Africa Journal

By Dave and Cindy Hummel
Billings MT
Oct/Nov 2009
published on our website January 27, 2010

Monday, Oct. 26

We flew from Billings to Salt Lake City to Atlanta to Paris, arriving about 7:00 Tuesday morning.

Tuesday, Oct. 27

Douala from the air

Douala from the air

Arriving early in Paris there were few customers in the international lounge where we spent the next 6 hours. Dave found two members of our Bushtracks group, who came back to the table where we had settled and chatted until it was time to board the flight to Douala, Cameroon, where we arrived at 8:30 PM.  On the plane were the other 7 members of our group: all together three men and six women.  For sure this is a well-traveled group.  At the airport in Douala we gathered our three bags, made our way through the congestion at a very narrow exit outside, where we were approached by numerous men hoping to sell us services, mostly a taxi ride into Douala.

One man was especially helpful, had a cell phone, asked who was supposed to meet us, called that person, found out what was happening, then asked for $10. We paid him $5.  This is kind of a typical operation procedure: offer help and then request a payment!  While we were waiting, the other 7 in our group hadn’t appeared and it turns out were waiting back in the baggage area because one suitcase hadn’t arrived.  Eventually a representative from the travel company turned up, introduced himself, gathered the group and headed us out to the van.  In general we weren’t too impressed with the arrival procedure, as we have always been met by a local representative, escorted through the last check point and taken directly to a vehicle.  But by 10:30 PM we were in the hotel and headed to our rooms.

This hotel, the Akwa Palace, supposedly has four stars, but we voted it one, based on our room. At least the air conditioning was efficient and reliable with free WiFi in the rooms, even though it didn’t work.  In the bathroom there was only one set of towels, everything was clean.  It took a while to get the extra towels and more toilet paper… first things first!!

Wednesday, Oct. 28

This morning we were up by 7:00 for a leisurely breakfast and to be ready when our guide arrived at 9:00.  He was a friendly young local named Chemba.  We were guided by him to a nice, four-wheel-drive black vehicle, driven by George.  For the whole day we drove through Douala, only getting out three times. Sitting in the back seat, I tried taking pictures through the side window, then closed it to keep the AC in.  Then I continued by shooting through the windshield.  All together I produced about 200 pictures, which show the busy population, the various services provided and the terrible traffic and horrible streets.  In general the people were pretty friendly.  For sure it was great having Chemba along.  In my behalf he asked if I could take pictures of people, helped me bargain for “treasures”.

In the afternoon we stopped at an “art market”, where it was possible to buy wooden masks, clothing, jewelry, dolls, basically items interesting to tourists.  When I saw some dolls dressed in the colorful fabric so commonly worn by African women, I decided to buy one, but wanted mine to look authentic.  Chemba looked at the offerings and said, “They are missing something… a baby on their back”.  So the proprietor quickly went on a search and came back with several from which I chose my favorite.  After that I bought 10 cards onto which had been pasted small oil paintings depicting life in a village.  The artist was happy to pose for a picture and I was very pleased to have found a small, lightweight, authentic “treasure” to remember my visit to Douala.  Dave bought a wooden Careroonian wedding mask.

Before returning to the hotel I repeated my request to Chemba to take me to a store that sells the absolutely beautiful fabric that local women use for their clothing.  Once inside I was “blown away” by the huge choice, the quality, color and ethnic designs.  The price was right, too, about $10 US for the standard cut of 6 yds/meters.  Unfortunately my request to take a picture was denied, but I did select three different patterns, which I loved even more when I opened them up later at the hotel.

Street life as snatched through the window of the vehicle where I was sitting in the back seat.  Many people have motorcycles and there are stands along the edges of the street selling just about everything.

Street life as snatched through the window of the vehicle where I was sitting in the back seat. Many people have motorcycles and there are stands along the edges of the street selling just about everything.

From Wikipedia I wrote down these main facts about Cameroon.  It is located in central western Africa on the Atlantic Ocean just north of the equator. The country is called “Africa in miniature” for its geological and cultural diversity, is about the size of California or Germany. Natural features include beaches, deserts, mountains, rainforests, and savannas. The highest point is Mount Cameroon which we could see from the hotel in Douala. Cameroon is home to over 200 different ethnic and linguistic groups. The country is well known for its successful national football team which qualified for the soccer world cup in South Africa in 2010. English and French are the official languages. Portuguese explorers reached the coast in the 15th century and named the area Rio dos Camarões (“River of Prawns”), the name from which Cameroon derives. Cameroon became a German colony in 1884. After World War I, the territory was divided between France and Britain.  In 1960 French Cameroon became independent as the Republic of Cameroon with the British part joining a year later.  Compared to other African countries Cameroon enjoys relatively high political and social stability. This has permitted the development of agriculture, roads, railways, and large petroleum and timber industries. Nevertheless, large numbers of Cameroonians live in poverty as subsistence farmers. Power lies firmly in the hands of the president, Paul Biya, and corruption is widespread. The English-speaking community has grown increasingly alienated from the government, and its politicians have called for greater decentralisation and even the secession of the former British-governed territories.

Thursday, Oct. 29

We left about 9:00 for the airport, had an easy check-in as a group, but with various delays due to technical aspects of traveling to another country, we didn’t take off until 11:00.  The plane was a Dornier 228 with seats for about 19.  With my little thermometer I measured the temperature at 90F-32C inside.  The pilots told us ahead of time that there was no AC, but that it would cool off at the higher elevation of about 12,000 ft – 4000m.  Later during the flight I noted the inside temp at 80F-26C.  We flew east above scattered clouds for 2 hours.

Below I could see red paths or roads through the forest.  Here and there were a few settlements.  Several rivers came into view, mostly running a red-brown color.  The landscape in every direction was green and flat.  In the distance to the north we saw a large city, which turned out to be the capital of Cameroon, Yaounde.  Continuing east the forest seemed darker and denser.  Looking down around noon the shadows from the clouds were directly underneath, showing how vertical the sun is so close to the equator. By 1:00 PM the sun had obviously moved westward because the shadows were off to the east.

We landed on a dirt strip after two fly overs.  The first time the pilots apparently saw tires on the runway (used to prevent illegal or unwanted landings), the second time the pilots checked to see if the items had been removed and finally the third time we landed.  Within about 10 minutes the people and luggage had been removed and the plane took off again. We were met by about 4 4-wheeled-drive vehicles and taken the short drive to our accommodations at the Doli Lodge (Doli means elephant), which is located near Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the country of Central African Republic.

Our lodge is situated right on the Sangha River with locals (mostly men) paddling their dugouts up and down past the lodge.  They stand in the back and use the paddle seemingly effortlessly, but with much finesse, to navigate up and downstream.  We were told not to photograph them without their permission. Our guide suggested there are a couple of reasons for this.  One reason is that superstition suggests if you are photographed, then your spirit will be compromised and won’t go the right direction when you die. Another is that when tourists take their many pictures, the people don’t get anything out of it.  I am going to have copies made of my people pictures, send them to our local guide, Neville, and he will distribute them when he comes this way again.  Maybe that will smooth the way for the next tourists.

The rooms here are duplexes built on stilts so if the river rises or it rains, the buildings will be high and dry.  The actual space is very adequate with two twin beds and a bunk.  There are windows on three sides, a large balcony with a great view to the river, a bath with a cold shower, toilet and sink. The only shortcomings are that the water doesn’t always flow and the power comes from a generator which runs from 8 AM to 1 PM and again from 6 to 9:30 PM, I think to power the kitchen activities. In between it is off, so you have to do battery charging and other activities that take power during those times.  There is a bucket of water in the shower to use to flush the toilet when the water is not running.  It all seems to work.

After a very tasty lunch of fish, noodles and cooked vegetables, we had an hour to unpack, then were taken in dugouts along the river and into the side channels where the locals have fishing nets.  There were three of us per dugout with two local paddlers.  The water is moving at a steady pace, but didn’t seem to hamper the paddlers.  You could hear birds back in the forest and now and then a local would paddle by, but basically the only noise was the young paddlers talking to each other.

Back at the lodge we enjoyed beer and peanuts on the deck, watched the sun set in a rosy glow.  I heard two guests speaking German, so learned from them about what excursions were ahead of us, also about different cameras.

Dinner was similar in scope to lunch.  Most of the group left, but I brought out a game that was given to me by a German friend, similar to dominos, but the pieces are triangular, so we have named it “trimino”.  Our main guide, Fausto, from South Africa played with us, which was nice, as we learned more about him.  He is 46,  was born in Libya to Italian parents, moved at age 7 on a moment’s notice with his parents and sister back to Italy when the political situation changed in Libya. Two years later his father had a business opportunity in Zimbabwe, so they all moved to its capital of Harare, where he lived until he was 38.  At that point the living situation under President Mugabe had deteriorated so completely that he moved to South Africa, where he has continued his profession as a guide.

Monday, Nov. 2

This morning we had breakfast around 6:00 in anticipation of leaving for the airstrip at 7:30.  However the plane didn’t arrive until 10:00, so we sat on the balcony, waiting for the sound of the plane engines.  At the landing strip were about 50 locals watching.  Knowing that they didn’t want their pictures taken I got into the plane and sat on the far side, hoping my pictures through the double windows would show the event.  One boy about 12 had on a t-shirt with MONTANA in large letters across the front and a gun below.  A lot of this kind of clothing comes from world welfare organizations.  As we took off it was possible to see the local village of Bayamga, the school and the Sangha River.

A little over two hours later flying SW we arrived in the capital city of Gabon, Libreville, where we cleared customs and said good by to Neville, our wonderful guide from Cameroon.  The airport was modern, air conditioned, clean.  I noticed jets from obscure African airlines such as Gabon Airlines, Air Burkina, Ethiopian Air, Air Max Africa and Air Congo.

Gabon  is a country in west central Africa on the Atlantic that straddles the equator, is about the size of Colorado or half as large as Spain.  Gabon gained independence from France in 1960.  The small population density together with abundant natural resources and foreign private investment have helped make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in the region.  Libreville, with a population of about 1,000,000 on the Atlantic coast, is the capital and largest city of Gabon.  It is obvious that oil money has paid for some large new high rise buildings.  The entire country has only about 1.5 million in population.

Originally the plans were to eat lunch at a restaurant in Libreville, but the weather forecast for our final destination two hours south looked bad, so we ate sandwiches brought along from the lodge, made with egg omelets while standing under the wing of “our” plane as it was being fueled, then headed south.

Looking down we followed the coastline over rivers, jungles, islands, and flat grassy areas.  At one point Fausto said we had just flown over the equator. Our final destination is at 2 degrees south, about a 45-minute flight just south of Port Gentile.  By around 3:00 we landed on a paved, unsupervised strip, where our luggage was unloaded and moved into a small trailer pulled by a Toyota 4×4 Land Cruiser.  The 9 of us sat in groups of threes on seats built up above the level of the cab.  It was covered and fairly comfortable, especially when we were moving.  Before leaving town, the driver stopped to put air into the tires, but about 30 minutes later we heard a “thump… thump” and we had a flat tire.  The driver didn’t have the appropriate tools to take off the tire and the occasional truck only came by about every 15 minutes.  Fortunately there was a transmitting tower nearby so the cell phone worked.  Meanwhile we stood around on a deserted road out in the country for about an hour.  I practiced my photography, others talked.  Finally help arrived and the trip continued over wide but very rutted and often muddy roads for a total of at least two hours.  Around 6:00 we pulled off the “main” road and shortly thereafter arrived at this beautiful lodge located right on the water.

As we entered the lodge the sun was setting, so I headed out to the deck overlooking the lagoon to photograph the wonderful colors.  The reflections on the water were spectacular.  We were then shown to our room, really a suite with two sections, a sitting room, then a bedroom off of which is the large bath… with hot water!  After the last place the almost constant electricity and drinkable water seem like a luxury.  The lodge is located on the mainland side of the lagoon. There is a narrow spit of land (Loango National Park) between the lagoon and the Atlantic.  Besides our group of 10 there are only 2 other customers at the resort owned by Dutch and run by South Africans.

As I unpacked some of my clothes, I threw away a semi-squashed banana which I had carried all day in my purse into the wastebasket before taking a shower.  After toweling off I heard kind of a clicking sound and noticed a large crab trying to hide behind the wastebasket where the squashed banana was located.  Thinking the solution would be to throw the banana outside, I moved it, then we headed off to dinner, where I told the lodge personnel about the crab.

Dinner was served on the outside deck overlooking the lagoon.  First came a very tasty soup, then fish with spinach.  It was possible to order red and white wines, from which we chose a white from South Africa.

After dinner we played “Trimino”, then returned to our room to prepare for a 5:30 wake-up call and 6:30 departure to the national park located about an hour by boat across the toward the Atlantic. When we walked in I heard the crab scratching the floor, but couldn’t find it, so we decided it must have been more scared of us than we were of it, got in bed and turned out the lights. It was just short of 10:00 PM.

Cindy’s complete photos are here.

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  • Al Chambers February 1, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Cindy,

    The photos are marvelous. I looked at every one and felt that I had been right there with you and Dave. And given that this is not a trip we are likely to make, it was fun to see the countries, the people and the flora and fauna. You guys are true adventurers. Dave told me some about the trip in Novemebr in New Haven, but not that a diary and photos were coming. Thanks.

    Al