Limbe, Cameroon * January 1, 2009
For Christmas, Migo and I rode one of the most infamous pistes in all of Africa. Piste is a French word that means trail, or dirt road, or sandy track -- any route absent pavement. It is so central to the adventure motorcycling lexicon for Africa that riders of all nationalities use the word as if it was of their own language.
In this case, the piste was a grotesque scar across the jungle floor that led towards the vaulting mountains of east-central Cameroon and the largish towns of Mamfe and Bamenda. A piste in Cameroon is not in itself remarkable – less than 10 percent of the nation’s roads are paved.
What made this particular piste infamous was that it was the main road from Nigeria into Cameroon – a single-track jungle trail passable only by trucks and 4x4s and motorbikes, and virtually useless in the rainy season.
My Michelin map designated much of it as a “major roadway,” yet it was one of the worst roads I had ever ridden. I had seen photos of it on the Web, and knew what to expect. Trucks had gouged deep ruts through mud, leaving walls as tall as 10 feet on the right and left. The protective bark busters on my Suzuki’s handlebars banged against dense rain forest foliage hanging over this primitive track.
I negotiated around rocks and timber embedded into the trail. Then the piste would fork, with two alternative ruts for the next 100 or 200 yards. I would stop and analyze which track would be easiest. I was enveloped in glorious green and deafening silence, save for the birds and insects clucking and chirruping in the rain forest. Bright sunlight pierced the jungle canopy and dappled splotches of gold on the red-mud earth.
It was Christmas Eve day. Back in the United States, I knew, a frenzy of last-minute shopping and holiday preparation was under way. I thought of the bright store shelves full of the ridiculous gifts that one can find only at Christmas – the oversized golf balls full of bad cologne and the electric cheese grater/potato peeler combos and scented bath beads in the shape of butterflies.
I didn’t miss it at all. I would spend Christmas traversing the jungle in a country so poor that the condition of its main road to Nigeria would be considered a shameful abomination in the Western world. The contrast between the privation here and the conspicuous holiday consumption of the West was mind-boggling.
Ahead was a small village. People lived in mud-brick houses and congregated on wooden benches and stood idly about. Few signs of Christmas were visible here and elsewhere in eastern Cameroon. Once in a while, you might spot some silver garland or a little fake Christmas tree, but you would see no twinkling lights or garish displays of Santa Claus with his reindeer and a sleigh full of gifts.
Villagers watched and waved as I rode through, standing tall on the motorbike’s pegs choosing lines between deep rainwater gullies. A woman in the middle of the road hollered and emphatically raised her hands for me to stop, and I did. Her smile was as wide as a palm frond. Her eyes twinkled like a Christmas tree.
“Happy Christmas!” she chortled. She was about 30 years old, and her cheeks were lightly and decoratively scarred from an adolescent ritual. She carried a blue plastic bucket on her head.
“Happy Christmas!” I answered.
“The road is not fine!” She announced this fact cheerfully, with an oxymoronic bon vivance that left me at a loss for words.
Before I could manage a reply, she summarily bid me adieu: “Happy New Year!”
Mixed feelings stewed inside my helmet. The road was not fine for the woman and her village, nor the dozen-plus other tiny settlements through which Migo and I motored on our way to Mamfe, and then to Bamenda. This piste was virtually impassable in the rainy season, when storms would turn it into a 100-mile mud swamp that could swallow a Mercedes truck like quicksand.
Deliveries of medicine and canned goods and bottled water and other commodities could be delayed for weeks. The awful condition of this piste impacted the quality of life in these small communities. Villages elsewhere in Cameroon and Africa linked by better roads enjoyed regular traffic and the benefits that it bestowed on their people and economies.
But from an adventure motorcycling perspective, the piste was more than fine. It was spectacular. For more than three weeks, through Ghana and Togo and Benin and Nigeria, we had been on pavement. We were dreadfully tired of paved roads. Riding a paved road is not adventure riding. And the thick and insane traffic of Nigeria’s highways had left us stressed and unsettled.
We were eager for the adventure that a challenging piste would offer. This piste into Cameroon was as challenging as it was remote. We saw but a handful of vehicles on our 100-mile run from the Nigerian border to Batibo, at which began a 20-mile stretch of pavement to Bamenda. Some sections were so narrow that we could only paddle along in first gear.
Long patches of residual and slick mud obliged a careful passage to avoid a slip and a spill. One truck had gotten itself badly stuck in a mud patch, and men were shoveling dirt and rocks and foliage beneath its tires to give them purchase. We were in the thick of the jungle, and Migo in particular was delighted. He loves jungles, and he stopped more frequently than usual to enjoy the surroundings.
This piste was in far worse condition than those we had ridden in the north. I’d received a heads-up that road conditions would worsen as we entered central Africa from Javvier Carrion, a Horizons Unlimited member from Madrid, Spain, who had ridden Africa in 2007.
“May I remind you that Africa is a laugh and easy UNTIL you get to Cameroon,” Javier wrote me in an email a few weeks earlier. “Then things become quite technical. A lot. Those potholes in West Africa are just an amusing and entertaining feature of the road.”
True it was. My spirits were high. I motored along that Christmas Eve day towards Mamfe and thought of my friend Peter Cullen, the Irish adventure motorcyclist with whom I had ridden in Morocco and Mauritania and Senegal and Mali. Peter had put it well.
“There’s nothing like a piste ride to liven things up,” Peter told me one evening back in Senegal, after we’d run a 60-mile dirt road to reach the French-Colonial city of Saint Louis. “I never feel so alive as after running a good dirt road. It’s invigorating. It focuses everything.”
We needed focus. Migo and I found ourselves in a state of mutual melancholy on our final night in Nigeria, in Ikom, in a relatively attractive town of perhaps 10,000 people about 25 miles from the Cameroon border. One reason was that Geoff and his dominating personality, his guffaw laughter and his ribald cursing and his litany of tales, was back in the U.K. He’d flown there from Lome, Togo, to tend to personal matters and would catch up in a week or so.
We took rooms at a place called Omali Motel and sat for a chicken dinner and beers. A 15-year-old boy named John joined us. John said his favorite subject in school was geography. I showed him the map of Africa in my Lonely Planet guidebook and traced for him our route, from Morocco to Senegal and east to Mali and south to Ghana and east to here, the rural southeastern edge of Nigeria.
I eyeballed the map myself. “Man, lookit this,” I told Migo. “Africa is such a huge continent. But in Cameroon we’ll turn the corner, and it’s all south from there.”
With the meandering route we had chosen, it appeared as if we had ridden 60 to 65 percent of the mileage we would do to Cape Town. We had been riding Africa for nearly three months. We had passed through 11 African countries. We had covered about 7500 miles. And now it was time to switch Michelin maps, from no. 741 northern and eastern Africa to no. 746, central and southern.
We were at a watershed. That night in Ikom, I felt the first faint inkling of the journey’s end. I said, “Before I started, I wrote an essay about riding Africa called ‘The Bittersweet Addiction.’ One of the bitter parts about it is that it has to end. Even though I sometimes feel like nothing else has ever existed, only this thing, this ride. It becomes a reality unto itself.”
I was totally immersed in the adventure riding groove. I wasn’t at all dispirited or tired or homesick, but I found myself troubled by the fact that I had begun to take things for granted. I had become inured to Africa. Sights that would have captivated my attention three months now barely warranted a second glance. The novelty was slipping away.
I had a bad dream. I dreamed that I had taken a wrong turn in Nigeria and found myself back in the U.S., on an eerily deserted freeway. I didn’t want to be back in the United States! I felt lost and disoriented. I knew how to get by in Africa – what would I possibly do with myself in the U.S.? In my dream, I felt like a stranger in my own strange country.
Yet in time, the ride would come to an end. In several months, I would return to the U.S. The Western world would become relevant again. It wasn’t relevant here in Africa, hardly at all. Occasionally, I would check the entertainingly sensational Drudge Report Web site and see words like “hemorrhage” and “bloodbath” used to describe the financial meltdown of late 2008.
The turmoil seemed distant and inconsequential when I was riding through subsistence farming communities with no electricity or running water. It didn’t matter to the people who lived here. For now, it didn’t matter to me, either.
I knew I had to come to grips with the inevitability of ride’s end, and fully appreciate where I was. “The thing for me is I have to focus,” I told Migo. “I have to remember where I am – Africa! -- and the special thing that I’m doing. It’s easy to forget after three months.”
Migo was at his own three-month impasse. He found himself growing impatient. It had happened to him before, on an extended backpacking journey through Central America. Something inside him switches off after three months, he said. “I just feel like I want to move, to get somewhere,” he said.
He was troubled, too, by his problematic KTM. It had nearly 24.000 miles on it, arguably a bit long in the tooth to be running through Africa. His litany of motorbike problems is long – failed water pump, inoperable rear brake, short-circuited headlight, and more. He had replaced the water pump himself, and in Lome, the Togolese capital, the bike received some much-attention from a shop called Toni-Togo, the only KTM dealer in western or central Africa.
But now the KTM was exhibiting a mysterious tendency to shut off in the morning, while Migo is riding. If that happened while cornering, the bike would probably go down. And in Calabar, he’d made the unwelcome discovery that right fork was leaking oil.
The fluid stained the tire and coated the brake caliper and confounded our plans to run a mountainous 220-mile Cameroonian piste called the Ring Road north from Bamenda, offering what my Rough Guide called “some of the finest scenery in Africa.”
“It’s always something with this bike,” Migo said with exasperation. “I was actually looking into just selling it and going on with a backpack, but it’s not feasible with the carnet restrictions. Maybe I’ll just run the beast into the ground.”
Why not, I said. Despite the leak, the fork was operable. He had adjusted the damping to stiffen his ride. Maybe we could still ride the Ring Road. I’d set off on my Kawasaki KLR into the Yungas jungle of Bolivia in 2005 with a fan fabricated from a paint can lid, and was rewarded with fantastic and unforgettable misadventures. Migo’s reward might be the same.
We reached Mamfe at 3:15 p.m. on Christmas Eve Day after about 50 miles of piste. We’d gotten a late start, on account of it took the Omali Motel cook about two hours to go shopping for eggs and bread and prepare our breakfast. The border crossing into Cameroon, though relatively straightforward, also took more than an hour.
On the outskirts of Mamfe, we met a young man named Max. He was a moto taxi driver – in fact, the president of the Mamfe moto taxi union. We inquired about pressing on to Bamenda. It was just 75 miles to the east, over a road that Michelin had marked as a solid red and defined as “major roadway.”
But the Michelin map was conspicuously and illogically silent on whether this “major roadway” was paved or piste. One’s assumption is naturally that a “major roadway” is paved. But Max told us that most of it was not.
“The road is very bad,” Max said. “Like the road you have ridden from the border. Towards Bamenda you will find pavement, but to get to Bamenda will take you four hours.” That would mean arriving after dark.
Migo and I looked at each other. “Mamfe?” he said.
“It is Christmas Eve,” I replied.
Perched atop an escarpment, Data Hotel had good rooms with lovely views of the Cross River far below. Migo had told me that in Germany, Christmas gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. I showered and wrapped up the Christmas presents that I had for him – a set of prized and hard-to-find stickers of Nigeria to fasten up to his panniers.
I had great fun hunting those stickers down in Ikom the afternoon before. I liked Ikom. It had a rural, small-town feel that I found much more agreeable than the monstrous Nigerian cities through which we had passed. I motored through town alone and spotted a handful of moto repair shops along the main road. I parked my big Suzuki and strolled over to a shop.
I was greeted enthusiastically by dozens of moto dudes – an American on a motorcycle, here in Nigeria! I inspected some of the dozens of bikes scattered about the repair lot. None of them had a Nigeria sticker. Across the country, I had spotted just one Nigeria sticker on a vehicle, in Calabar. That told me that stickers were not widely available in Nigeria.
Nevertheless, I inquired. One guy told me he knew a vendor in the Ikom market who sold them. Off we went, him on his little QLink motorbike, me on my DR650. We maneuvered into the open-air market of shacks and stalls and hovels until the density of pedestrians was so great that we dismounted and walked for 10 minutes. Finally, we found the vendor the guy had in mind.
He had no stickers. My guide was undeterred. We stopped at a half-dozen other booths; no one had stickers, and no one knew where they could be found. Ah well, I figured. It was a long shot anyhow. I returned to my Suzuki, gave the guy some change for his efforts, and prepared to take off.
“Wait!” my guide yelled. “One more place!” Another man on a motorbike had arrived, and he insisted he knew where stickers could be found.
Yeah right, pal, I thought. Throughout Africa, I had been misled and misdirected by well intentioned men who had led me on one fruitless snipe hunt after another. I had been burned plenty of times before. I told them thanks, but forget it.
“Come! It’s right up here!” The new guy on a motorbike was addressing me now. He was maybe 20 years old and, for some reason, wore eyeliner. He called himself Patrice. “Let’s go!”
Ah, what the hell, I thought. I didn’t have much else to do. Much to my surprise, less than a quarter-mile away, a man had a sandwich board full of stickers, including a half-dozen different types for Nigeria. Cha-ching! I paid about $2 USD for more than enough Nigeria stickers for Migo, Geoff, and myself.
I stood alone at my bike and admired my score. Inevitably, I was surrounded by a crowd of a few dozen men. We bantered back and forth about motorbikes and Africa and Nigeria and my travels. I was enjoying myself immensely. One cross-looking man forcefully shoved his way into the crowd.
“You!” he told me. “You have to leave. You are creating an obstruction. This is dangerous. You are illegally parked. Move your motorcycle now!”
I regarded the guy. He was in his early 30s and clean-cut and wore a pink Izod polo shirt. I looked around the street. Cars and motorbikes were parked all over. How was I creating an obstruction? He insisted I must leave for safety. I asked him who he was, and when he didn’t reply, I ignored him.
I thought the man was concerned for my safety, a white tourist surrounded by this boisterous Ikom crowd. But his concern was entirely different. Shortly he declared to the crowd:
At this, the crowed hooted and hollered its derision. When it quieted slightly, I said, “Sir – please. That is ridiculous. I am merely a traveler. We are having fun here. If there’s anything poisonous here, it’s you. Come here – look at this.”
I moved around to the back of my motorbike and pointed out the Obama sticker on its top box. The crowd broke into applause, and my antagonist stalked away, muttering about white thieves and black monkeys.
My little adventures procuring Nigeria stickers made my Christmas gift to Migo all the more gratifying. We sat on wooden benches for simple Christmas Eve dinner of rice and spaghetti and mutton and cassava from a street vendor in downtown Mamfe, and then downed a couple of nightcap beers.
I had Migo’s present wrapped in a September 2008 page torn from a calendar in my hotel room. It was fastened up with duct tape.
“Adventure rider gift wrapping,” I smirked.
He opened it and exclaimed, ”Oh ho, wow! Nigeria stickers! I thought we’d be leaving the country without them – where did you ever find these?”
We made Bamenda the next afternoon after another 50 miles of jungle piste, and then 20 miles of pavement. It was Christmas day. Migo fastened up an inflatable Santa Claus to the rear of his motorbike. We lodged at a simple place called the Ex-Servicemen’s Guest House and were greeted by a fellow guest.
His name was Vincent and he was 52 years old and a political science professor at a university in Douala. Vincent had been educated at Harvard University, a fact that that he pointed out at least 10 times. He even repaired to his room to grab his a copy of his Harvard diploma to show off.
Vincent was as annoying as he was pompous, but he was at least informed about road and meteorological conditions. On the road from Mamfe to Bamenda, we had seen a few Chinese men operating heavy equipment. They were improving parts of the piste. It was an odd sight, Chinese men in these small jungle villages. The Chinese have a heavy presence in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa, often executing infrastructure improvement projects in exchange for resource extraction, oil or timber or minerals.
“That section of the road from Batibo to Bamenda, the Chinese paved that a few years ago,” Vincent said. “Now they have a contract to pave the road to Mamfe, and then all the way to the border. Everything you rode to get here will be tarmac.”
As they were when we embarked on the piste, my feelings were mixed. The poor villages through which we had ridden would enjoy newfound prosperity once that 100-mile piste was paved. And another of the planet’s adventure motorcycling destinations would be no more – no more grotesque scar in the jungle floor, just a strip of vanilla pavement.
I asked Vincent about the thick haze that hung in the air between Mamfe and Bamenda. We had climbed into mountains on the way to Bamenda, but the haze obscured what would otherwise have been magnificent scenery. Mount Bamboutos towered at more than 7000 feet somewhere nearby, but it was impossible to tell where, the haze was so thick.
It’s dust, and it’s here for a few months, Vincent said. Don’t expect to see much scenery on your Ring Road ride – the higher you go, the thicker the haze is. Migo’s Christmas present to me, a cardboard hat with silver coating to reflect the hot sun, wouldn’t have much utility beneath these grey skies.
It was dispiriting. It reminded me of how I had arrived at the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile in early 2005, only to find its magnificent scenery blanketed by smoke from a forest fire. Given the visual obscuration and Migo’s leaky front fork, we decided to split the difference on the Ring Road. We’d run the southern section of the Ring Road piste to Foumban, through what are known as the Grassfields, before heading south towards the coastal city of Limbe.
It was the only disappointment of an otherwise terrific Christmas. Two bridges had been washed on the Ring Road a few years ago, and I had wondered whether we’d be able to ford the on our motorbikes … and if not, whether we could figure a way across the water. We would never know.
We sat on the patio of the Ex-Servicemen’s Guest House and sipped Christmas beers. The melancholy of two evenings earlier, in Nigeria, was long gone. The piste was a panacea for what ailed us.
Migo said, “Christmas is a family day, but if you can’t spend Christmas with family, I can’t think of a better way to spend Christmas than what we did today.”
“Agreed -- cheers,” I said. We toasted our beers. “Good ride.”
I sat at the seaside patio of the Miramare Hotel in Limbe on the Gulf of Guinea with a cup of coffee. It was 7:30 a.m. The morning was bright and sunny – or at least it would have been, if not for the cottony haze that hung over Cameroon like a San Francisco fog. I could barely make out in the sizable islands of volcanic rock that protruded from the ocean surface. These islands were only several hundred yards away, but barely discernible.
Just a few miles away was Mount Cameroon. It vaults from the coast to more than 13,400 feet, by far the tallest peak in western and central Africa. The mountain was a key reason why we had ventured to Limbe. Yet I could make out nothing of its peak. Cameroon and much of western and central Africa was swaddled in the same haze I had first encountered around Mamfe.
“It’s called the harmattan,” an American named Owen told me at Miramare Hotel. He had lived in Cameroon for the last five years and married a Cameroonian and now was the father of a little girl. “It’s dust and sand from the Sahara. It’s here from a few months a year and even fertilizes crops. Did you know it’s been detected as far away as Las Vegas? It’s really quite miraculous, when you think about it.”
Owen was in his 50s and bore an unfortunate resemblance to George W. Bush in appearance and demeanor. A native Louisianan, he was a commercial pilot under subcontract with Del Monte to spray pesticides on banana plantations in this section of Cameroon. Owen volunteered that he was well read in quantum physics and other scientific subjects, so I decided to press him, just for the fun of it.
“But Owen,” I said. “I don’t understand. Dust and sand still weigh something. How can billions of grains of sand and dust remain suspended indefinitely in the air, in defiance of gravity?” And, I might have added, in a plain conspiracy to foil the enjoyment of mountain scenery by adventure motorcyclists.
“Well, I guess it’s hanging together like a cloud,” Owen said with a burlesque Southern twang.
Owen screwed his face in a mixture of exasperation and sheepishness. “I don’t know, Mark. Say, are you a football fan?”
The motorcycle journey reminds you of how many things you don’t know. A long ride always does. The ride leaves your mind as exposed as your body is while riding. It tantalizes you with wonders of the world you might otherwise take for granted. It taunts your ignorance and beggars your consideration. I find myself looking at the world as through the eyes of a child.
Why, I had wondered while riding the Yukon and Alaska several years earlier, don’t moose freeze to death in sub-zero temperatures? I had watched in amazement back in Burkina Faso as flocks of birds dive-bombed the road in front of me, and then turned in synchronized unison. Fifty birds, flying as one … how do they do that?
No ornithologist could tell me. No ornithologist could explain it. This particular beauty of nature defied my apprehension, as did so many other natural phenomena – the striated mesas of Utah, the bacteria that survives amid ultrahot volcanic vents on ocean floors, the harmattan haze, and why dogs, alone among all animals, chase motorcycles.
And as a motorcyclist, it interested me that science has yet to conclusively explain what causes the corrugation on dirt roads. I had ridden many of these washboard tracks, with horizontal ridges that punish a vehicle for miles on end, and it seemed to me, what with science’s research into fluid dynamics and crystal formation and so forth, someone would have pinpointed the cause.
There is no shortage of theories. Researchers have blamed wind, vehicle braking, vehicle acceleration, tire diameter and sand/clay ratios in the soil as culprits, among others. Some claim they are right. Others claim they are wrong. Weeks earlier, I’d mentioned to Geoff that the cause of road corrugation remained unknown. He’d heard another theory, that sound waves cause corrugation.
I spent time talking with Owen about the Limbe Wildlife Center, which shelters orphaned and rescued primates, and about quantum physics and chaos theory, which intrigued him. Like me, he knew just enough about it to be dangerous. He wondered if I had heard about what is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, articulated in 1927 by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg.
I had, on account of having worked for a while at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A foundation of quantum physics, Heisenberg’s principle states that you can know the path that an subatomic electron takes, or where it is at any given time, but you cannot know both at once. Uncertainty reigns. I liked it.
The same uncertainty regarding path and position seemed true for adventure motorcyclists, because around 7:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Geoff Shingleton surprised me with a knock on the door to my bungalow at the Miramare Hotel.
I had no idea where Geoff was, other than somewhere in Nigeria. He’d returned to Lome a week ago after his jaunt to the U.K., packed up his Yamaha, and took off in pursuit of Migo and I. Now Migo was off on his own, gunning down to the coastal city of Kribi and then north to the Cameroon capital of Yaounde. I elected to remain by myself in Limbe.
I had emailed Geoff details of our route through Nigeria and passage through the Cameroon jungle piste, from the Nigeria border to Bamenda. But it had been days since we had heard from him, owing to the paucity of Internet cafes in Nigeria.
Migo and I figured Geoff was four or five days behind us. But now he stood at my door, attired in his adventure riding gear with a huge holiday grin on his face. We exchanged handshakes and bear hugs and hied ourselves to the Miramare bar to usher in the New Year.
Geoff, it turned out, hadn’t followed our path through the Cameroon rain forest after all. “Nah, I saw those pictures you sent of that road and thought, No way – not riding solo,” he said.
Instead, he found that a boat called the Angel Gabriel sailed twice a week from Calabar to Limbe. It left at 5 a.m. in an attempt to avoid pirates that prowled the Gulf of Guinea, he said. It had docked in Limbe an hour or two earlier, and now here he was, bursting to tell of his many misadventures through Nigeria.
He’d crashed on a busy Nigerian highway, but was unhurt. He suffered a flat tire late in the day outside of a small Nigerian town called Ore, then pinched his tube – twice! -- during repairs. With darkness falling, police approached him and told him he’d better move. If robbers found him, they’d steal his gear and shoot him dead.
The police helped him find a tire repair shop in Ore, and then a hotel, and he spent an enjoyable evening with the officers, drinking beer until the wee hours. “Some of the nicest, most hospitable guys I met on the whole trip,” Geoff said. “We had a hoot.”
Geoff and I left the next morning for Yaounde, where we would find Migo lodged at the city’s Catholic mission and celebrate yet another rider reunion.