When planning to visit the far southwest of the Central African Republic, I learned that the easiest way there would be to travel though Cameroon. Being on my own, renting a plane or even a car turned out costly, so I decided to take the long way: traveling overland from Yaoundé by public transport. The first part to Bertoua is easy enough: there are plenty of buses, and the roads are good, so I cover the 380 km in about six hours. I directly buy a ticket for the bus to Yokadouma the next day, after the ticket seller has finished praying at the small mosque provided within the bus company compound. I am back at the agency at 6 the next morning, and see people paying money for having their luggage loaded on the roof of the old, yellow Renault Savem van. To my surprise, my bag is taken for free; it later turns out that only heavy and/or bulky bags are charged. It also turns out that buying the ticket early carried a big advantage: there are numbers on the tickets, indicating the order of purchase, and they are announced, so that people can pick their seat. Despite some seats already being taken by smart asses trying to defeat the seating system, a brilliant plan, and it works surprisingly well. I take a window seat on the second row, as the first one is directly behind a kind of iron barrier, with less legroom. We are on our way at ten past seven, and continue our way through the rainforest, just like we have done the day before. It takes three hours to reach Batouri, where the driver switches off the engine, and everyone gets off. I walk around to stretch my legs, but don't dare to stray too far, since I have no idea how long the break will last. When, after more than half an hour, mechanics take off all four wheels, it becomes clear that we will not be leaving soon. Once on our way again, the discussions between an older man in the middle and a guy in front of him flares up again, and the entire bus ventilates their meaning. There might not be music on the bus, but there is always some other entertainment. The issue is finally solved by putting the younger guy at the much wanted front seat, next to the driver. There is a very vocal lady, who has been commenting on others even before we boarded the bus in Bertoua: she also adds spice to the ride, and often makes all passengers laugh. She is sitting right in the middle of the bus, and I am convinced that this is exactly where she wants to be. Then, there are the regular checkpoints. Often, showing my passport is sufficient, and I note how they spend much more time studying my visa for other countries, than for the Cameroonian one. Sometimes, they also want to see my vaccination booklet. One some occasions, we all have to get off the bus, which is a pain because the only door of the cabin is at the rear of the van, but at other checkpoints, the officers are happy enough to check our documents through the windows. Later in the afternoon, it starts to rain, and the window right in front of me is missing. The passenger sitting next to it, needs to keep a wooden board against the opening, but when the rain gets really heavy, it blows right behind the board to my seat, and the left hand side of my pants are soaked. But it can be even worse: on the other side of the bus, there are holes in the roof, and the guy sitting under those, stands to avoid the worst, but gets a free shower anyway. When the day gets to an end, and it is clear that we will not reach Yokadouma before nightfall, people get tired. After one more stop during which the driver and his assistant are trying to fix mechanical problems they have been trying to fix the entire day, the vocal lady explodes for reasons I don't understand. She bashes the passenger next to her, and repeatedly yells at him that she will castrate him. At first, the crowd in the bus bursts with laughter, but this apparently only encourages the lady to continue, and in the end, everyone is begging her to stop, which she finally does. I will never know if she really carried out her threat. I find a basic place to stay, walk the streets, find out that the person that could have helped me to get to Libongo the next day has already gone, and am happy that I do not see any bushmeat hanging at stalls in the street, as I had read before arriving. I ask around ways to reach Libongo, and get different advice, ranging from taking the bus, a logging truck, a WWF car or a motorbike. Some of the motorbike guys say that the road is dangerous because of elephants, and that it will take five hours, but at least one of them appears drunk, and none of them comes across as trustworthy. I decide to just sleep and see what happens the next day.
At the bus station, the Libongo counter is empty, and the lady at the next counter says that it is not sure the bus will run, for lack of passengers. I immediately know it does not make sense to wait and see what will happen, so I ask one of the motorbike drivers who has just dropped off a passenger. It turns out Benjamin has worked in Libongo for years, knows the road well, and is willing to take me. The price seems fair, and we first drive to his home where he gets some stuff. I am surprised to see a helmet, but he then leaves it behind, saying it is broken. So, we are in for more risk taking on the long drive to Libongo. After filling up the tank of the bike, he says he still needs to get something fixed, and I sit and wait. After more than half an hour, he comes back, and tells me that he will use the motorbike of a friend, which is new. He just needs to get the papers. The new motorbike turns out to not have a headlamp, the meters are missing, and there are some more parts not in order, but the driver is happy with this "new" bike. Before we leave, I ask him specifically if all his documents are in order - I know this part of Africa, there will be more checkpoints, and I want to avoid all possible hassle. The number one thing I detested most on my previous travels in the region, were the corrupt officials who were not trying to enforce the law, but instead putting all their efforts in finding the smallest mistake in a document, just to be able to ask for money to "solve" the problem. The first checkpoint is just outside Yokadouma, and my suspicions come true. First, there is a road safety checkpoint; instead of checking vehicles (and believe me, on this road, it is rare to see a functional vehicle) and thus improve road safety, his reflective jacket and the rope hanging over the road just earns him a quick 1000 CFA note by all those who pass by. A good deal: the driver avoids paying higher fines, and the official does not have to make the trouble to actually look at defects in the vehicles. But this guy also demands to see an Ordre de Mission, and seems appalled that my motorbike guy does not have an official letter by the mayor of Yokadouma to allow me to leave town. The next checkpoint is only a few minutes away, and the poor motorbike guy gives money even before the officer asks for anything, and with the money already in his pocket, the officer feels he can get more out of this - especially the white person on the back of the bike. He makes a meticulous study of all the pages of my passport, and then the vaccination certificate. Since there is nothing to find, he then demands to search my bags; all this happens in an unfriendly way. It is his colleague who eventually tells him that we can go. When we drive away, I tell the driver I will not accept this kind of treatment anymore, and ask him not to pay a single franc anymore. He pleads that there will be only one more checkpoint, and I hope he is right. Meanwhile, I remind myself to enjoy the ride: the track takes us through endless tropical rainforest, a deep red ribbon through a green paradise. We frequently pass small villages where people cheer at me, and every now and then, a passing truck gives us a dust shower. I quickly forget about all the potential dangers of this unprotected driving on the back of a motorbike. Whenever Benjamin sees a convoy of trucks coming our way, he pauses, we bend our heads, close our eyes, and wait until we feel less dust entering our noses. Sometimes, he makes mistakes, and on several occasions, a bump in the road sends our motorbike flying through the air. Fortunately, he manages to make decent landings, and I manage to absorb the shock of coming down, and hold on to the bike. Most of the trucks we see carry huge tree trunks: logging is a big thing here, and especially the Chinese are working hard to cut down the rainforest and ship it back to China.
We start seeing villages of the Ba'aka people, a pygmy tribe which has lived in the forest since centuries. To my dismay, my friend is not right about the checkpoint. There are several more, and at each one of them, the officers swarm over us like insects plundering an open pot of honey. The driver begs me to pay money for him, but I flatly refuse. One officer then calls me a "mal éduqué", and I decide not to react even though my blood is boiling. Then, it turns out that my driver has not taken his drivers licence - which makes me furious with him, especially since I had checked before leaving that everything was in order. We have a heated debate, made difficult because I have to shout against the wind to make him understand me. After we leave the main road which continues south to Moloundou and Congo, there are no more villages. But there are more checkpoints, this time of the company who is managing logging in this forest, and the very first one demands money. When asked, he honestly tells me that he never charges anything to blacks, but since I am white, he just tries his luck. We talk our way through. Apart from this, this stretch of the road is magnificent. We see no other vehicle, see no people, and it feels like the 95km of this road belong to us. When we see a group of gorillas, even the driver shouts of excitement: the primates are on the road, and when we pass them, the silverback makes himself big; the driver makes sure to keep his speed, honking to scare them away. We only start seeing people when we approach Libongo: one of them has a dead blue duiker in his right hand. Much later than I had hoped, we arrive in Libongo at 4 after eight hours on the road, and I have given up all hope of reaching Bayanga, on the other side of the border with the Central African Republic. First, I inquire about transportation going back, because unless I am lucky and find a seat on a small plane out of Bayanga, I will be traveling all these arduous roads back to Yaoundé again. It turns out that no one can tell me when there will be a bus going back to Yokadouma. So, I will concentrate on the last leg of my journey. Things happen quickly: the immigration officer puts me in touch with the guy I had hoped to meet in Yokadouma, and he arranges for me to ride a big pirogue across the wide Sangha river to the border village of Bomanjoko, with that especially warm late afternoon sunlight, and then the vehicle with supplies which is going to Bayanga anyway. The police officer in the Central African Republic just copies my data in a school workbook: I will enter the country without a visa and he doesn't even ask money for it. At the same time, the pirogue driver makes a big fuss about a worn and torn 500 CFA note I give him. When all the goods have finally been loaded on the pickup truck, I sit on top with five others. Apart from beer, toilet paper, and other daily stuff, the most noteworthy cargo is the skin of a recently slaughtered cow, its hoofs still attached to the skin. The meat travels in two big bags, and there is a distinct stench coming up from them. I make sure to keep my feet as far away from it as possible. Shortly after leaving Bomanjoko, a pygmy woman with bare breasts greets me, and I soon feel totally at ease in this country. The ride through the tunnel of the forest is amazing; we chat while the driver tries to avoid the deepest holes. It is totally dark when we arrive in Bayanga, where it turns out that the lodge where I will be staying is still 10km outside of town, and a motorbike driver takes me there. The owners did not expect my arrival anymore, and while having a late dinner, we chat about many things, and before I know it, I feel at home. The long trip from Yaoundé has ended, and I have even made it in three days. Ready to explore this remote corner of the Central African Republic.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Bertoua to Libongo (Cameroon). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Bertoua to Libongo. Read more about this site.