Nomadik and Co: From Ireland to South Africa - Part III

River bandits and engine trouble in Cameroon.

Missed the second part? Check it here: Nomadik and Co: From Ireland to South Africa - Part II

 

We were out of Nigeria and on our way into Cameroon. As we followed a rough, winding, double track road we descended down to a wide river. On the bank was a gathering of young men who from the top of the rise seemed excited to see us but as we approached revealed themselves to be a blockade with the express purpose of extorting us.

Unlike the other checkpoints or blockades we couldn't ignore this one as we weren't prepared to plunge into the river without first scouting it. This time we were going to have to stop and face the scam front on.

That morning, the oasis that Afi Mountain Drill Ranch provided was hard to leave. After a few days rest without the need to run errands and maintain the bikes, we were due to embark on the next leg. Peter, the founder of Afi Mountain and someone who has traversed the Cross River Region we were now in suggested we avoid the regular border at Ikom, and instead head north, crossing into Cameroon at Akwaya and making our way to Bamenda 80 kms away.

“It will be beautiful and you guys are up for it,” he had said. At the time we took his suggestion as a seal of approval, both that he felt we were “up for it”, and that he would share it with us. When we did reach Bamenda 3 days later, it felt like we had been thrown to the wolves.

 

Retracing our steps out of the mountains from the Drill Monkey Ranch, we were upbeat and enjoying the winding mountain roads and slower pace. Nigeria had been good to us and there was no sense that Cameroon would be any different. An old man in a grubby t-shirt who sat perched on a stool under a tree stamped us out of Nigeria without any fanfare and we on our way.

We stopped to take some photos only to be overtaken by a rush of young men on small motorcycles jeering us with a wild look in their eyes. We waved back ignorantly, convinced they were excited by our presence and wanting to ride with us.

 

Only once we reached the river did we realize the scam they had afoot. Out of principle, and in all honesty, out of stubbornness not to be taken advantage of, we had vowed not to pay bribes or ransoms. Yes it was true that many of the people perpetrating these scams were in need of money and had very little or that we wouldn't miss a few dollars here or there, but to pay seemed to only reward corruption.

And while Africa is rife with corruption and it was a language that we neither took for granted nor understood, we felt compelled to resist it as best we could, and to instead reward those that were generous or gracious in their hospitality. Invariably our best efforts to contribute something to our hosts was refused.

We were peoples guests and they expected nothing from us in return. It was their responsibility to accept guests.

 

As we approached the barricade by the river, our nerve and resolve was about to be tested. Two ring leaders stepped forward and hit our kill switches while they loudly demanded money.

They were the apparently some Youth League and we needed to pay a tax for road development. One of them picked up a rock and before choking it front of Richard's tire, waved it menacingly above his head. When a dozen strangers have you surrounded in the no-man's land between two African nations, shouting and jostling for their say, it would be an understatement to say it is intimidating.

Africa had slowly been preparing us though and we had learnt that we had to keep our cool. A small Chinese motorcycle piloted by a local bypassed the barricade to enter the river and crept across the flowing water without incident. We now had our line to follow.

We started the bikes and moved to follow suit but everytime we did, someone would clutch at our kill switches and kill the engine. If it was infuriating to us and everytime we made a short lunge forward, it riled them more.

 

Finally I was able to breakthrough and thankfully no-one followed me into the river, risking dropping the bike. I made it across and proceeded to get off and coax Richard over the Sena bluetooth to keep pushing. 10 minutes later he was into the water, his first river crossing, as the boys threw their hands in the air, vilifying him.

Richard kept moving, climbing the bank while I put my camera away. Starting my bike, I revved it up, spinning the rear wheel as a “F#$% you!” gesture only to get stuck in a muddy rut on the climb and drop the bike. No sooner had the bike hit the ground than half a dozen of the group piled into the river, rushing to catch me vulnerable. To their credit, they helped me lift my bike before returning to killing my engine everytime I started it.

Stuck on a muddy slope, axle deep in a rut, unable to keep my engine running, I wasn't going anywhere. After a few more minutes of this I was feed up and threw the bike down, stepped off and made large at the boys. They scattered in an instant, running back down the bank and across the river as their friends laughed.

In the end, they were acting tough but were fairly harmless. You couldn't blame them for trying, and while there was some gratification in not paying, my pride had been dented by misadventure trying to show off.

As the adrenaline began to subside, the dark purple clouds ahead began to rain down on us. Not long after we encountered another river, this time wider and deeper. We hadn't even reached the Cameroon Customs and we felt caught between a rock and hard place. Behind us were our bandit friends, not to mention Nigeria, which we had technically left, making our single entry visas void.

We had little option but to push on, but we had no idea what to expect ahead. In only a few kilometers we had been held up and now stood watching a rising river as the rain continued to come down.

We waded through to check the depth and then got to work before the river rose to high. We pushed the bikes across individually, each taking a side to walk them making sure the rocky bottom and current didn't cause us them to fall over. Half way across the water was up over the front wheel and dangerously close to the air box.

A lady in a t-shirt and skirt waded across from the other side, bewildered by the encounter but barely considering us in her rush to get somewhere. Keeping the revs high, we tractored the first, and then second bike up out of the current, relieved to be past it, but nervous about what lay in store.

What followed was a rollercoaster of a road and emotions as we climbed up out of one river valley, only to drop right back down into another, never sure if we would find a flooded river or a slippery, old wooden bridge threatening to drop us into the water from a height. The road was clay and clogged our tires and caused us to slip and spin and fish tail as we tried to avoid washed out ruts.

t was getting late in the afternoon and we had only come approximately 10kms from the border. Finally we reached a small village that served as a customs outpost that was almost farcical. Apparently we were now in Cameroon.

Wishing the road to improve, we kept on it but were stopped dead in our tracks when I took a wrong line through a huge bog. My rear wheel spun in the mud, digging itself down and in an instant I was shipwrecked. My bike looked as though it was clinging to the edge of the earth as the bog sucked it down backwards.

Richard and I tried to push it together to no avail. We took the bags off, unweighting the bike and got down on our hands and knees in the bog to to scoop the mud away, but no sooner would we excavate it than the clay would ooze back in, holding my bike hostage. We were hopeless.

A man in a pair of jeans and flip flops on a low, bald tired, Chinese bike navigated the bog via an easy line that he evidently had the insider knowledge on. Jarvis was his name and he stopped to helped us dig and eventually get the bike out. He asked us where we were going. We answered Bamenda, to which he replied, “You won't make it today.” According to our maps it was less than 60 kms away.

He insisted that we stay in his village for the night, leading the way expertly through boggy sections, barely marking his jeans while we were caked in mud.

After barely seeing another soul since the river bandits, the raucous scene we came upon in the late afternoon in Jarvis' village was overwhelming. The entire village it seemed was out for the afternoon, drinking small, satchels of whiskey that were tossed in the grass like confetti. Techno music was blaring from speakers concealed in some hut.

It was both an oasis and completely disorientating as we stood there soaked and exhausted from the day and unsure of ourselves.

Jarvis assured us we would be able to wash, but not before greeting the village chief who was drunk and in a merry mood.

Chief Abu Simon welcomed us and insisted that we eat and buy him a beer. With little option to refuse, a round of tall bottles of beer sporting “LIFE” labels were ordered. Two bowls of food followed, rice, beans and some kind of meat. In the size of a fist we could make out half a palette of teeth, a rib cage and what looked like a wing. We determined it was some kind of bat and as rude as we felt, we had to refuse the meat.

The beer was good and the rice and beans a treat that thankfully never made us sick.

As darkness descended, Jarvis doubled me on his small bike down a steep footpath to a small creek where I could wash the mud from my gear and from myself. After spending almost every moment together with Richard since starting the trip, it was a rare private moment to bath in the experience of what we were undertaking.

Richard and I jumped aboard with Jarvis as he deftly climbed back up the footpath, barely spinning a wheel. We were taken to a quiet corner of the village where we were given our own hut safe from the rain with a double bed and mosquito net. Around the communal fire some curious children played with our riding boots and gear as we tried to dry them out, while our host roasted some corn for us to eat. The seesaw that is travelling was rocking back and forth as we reflected on the hardest day yet of the trip. It was exhilarating and humbling all at once.

The next day we pulled on our heavy riding gear, still wet from the day before and forged ahead into more rain and muddy roads. Having never ridden off road, Richard was having a baptism by fire. Ironically, we were hauling a fresh set of tires on our panniers rather than on the wheels.

We had been saving them for the Congo where the roads are notoriously bad, but between our Mitas E-07's wearing thin after 15,000kms and the extra weight of spare tires, the going was tough. The route was a constant yoyo of climbing up steep winding roads rutted deep by runoff and spinning 4x4s that supplied these remote communities, and long slippery descents.

And when the heavens opened as they periodically did, the roads turned to running rivers, the ground so saturated from the wet season.

By lunchtime Richard was genuinely fried. He had been mentally redlining for too long and his arms were tingling and he was just exhausted. We stopped and cooked some salty 2-minute noodles and ingested yet more crackers and sugary jam and Nutella.

To add insult to injury, a steady stream of locals cruised past on their small, 100cc motorcycles sporting bald tires and often with a passenger holding a hefty load of goods for a market somewhere down the road. Ladies sat atop the bikes in colorful robes and dresses with nary a speck of mud on them.

We had our big dirt bikes with our big tires and our protective riding gear and we weren't getting anywhere. It was impressive to see and demoralizing to experience.

We kept at it wondering when the climbing and descending would end. At one point Richard dropped his bike and after getting it back upright again, it didn't want to start. Stuck in a rut and stranded in the middle of nowhere, it was a daunting prospect to consider that his bike might have broken down.

After a short time it inexplicably started again, but it was an omen of what was to come.

By the end of the second day it seemed as though we had broken the back of it. We had come 60kms in two days and we still hadn't reached Bamenda.

The weather eased off and allowed us to cover some ground and enjoy the most dramatic and spectacular scenery yet as the mood of the mountains shifted with the swirling clouds and the vibrance of the colors intensified when the sun did come out.

The next day we reached the famous Ring Road in Northern Cameroon and after running ignoring a flustered police officer at a checkpoint I got a flat tire a few kilometers later.

As We worked to patch the tube, the policeman came puttering along on his motorcycle. Catching up to us and demanding that we return to sign his ledger.

We insisted that we weren't going to go back, arguing that Richard's wife was pregnant and we needed to keep moving. He wasn't buying any of it. Finally his boss arrived and when we thought we might just have to back track, he realized that I was Australian.

Cameroon was playing Australia in a World Cup soccer game and Cameroon was winning so he decided to let us pass. Sometimes it pays to lose apparently.

We finally descended down to Bamenda which turned out to be on strike. Unable to exchange any currency we spent half the day riding around looking for a gas station that would accept visa cards so that we could top up.

Finally sorted for gas we set off for Yaounde, hoping to make it before dark and to find some accomodation to dry out properly.

As we raced to stay in front of the menacing, dark purple clouds above, we made good time, but 30kms out I got yet another flat tire. I considered riding it flat into Yaounde such was the lure of a shower and proper bed.

I thought better of it though and limped into a small restaurant on the side of the road to set about patching my tube again while Richard bought us a beer and steak that was flame grilled and delicious.

One of our cardinal rules in Africa was to not ride at night and even if we had been willing to break that rule, it was too late to reach Yaounde and find a hotel. Explaining our situation, the kind folks that ran the restaurant offered for us to wheel the bikes inside after they closed and roll out our thermarests.

They even gave us a mosquito net to drape across the bikes and a bucket of water to shower. Yet again we were at the mercy of the road and the people had shown us nothing but kindness and generosity.

The next morning we finally made it to Yaounde where we found ourselves a good restaurant and sat all day watching the rain turn the streets into rivers as we gorged on cooked food and logged into the internet to arrange accomodation through CouchSurfer.

We were welcomed by a family to stay for few days to rest and dry out, although the humidity meant things never really dried properly anymore. I also had a troubling infection in my foot from scratching a mosquito bite in my sleep that was angry after multiple days in a soggy moto boot.

I tried to dry it out and our host gave me some ground moringa root that hurt to apply, but helped to dry the wound than close it before it got really ugly. With little alternative but to keep riding and wearing my boots, my foot had become sore and without a chance to recover, could have become a much more serious issue.

While the previous days had taken a lot out of us, it was exhilarating and exciting and after some rest, we were keen for more. With our Gabon visa in hand, we loaded up and set off again only for Richard's bike to die in the middle of the road on the outskirts of Yaounde.

It refused to start and made the same feeble sound that had presented itself a few days earlier. We pulled over and set about trying to diagnose the issue, hoping it was something we could figure out and then remedy.

Avoiding the prospect of another rain shower, we hid under the awning of a restaurant that had not yet opened for the day as we tested the battery, then spark plugs and then the fuel injectors. We are both far from mechanically proficient but managed to determine that it wasn't electrical.

All those systems were running fine, leaving us stumped as the day wore on with no fix in sight. We set about finding a motorcycle mechanic where we could get the bike off the street and potentially sleep another night.

Through CouchSurfer, we eventually connected with Larry, a local musician and moto rider who said to head back the way we had come and he would intercept us. Towing Richard back into Yaounde up steep hills in stop start traffic didn't help my failing clutch from the previous days in the mud, but sure enough, Larry found us on his beat up old Africa Twin that he had inherited from an overlander a few years before.

We followed him as he snaked his way through traffic, only for him to get a flat that we then needed to attend to.

Eventually we reached Shaqueel's motorcycle garage which in reality was a narrow alley off the main road that lead to a small yard overflowing with wrecked bikes. Within minutes 5 local mechanics had Richard's bike striped of everything they could remove as the tested all the same systems we had.

Stumped they checked the compression which seemed to be low resulting in Saquiel declaring it was a failed piston seal which if that was the issue, brought our trip to a grinding halt as we didn't have a spare piston seal.

“Don't worry,” proclaimed Shaqueel. He would fashion a new one from an old KTM 640 engine he knew he had buried somewhere in his yard. Climbing over a pile of gutted bikes he moved a few skeletons and odd parts to proudly reveal an exceptionally old KTM engine.

An improvised piston seal sounded like a temporary fix at best, and if we couldn't remedy this issue, the entire trip hung in the balance. It was deflating to feel like the trip might be stopped in its tracks. Sure we could order the parts from Europe, but waiting for the post and paying the requisite high customs charges and inefficiencies all to common in Africa, meant that we might not make it to Cape Town.

Time wasn't on our side as Richard's wife was at home pregnant with their first child.

I insisted that we first inspect the rocker arms, a common problem with the KTM 690. Low and behold the issue was an exploded bearing in the rocker arm. Shaqueel gave us a look that said you are screwed, but his face turned to disbelief when we retrieved a spare rocker arm from our spare parts collection. After replacing the arm, extracting all the shards of metal and bearing rollers from the top of the engine and putting everything back together it was time for the moment of truth.

After a few hours spent with Shaqueel and his crew of mechanics, everyone fully understood where we had come from and where we were headed. They were fully invested in getting us back on the road. I stood back as Richard hit the electric starter.

Nothing.

Again he pressed the started and... nothing.

Confusion spread along with despair. It seemed there was something else wrong that was going to require much more work and time. We had dreamed of this trip for 12 years and so much had gone into planning it, and getting this far into Africa. The prospect that it had been derailed but too much to think about. That was until we realized that the battery wasn't connected.

The sound of the engine roaring back to life was topped only by the roar of cheers from ourselves and the mechanics. We were back in business. The sense of triumph we felt is a rare occasion in life.

Being vulnerable to the whims of the road and the thrill of overcoming its trials are a powerful emotion that have viscerally stayed with us. The adrenaline lasted late into the night over tall, sweaty bottles of beer as we celebrated with Larry, bouncing from one bar to the next before finishing up at a music club where he bounded on stage and dedicated a cover of Hotel California to us.

We might have been gum-eyed and dry mouthed the next morning, but unlike the song, we were moving on.

To be continued...

 

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