mid-day, which means I've been up and working for at least 5 hours now. Better put "working" between quotes, because the better part of the morning was taken up with speechifying and visits.

First time, I must say, that I've heard a speech in pidgin, and rather to my surprise I managed to understand a reasonable amount of it. I know I got introduced as a New Zealander who "makes much-big programs for the machines" but I got a bit lost after that.

It was clear that the people had a rather touching faith in the mission that Michel has set up here, and that they really believe that the place will become safe to live in again - I just hope they haven't overestimated our capacities and underestimated the time it'll take. That said, things seem to be going in the right direction, even if the time is getting rather short.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to tonight, even though some of our hosts have interesting skin diseases. And in passing I seem to have established a small legend in the area: no-one here has seen a cigar before. So apparently a certain reputation is going to precede me tonight.

Cameroun 16/4

A few last-minute changes of plan meant that we didn't leave yesterday, as originally foreseen. Instead we leave sometime tomorrow, so I don't know how much time I'll have for shopping at Yaoundé. Didn't make it to the village fête on Saturday either, which pisses me off rather more. But it's true that the 5-hour hike there and back might have been a bit much.

On top of it our working time has been rather curtailed by the weather, which has turned foul. Yesterday it pissed down for about 4 hours, and today we've been treated to a spectacular storm. We were actually out on the lake this morning, doing a few last-minute checks, and decided to head back to shore to pick up a few bits and pieces that'd been forgotten - just as well really as when we arrived the surf was well and truly up and the raft in the lake was rocking back and forth like a rubber duckie in the bath. Hopefully things will calm down a bit soon.

And if it warmed up as well that'd be nice, as I've no great objection to a cold shower when the ambient temperature is up in the 30s, but at 20° I start to squeal a bit.

Cameroun 17/4

After 3 hours in the 4x4 here we are at the Hotel Central Bar-Dancing Complex, as its sign proudly proclaims it to be, at Nkambé. The ambience is something special - 20W red and green lightbulbs in the bar, no running water and decidedly flaky electricity in the rooms. And a very evil-looking black hen perched above the main door. Still, it's somewhere to crash for the evening.

Another of those places that were built in better days and have been disintegrating ever since: the door to my room (rotting around the edges) has - rather optimistically - a lock, but the key I've got fits the padlock which has been retrofitted. And as luck would have it there's actually grass growing in the toilet bowl, so its chances of actually working in the near future (like, tomorrow morning) seem remote.

An eventful day all round, anyway. Went out to the raft in the middle of the lake this morning to check up on the system, settled myself comfortably,opened up the housing and plugged in the CRT and keyboard and went to work. Finished a few minutes later and went to unplug everything, then said to myself "Funny, I could have sworn that the cabling on that flow-meter moved. Must be water pressure." Then I took a second look, which is when I realised that most cables don't have scales. Very very quickly closed the housing again and headed back to shore to find someone whose job description involves snake removal.

It turned out to be 1.5m long and somewhat venomous, so I'm glad I called the experts in. Not really something my time at university equipped me for. Must have been the day for wildlife, as there was a dead wild dog being exhibited around the kitchen shack when I came up - a big ugly brute, with the colouration (and somewhat of the build) of a Tasmanian devil.

Despite that we did what needed to be done and left, even though it was at 19:00 rather than 13:00 as "planned". But I've come to realise that planning in Africa has not yet been elevated to the status of an art-form, and tends to be more of a none-too pious hope rather than a definite statement about the future.

Anyway, the lights are flickering more urgently than ever and we've a long drive ahead of us tomorrow before arriving somewhere we can shower before catching the flight home, so I'm off for a quick slash in the courtyard (NOT going to use the "urinary", I'm afraid to) before turning in for the night. Just hope the bedbugs aren't too active.

Cameroun 18/19-4

Well, from Nkambé to Yaoundé is a good 12-hour drive in a Vatican Express minibus, not counting the stopover at Bamenda. Not that I regret that, at least we got to eat lunch and I managed to buy some material for Margo. Just going from the highlands to the lowlands makes an amazing difference: down here it's definitely tropical, I've already seen a baboon squatting in someone's banana patch, a toucan perched smugly up in a eucalyptus and a flight of beautifully vivid neon-green and red parrokeets. Only five police roadblocks so far, and we still have hopes of arriving in time for all of us to be able to shower before catching the plane.

So much for the shower. Another couple of roadblocks delayed us enough that we arrived at Yaoundé at about 9pm, and we decided to head off directly to the airport - wisely as it turned out, as it took 2 hours to go through the various boarding formalities. As usual 20 porters descended on us even before the minibus had stopped, but we've learnt a thing or two: do NOT hire them all, but you MUST hire one or else you'll never make it to the boarding gate. You'll always find yourself at the back of some line or another - unless of course yu pay someone military to get you through. Whatever, we made it, with half an hour to spare, and what I am really looking forward to is a good gin and tonic, maybe a cognac and then, on arriving home, a really long hot shower. The last one (cold) was on Tuesday morning and I feel greasy!

Now on the Sabena flight from Brussells back to Lyon. Still unshowered and smelly, and as they only let you sleep for about 3 hours on the night flight over and I managed to rack up an hour's sleep at Nkambé that makes 4 hours sleep in 3 days, which isn't really that much. On top of it I uncautiously ate the bread roll that counts as breakfast on Sabena flights and it is really twisting my guts: I might finally find a use for some of those pills the quack prescribed for me before going over.

Still, and rather unexpectedly, I found Cameroun a beautiful place with wonderful people: I'm glad I went and I'll happily go back again: the next time (in June, maybe) I'll do on my own time (as it were) and Michel will just have to pay transport and upkeep. Having seen what the Camerounais are willing to do, I find it difficult to do less.


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