Here there be Dragons – My Trip to Gabon West Africa
West Africa is my favourite part of the world: unpredictable, unexpected and uncontrollable: love it or loathe it. Nowadays very few tour operators run trips in West Africa, it’s just too raw for the insurance companies! None the less, exploring the music, art, wildlife and complete atmosphere of West Africa isn’t so much edgy as an out-and-out gamble!
Starting off – Crossing into Gabon
My last trip to this area began in Yaoundé in Cameroun, crossed into Gabon to see the Western Lowland Gorilla and returned home from Libreville, capital of Gabon down on the Atlantic coast.
It was simultaneously thrilling and scary. I remember one incident in particular, which involved a taxi. “Cameroun” and “taxi” two words that shouldn’t share the same sentence. Here’s a diary extract:
This morning started at 5 a.m. Linus-the-taxi showed at 6.30, half an hour later than agreed. Yaoundé is asleep at this hour and the roads blissfully free from coughing car fumes.
Linus is taciturn with a set jaw and a mouth fixed in a permanent sneer of disapproval: he has the noticeable habit of tapping the steering wheel with fully extended index fingers, as if in an advanced state of amphetamine excitement; something I thought unlikely at 6 a.m. But then again, the Camarounais hate mornings and we all need our little morning pick-me-up. Every time we passed a handcart-petit, busy unfolding their daily display of snout (available individually) beetle nut, bubble gum and an unlikely array of unnecessary plastic objects, we’d slow and “Drive” would shout something I couldn’t quite catch, despite its frequent repetition. Something like “Va tu mumble mumble chocolate?”
The reply came with metronomic regularity, “Non, mais il y a Bounty Bar.” Which prompted Drive to snort and suck his teeth in an irritating way. But bless him! He was a choc-aholic after a morning fix!
Eventually, as we emerged from the tendril grip of Yaoundé, and just next to a particularly noxious lakelett of grey-green god-knows what, we found our grail: a tub of the kind of chocolate that is spreadable. We know it as Nutella, I didn’t catch the name in French. Needless to say, the find was accompanied by a sheepish and cloying look at me, the first time he’d made eye contact. Uriah Heap would have been proud. “I’ve only got a 200 CFA note and the amount is just 100. Patron, if you please…?” Who could resist him?
I was convinced he would eat and drive at the same time, like juggling knives and simultaneously spinning plates, I judged he lacked the co-ordination and patience to do justice to either. I admit my surprise when he pulled over and jumped out of the car with more enthusiasm than I’d seen since the resident hotel baboon had pinched the clean laundry that morning. Two fingers plunged into the yielding choc pot, but instead of his gob being the grateful recipient, the driver’s door got the lot. Or more precisely, the taxi license plate, painted onto his door, disappeared beneath a murk of brown. The same startling act was repeated on my door, the rear license plate and finally, the front. Satisfied, he returned to the driver’s seat, licking his fingers clean from the amalgamation of Nutella and road dirt. This is a good time to mention that Yaoundé taxis are New York yellow with large blue license circles: difficult to miss. Off we set, chocolate camouflage, half empty tub, utterly baffled punter and smug driver.
Yaoundé to Douala
The road distance between Yaoundé and Douala is 250 Km that threads steadily downhill through heavy rainforest that even includes a few surviving primary stands. The road is a spectacular gift from the people of China. Chocolate man was on a mission. The yellow taxi, good as it is by local standards, was scary. Its obvious faults included a shot off-side wheel bearing, unbalanced front wheels and a slightly disconcerting tendency to wander leftwards. African roads are lively dialogues with self-willed goats, feral pedestrians and unpredictable black-top, all of which contribute to the experience. The M4 is exciting at 95mph; the Yaoundé –Douala run at the same speed is quite simply suicidal.
The morning failed to lighten. Pewter coloured clouds sulked across the bruised sky, leaden with the promise of rain. The mood was reflected in the too-frequent police barriers, manned by soldiers who didn’t want you there, didn’t want to be there and really didn’t care if our souls never touched. Ever. Fortunately, most of their bile was directed at Linus: they say you have the face you deserve by the time you reach 40, and this kind of regular encounter would do it to the best of us. What’s the point? Half-way to our destination a real zealot got the bit between his teeth and the chocolate cammo’ caper clarified. Turns out that Yaoundé taxis are only allowed to operate within city limits. Yaoundé taxis stay in Yaoundé: Douala taxis stay in Douala. No-one takes a taxi in between; there are bush taxis, coaches, buses and for the really brave, mammy wagons. But no taxis.
The next vehicle I sat in was an Air France 737. With no chocolate on its wings.