Two weeks’ leave in Cameroon and a choice had to be made – the steamy tropical jungles of the south, or the arid mountainous north. I wanted to visit both, but it wasn’t possible in the time.
By the time my plane touched down I’d made a decision to head north. Cameroon is a hugely diverse country, its colonial history a mixture of French, British and German, religiously split between Muslim (20%), Christian (40%) and traditional animist (40%), and with some 279 different languages spoken, and the Far North Province is known for the mix of different traditions of the people of the Mandara Mountains. The area is also known for its scenic beauty, both of the mountains themselves and also of the villages nestling amongst them.
The first hurdle was getting a train ticket. I must admit I had assumed that I would be able to breeze up to the ticket counter and buy a sleeper ticket for that night, but in fact I had to hang around for most of the day just to get my hands on a seat (which someone had reserved but not turned up to pay for), but at least it was a first class seat so my luggage (and I) would be safe.
It was a 15-hour train journey, immediately followed by a 9-hour bus trip, so I was pretty tired when I arrived in Maroua and slept soundly in a cheap little hotel near the bus station. After a good night’s sleep I was met outside my hotel room by a guide touting for business. We discussed itineraries and prices, and I decided to engage his services for the week.
First stop was the village of Tourou, to visit the colourful weekly market. The women of this village wear decorated calabashes on their heads, and pieces of wood or bone sticking out of the side of their nose – neither particularly attractive to my Western eyes, I must admit, but interesting to see.
From Tourou we went to Rhumsiki, the tourist centre of the region. It is in a great setting, with the stumps of ancient volcanoes rising up from the dry, rocky ground, and we went trekking in this area for four days, sleeping in villages at night. Houses here are arranged as a collection of round mud huts with thatched roofs, one for each family member to sleep in plus a few others, eg to store kitchen equipment or grain in and to house guests. A wall joins each hut to the next, so the whole family compound is walled in. Within this space there is an area reserved for cooking (over the fire) and eating, a screened off area for washing, sometimes with a hole-in-the-ground toilet but more usually people go out into the bush for that. The whole place generally has various livestock wandering about (chickens, goats, in one case a donkey) as well as dogs and cats. I would be allocated a hut, usually with a mattress although not always – thankfully I had my thermorest mat with me as well as a silk sheet sleeping bag. My guide carried a supply of food and would prepare all my meals: bread and tea or coffee for breakfast, a salad of avocado, tomato, onion and tinned sardines for lunch, and various different cooked evening meals, all very tasty.
There wasn’t so much to see – a few birds, the occasional village and some nice scenery – but it was great to get out in the countryside walking. & I did get to spend about an hour in Nigeria, as we crossed over the border (the border being an almost dry river bed) for part of the walk.
After the trek we visited some stunning local villages. Firstly the Mafa village of Djinglia, in an area full of rocky outcrops where the houses – slightly different here as the huts, and their thatched roofs, were slimmer and taller – seemed to sprout out of the rocks like little clusters of mushrooms. This was a very undeveloped region. One older local man seemed quite frightened to see me, and my guide explained that these people are pretty much self-sufficient and have little contact with the outside world. The children do not go to school, the houses and utensils are made entirely from natural local materials and the families grow all the food they need. Recently they started wearing clothes (although we saw one old man without any), and for those they need to go to the market and sell the odd goat or other produce, but otherwise they live as they have for many centuries.
From there we went to the Podoko village of Oudjilla. The chief there has fifty wives and 113 children, and I took a tour around his “palace” which has a 400-year-old stone wall enclosing its warren of little mud huts and granaries – each wife having her own sleeping hut, her own granary and her own kitchen hut. It is stunningly set on top of a hill, and I was thrilled to see a pair of short-toed snake eagles gliding past almost at eye level. My guide negotiated for me to spend the night in the palace compound, not in a hut this time but in my tent, which I pitched amongst the little walled fields of millet right on top of the hill. It was a windy night and I didn’t sleep well, but it was worth it as I unzipped my tent in the morning to look out over the valleys below.
Finally we went to Pouss, a Mousgoum village next to the Logon River which forms the border with Chad. There the traditional building style was very different, with larger huts built entirely of mud, including the roof. As the mud (clay mixed with straw and an extract of some local plant) is applied one layer at a time, with one layer having to dry completely before the next is added, these take several months to build and the style (and therefore the building technique) had almost died out. However the UN stepped in and commissioned a typical house – now a museum – and those who built it are being asked to build one or two others for families in the region so hopefully this architectural style has been preserved. The houses are beautiful and it would be sad if they disappeared.
At the end of my trip I visited the beautiful Ngaoundaba Ranch for a couple of days. This is set in many acres of private land, a mosaic of grassland and gallery forest in the hills surrounding two crater lakes. It is actually in the middle of a two-year refurbishment, so is not open to the public, but thanks to the long tentacles of the internet I was able to track down both the owner and the head of the company doing the renovations and get permission to visit, and in fact they not only let me stay there, and fed me, but would not accept any money for doing so!
It was a wonderful opportunity to go walking on my own – hours and hours over the hills, alongside small woodland streams, around one of the crater lakes – without seeing another person. The only life I saw was monkeys, a cane rat, the ranch’s semi-wild cattle and huge numbers of birds. For those who are interested the birds included lots of white-crested turacos (beautiful big green birds with blue wings and tail, a white head and crest, and a bright crimson patch under each wing), Dybowski’s twinspot, oriole warbler and paradise flycatcher.
Then back to Yaounde for a week’s work, via the long overnight train journey again, made even longer as we derailed before we got there so I had to take alternative transport for the last part. We were given the option of waiting on the train for an hour or so before it was put back onto the rails, but departing fellow passengers warned me that I risked attack by bandits if I stayed, so I followed them across the field to the nearby road, to negotiate a place in a very crowded van. Travelling in Africa is never straightforward!