Hear about travel to Cameroon as the Amateur Traveler talks to Francis Tapon and Rejoice Mubarak from TheUnseenAfrica.com about Rejoices’ native country and Francis’ recent trip to this West African country on his quest to explore every country in Africa.
“It has been described, and I think rightfully so, as a mini Africa. It has a lot of elements that you find all over Africa in one country the size of California and that is the number one reason I think you want to go. It has, on one hand, the deserts that you find in the Sahara. Rejoice comes from the extreme north near Chad and that’s a very desert-like portion. It’s very Muslim as well. And then you have the tallest mountain in the region, it’s about 4000 m which is about 13,500 feet or so. It’s a very tall mountain and it sometimes even gets snow at the top. It also has the sea. And it has a Christian culture. It has a French culture and an English culture all rolled up into one. If you going to history they actually had a section of it that was controlled by the British and the rest of it, most of it, was controlled by the French. So as a result, today the southwest part of Cameroon is anglophone and the rest is French-speaking. What I love about Cameron is that you have all these different type of ecosystems. You’ve got a bit of the jungle. You’ve got to dry savanna. You’ve got the desert. You’ve got the coast. And it’s relatively safe. Currently, here in the middle of 2015, the extreme north where Rejoice is from is still a red zone, i.e. heavily discouraged. I spent 4 months there and I can validate that.”
Francis is trying to spend at least a month in every African country (all 54 of them) on a trip that has stretched now to what looks like 5 years.
This episode lays out an itinerary that starts in Duoala, which is the biggest city. “Duoala is one of the least attractive places in the entire country, a lot of sprawl, a lot of people, horrible traffic, some pollution, not terrible because it’s right on the sea. The thing that really hits you over the head hard is the weather, it’s extremely hot and humid 24/7. there are some places that have air conditioning but even in Duoala they have power cuts. It’s certainly worth spending a day or two there. I would say the only thing that maybe worthwhile is go by the coastline there are places that sell fish right on the coast. You have a nice view. It’s quiet. You get away from the city a little bit and you can have fish it’s just been caught and they fry it right there for you and it’s pretty cheap, for less than five dollars you can have a pretty full meal.”
Next go along the coast to Limbe. “It’s a nice seaside town and nearby Limbe, which is what makes it so interesting and fun, is Mount Cameroon which is that 4000 m mountain. That is a fantastic climb. Anyone who goes to Cameroon should take advantage of having such a massive mountain which is right next to the sea, but it’s not an easy hike. They usually recommend 3 days. Expect high winds and cold temperatures which is an incredible contrast from Limbe.”
We stop next at the beachside town of Kribi. Frances doesn’t recommend going to Cameroon just for the beach scene but it’s nice. From there you enter the anglophone region at Bamenda. “I get the sense that people in Bamenda are really into education and studying.” You’ve got these rolling hills. Nearby you’ve got “Death Mountain” which is the tallest mountain in Nigeria. It is about 2,700 m. It’s right on the border with Nigeria. It’s a lot safer than approaching the mountain from the Nigerian side.
We end in the capital of Yaoundé. Francis says “what I like about him room is that most cities in Africa are really unattractive. They have no pretty monuments, poor design, hyper congested, polluted, trash in the streets, their hot, they’re criminal (says the guy who extended his African trip from 3 to 5 years because he loves it). There are several exceptions and one of them is the capital of Cameroon which is called Yaoundé. It is not as hot as Duoala because it is sitting at 3000 feet. It is a smaller city.” Francis enjoyed the national museum which is a good museum (by African standards) and the buildings and monuments. “The train system is also cool. The French did layout some train tracks and the Cameroonians did a good job of maintaining them.”
We also talk some about the north of Cameroon but recommend waiting to visit that part of the country until the security improves.
The Unseen Africa
Climbing the “Mountain of Death”
Health Info for Travelers to Cameroon
National Museum of Yaoundé
Waza National Park
The True Size of Africa
Camelbak All Clear Water Bottle
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 483. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about crowded cities, national parks and climbing the Mountain of Death as we go to Cameroon.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. New sponsor for today’s episode, but I would remind you to join the mailing list, so you can find out when we open up that trip to Cambodia for next spring. But now, let’s talk about Cameroon.
I would like to welcome back to the show, Francis Tapon, from the Unseen Africa. And Francis is joined this time by Rejoice Mubarak. So, Francis and Rejoice, welcome to the show.
Francis: Thank you.
Rejoice: Thank you.
Chris: So, we are having you on today to talk about Cameroon. And Francis, you spent how much time there?
Francis: Almost 4 months.
Chris: But Rejoice, you’ve spent a longer time in Cameroon.
Rejoice: Yeah, I was born here.
Chris: Okay, which is one of the reasons why Rejoice is joining us on this show is that she brings a depth of knowledge, and especially about the northern region where she was born. And before we go on too much further, we should say that you two met in Cameroon.
Francis: That’s right.
Chris: And that Francis also tried to shuffle off his mortal coil in Cameroon, but that’s a whole different story that we’ll get into a little later. Why should someone go to Cameroon?
Francis: Well, I think it’s because it’s been described, and I think rightfully so, as a mini Africa. And so it has a lot of elements that you will find all over Africa in one country the size of California. And that, I think, is the number one reason you want to go. It’s got, on the one hand, the deserts that you can find in the Sahara, so we will get to that. I guess Rejoice can talk a little bit more about that. She comes from the extreme north, near Chad, and so that’s very desert-like portion there, it’s very Muslim as well.
And then you have also the tallest mountain in the region. It’s 4,000 meters, which is about 13,500 feet or so. It’s a very tall mountain, and then sometimes you even get snow at the top there occasionally. And it also has the sea, and it has a Christian culture, and a French culture, and an English culture all over the north. And Cameroon, if you go into history, they actually had a section of it that was controlled by the British, and then another section, most of it was controlled by the French. And so, as a result, today the southwest part of Cameroon is Anglophone, and the rest of Cameroon is French-speaking.
Chris: I didn’t know that. I only think of Cameroon as being French-speaking. I did not realize that.
Francis: Yeah. And it’s actually remarkable that Rejoice speaks English actually almost better than she speaks French because she comes from the Francophone part. But Rejoice, maybe you can explain why you speak some English much better than most Francophones.
Rejoice: I went to English-speaking school, and I also stayed sometimes in Nigeria, in the northern part of Nigeria where the Boko Haram started.
Chris: Oh, wow. Okay.
Francis: Yeah, that’s actually like the epicenter of Boko Haram.
Francis: That’s in the north. It’s a northeast corner of Nigeria, and that’s where she actually went to school.
Rejoice: In Nigeria.
Chris: And we should say, I’m not sure if everybody is aware of that name, although if you’re following the world news , you are, but that is not the area that I would go right now actually because the Boko Haram are…I get in trouble for how I describe them, that’s why I pause here for a second.
Francis: Just jerks?
Chris: So, what I want to say is Muslim extremists.
Francis: That’s it.
Chris: And I know that my Muslim guide in Morocco, I’m picturing him as I say that, I shouldn’t even call them Muslims is what he tells me, because he does not consider that what they’re doing to be even part of that, but that’s how they would be known in the U.S. certainly.
Francis: Rejoice, what do you think? People from your village and from your town in Maroua, which is in the extreme north, do they consider Boko Haram people Muslims or not?
Rejoice: No, they don’t consider them as Muslims. They said Boko Haram don’t have religion.
Rejoice: Yeah. But anyway, when they people, they say “Allahu Akbar,” which is “In the name of Allah,” so it’s confusing.
Chris: Well, and we’re not talking about going to the area right now. We’re talking about going to Cameroon instead, so…
Francis: Yeah, So to simply summarize this, basically what I love about Cameroon is that you have all these different types of ecosystems. You’ve got a bit of the jungle, you’ve got dry savannah, you’ve got the desert, you have the coast, and it’s all, like I said, the size of California. And you have the different cultures – the Francophone, the Anglophone. You have the different religions. In the extreme north, you have the Muslims. The rest of the country is mostly Christian. You’ve got that transition zone where you got 50/50 Christians and Muslims.
And then, of course, you have the variety of food that you can imagine that comes with all that stuff. And it’s relatively safe overall as a country. The only place that’s currently here in the middle of 2000, or coming into the second half of 2015, still the extreme north where actually Rejoice is from, is still a red zone, i.e. heavily discouraged. But the rest of the country is quite safe, and I’ve spent four months there and I can validate that.
Chris: And so the one region you didn’t go to, as I understood, was where Rejoice is from?
Chris: Okay. And what kind of itinerary would you recommend for Cameroon?
Francis: Okay. Most people are going to fly into the country because otherwise, you have to somehow…we drove through Nigeria.
Chris: Well, then you’re on a little slower-paced trip. You’re trying to see all of Africa, every single African country, which there are, I want to say 52, how close am I?
Francis: Fifty four. You are very close.
Chris: Fifty four, okay. And over the course of three years, so a lot of us are going to…
Francis: Five years.
Chris: Five years, sorry.
Francis: I’ve upped it. It started with three years, and then I went to four, and I think it’s going to be five.
Chris: So apparently, Francis will be spending the rest of his life in Africa.
Francis: Exactly. But anyway, yes. Most people who are going to be visiting Cameroon, they’re just going to fly in. Like I said, it’s the size of California, so it’s a big country and the infrastructure is not like California, and so it takes a little bit longer to move around the place. But you’ll probably fly into Douala because that’s the biggest city. It’s like the Manhattan of the country. It’s not the capital, but it is the biggest city. In the same way, Nigeria, the biggest city, which is Lagos, is not the capital. So, you’re going to probably fly into Douala, which is unfortunate because Douala is one of the least attractive places in the entire country.
Chris: And so I’m picturing an African city, a lot of sprawl, a lot of people.
Francis: A lot of sprawl, a lot of people, horrible traffic, fair amount of pollution, not terrible because it’s right on the sea, on the Atlantic Ocean. The thing that really hits you over the head hard is the weather. It is extremely hot and humid 24/7, and you really can’t escape it. There are some places that have air conditioning but even in Douala, they’ll have power cuts. Now, if you’re staying in a nicer hotel, they’ll have a backup generator so that you’ll be okay.
In general, Douala is, I think it’s worth certainly spending a day or two there just to get a sense of the city and judge it for yourself. And there are a variety of restaurants, so you can taste all sorts, different types of cuisine there. But I don’t know…I don’t think…Rejoice, you lived in Douala for a little bit, you know it fairly well as well. Things that you think are worth seeing?
Rejoice: The pizza place we went to at Akwa. I love that place.
Chris: Are there any particular sights that you would recommend that we see before we leave the city?
Francis: I would say the only thing that I can think of…she likes pizza, by the way. For her, it’s an exotic…but she’s forgetting that we’re talking to people who can eat pizza all the time.
Rejoice: Oh, I forgot that. I thought that in Africa…
Francis: No, no. These are all American tourists who can have pizza.
Rejoice: Okay. Pizza is for rich people in Africa. If you don’t have money, you can’t eat pizza.
Francis: Right. And that’s, by the way, another tradition is finger-eating food. Would you say that most people, Rejoice, throughout Cameroon can eat with their hands?
Francis: So that’s another thing you have to prepare yourself for, again, if you’re not going to a fancy, fancy restaurant. If you’re just eating street food, which is cool and recommend, I do it all the time, just be prepared to eat with your hands. What they’ll typically do is they’ll have some water…
Rejoice: Yeah, you eat with your hands.
Chris: That’s not uncommon in many parts of Africa. In fact, I think we mentioned in our episode that we did on Southern Morocco that our driver was uncomfortable eating with us because he felt embarrassed that he eats with his hands and we really didn’t care, but that’s the custom.
Francis: Yeah. And so they’ll have a jug of water nearby. And so you sit down on the street corner, and then they’ll pour the water on your hand. And sometimes they have soap, and then you just have at it. And in all cultures in the world that eats with their hands, as you know, you always have to eat with just your right hand and don’t touch your food with your left.
Chris: So, your left hand is for other bodily functions, let’s just say.
Francis: Exactly. That’s right, that’s right. And that’s another thing, by the way. When you go to Cameroon, do bring toilet paper with you because they will almost never have it ever, unless it’s nice restaurant or a nice hotel, or something. It’s not hard to find, but it’s hard to find in the toilet. Yeah, even in homes, yeah, even in homes, they usually don’t have toilet paper.
I would say the only thing that’s maybe worthwhile is just go by the coastline, and there’s places, they sell fish, they sell fish right on the coast. You have a nice view, it’s quiet, it gets away from the city a little bit, and you can overlook and sit on the second story or on the first story, and you can have fish that’s just been caught there and they fry it right for you. And it’s pretty cheap. For less than $5, you can have a really, really full meal. That’s probably the best thing to do when you are in Douala.
But then quickly you’d want to get out, and then probably head along the coast to Limbe, which is a city. You can either go, east or west. If you go west, you’re going to be heading toward Limbe, which Rejoice and I actually went to together. It’s nice seaside town.
And nearby Limbe, which makes it so interesting and fun, is that it actually has Mt. Cameroon, which is at 4,000-meter mountain, I mentioned it briefly at the beginning of the show. That is fantastic climb. So, anybody who goes to Cameroon should really take advantage of having such a massive mountain that’s right next to the sea. But it’s not an easy hike. Usually they recommend about three days. So, it’s two overnights. They have these camp grounds along the way.
The first one, the first camp ground is actually quite, relatively nice. Then after that, the second one, which was burnt out, and so maybe by the time people get there, let’s say in 2016 or whatever, they’ll have fixed it up, but it was basically obliterated, mostly obliterated by a fire.
But just expect high winds and cool temperatures once you get to the top of it, which again is just a stark contrast if you are in Limbe and you’re sweating and you’re hot. So it’s an incredible contrast to go from one to the other, and yet they’re right next to each other. So that’s one activity I would definitely recommend, high of the list.
Chris: And one thing I’m realizing that we forgot to do, and this is my fault, and I realized it when I brought up a map of Cameroon so I could follow along with what you are saying, which I recommend people do if they’re listening, not driving in the car, is we didn’t put Cameroon on a map. We obviously put it in Africa, but if you picture Africa and West Africa that has that bulge that comes out, so that a lot of the countries that have a coast face south, Cameroon is in that notch, where the countries stop facing south and start facing to the west that are on the coast.
Francis: Bingo. That’s it.
Chris: And we forgot to mention that because I honestly did not remember that, so…
Francis: Yeah. No, that’s right. So, like you said, it’s right on the coastline, right at the notch where West Africa bulges out. That’s right.
Chris: So between Nigeria to the west of it, Chad, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon.
Chris: Guinea, yeah. Sorry, I was at the wrong continent there for a second. Gabon and Congo. So excellent, let’s continue.
Francis: Yeah, no problem. So, down on the east side, if you head east along the coast on the direction to kind of south actually, really, toward Gabon, you will run into Kribi, which is a beach community and it’s another nice thing. So, one reason you should go to Cameroon is to check out the beaches and enjoy yourself.
Now, I’m not going to put these on the scale of let’s say Caribbean beaches or some other world-class beaches out there. The best thing they got going for them is they’re warm, they’re relatively clean most of the time and the water itself is quite warm. But as far as seeing turquoise water and that kind of stuff, you’re not going to see that. You are looking at the Atlantic Ocean. It’s nice, but I wouldn’t go to Cameroon just for the beach scene.
Chris: Okay. That sounds like, yeah, that sounds like what you’re saying is it’s not why you would fly all the way there, but if you were there it’s not a bad place to do. Okay.
Francis: Yeah. And then from there, you might want to head to the west southwest corner, not from Kribi, but let’s say you’re still in Limbe and you just climbed up Mt. Cameroon, then you would go to a little bit further north of that where you’re going to be entering the Anglophone place, and this is where Americans will be quite happy and the British as well, anybody else who speaks English because all the sudden there, the people on the street start speaking English, and usually they speak some French, but their French is much weaker than their English, and so they’re happy to speak to you in English.
And the headquarters of that place is called Bamenda. Bamenda is the biggest city in that region. And it’s interesting because there, I get the sense that people in Bamenda are really into education and studying, and they tend to be, let’s say, they value intellect more so than I saw other places in the rest of the country. So, it’s just different culture in that sense. And I don’t know why that is, but it just seemed like after spending almost a week in that region, I got that feeling.
But it’s just cool just because now, you’ve got that rolling hills. And nearby, by the way, is Death Mountain, which is actually the tallest mountain of Nigeria. I know it doesn’t sound very appealing, Chris, and I know you’re a semi-hiker guy, but again, it’s probably…
Chris: That’s accurate, that’s accurate, yeah. Death Mountain isn’t the kind of hike that usually attracts me, yeah.
Francis: Exactly. But Rejoice and I went up there. Rejoice, you want to describe how it was going up Death Mountain?
Rejoice: Going out the mountain is a little bit difficult for me because it is one of the tallest mountains I have climbed.
Francis: It was about 2,700 meters, right? I think it was.
Chris: It’s over.
Francis: 7,000 feet or something like that.
Francis: But actually she’s being modest because she made it to the top, and I really struggled because I had malaria at the time and I vomited twice on that mountain, feeling quite terrible. And so the Death Mountain started living up to its name. But what it is, is right on the border with Nigeria, and it is the tallest mountain of Nigeria.
So, here is the benefit is if you go there, you can check off two tallest mountains. You’re going to be on the tallest mountain in Nigeria, and the tallest mountain of Cameroon. I mean, they’re not next to each other, but they’re in that vicinity, if you will, and especially if you go to the Anglophone part, it’s right there. And it’s a lot safer than approaching the mountain from Nigerian side because the activities of Boko Haram are not nearly as present on the Cameroon side.
Chris: We should get back to the malaria.
Chris: Because we’re recommending that people go to Africa, and I think a lot of people, when they think about going to Africa, are afraid, or Sub-Saharan Africa, right now may be afraid because of terrorism, which we mentioned, but there are other things that could cause you ill there, and you happened to contract one of them.
Francis: Yeah, when I was in Ghana, I guess that was two years ago or something like that, it was December, I think, 2013, that’s when I got malaria the first time. But it was actually relatively benign. I got one of the benign strains, so it just felt like having the flu in America, and then you just took a couple of pills, and about two days later, it was pretty much gone. And so I felt actually I’ve had worse symptoms having the flu in America than having malaria in Ghana.
But then, Rejoice and I went to Douala and long story, but she and I were waiting outside at 4:30 in the morning for a friend to wake up, and we were getting devoured by mosquitoes. Douala has them, and so especially at 4:30 in the morning. And so we were getting eaten alive, and it was there that we didn’t know it because it takes about two weeks for malaria to show itself up.
And that’s something to think about for those people who are going to be traveling in those regions. You might feel fine the whole time when you’re there, come back to America and all of a sudden get sick, and you might have malaria, and doctors may not be able to diagnose it, or may not even think that your symptoms are malaria. So the easy way to protect yourself, you can take these prophylactics, you can take certain things, anti-malaria pills before you travel.
Chris: Well, one of the disadvantages you have is that if I’m in Africa for two weeks, a lot of the ones that you can take – Malarone, Malarium or those – taking it for two weeks is not considered at all a problem, but they don’t recommend take them for three, four or five years.
Francis: Exactly. Right. And so that’s my problem is I took them. My strategy was to take them only during the rainy season where mosquitoes are more prevalent, but as you saw in December which was not the rainy season, it was the dry season in Ghana, I still got nailed. And so then at that point, I just said, “Screw it.” And anyway, I was in Douala, we both got stung, and then the next, day we flew to Nigeria, to Lagos and we drove back. We took about a week or so, 10 days or so to get back to Cameroon, driving across all of Nigeria, southern Nigeria.
And then interestingly right when we got to the border, both of us got hit hard with the symptoms of malaria where you feel nauseous, you feel a bit weak, you want to vomit. And it’s funny because they wouldn’t let me go across the border because of Ebola, and they had closed the border because of Ebola reasons. And I said, “But I don’t have Ebola.” And luckily they didn’t take my temperature because I had a huge fever at the time.
Francis: This guy had almost all of the Ebola symptoms. It took seven hours of negotiation to get across that border. And thank god, Rejoice was there because Rejoice was able to negotiate and bribe the guard on the other side, on the Cameroon side, to get me through.
But it was ironic because right after I crossed the border, the very next day I was vomiting, I felt like crap. I had basically all of the Ebola symptoms that you can imagine. And the funny thing is, here’s the crazy thing, Chris, is I actually got myself tested and I asked them, I said, “I think I have malaria” and they said, “No, you’re negative.”
And I went to a second doctor to try to get second opinion and he said, “No, the test you took is 99.9% accurate,” or whatever it was, and so, “You don’t need to take it again.” And I said, “I know how it is to get malaria. I feel it.” He say, “No, you don’t have it.” Great. So, that’s when I went up Death Mountain and that’s when I felt really bad because malaria is a very insidious disease.
It’s unlike anything Americans are experienced to. Because most Americans, when you get sick, you have the steady decline, decline, decline, then you hit rock bottom and then you climb up, up, up. That is how basically every disease that Americans are used to dealing with how it works.
But malaria is insidious and different. You have a roller coaster ride. You go down and then you start feeling better, and so you think you’re getting over whatever sickness you got hit with. And then you start feeling bad again, maybe six hours later or maybe a day later, and then you climb back up again. But each down gets progressively worse than the last down. We’ve been trained all our life to know that when things are getting better, you’re all on the clear and you’re on your way out of the sickness. And that doesn’t work with malaria. So it’s very challenging for us Americans to deal with.
Chris: Well, and the other difference being that you don’t get better in quite the same way either.
Francis: Right. Yeah, it does stick around with you for life. And the other thing is that, the interesting is that the doctor then said, so I said, “Okay, Rejoice and I both tested negative for malaria. So then what do we do?” And they said, “Well, you should take the malaria medicine.” I said, “What? You just told me I don’t have malaria, so why do you want me and Rejoice to take anti-malaria medicine?” “Because you never know.”
Rejoice: Yeah, that’s it.
Francis: So, she being the African, the smart African that she is, she went ahead and took the medicine. I just said, “I’m not going to take a drug, if I don’t have the disease or the problem.” So I didn’t. So she got better and that’s when I was in Death Mountain feeling like I was about to die.
Chris: Well, I did want to cover that story. I do. I am a little afraid that we just talked people out of going to Africa, let alone Cameroon. So, let’s get into some of the other things you saw in Cameroon which make it worth the trip.
Francis: Yeah. Okay, so what I really like about Cameroon is most cities in Africa are really unattractive. They have no pretty monuments, poor design, hyper congested, polluted, trash on the streets. They’re hot. They’re criminal. Most big cities in Africa have those symptoms.
Chris: This spoken by a guy who keeps spending more and more time in Africa because he loves it.
Francis: Yes. But there are several exceptions throughout the continent, and one of them is the capital of Cameroon which is called Yaounde, and that’s actually where Rejoice is talking to us right now. So, Rejoice, wouldn’t you agree with me that Yaounde is much better than Douala?
Rejoice: Yeah. Yaounde is much better than Douala. I agree.
Francis: And what do you like better?
Rejoice: The cleanest and less traffic.
Chris: I assume that it’s a much smaller city?
Francis: It’s not as hot as Douala also.
Chris: That is kind of strong.
Francis: The reason is because you are sitting at around, I think, is it 1,000 meters or 700 meters? Something like that. So around 3,000 feet elevation, and so as a result, the temperature cools off a bit at night, and that makes it just more refreshing as a city, not nearly as oppressive as Douala can be with its non-stop heat. And you’re right. It is a smaller city. Douala, I think, I can’t remember if it’s 2 or 3 million people, and Yaounde I think has only about a million or so. I could be wrong about these statistics but basically, definitely is smaller and just a cleaner and more attractive.
The other thing is the actual monuments. They have several buildings, a lot of them are government buildings, but they’re nice. They’re well-designed and pretty to look at. And they have museums. It’s just a more pleasant city to hang out with. So, that’s something that everybody should go to.
Chris: And are there particular monuments or museums that you want to recommend before you move off that topic?
Francis: I think the National Museum is pretty cool. In general, one thing I always have to recalibrate people whether you’re using African standards or European standards. No museum in Africa, except perhaps the ones in Cairo or something like that, can’t compete against the British museum or the Louvre. So, for Africa, the museums are interesting and nice, but just don’t walk in there expecting to see like the Smithsonian or whatever. It’s not going to be that level of quality.
The train system is also cool. One of the things that’s stuck over from the colonial days is the French did layout some train tracks, and the Cameroonians have done a pretty good job maintaining them, and their trains are actually in decent shape. They have two classes, they have a second class and first class, and the first class is air conditioned. And it’s actually worth it because you’re not just going to get air-conditioning but they’re going to give you crappy sandwich, too. So, it’s a little bit, but it’s true. They give you lots of water.
Chris: How can we turn that down?
Francis: Finally, as you continue going north, you’re going to hit into the territory that I don’t really know that much about which is Maroua. But before, I guess, we talk about that, we can also briefly mention that you can make, if you’re really adventurous, make excursions like Rejoice and I did. We went into the Central African Republic, the CAR. And Rejoice, you found new appreciation. So, let me give you a little quick background is that Rejoice, people in Cameroon like to complain about the President of Cameroon who’s been there for what? Thirty-five years, Rejoice, right?
Francis: Thirty-two years, whatever. And his name is Paul Bila and…
Rejoice: Paul Biya.
Francis: Biya, whatever. That guy, he’s been there forever and people, of course, like to complain occasionally about him, right? And so Rejoice, what happened when you went to the Central African Republic with me?
Rejoice: When I came back to Cameroon, I loved Paul Biya. I’m glad that Paul Biya is our President.
Francis: Why is that?
Rejoice: Because Central African Republic is aya, yaya, yaya, yai. I don’t know how to describe it, but I would not want to be a Central African Republican. It’s not good there.
Chris: So, it’s poorly run or the corruption is more noticeable or both?
Francis: All the above. Everything. All of the nightmare visions that you have of Africa, everything can go wrong, the horrible roads, the insecurity.
Francis: Corruption, the poverty, the lack of electricity, power outages, just everything that you…
Rejoice: If you remember, even with our money, we can’t find something to eat.
Francis: Right, that’s right. Sometimes we had difficulty at times just purchasing food. We were there for about what? A week or so?
Rejoice: Four days.
Francis: Oh, was it just four days. Okay, anyway. It was unpleasant, and so you come back to Cameroon and you’re like, “Oh, God” take a sigh of relief. And so, all the difficulties that people whine about in Cameroon are actually benign compared to what their neighbors are suffering through.
Chris: And we talk about Cameroon versus similar countries in the area. Obviously, we know some countries like Tanzania or South Africa are known for their wildlife, and Namibia for the desert, and Nigeria for oil and email scams, which is maybe unfair. What stands out in Cameroon? The most notable region of Cameroon, or the most notable thing that you should see in Cameroon, or…
Francis: I would say if you have to pick one thing, it would be Mt. Cameroon. It’s just impressive mountain. It’s a 4,000-meter monstrosity just standing out there, and it’s within…
Chris: Volcanic, I assume.
Francis: Yeah, it used to be, yeah. Now, the thing is that, again, goes back to what I said at the very beginning of this podcast which is that Cameroon is a mini Africa. And so, even though I would point to Mt. Cameroon as their crown jewel, there’s many different regions. And what we still haven’t explored yet is the extreme north. So, I think Rejoice, you should start talking a little bit about.
But unfortunately, like most people, you know, I was born and raised in San Francisco and my brother didn’t ride a cable car until he was 35 years old or something like that. And so we often have this tendency. There’s a lot of New Yorkers, Chris, who have never been to the Statue of Liberty, or gone up the Empire State Building. And they were born and raised in New York. So as much in the same way, Rejoice is guilty of not really knowing super well, she’s never been to Waza National Park, right Rejoice?
Francis: But you’ve heard of it?
Rejoice: Yeah, I’ve heard of it. It’s quite close to my house in Maroua but I didn’t go.
Francis: This is like the Serengeti of Cameroon. They have a ton of wildlife in that region. I really want to go there but at that time when I was there, Boko Haram was still active. They had kidnapped the wife of the prime minister or something like that on a motorcade. So, it’s a region that they heavily, heavily discourage going into. But if somebody is listening to this podcast in 2016, and certainly beyond that, really go in and check the conditions of Cameroon. And I think that at some point, this Boko Haram BS can’t last forever. And at some point, they’re going to conquer them.
And when they do, the extreme north which actually has most of the best tour sights, that’s where you all the sudden see this massive change in culture. I’ve just seen many photographs from it. I talked to Rejoice a lot about of it, but that to me is the huge culture shock. And if you look at Lonely Planet Guide, for example, you know how they put little dots and say these are the most attractive points?
Francis: So, they put a dot on Mt. Cameroon, they put a dot on Kribi, a dot on Douala, maybe Douala Nya Kunde. And then they put five dots all in the extreme north. In other words, basically the most exciting tourists’ stuff is on the extreme north. So, anybody who’s listening to this podcast, I don’t think, yes, you can go to Cameroon if you really have to or want to, or something on your bucket list, or whatever like that. But people who are a little bit more flexible and not as urgent needing to go there right now, I would wait until the extreme north opens up and calms down. And that’s when I would go because it would be a shame to come to Cameroon and do what I did. I was there for four months. I never got to see extreme north. I feel bad about that, and I think that given everything I’ve read and studied about the country, that’s where a lot of the jewels are to see.
Chris: Now, I don’t know if it’s possible for anything to surprise you in Africa anymore but what surprised you about Cameroon?
Francis: I guess one thing that surprised me is the train system. I’m so used to everything in Africa, especially infrastructure, especially West and Central Africa to be utterly decrepit and falling apart, and the train, I was riding second class. I didn’t even ride first class, and I was very clean, interested and they…
Chris: And where did you ride the train?
Francis: I rode it between Douala and Yaounde, the capital, and that takes I think about four hours or so, the train ride. And if you’re leaving from Douala, it leaves very early in the morning. I think something like five, six in the morning which is nice, because if you’re riding second class, they have the windows down and so the temperature is not oppressively hot. On the way back, if you’re going from Yaounde back to Douala, then you definitely want to take the air-conditioning because there’s a bit hot. So, that’s what surprised me. And by the way, that same train doesn’t end in Yaounde, it continues on to the north and ends in Ngaoundere. Is that right Rejoice?
Francis: Which is between Maroua, which is where she is from, and Yaounde. So, it’s basically in between, it stops there. And from Ngaoundere, you have to take a bus. Right Rejoice? And how many hours more do you have to go to get to Maroua?
Francis: Seven hours from Ngaoundere?
Rejoice: Yeah, to Maroua.
Francis: Wow god! Like I said, it’s the size California but the infrastructure is slower. So if you ever look at that on the map, you’ll see that it’s not an incredible distance but it’s obviously.
Rejoice: And that’s because all the roads are broken.
Francis: That’s right. Welcome to Africa.
Chris: Now, you mentioned that Africa in a miniature.
Chris: So, I’ve got savanna, I’ve got desert, I’ve got jungle. But I am not sure that I have a clear picture yet of what is where.
Francis: Obviously, the coastal stuff, the stuff, the beach and all that stuff is obviously in the south and west part of the country along there.
Chris: Along the coast.
Francis: You have the rolling hills, the rolling hills. That kind of stuff is going to be in the Anglophone part of the country. And then, you get a little bit of that transition, and then the jungly part is all in the south and the west, around Douala and that whole area there, that’s what the hot, steamy side of things. And as you go further north, it starts becoming dryer, and dryer, and dryer, until you get to practically, you can go all the way to Chad. And Rejoice doesn’t live that far from Chad. I don’t know. How many hours does it take you to get to Chad?
Rejoice: Five hours.
Francis: Five hours, yes. It’s actually relatively close. You start getting into that real, the Sahel, which is the southern part of the Sahara up there. And it gets extremely hot. Rejoice, how hot does it get in where your village is from?
Rejoice: It gets up to 40 degrees sometimes.
Francis: Yeah, 40 degrees.
Chris: Forty degrees Celsius. It’s 100, 104 something like.
Rejoice: It’s very hot.
Francis: It’s way over 100 degrees. It’s kind of like hanging out in Death Valley during the summer time, or even in the spring or fall. It’s Death Valley in America. But it’s dry heat but it’s still high temperature.
Chris: Like an oven.
Francis: Exactly. Like a sauna and so the challenge there. So again, if it’s not obvious at the beginning of this podcast, Cameroon is not the first place most people are going to go to Africa. I’m not suggesting it should be. It’s a place where people want to have a bit of adventure, a bit of greediness, a bit of a taste of the side of Africa that’s a bit more rough, and rough around the edges. For the most part, Cameroon allows you to have variety, allows you to have safety almost everywhere, except for the extreme north today. And one day, I think the extreme north will become safe once again and things will be good. Rejoice, you can go travel to the extreme north because you grew up there?
Rejoice: Yes, I can go because I’m black.
Francis: That’s right. And all camouflage. And by the way, and then how do people dress, different codes of dress in the north versus the rest of the country, Rejoice?
Rejoice: They put the babanki jellabiya. I don’t know how to call it in English, the big jellabiya for the men. And the woman would be that…
Chris: So, it’s a robe.
Francis: Yeah, it’s a robe. It’s what they call boubou in French at least.
Rejoice: Yeah, that’s it, boubou.
Chris: Djellaba is because what they call it in Morocco, yeah.
Chris: One continuous piece robe.
Francis: That’s what the men wear. It’s a very, very strong Muslim country. There you’ll see Muslim culture in the extreme north. Just like you heard in Morocco, the cult of prayer and all that stuff, but they are more intense than Moroccans. Moroccans have that westernized edge to them, and you can feel it, and see it. And even in the villages of Morocco, you don’t get the sense that they are nearly as intense.
But when you go the extreme north, I can talk a little bit about the northern part of Cameroon because I’ve been to very nearby in Chad and Nigeria, very close to just where those three countries meet there, around Lake Chad. I was there and the culture is similar in the Lake Chad zone. And there, it’s just the level of Islam that is much more intense.
But that doesn’t mean it’s scary. Ninety-nine percent of the people on the street that you’re going to meet are super friendly, super nice and they are happy to see you, even if you don’t dress like them. But obviously, if you’re a woman, you’re going to want to cover yourself as much as possible but not to the point where you have to wear a burka.
Chris: Sometimes in the U.S., we’ve been known to treat Africa as if it were one country, just getting no idea what the scale of the continent is. I love the map that shows the United States, and all of Europe, and China and such, fitting inside of Africa with room to spare. What’s the one thing about Cameroon that makes it unique within Africa?
Francis: There’s several things. There’s the fact that it’s one of the few countries, I can’t think of anyone off top of my head that has the Francophone and Anglophone officially segmented in their country. Where they’re both not only official languages, but you have sectors of the country. It’s about 80% Francophone and about 20% Anglophone. But that’s a hard thing to find in any other African countries.
Second thing is what we’ve mentioned a few times already, which is the whole idea of Africa in a micro level. We don’t want to think of Africa as a country, but if you wanted to think of Africa as a country, then think of Cameroon. Because Cameroon can summarize Africa in one country, and you have a lot of the different cultures mixing in, many different languages. I don’t know how many languages, Rejoice? They have at least 55 different ethnic groups, right?
Rejoice: Yeah, 55.
Francis: Something like that, yeah. And so you have an incredible amount of diversity. Rejoice is a Fulani. It’s a particular tribe that is very popular in West Africa. But then you have many different other tribes and cultures in there as well. So that’s what I think sets Cameroon apart from others. They’ve got geographic diversity. They’ve got an ethnic and cultural diversity. They’ve got a linguistic diversity and interest that is hard to find in one continent, relatively compact. It’s a big country.
Chris: Before we get to our last questions, anything else we should know before we book our ticket to Cameroon?
Francis: Just keep an eye on the news and just wait until the north opens up. That’s the main advice I can give people.
Chris: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Cameroon?”
Francis: I don’t know if it makes me laugh but it is interesting that you can go to the top of a fucking thousand meter mountain and be freezing. Rejoice, were you ever so cold as you were on the top of Mt. Cameroon?
Rejoice: No. It was so cold.
Francis: Yeah, it was real. It wasn’t below freezing but the wind chill, because the wind was fierce at the top there. We had several layers on but we were, I was quite chilled up there. And you couldn’t stay on the summit for more than 10 minutes because we just had to get down because it was just too brutal. But you can go from that extreme, and then get to the bottom of the mountain and just keep going down to the sea. And you’re going to be sweating like crazy and you can do that all in one day easily.
So, that I think, I don’t know if it will make you laugh but it is, it is. Only in Cameroon can you surf, and then go on the top of this mountain. And then you can also speak French and Spanish, sorry, French and English. And you can have this Muslim-Christian culture and the taste of the Sahel, the Sahara all at once. To me, only in Cameroon can you have that level of diversity. That’s why I think it’s a fascinating country.
Chris: And we’ve said this a couple of times. Let’s summarize this. What should we pack before we go to Cameroon?
Francis: Insect repellent.
Chris: I think we got that.
Francis: Sunscreen, because by the way everybody in Cameroon is black, sunscreen is actually hard to find.
Chris: I wouldn’t have thought of that, for sure. Okay.
Francis: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s true by the way in most west and central Africa. The white population is so, so miniscule that it’s very, very…I even have gone to fancy pharmaceutical places and pharmacies and it’s hard. So, definitely bring enough sunscreen.
Chris: You’re disadvantaged not to have the natural sunscreen.
Francis: That’s right, that’s right. So sunscreen is hard to find and so bring that. And other than that…
Chris: Well, we said toilet paper and…
Francis: Yeah, toilet paper, yeah
Chris: …quite possibly, your prophylactic for malaria. Let’s bring that too. And I want to add into that hand sanitizer for eating street food and things like that. Just not a bad idea, the water that’s being poured on our hands there may not be quite as clean as we’re used to.
Francis: I also like a SteriPEN. Do you know what that is?
Chris: Oh yeah, that’s a great idea, yeah.
Francis: So, SteriPEN, for those who don’t know, is just a UV pen that allows you to purify your water by holding it into a liter of water for about 90 seconds or so. And that’s nice a thing because occasionally…you can always order bottled water. That’s plentiful and easy to find. But the nice thing is, let’s say you’re in your hotel room and you don’t feel like going outside and getting bottled water, and you ran out, you can just take the tap water and use the SteriPEN and drink that.
Chris: I also had a water bottle actually that’s reviewed on Amateur Traveler in some place that has basically built-in to the lid of the water bottle. It is a UV light and so very similar system. Yeah, the other advantage of that is then you’re not adding to the trash problem that you have in a lot of parts of Africa with the bottles, from the bottled water.
Francis: Yep, that’s right. And that’s another thing that’s hard to get used to. I think that, again, this is common throughout West Africa, it’s very hard sometimes to find garbage cans or trash cans. Especially once you move away from a city, the trash can is anywhere.
Chris: Finish this thought. “You really know you are in Cameroon when?”
Francis: When you’re on the top of Mt. Cameroon because you are taller. I can’t emphasize how much higher it is than anything around it. You’re near the equator and you’re freezing your ass off. You know you are in Cameroon.
Chris: And if you had to summarize Cameroon in just three words, what three words would you use?
Francis: Mini Africa. Rejoice, can you think of one word that can summarize Cameroon?
Francis: Diversity, mini Africa, well, I guess that’s more concept but anyway. One word, from Rejoice maybe.
Rejoice: I can’t think of any.
Chris: Okay. Well, maybe we’ll give you credit if you need four words next time you can’t. Francis, you have been working on the Unseen Africa project. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about what that is and where we can find it?
Francis: Yeah. So you can go to the UnseenAfrica.com or africa54.com. There are 54 countries in Africa, so africa54.com. And basically what it is, I’m creating three projects in one. Number one, I’m writing a book. So just like I wrote “The Hidden Europe” which was about Eastern Europe, I’m writing a book called “The Unseen Africa” which will cover one chapter per country and cover basically a travel log.
Second thing I’m doing is a documentary. It will be probably an hour and a half or two hour documentary, or feature length documentary that could theoretically be shown in a film festival.
And the third thing is a television show. And that’s going to be episodes that’ll last roughly an hour. That’s work in progress, although you can actually order the first episode on my website and get it. It’s only $3, and you can download it there as a download. And so, that’s featuring Morocco. And by the way speaking of Morocco, my favorite episode, Chris, you’ve done so far, is the one that you did on Southern Morocco. So, if your listeners haven’t heard the one on Southern Morocco, that was done in July I guess or August of 2015. You should go back to the archives and pull it out.
Chris: And you’re promoting, just so we’re clear. There’s an episode that you and I did on…
Francis: Western Sahara.
Chris: The Western Sahara or Southern Morocco. We’re not talking about that one. We’re talking about the one that was more of the report from the latest Amateur Traveler trip which was to Southern Morocco.
Francis: Yeah, and I thought that was better than my podcast with you.
Chris: Well, different region for one thing, so…
Francis: Yeah, different region, no. But the main thing is what I really enjoyed is you had multiple voices that were in the show and that took a lot of work. And I hope your listeners appreciate it because I know how hard it is to edit these podcast, and that show was edited heavily and ends up making it sound really cool.
Chris: Well, thanks very much. Well, thanks so much Francis for coming back on the Amateur Traveler, and Rejoice, for coming on the Amateur Traveler for the first time, and for both of you for sharing your love for Cameroon.
Francis: Thank you.
Rejoice: Thank you.
Chris: No news of the community this week and therefore we’re going to end the episode right here. If you have any questions, send me email to host at amateurtraveler.com, or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveller.com. You can follow me on Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram as Chris2x. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.