Updated On: December 11, 2006
Current Location: Yaounde - View Route
Distance Since Last Update: 1,584 miles
Total Distance: 19,223 miles
Won't Soon Forget: The road to Mamfe - 13 days to go 32k. A month spent in Yaounde with our gear box torn apart. Having our visas expire before it was fixed!

 
  Ekok, Cameroon - November 3, 2006
(Jim Writes) We woke up this morning with one simple goal in mind – get our ailing truck across the Cameroon border. The fact that, on the other side, the wet season had run long, it was dumping rain and one of the worst roads in Africa awaited us, wasn’t our concern, at least for the moment. We just wanted to get Betty, and ourselves, out of Nigeria. Once on the other side, we could deal with the muddy road ahead.

We departed Calabar early. From Calabar, we still had another 217k to go however, psychologically at least, we were almost there. The worst of Nigeria was behind us. No more sprawling, congested, garbage choked cities to navigate, no more roads gone wild, and hopefully, only a few more police and military roadblocks. Assuming our gearbox held together and we encountered no other snags, we’d be in Cameroon by midday.

The road to the border turned out to be even smoother than expected, giving us time to reflect on the past six days. We’d driven 849k through the heart of southern Nigeria. Our gearbox had caused us more than enough grief. The roads were shit, Nigeria’s cities, Calabar excluded, were the worst form of overpopulated sprawl, corruption was commonplace and watching fights break out and people being dragged out of their cars and beaten, was plenty to leave a bad taste in our mouths. Yet, on a positive note, the landscape was lush, green, and beautiful, most of the people we met were friendly and welcoming, and of the 123 police, military, drug enforcement, and immigrations roadblocks we passed through, we were only stopped and asked for money 78 times.

Shortly before noon, we arrived at the Nigerian border post, a sleepy backwater nestled in the middle of lush tropical rainforest along the banks of the Cross River. At the border we received a warm welcome from the border officials who processed our documents, chatted with us a bit, and sent us on our way. Just like that, we were through the control gate and driving over the Cross River. Nigeria was finally behind us. We were headed for Cameroon.

On the other side of the bridge, our focus quickly shifted to the road ahead. Reports from other overland travelers said that it was bad, very bad. Back in August, early in the wet season, Jeff Watts had tackled the road in two 80 series Land Cruisers like ours. He reported back that the road was very muddy and that he’d blown a tire. He made it through the worst stretch in one day. In September, we got word back from Fred Willems that the road had deteriorated considerably. Fred said that he’d worked for four days in the pouring rain, aided by three local villagers, to get through the worst 10k stretch and that they’d slept in the middle of the road each night and had suffered significant body damage. James Thomas, who arrived a couple of weeks later, echoed Fred’s comments and described a situation where he blew a tire in ruts so deep that there wasn’t room to change it. James also provided the name of a panel beater in Mamfe that could help us repair the inevitable damage to our truck.

When we arrived at the first control gate we inquired about the road ahead. The friendly official simply said “The road is very bad.” Further up the road we reached the main border post in Ekok, where we inquired again. The two officials processing our passports started to chuckle and then one turned and said “You will not make it in your 4x4.” I replied, “I know that the road is bad. We have friends that have driven this road recently in similar trucks and they made it. It will just take a lot of work.” The officials started to chuckle again and the other one said, “Your 4x4 won’t make it. I remember your friends. They were here over a month ago driving a dark blue 4x4 (James and Lee) like yours. And before that, there was another couple (Fred and Josephine) driving a white Land Cruiser, a little different than yours. The road was different then. When your friends were here, there were big Land Rovers running. They had generators and pumps. They would drive into the deep holes and drain out the water. Now the Land Rovers are gone. The water is too deep for them to operate. They’ve gone to Bafoussam. Nobody has been down this road in a month.” Not exactly the feedback we wanted to hear.

By this point, our arrival had drawn quite a bit of attention and the police commissioner summoned us to meet with him. He was very friendly and gave us a warm welcome. “What is your mission here?” he said. We explained that we were headed for Yaounde and later Gabon. He replied, “The problem is that the road is very bad. It is impassable.” We told him that we knew the road wasn’t good and that it would take a lot of work to get through but that we had a very good truck and all the right equipment. “Let me see your truck” he said. We showed him Betty. While giving it a once over he said “This is a strong 4x4. You have a monkey winch. That is very good.” He continued, “The problem is that it is still raining. Usually, the rain has stopped by now. I think the rains will stop soon. Perhaps you can wait here for two weeks and then the road will be better and you will be able to go.” We grilled the commissioner with questions about the condition of the road. “The road from here to Emunjock is good. You can make it in an hour.” After Emunjock the road is very bad. You will see. It is very bad. I think you should stay here for a couple of days to see if the rains stop. Then you can go to Emunjock and have a look.” Then the Commissioner pointed down the road to an area in which he said we could camp.

After chatting a little longer, we thanked the commissioner for his help and setoff down Ekok’s only dirt road. After talking things over, we decided that our plan was unchanged. Since the road was supposed to be good to Emunjock, we decided to head there so that we could have a look for ourselves. And this plan remained unchanged until we got about 500 meters outside of town and the “good” road turned to complete unimaginable shit. Worse than anything we’d seen anywhere in Africa. In front of us was a giant gapping mud hole that looked like a one way ticket into the bowels of hell. We stopped to have a look and immediately two teenage boys emerged from the bush and pointed us towards another track that had been cut through the rainforest. It was a deviation around the main road and these boys were the deviation’s toll keepers. If we wanted to use the deviation then we’d have to pay a toll. Seemed fair enough given the man eating orifice that stood directly in front of us however, we decided to have a chat with them about the road conditions before deciding whether or not to proceed. The picture wasn’t pretty. They explained that this was nothing. “Wait until you get to the bad road. It is very bad. You will see.” “And what about the road between here Emunjock?” we asked. The boys explained that there were two more deviations that went around bad sections of road that were much worse than this one. They went on to say that even the deviations were bad and would be difficult. The more we talked with them the worse the road sounded and the worse the road sounded the more we realized that they were validating what we’d already heard. More concerning however was the fact that everyone we’d met described the road we were currently on, in all it’s man eating glory, as the “good” road. If this was the good road, we dared imagine what the “bad” road must look like!

As we stared into the abyss in front of us, we discussed what to do. There seemed to be no clear path, certainly no good path. As we weighed our options we realized that it was getting late and we were unlikely to make it to Emunjock before dark. Not eager to spend the night camped in a deep mud hole, we decided the better option was to head back to Ekok and sort things out there.

Back in Ekok, we set up camp on the side of the road, just outside the town’s only lodging, a lovely affair with no running water or electricity, and a restaurant with no food. I’d love to say that this was an ideal spot in a quaint little African village surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. Unfortunately, other than the lush tropical rainforest, there was nothing ideal about it. Ekok’s a typical border town complete with all of the requisite moneychangers and shady Nigerian commerce. There’s no electricity and no running water, only one noisy dirt road that’s dotted with muddy potholes, and very little in the way of entertainment. It’s a fine place to get your passport stamped but not exactly the place you’d want to get stuck for a couple of weeks.

 
 

Rainforest Bush Camp - November 4-6, 2006
(Jim Writes) I won’t go into the details of the next few days as it was a time of pain and suffering I’d rather not relive. Rather, here’s the highline… our overnight stay in Ekok evolved into what seemed like an eternity, as Friday became Saturday, and then Sunday, and then Monday. During that time we sought refuge in our tent, not eager to come out as word had spread about the latest reality TV show, which was apparently taking place at our truck. By sunrise Saturday morning, half the village had gathered to watch our every move. Our only reprieve was inside the tent and even then, we had little peace as our audience quickly learned that they could climb a nearby ledge and peer inside. From sunrise well into the evening we’d hear calls outside from villagers yelling, “White man come down! White man come down!” Inside, we were working to sort out our plan. As we saw it, there were basically three options:

OPTION 1: Follow the original plan and push forward alone to Emunjock. Once there, survey the “bad” road and continue as soon as possible, aided by some local boys if necessary. This was our desired option however, there were some downsides. Most importantly, our damaged gearbox could easily decide to pack up for good in the middle of a mud hole and, alone, we’d have real problems getting it out.

OPTION 2: Stay for a few days to see if the rains stop. Other than the pain associated with spending time in Ekok, this seemed like a good idea since we were at the tail end of the rainy season and once the rains stopped for good, the hot Cameroon sun would quickly dry out the roads. The downside, I’m no meteorologist and the thought of spending more time in Ekok was objectionable.

OPTION 3: Hang out until other overland trucks arrive and then form a convoy to get through the bad road. The upside to this idea was that convoying with other trucks would be considerably less stressful and consequently more enjoyable. Moreover, with additional winches, sand plates, shovels, and other equipment, the going would be easier. The downside, we weren’t sure if/when anybody was coming. We did however have a good idea that Sharikay and Eric, our former travel partners, were in the area. We’d run into them a couple of times in Ghana and again in Benin. The last time we’d talked to them was a week ago and at that point they said they were heading for Nigeria and it sounded like they were about a week behind us. With the delays caused by our gearbox, we estimated they were probably now only a few days behind and would likely enter Cameroon through Ekok.

And so we sat inside the tent, weighing our options as the temperature climbed to unbearable levels and the locals watched intently from their perch outside. In the end, we decided to take a hybrid approach. We’d wait until Tuesday to give time for the rains to stop and other overland trucks to arrive. In the meantime, it would also give us time to talk with locals about arranging some boys to help with bucketing water and digging, should we decide to go it alone. And so that’s what we did. We waited. And while we waited, it rained and the church across the street sang and pounded on their tom tom drums day and night, and the same cars, trapped in Ekok by the bad road, drove noisily back and fourth down Ekok’s one road, and the villagers called out to us “White man come down!” And when we did come down, Sheri accidentally clocked me with the tailgate door, splitting my head open. That provided more excitement for the villagers who watched as Sheri produced a cotton ball to stop the blood that was gushing out of my head. A towel proved more suitable and Sheri did a fine job of irrigating the wound, pulling my skin together, and administering suture strips. And these are the days of our lives!

By Monday we were into our fourth day in Ekok and we were beyond restless. The beat of the tom tom drums and the endless barrage of visitors was starting to take its toll and our daily appeal to the gods to stop the rains was having little effect. On Saturday, we’d woken up to bright blue skies. Optimistic, we spent the day staring at a large mud puddle in hopes it would begin to recede. As we stared into the mocha colored water, we asked our visitors if they thought it would rain. “No. It will not rain today. The rains are over.” Saturday night the heavens opened up with such fury that a mini river formed around our truck. Ever hopeful that the worst was behind us, we woke up Sunday to another picture perfect day. The sun was intense, and again, we found ourselves staring out our tent window at the puddle. And again, we asked or visitors if they thought it would rain. They replied confidently, “No. It will not rain today.” By late afternoon inky black storm clouds began to gather above the rainforest and we asked our visitors if they wanted to rethink their decision. You could already hear the rumble of thunder in the distance, as one man looked up at the gathering clouds and confidently replied, “No. It will not rain today. I think the rains have passed.” Within an hour we were chased from our tent by intense lightning and strong winds, as yet another fierce storm rained down upon us. The rains were not over!

So as you can imagine, when we woke up Monday morning to another bright sunny day, we were less optimistic. The ground was still so saturated from the previous night that we had to mind our step to avoid an unplanned wallow in the mud. Good fun for the fifteen or so school children that had gathered for the morning show, but bad for us as we had no great means of washing our clothes. Since our plan for the day called for us to do nothing, we decided to sleep in. This would have been a delightful way to burn half the day had we actually been able to sleep. Unfortunately, our audience was growing restless. Apparently, watching us lay motionless in bed wasn’t what they’d come to see and they let us know it. “White man come down! White man come down!” And when we finally did come down, driven out by the scorching heat, they were delighted. We were like side show freaks at the circus as everyone gathered round, knowing that any minute one of us might slip in the mud or gash our head open.

Too deflated to put on much of a show, we went about the more mundane task of cooking a late breakfast. It was now nearly midday, as I stood beside the truck chatting with the kids about soccer and eating a bowl of oatmeal. That’s when our luck finally turned. In the middle of telling the village goalkeeper that if he worked really hard he might one day be able to play for Real Madrid, the police commissioner paid us a surprise visit. He said, “Your friends have arrived. They are at the border right now filling out paperwork. They will be here soon.” Skeptical, I quizzed him on what they looked like and he described them perfectly. Still not fully convinced, I stared down the road, eating my oatmeal. A short time later, three heavily equipped Toyota Land Cruisers appeared on the main (read only) road. In front was Eric and Sharikay’s red 80 series followed closely by two Troop Carriers. Watching the convoy slowly ramble through town was quite a site – the cavalry had arrived!

With everyone together, we did a quick meet and greet before getting down to the business at hand. With Sharikay and Eric were four Germans. Driving the white Troop Carrier was Martin Giersch and his long time girlfriend Christine Kroessel. Battle hardened Africa veterans, they’d run several previous expeditions and had dealt with their fair share of adversity, including nearly having their truck washed away during a river crossing in Angola. In the tan Troop Carrier was Rolf Kailweit and his attractive blond girlfriend of 17 years Heike Groppeitsch. An off road driving instructor back in Germany, Rolf was an imposing personality with the build of Herman Munster and the heart of the lion in the Wizard of Oz.

Once everyone was acquainted, Sheri and I briefed the group on our lovely weekend in Ekok and described the road ahead. Following the briefing, we all agreed that the best thing would be to saddle up and head for Emunjock, the start of the “bad” road. There, we’d have a look for ourselves and sort out our plan of attack. In preparation for departure, we went about inventorying our collective gear. All four trucks had mud tires, two had winches, one had tire chains, and everyone had front/center/rear diff. locks. And between us, we had eight sand plates, five shovels, 130 meters of recovery rope/cable, and enough snatch blocks, shackles, spare parts, and other gear to handle just about any off road situation. Our only weakness: Rolf’s truck didn’t have a snorkel, which would limit our options in some of the deeper water holes. To take advantage of our strengths, we organized the trucks so that Martin’s truck, which had the tire chains, was up front and the two winches were in the second and fourth positions.

With our plan organized, we pulled down our tent, repacked our gear, jumped our dead battery (which had been flat since Sunday afternoon, the local Catholic mission having refused our request for a jump), said goodbye to the local kids, offered Victor a ride, and set off in convoy for Emunjock.

And who’s Victor you ask? Victor was a local mechanic and bush taxi driver who made his living by carrying goods and people between Ekok and Mamfe in the dry season. Shortly before the rains started, his taxi’s engine seized up, putting him out of business. Knowing that the rains would end soon, Victor brought all of his savings to Ekok in search of a replacement engine. In Ekok, Victor met a Nigerian who said for 350,000 CFA ($700) he’d go across the border and bring back a new engine. Naively, Victor handed over all of his cash and, not surprisingly, the Nigerian disappeared across the border, never to be heard from again. Since we’d arrived the previous Friday, we’d watched as Victor sat quietly by the side of the road, in the same blue dress shirt and black dress pants, waiting in hopes that the Nigerian would turn up with his engine. Down on his luck, Victor was now in a pinch. Having handed over all of his savings, he was broke. Stuck in Ekok, he was living off the generosity of friends, with no business and no way to get home.

Just outside Ekok, we reached the same muddy trench Sheri and I had surveyed four days earlier. And once again, out popped the two teenage boys to collect their toll for the diversion. As we all stood staring down into the muddy abyss, we discussed our options. There was no doubt that it was one ugly stretch of road, however with our collective equipment and manpower we all agreed that it was doable, if not necessarily desirable. Having surveyed the trench, we asked the boys how much they wanted for the diversion. The requested 8,000 CFA for all four trucks. We knew from Victor that this was several times the going rate so we countered with 2,000 CFA, a more reasonable toll. They declined and after a brief negotiation didn’t produce the desired result, we changed tactics. We cut off negotiations and returned to the trucks where we went about readying our recovery gear, putting on Martin’s chains, and planning out our strategy for tackling the trench. As it turned out, our actions spoke louder than our words, and just as Martin was about to plunge nose first into the mud, the boys reconsidered their offer. 2,000 CFA it was! We were on our way!

On the other side of the diversion, the track carried us deep into lush tropical rainforest. And the deeper we went, the louder the call of the wild became. We were soon enveloped by a deafening symphony of screaming locusts, squawking birds, and croaking frogs. By now, the road had degraded to such a state that we found ourselves tackling one long deep and precariously uneven stretch of muddy track after another. At the start of each bad stretch, we’d get out to survey the road and develop our strategy. Each section seemed worse than the last and each time we’d shake our heads in disbelief as Victor would shake his head saying, “This is nothing. Wait ‘til we get to the “bad” road. You will see.”

By mid afternoon, the “good” road was starting to inflict its toll. First we came upon a giant, seemingly insurmountable stretch that consisted of a large water filled hole flanked by deep ditch like ruts on both sides. The only option was to carefully slip the left wheels into the left side rut in hopes of skirting around the hole. It was precarious at best, but there seemed to be no better option. Martin went in first and before he could get around the hole, his Land Cruiser tipped over on it’s left side, coming to rest at about a 50 degree angle against a wall of mud. The recovery was enough to make anyone squeamish as we used Rolf’s winch to drag Martin’s truck out backwards on it’s side. Eventually, as Rolf dragged Martin backwards, the rut became shallow enough that the truck righted itself. Listening to the side panels scrape over hidden logs and debris was painful and seeing the resulting body damage was worse still – and foreshadowing of what was to come.

Not long after, Eric went nose first into a seemingly shallow water hole. Just under the water however, was soft deep mud that sucked him in. Completely, bogged he locked down all the diffs. No luck. He was going nowhere. This time it was Betty’s turn to be the hero, and I pulled him out backwards with the winch.

Further down the track, Rolf got stuck in mud so deep he couldn’t open his doors. And when we stopped to recover him, Eric noticed that he’d blown his first (of several) tires. A quick inspection of the tire revealed that mud and shards of wood had wedged their way between the rim and the tire’s bead. It was flat. While Martin, Eric, and I were doing a quick tire change, Rolf was working himself into a fit of rage. My German is limited to about three words, however aided by Eric’s translation, I got the gist of his yelling. Basically, he was furious because we weren’t recovering him fast enough. So Martin and I dropped what we were doing to give him a hand. Ultimately, Martin used his truck to pull Rolf forward. Unfortunately, in Rolf’s mind, this was too little too late, and he let everyone, particularly Martin, hear about it. It was the first rumblings of trouble in paradise!

With Eric’s tire changed and Rolf back on the road, I soon fell prey to the “good” road. This time it was a completely washed out section of road. Getting to the other side required each truck to climb down a steep muddy bank into a hole about 4 meters deep and then back up the other side. To this point I’d still not shifted to low range as I was too afraid to touch our ailing transfer box. Stuck at the bottom of the hole I was forced to remove the block of wood and shift into low. Without momentum, low wasn’t enough to get up the steep slope and instead, I decided to use Rolf’s truck as an anchor for my winch, and performed a self-recovery.

Soon after, it was Rolph’s turn again. Similar to Martin’s earlier experience, we were faced by a horrible stretch of track that looked insurmountable. And again, the only option seemed to be skirting around the edge. This required each truck to follow a ditch on the right hand side until it reached the worst stretch. At that point, the ditch became flanked on the right by a steep bank and on the left by a long dirt ridge. The idea was to straddle the ditch by balancing the right wheels on the bank and the left wheels on the ridge. Again, Martin went first and made it, if just barely. After watching how close Martin had come to tipping over, Eric and I gave each other a look and cringed, knowing our turn was coming soon. Before we could go however, Rolf had to get through. Everyone watched as Rolf slipped into the ditch and slowly made his way towards the bad section. When he reached it, he climbed onto the bank and slowly continued forward. All seemed to be going well. Then, about a third of the way across, he stopped. And almost in slow motion, we all watched as his left tires slowly slipped down the ridge until his truck finally tipped over on it’s side, coming to rest against the ridge. Eric immediately started to scream at Rolf to shut off the engine for fear that the steep angle would drain out all the oil, causing the engine to seize. It was now late in the day, and the sun had already slipped below the rainforest canopy, as we discussed what our recovery options were. The best idea seemed to be to drag him out backwards in hopes that the truck would, like Martin’s had earlier, right itself once off the steep bank. So again, I moved Betty into position and set up a winch recovery. Slowly but surely, I winched Rolf backwards, stopping every meter or so to check the winch cable to make sure it was spooling correctly. And as this truck was slowly dragged backwards, you could hear the same horrible scraping noise that we’d heard earlier during Martin’s recovery. With a little finesse, we managed to get the truck off the bank, righted and back on the road. And other than the body damage, all was well. Well, that is except for the fact that Rolf, as well as Eric and I, was still on the wrong side of the hole. So as everyone half covered their eyes in anticipation of the worst, Rolf gave it another go. It wasn’t pretty, but he made it, followed soon after by Eric and eventually me. Relief!

A few more bad stretches and it was almost dark when we reached what was the worst patch of road we’d seen so far. A quick survey of the road revealed a giant chasm of mud and water deeper than our trucks. To the right of the chasm was a deviation which, upon examination, appeared to be nearly as bad as the obstacle it was built to avoid. As I continued to survey the route, Rolf, Eric and Martin started what quickly became a less than cordial discussion with the toll keeper. As it was explained to me later, the toll keeper wanted to gouge us so Rolf and Eric threatened to head back and get the police. It was a weak bluff at best and didn’t do the trick so we decided, since it was nearly dark, to turn around and drive until we were out of sight and set up camp in the middle of the road. We’d take up the argument again in the morning.

At our camp, we all gathered together to have dinner and reflect on the day’s events. The “good” road, which was supposed to take us an hour, had already taken a hard six and we were nowhere close to the end. This was nothing more than the prelude and yet we’d all been stuck countless times and had seen two trucks tip over. The left side of Martin’s truck was damaged. The left side of Rolf’s truck was damaged. Eric had torn off three fenders and a matching number of mudguards and had blown a tire. Somehow, Betty came out unscathed, however we had enough mud caked in our wheels that I’d be surprised if we had brake pads left by the time we reached Mamfe. And this, as Victor kept reminding us, was the “good” road.

 
 
 
 

Bakem - November 7, 2006
(Jim Writes) We woke up well before sunrise. It was 5am and the road and surrounding rainforest was shrouded in a thick fog [View Interview]. Eager to get a jump on the road, we quickly broke camp and headed off. Back at the chasm from the previously evening, Eric and Rolf picked up where they’d left off with the toll keeper and finally reached a deal. This however proved to be the easy part, as the diversion posed significant risks to our heavily loaded overland trucks. Most concerning was that the track was cut into the edge of the rainforest on the side of a steep hill and the muddy surface made it difficult to control the direction of our trucks. Should one of the trucks slide sideways off the track, it would surely roll over.

Martin took it first. As he struggled to keep control, the truck fishtailed to the left and then leaned over, dangerously close to rolling. Everyone jumped in, bracing it from below for support. Inch by inch he progressed until he finally made it through. Relief! Rolf was next. Following Martin’s lead, he inched forward while everyone braced from below. Precariously close to the edge, he managed to hold on and made it through safely. Knowing that my turn was yet to come, my stress level continued to grow as I watched how close to the edge they’d come, just barely skirting potential disaster.

With Rolf back on safe ground, Eric was up. This time however, things didn’t go to plan and his 80 slipped off the track and into a jumble of mud and cleared forest debris. He was dangerously close to going over and we decided it was better to winch him back and start over. I maneuvered Betty into position once again. After one failed attempt with the winch, we reset the cable. This time, Martin rigged a snatch block (picture a pulley) to a tree in the forest so that the winch pulled him back up the hill to the right rather than straight back. This did the trick and I managed to get him back onto the track. By now, Sharikay had seen enough and she handed her camcorder to Sheri, too nervous to film the action herself. On his second attempt, Eric slipped and slided his way down the track, propped up by as many hands as were available, and made it the rest of the way without incident [View Eric's Video]. Three down, one to go.

When my time finally came I was nervous. Perhaps the only thing worse than going first is going last, as you have the opportunity, and disadvantage of watching those ahead of you. And in this case, watching those that went ahead of me didn’t instill much confidence as all had come dangerously close to tipping over. Fortunately, I also had the opportunity to watch all three and was able to learn from their experiences. This made selecting the best line easier, and coached by Martin, I got Betty through unscathed.

The balance of the morning was a repeat of the previous afternoon. Lots of mud, lots of water, and lots of Victor saying over and over “This is nothing. Wait ‘til we get to the “bad” road. You will see.” By mid-day, we were just outside of Emunjock and only one obstacle remained. On the hill leading into the village was another diversion around a long water filled trench. Again, it was an ugly site, only made uglier by the argument that insued with a handful of boys guarding the diversion. It was an unnecessary shouting match that came to a climax when one of the boys erected a barrier and then spit on it, I believe in an attempt to cast some sort of hex [View Argument]. Getting nowhere, Martin and I decided to take the same strategy used on the first diversion the previous day. We surveyed the bad stretch. As bad as it looked, there was one thing working to our advantage. It was on a hill. All we had to do was knock a hole in the wall at the bottom end and channel all of the water out. Once dry, we could fill in the deep ruts with dry dirt from the top and we’d be in business. So, much to the surprise of the boys, that’s what we set about doing. Within half an hour or so, the trench was half-dry and we’d begun filling in the ruts. Similar to the first diversion, this seemed to lead to a sudden price reduction. By the time all four trucks had made it to the other side, everyone was happy again and Sheri and Sharikay were off with the toll keepers snapping photos and hanging out. And, more importantly, we were in Emunjock.

Shortly after arriving, we received a warm welcome from one of the village elders, who informed us that the “bad” road actually started in Bakum, a small village several kilometers away. Eager to get to Bakum, we topped off our jerry cans at the town well, grabbed some provisions, checked in with the local police, fixed Eric’s flat tires and grabbed a quick bite to eat before setting off again.

Compared with the road between Ekok and Emunjock, the track to Bakum was relatively good and we pulled into town around 4pm. Once in town, our convoy wasted no time heading for the other side, as everyone was eager to get a glimpse of the road ahead. As our armada of vehicles rumbled through the tiny village, children came running out from every direction singing, “Whites, whites, give me a present! Whites, whites, give me a present!” Just on the other side of town, our convoy came to an abrupt halt. Our “good” road had come to an unquestionable end. Snaking into the rainforest ahead of us was a gnarled patch of muddy earth so horrible, so unlike any road we’d ever seen, that it defied all description. It was as if the earth had thrown up all over itself. Within minutes, we’d all taken to calling it the “site” as it looked more like a construction site than a road. And when I turned to Victor and asked him if we’d finally reached the bad road, he replied “Yes. This is the bad road. But this is not so bad. It gets much worse ahead.”

With a couple of hours of daylight left, we decided to hike a short distance down the track. As bad as the road looked at the start, it looked much worse once down in the ruts. On both sides of the track was a wall of tall dense rainforest, which blocked out the sun. The road itself was a gnarl of thick slippery mud, with numerous overlapping sets of deep ruts running in various directions. And each time the ruts came together to form one track, the track led straight into a giant mud hole. Along the side of the road, was a tiny well-worn footpath used by local villagers to porter goods and supplies. As we walked along surveying the damage, villagers, balancing huge loads on their heads, stopped to welcome us and say “You see this! This is Cameroon! We are suffering here!” We continued along the road until we finally reached a long mud hole, which we immediately nicknamed the “Death Trap.” 30 meters long by 5 meters deep, the hole was filled with water and mud too deep to easily measure. To the left of the Death Trap was a diversion, which Martin said he remembered from 20 years earlier. Studying the diversion only made me feel worse. Flanked by high walls on both sides and filled with water, the track was too narrow for our 80’s and the ruts were far too deep. I turned to Victor again and asked him if this was the worst of it. “No.” he said. “This is bad but the worst is ahead. You will see.” I’m sure we would, but not yet. We’d seen enough. It was getting late and we still needed to find a place to camp.

Back in Bakum, Martin set out to find the chief, in hopes that he’d let us camp at an abandoned medical clinic just outside of town. The chief agreed, and we set off back down the road we’d come in on to find the medical clinic and make camp.

At dinner we all gathered around to discuss our plan. Having seen first hand what was reported to be the best part of the “Bad” road, there was no question that we were in for a real challenge. The question that remained was just how big was the challenge and, more importantly, how on earth would we tackle it. To answer that question, we all agreed that we needed to survey the entire length of the track before formulating a plan. Tomorrow we’d get up early and hike the road.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Bakem - November 8, 2006
(Jim Writes) Woke up this morning eager to start surveying the road ahead. It was raining and the ground around our truck was awash in slimy red mud. As Sheri and I laid in our tent waiting for the rain to pass, we could hear voices outside. Word had spread of our arrival and men from the surrounding villages were already turning up in hopes of finding work. As we quickly learned, recovering vehicles along the “bad” road was a sort of cottage industry around Bakum and word of our arrival had drawn interest from as far away as Auyakaba. By midmorning, the rain had passed and we were suited up and ready to go.

Our plan for the day was simple. Armed with shovels, Martin’s stangle (not sure about the spelling, but it’s German for a long telescoping pole we planned to use to measure the depth of the mud and water), a pad and pen, camcorder, digital camera, GPS, and some water, we planned to survey the road, taking notes, discussing strategies, and doing some light roadwork (digging drainage channels where possible to get rid of some of the standing water). Rolf and Heike agreed to stay behind to watch the trucks, while the rest of us set out on reconnaissance. Martin, Eric, and I were responsible for surveying, strategizing, and roadwork, while Sharikay was responsible for note taking and Sheri was responsible for taking photos/video. Christine was our utility person, marking GPS coordinates, measuring the depth of the mud/water holes, and assisting with roadwork, and Victor had turned up to accompany us too as sort of an unsolicited consultant.

As we slowly worked our way along, documenting and strategizing as we went, we were joined by an ever growing cast of free agents, all eager for work and all overly zealous about sharing their unsolicited opinions on how best to tackle the road. Also accompanying us was a never-ending stream of porters shuttling heavy loads between villages. In a place where the only road was impassable, they were the sole supply line and the only commerce link to the outside world. All were warm and welcoming and all communicated the same message, “You see this? This is Cameroon. We are suffering here!”

By midday, we’d made it to the tiny village of Tabo, located at roughly the halfway point. We were tired and hungry, having just spent the past half-hour trying to rap our heads around yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle – the massive water filled mud hole just outside of town. While eating lunch at the village’s only restaurant, a tiny thatch roof open sided hut on the edge of the rainforest, we reflected on what we’d seen [View Restaurant]. There was nothing good about it. For starters, the ruts were too deep and the center track was often too wide for our trucks. This meant that even the easiest sections would cause groundout problems. The only solution was to break down the center track meter by meter and fill in the ruts. Moreover, the mud holes were too deep. Even the smaller ones had as much as a meter of water sitting on top of a thick layer of mud. And the bigger ones were another story all together. There were two between Bakum and Tabo and we hadn’t come up with an answer for either one yet. The first was the Death Trap we’d surveyed the previous day. A 30-meter long trench, 5 meters deep, filled with nearly 2 meters of water and mud. The second one was just outside of Tabo. Similar to the Death Trap, the “Tabo Hole” consisted of a long trench over 5 meters deep, filled with 2 meters of water and mud. And like the Death Trap, there was a diversion to the left of the hole. The diversion consisted of a long, 3 meter deep trench with deep muddy ruts at the bottom that eventually led you straight into a giant mud hole that, in my estimation, was nearly as bad as the main hole the diversion was built to circumvent.

In summary, the first half of the “bad” road presented a massive challenge. For the 4x4 enthusiast, it was Mecca, an unparalleled promise land of mud and water. For our heavily loaded expedition vehicles, it was a dangerous road with serious risks. The strain on our suspension and drive system would be immense and in the event something goes wrong, there’s no safety net. No AAA. No Toyota Land Cruiser Club to come bail us out. All we wanted to do was make it safely to the other side and, from what we’d seen so far, this would require significant perseverance, determination, hard work, and perhaps a little luck.

Rested and refueled, we setoff from Tabo to survey the rest of the road, now joined by Rolf and Heike who’d grown impatient guarding our trucks and had decided to come and have a look for themselves. Just as Victor had warned, the road from Tabo steadily went from bad to worse to unimaginable. The climax was a narrow, muddy, 4 meter deep trench than ran on for well over a kilometer. Once inside the trench, we were fully committed. With high mud walls so close together that you could hardly crack a door open, we’d be lucky to muster enough room to change a tire and we’d be even luckier to make it out the other end. And waiting for us at the other end was the grand daddy of all holes. A giant orifice filled with deep water and even deeper mud, located at the run-out point of yet another trench. Getting through the hole would be next to impossible and I’m guessing hadn’t been attempted in a very long time. The only other option was a diversion to the right of the hole. An infamous stretch of track that’s managed by an even more infamous extortion artist and troublemaker that Fred had warned us about named “Moonlight.” James reported that the one meter high mud walls were too narrow for his 80 series and by the looks of it, the ruts were now too deep as well. And on the other side of the diversion was another 400 meters of pain and suffering before the “bad” road finally gave way to a smooth graded dirt track. [View Interview]

On the long walk back to camp, everyone was dead quiet, too mentally and physically spent to even begin processing what we’d seen. By the time we reached camp it was late afternoon and we were all covered from head to toe in mud and in need of a little time to decompress. Unfortunately, decompression wasn’t on the menu. Just as everyone was settling into their camp chairs, Martin and Christine’s truck was swarmed by thousands of soldier ants. It was all Martin could do to get inside the truck and move it to safety. A few blasts from Sharikay’s highly toxic, almost certainly illegal-outside-of-Africa ant spray and Martin was able to fend off the attack. The ants had lost the battle, however unbeknownst to them, they’d started a war. Somehow, the ant attack had stirred Rolf into a fit and once again, he focused his anger on Martin. Apparently, in Rolf’s view of the world, Martin was responsible for our camp being overrun since it was his truck that attracted. For the next half-hour we were all subjected to Rolf's endless ranting as he went after Martin without mercy.

When Rolf was finally finished he retired to his truck, while Sheri and I sat down with Martin, Christine, Sharikay, and Eric to discuss the growing crack in our group’s fragile dynamic. The gist of the conversation was that this was no new crack. As Sharikay explained, traveling with Rolf was all about Rolf. If everything went exactly Rolf’s way, he was a likeable guy to have around. Unfortunately, for everything to go Rolf’s way meant that everyone else had to pay the price. And Sharikay, Eric, Martin, and Christine had been paying the price for far too long. Clearly, there was trouble in our little tropical paradise and clearly, this was not the time to bring everyone together to iron out our plan. Instead, we all agreed to defer our pow-wow until the following morning. The bad road would have to wait. .

 
     
  Bakem - November 9, 2006
(Jim Writes) After spending the morning washing clothes, everyone gathered around to hash out our plan. As we discussed what we’d seen the previous day, it quickly became obvious that everyone wasn’t in the same camp. While Sheri and I viewed this as one of Africa’s great challenges, Rolf was firmly convinced that the road was impassible. Everyone else seemed to fall somewhere in the middle and seemed open to exploring other options.

The problem was, our options were limited. Other than going forward, our choices were to:

Option 1: Turn around and go back to Nigeria in hopes of shipping from Calabar.

Option 2: Setup camp in Bakum until the rains stopped and the roads dried out.

Option 3: Explore repairing an abandoned ferry which, rumor had it, was grounded several years ago, somewhere down stream.

Other than perhaps Rolf, nobody was keen on option 1. The thought of returning to Nigeria in hopes of finding a cargo ship was less than desirable. The fact that we’d have to back track down the same muddy road that we’d just taken the better part of two days to traverse made it a no-go.

Option 2 seemed more palatable, however, we only had 30-day visas and who knew when the rains would stop or how long it would take for the track to dry out.

And then there was option 3. The abandoned ferry. A local guy on a motorbike stopped by our camp to tell us that he knew of an abandoned ferry grounded somewhere in the rainforest, several kilometers down river. In that Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness” sense, venturing deep into the rainforest in search of an abandoned ferry that could ultimately be our ticket to salvation seemed like a grand adventure. Unfortunately, the information we’d received was dodgy, even by African standards, and no one seemed to be able to tell us exactly where it was, what was wrong with it, why it was abandoned, or what the road was like on the other side. In the absence of good information, we let experience and common sense be our guide. And what we knew from experience was that all bad things in Africa seem to start with river-crossings and that anything that’s been abandoned in Africa was probably abandoned for good reason. We also deducted that, if the ferry had been stranded, as the locals claimed, for several years, then the road on the other side would’ve almost certainly been taken back by the rainforest. This was validated by, among other things, the fact that there was no road listed on the map or personal accounts of locals having seen or used the road. Strange considering the only other road was impassable.

After some discussion, each of these options was ruled out and we shifted our focus back to tackling the road ahead. Using our notes from the previous day, we sketched out a strategy for tackling the major obstacles. We knew that the deep ruts would have to be filled in and the center section of track broken down. We also knew that there was no way we’d get our trucks through the deep holes without bucketing out the water and, in some cases it would be easier to build new diversions instead. All of this was doable. The question was, how long would it take to get it done. And the unanimous answer? A very long time if we decided to go it alone. That said, we came up with a simple plan. We appointed Martin, with his many years of experience driving in Africa, as the lead driver. To assist with manual labor, we decided to hire five boys. I’d be responsible for managing their work and Eric would be responsible for paying them each day. To maintain control of our pace and decision making, we decided to offer 2,000 CFA/day (several times the average wage in Cameroon) plus a 500 CFA bonus/day to anyone that worked hard and stuck with us to the end. It seemed reasonable to us. All that remained was to go out and find our help.

The balance of the day was spent recruiting. First on our list was Victor, who quickly accepted the job and agreed to help us with finding some additional help. Second on our list was Kenneth, a friendly hard working guy we’d met the previous day who struck us as just what we were looking for. Kenneth also accepted our offer and agreed to join Victor on his talent search. Both agreed to return the following morning, with three move guys, ready to work.

With our plan set and our crew organized, everyone gathered together for an evening of story telling around the proverbial campfire. Always a fascinating way to spend an evening, the highlight on this occasion was Rolf’s account of a recent mid-night run in with some farmers in Guinea, who mistook them for cattle thieves and opened fire on their bush camp with flint fired rifles. We were now only hours away from diving headfirst into the “bad” road! It was time to execute our plan.

 
     
  Rainforest Bush Camp - November 10, 2006
(Jim Writes) If the number of hours spent debating our plan was a measure of our team’s success, then by all accounts we were already a legendary expedition. Unfortunately, having already spent eight days stuck in the rainforest of western Cameroon, Sheri and I were looking for a more tangible measure of success. This morning, that measure proved elusive, as internal digression and the first of many labor issues replaced forward progress.

Rolf was at the heart of this digression. Suffering from a rare African strain of selective amnesia, he’d seemingly forgotten about the marathon planning session from the previous day in which we’d discussed ad nausium our options, hammered out a plan for tackling the bad road, and hired a team of local workers. Now, with our camp packed up and Kenneth, Victor, and three additional helpers assembled, Rolf decided that he wanted to revisit the entire discussion. Armed with no new information, Rolf was again pushing for the abandoned ferry and within a few short moments, he managed to completely derail all preparations for departure. When I looked down at my watch our 8am-departure time had long since passed, and there was no end in sight. We were hopelessly bogged in an endless debate, as everything that had already been discussed the previous day was discussed and debated and discussed again. And so the debate raged on, fueled by everyone’s willingness to engage in Rolf’s madness, until our original plan had all but completely unraveled and we were on the verge of mounting a full on snipe hunt in hopes of finding the abandoned ferry. Fortunately, some small amount of logic prevailed, and we ultimately all agreed to a hybrid plan in which we’d divide into two groups. Rolf, Eric and Heike would go in search of the ferry while Martin, Christine, Sheri, Sharikay, and I would push forward with preparing the road for our trucks. That way, the only thing wasted would be our effort should Rolf and Eric find the ferry and determine it to be a more viable option.

Finally ready to move forward, we discussed our modified plan with Kenneth, Victor and the others. This ushered in the start of problem number two. As promised, Kenneth and Victor had shown up at 8am sharp with three boys, all eager to get to work. Eager, except for the fact that they didn’t agree with what we were paying, weren’t willing to bring buckets or shovels, and weren’t available to work (at least not until tomorrow as there was a funeral processional and they’d agreed to help carry the body from Mamfe to Bakum). And if that wasn’t enough bad news, Kenneth and Victor added that they weren’t able to help either as they’d also agreed to assist with the funeral. In other words, we’d been successful in assembling a crew of five guys, but still had nobody to help us.

After Eric and I talked it over, we decided to stick with our original offer of 2,000 CFA/day plus a 500 CFA/day bonus for anyone that saw us through to the end. We also decided to stick with our requirement that each boy bring a bucket and shovel as we only had enough shovels for ourselves. We pitched our unchanged offer and let them know that if it didn’t work for them, there would be no hard feelings. Our speech was met with a significant amount of push back, but in the end, they agreed and said that they’d meet at 8am the following morning. In the meantime, we’d push forward alone.

By midday, the rubber had finally met the road. While Rolf and Eric went in search of the abandoned ferry, we dove hood first into the “bad” road. With Martin’s truck in the lead we tackled a long series of deep ruts before hitting our first hole. By “bad” road standards, it was a modest pit of mocha colored water about 1 ½ meters deep. After about an hour of prep work, Martin gave it a go, plunging in with a huge splash. The idea was for him to go in fast enough that momentum would carry him out the other side. It didn’t
[View Martin's Video]. Not long after Martin took the plunge, Eric and Rolf showed up, having already abandoned the abandoned ferry idea. Together, we set about laying sand plates and digging. Over and over we repeated the same process. We’d dig and set the sand plates and then Martin would backup as far as possible in order to get a running start up the other side. In the process, Martin’s wheels spun like a blender, mixing up the water and mud. This left his truck half submerged in a sort of mud pudding. By the time we’d excavated him, his truck was covered in pudding, we were covered in pudding, the villagers who’d come to watch were covered in pudding, and unfortunately, Martin’s sand plates were covered (read buried) in pudding. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to extract a pair of sand plates from a giant pool of mud pudding but I can assure you, it ain’t easy. Finding them was hard enough. Getting them free was next to impossible! In the end, we had to drag them out with Martin’s truck and even that wasn’t easy!

With Martin out, I plunged in, promptly getting stuck in a deep rut on the approach. A not so quick winch recovery and Betty was on the other side. With Betty through, Eric followed, and when Eric cleared, Rolf jumped in. Within a couple of hours, we were all safely on the other side. And so we marched on.

The balance of the day was more of the same. Deep ruts, mud holes, long trenches. When possible we’d cut around the worst sections, cutting new tracks along the edge of the forest. It was hard work and the going was exceedingly slow, as we fought tooth and nail for every meter.

By dark, we’d used every tool in the chest from winches to sand plates, to tow ropes, shovels, buckets, and machetes. We were exhausted. The trucks were brown with mud and worse off for the experience. Betty was missing a fender. Eric’s truck was missing all it’s fenders. Martin and Rolf’s trucks were no better off. In a long half-day, we’d clawed, pushed, dragged, and winched our way a total of 400 meters. As the locals told us, “You are going!”

Having gone as far as we could, we setup camp in the road, halfway down a long 1½ meter deep mud filled trench. It wasn’t a comfortable camp, but we were deep in the middle of beautiful rainforest, surrounded by the call of the wild. Tomorrow we march on [View Interview]!

 
 
 
  Rainforest Bush Camp - Nov. 11, 2006
(Jim Writes) We woke up this morning around 5am. It was still dark out and the sounds of the forest were almost deafening. As we lay in our tent trying to muster the energy to face the road ahead, we could hear what sounded like light rain. Fortunately, it wasn’t rain. The air was so thick with moisture that the forest was literally dripping wet. As we went about readying ourselves for another day in the trenches, the sun slowly climbed into the sky revealing a rainforest shrouded in deep fog. It was magical.

Around 7:30am our crew arrived. Well, at least part of it arrived. We were supposed to be joined by a team of five guys including Kenneth and Victor. All were to have shovels and buckets. Of the five, only three showed up – none brought buckets, one brought a shovel, one brought a pick, and one came carrying a machete. Since the guy with the machete didn’t seem particularly well equipped to help us dig four heavy trucks out of the mud, we let him go, telling him he was welcome to come back if he could find a shovel. So that reduced our party of five to two – Kenneth and Victor.

Shortly after 8am we were underway, armed with the additional muscle of two strong, hard working, energetic men. By 8:15am, we were down to one strong, hard working, energetic man. The other was Victor. Victor seemed to be a better spectator than helper, as most of the time he stood around giving advice rather than working. If a large log needed to be pulled out of a rut, he’d stand there with a stick poking at it instead of jumping in with both hands and dragging it out. By contrast, Kenneth was a super star. Hard working, tireless, knowledgeable. He seemed to be everywhere at once. Doing everyone’s job at once.

By midday, we’d advanced approximately 100 meters. Slowly but surely, we were going. This however, was the easiest section of the “bad” road, and one thing had already become clear. Our five man crew had been reduced to a one man show. And strong as he may be, Kenneth needed some help if we were to get to Mamfe before Christmas. In a clearing on the side of the road, our team convened for a quick pow-wow to discuss the future of our one man crew. I’d love to tell you that it was an efficient, constructive meeting however, the reality was that the Rolf cancer had spread and before we could get down to the business at hand, our increasingly dysfunctional team had to air out its latest dirty laundry.

The laundry du jour, involved Rolf’s gripe with not receiving enough attention at the back (he was in the fourth position) and Martin’s frustration with Rolf’s persistent criticism of his driving. Translation: Rolf wanted to lead from the back, without any of the associated responsibility or risks. A long, ground shaking, argument ensued. The outcome was that Martin resigned his lead position, and Rolf was forced to the front. This was followed by a long group therapy session to help heal our group’s festering wounds.

Following group therapy, we discussed the fate of our crew. Basically, we all agreed that we needed more help unless we wanted to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner in a ditch. We also agreed that Kenneth was our super star and Victor was dead weight. That said, we decided to retool a bit. According to Kenneth and Victor the local cottage industry wasn’t keen on being paid by the day (which is why we were having trouble finding help). Instead, as Kenneth explained, a crew wants to negotiate a lump sum fee for the entire job. So, not wanting to fight Africa, we agreed to play by the house rules. We’d stop paying by the day. Since Victor wasn’t working out, we’d let him go and since Kenneth was our overachiever, we’d hire him as our foreman. The idea was that we’d negotiate a fee for the job and it would be Kenneth’s responsibility to find his crew, pay and manage them. After all, he was one of the locals and understood far better than us, what did and didn’t work. To ensure the crew didn’t ditch us, no money would be paid until we were safely on the other side.

With plan 6.4.5.12 Version 1732.a3 hot off the press, we sat down with Kenneth to review our proposal. We offered Kenneth 40,000 CFA for the job, told him we wanted a crew of five and that Victor would have to go. Kenneth liked the idea… only “there was a problem.” The problem was that we’d not factored in tribal politics. And in this case, Victor happened to be a more senior member of their tribe. That meant that Kenneth couldn’t supervise him, much less fire him. It was a nightmare turn of fate, which got much worse when Victor turned around and demanded 90,000 CFA for the job. Highway robbery! To us, it seemed clear that he was taking advantage of his position in the tribe and our position stuck in a ditch somewhere deep in the rainforests of Cameroon. Livid, Sheri and I let him know how disappointed we were that we’d done everything we could to help him out and this was his way of repaying us. He vehemently argued that the 90,000 wasn’t his idea. He was just relaying the message. Our response was, well, not so nice.

After significant back and forth, we settled on 60,000 CFA for the job. That bought us a crew of five, including Victor and Kenneth, to get us through to the end of the “bad” road. Our only requirements were that Kenneth be in charge of the others and that we make all of the driving and recovery decisions. Kenneth and Victor both agreed and Kenneth said that he’d come back soon with the others.

At 3:30pm, Kenneth returned accompanied by a rag tag crew of men armed with shovels, buckets, picks and machetes. In addition to Kenneth and Victor, our crew included a quiet guy of medium build dressed in an olive green army jacket, a she-man with long teased black hair, and an alpha male personality clad in a red and black number 8 soccer jersey, who we quickly dubbed “Number 8.”

Before the first spade stuck the dirt Number 8 was causing trouble, claiming that Kenneth was lying to them about our deal and trying to rip him off. Foreshadowing what was to come, he immediately left a bad taste in our mouths and most of the team wanted to send him packing. Kenneth strongly urged us to keep him on, arguing that Number 8 was a strong worker who wouldn’t cause us any trouble. Reluctantly, we took Kenneth’s advice as a show of support for his leadership.

With our ranks now at 13, wet set off again to do battle with the road. From the moment we stepped into the mud with our new crew it was obvious they were seasoned veterans and it was obvious that their approach favored brawn over brain. It was sort of an “act now, think later” strategy that placed a premium on problem solving rather than problem avoidance. And to solve the problem, they’d apply 10 parts brute force and one part common sense. Not a bad strategy as long as you don’t own the truck. Less attractive however when you do! Fortunately, we learned this lesson early on when Number 8 directed Rolf into a soft bottom ditch. A couple seconds later and Rolf’s truck rolled onto its side, which sent the crew clamoring to push it upright again. A situation that could have easily been avoided with a little pre-planning and one that ultimately required a winch to get him out. The lesson was quickly learned. The trick with managing our crew was keeping control of the show.

With all the added firepower, we made steady progress through the balance of the afternoon as part of the crew worked ahead preparing the road and part stayed back to recover the trucks. Again, we employed every weapon in our arsenal winching, towing, and laying sand plates as we inched forward, one truck at a time. [View Video]

By 6pm, we’d made it 1.6k and had reached our first major obstacle – the hole we called the Death Trap. With the sun already below the forest canopy, we setup camp while the crew started the long process of bucketing water out of the hole. By dark, the water had been drained to half it’s original level and we decided to call it a day. Tomorrow we are going!

 
 
 
  Rainforest Bush Camp - November 12, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning the call of the wild ushered in another surreal day in the rainforest. Just ahead of us was the Death Trap. Almost completely shrouded in a thick layer of fog, it looked more ominous than ever. By sunrise, a steady stream of porters was already beating the path between Emunjock and Bakum, and our team was back at work dredging the hole.

A couple of hours of non-stop dredging later and the Death Trap had been reduced to a giant kiddy pool. We were ready to take the plunge. Our strategy called for Rolf, still in the lead, to go first. When he inevitably got stuck, we’d use his winch to drag him across to the other side. Once safely across, he’d be available to pull Eric and Martin across. I’d follow last, keeping Betty’s winch available for a reverse recovery should one be necessary.

At 9am Rolf cranked up an Elvis CD, shifted into low range, locked his diffs, hit the accelerator and plunged his troop carrier hood first into the Death Trap. At 9:00:03am all forward momentum had ceased and Rolf’s troop carrier was pronounced KIA. So out came the winch and fortunately, out came Rolf. With Rolf out, in went Eric and then Martin and finally Betty. Surprisingly, all went according to plan and by mid-morning, we were all safely on the other side. Aided by a significant amount of prep work, we’d traversed the first of the bad roads many great barriers to success. It was cause for celebration! And celebrate we did, until just down the road, we ran smack into the “Tabo Hole.”

Staring into the Tabo Hole, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth we’d ever get to the other side. Aided by Martin’s stangle, we surveyed the hole and discussed our options. It wasn’t pretty! The trench itself seemed virtually impossible. A giant hole, similar to the Death Trap, the hole, had a couple of unique challenges. In addition to deep water that concealed an equally deep layer of thick mud, the hole was on a hill and the high side of the hole (the departure side) was extremely steep and uneven. Basically, that meant that, assuming we dredged the water, we’d still be faced with a huge problem. Once a truck was inside the hole, it almost certainly would get stuck in deep mud. Combine the suction created by the mud with the steep departure angle and we’d be lucky to get the truck out, winch or no winch. That meant that driving into the hole was nothing short of vehicular suicide.

To the left of the Tabo Hole was a diversion. This would’ve been good news had the diversion not come with two tiny little problems.

1.) The toll keeper was demanding 200 Euros for us to pass

2.) The diversion was only marginally better than the Tabo Hole

Effectively, that meant that we’d pay 200 Euros for the pleasure of taking a track that was guaranteed to require significant work to get through. For 200 euros, I’d expect a gold plated Caterpiller to porter my truck across. It wasn’t ideal. Particularly, when you know you’re being gouged! It’s sort of like highway robbery, only without the luxury of being robbed on pavement.

Not particularly happy with our options, we surveyed the area further. And then an idea occurred to us. To the right of the hole was a piece of land owned by one of the local villagers. At first glance, the land appeared to be anything but passable. But on further evaluation, we realized that, if we cleared away some vegetation and did some grading to level the surface, it might be doable, if only just barely. Doable however, was all we were looking for as our primary objective was to eliminate the toll keepers leverage. To do this, we pitched a little business proposal to the landowner. Simply put, in exchange for use of his land, we’d build him a diversion, which he could use to compete with the guy on the other side. Needless to say, he loved the idea and quickly agreed to our offer. And as much as he loved the idea, the toll keeper hated it even more and he quickly marked down the 200 euro toll to free.

As much as we’d have liked to build the diversion just to put a dent in the toll keeper’s coffers, we ultimately decided to use the original diversion instead. Our rationale was that the new diversion had some inherent risks that would be difficult to manage (most notably, the new track would be cut on a steep hill dangerously close to the edge of the Tabo Hole. One mistake and we’d be kissing the truck goodbye).

With our diversion issues solved, our problems shifted to labor relations. Number 8 was on the war path again as he ranted about how Kenneth was lying to them and ripping them off. To set the record straight, Eric and I confirmed Number 8’s understanding of our deal (Kenneth had given him the correct info) and pointed out that Kenneth was being more than fair since he was splitting the cash evenly between everyone, despite the fact that he had more responsibility. Our disclosure however, did little to squelch the argument, which continued until Number 8 et crew finally grew bored and and went back to work.

Back at the office, we tackled the monstrous task of getting through the diversion. There were two basic issues. First, diversion’s deep ruts and high mid section had to be broken down. Second, the large water hole at the end had to be dredged. Once dredged, we used a similar strategy to the Death Trap. The plan was for Rolf would go in first and when he got stuck, we’d winch him to the other side. Eric and Martin would follow, being pulled out by Rolf if necessary, and I’d bring up the rear. This time, the exercise was far more painful than the Death Trap, but in the end, the strategy worked. Rolf went in. Rolf got stuck. We winched him out. Eric followed with similar results. Then came Martin and finally Betty. All had problems, but all got through. We were going!

On the other side we entered the tiny village of Tabo, a town with the worst road running through it I’ve ever seen. Before moving on, we stopped for lunch at the same little open-air restaurant we’d eaten at a few days before. It was typical village fare – rice and sauce, fufu, boiled eggs, warm beer. When Martin asked for a fork, the restaurant’s owner looked around until she saw someone that had finished eating and grabbed the dirty fork off his plate and handed it to Martin.

After lunch, I asked around for directions to the local well. A man grabbed one of the kids from the village and told him to show me the way. The little boy led me down a small path that descended a hill into the rainforest. At the bottom of the hill was a tiny stream, the village’s only source of water. Meanwhile, Sheri was off making friends with the local children, a colorful lot that served as wonderful ambassadors for Cameroon. Together they sang and danced and enjoyed sharing the many differences that make our two cultures so unique from one another.
[View Tabo's Dancers]

After lunch, it was back to business. We were now on the other side of Tabo. The best was now behind us. The great trench was close at hand. The balance of the day was spent doing what we’d learned to do best – digging, winching, setting sand plates, cutting new tracks, and towing. It was hard work, but we were going, and the further we went and the more difficult the track became and the more our crew seemed to be sitting around. And the more they sat around, the harder Kenneth seemed to work. It was like Victor was spreading around some sort of infections virus and the only one that was immune was Kenneth. It was maddening and before long we found ourselves all riding Kenneth pretty hard to get control of his crew.

By dark we’d advanced another 2.4k (the furthest so far) and were all completely spent, utterly filthy, and ravenous. Nothing a long hot shower, comfortable club chair and medium rare filet couldn’t fix. Unfortunately, none of those luxuries were on offer at our little rainforest hideaway. What we did have was a nice bottle bath, a couple of well worn camp chairs, a pound of pasta, a can of tuna, and enough drama to give Tammy Fay Baker a migraine.

The digging had stopped for the day, but the drama was just starting to heat up, as Kenneth stopped by to inform us that his crew was threatening to walk off the job if we didn’t pony up some more cash by tomorrow night. As I saw it, this was Kenneth’s problem not ours. After all, if they breach our deal they don’t get paid. With that, I bid him good night. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the evening’s entertainment. No sooner had we slipped into our comfy Mac Sports Prestige camp chairs with dual cup holders and a vented canvass storage bag with shoulder strap, did the Rolf show begin. This time, Rolf was on a tirade because he was tired of being in the lead position (Quick reminder: The reason Rolf was in the lead was because he drove Martin crazy trying to lead from the back and Martin understandably refused to deal with it any longer). Instead of asking anyone else if they were interested in taking on the job, he went after me, arguing that I was to blame for not having led yet since I was the only one on the team that wanted to take this road in the first place. It was more than a bit annoying, however I simply reminded him that I’d volunteered for the job several times and, other than the fact that I felt he deserved to be there himself for being such a pain in the ass, would be happy to take over. He was welcome to return to his cowardly spot as a backseat driver. Ah, a relaxing end to another relaxing day in our little slice of tropical paradise!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Rainforest Bush Camp - November 13, 2006
As Sheri and I laid in our tent this morning pondering what Kenneth had told us last night, we couldn’t help but wander what new surprises today would bring. To this point, we’d made slow but steady progress and, in distance at least, were halfway there. The worst however was yet to come. Just ahead was the dreaded trench. A massive fissure in the earth formed by decades of use and neglect. Once inside, we’d face a varitable house of horrors. Hemmed in on both sides by steep dirt walls, only slightly wider than our trucks, and filled in with a thick red clay-like mixture of mud and water, which filled in two deep ruts, there’d hardly be room to maneuver and no chance of turning back. If one truck were to break down or get stuck, everyone would be stuck. That said, the writing was on the wall. Given Kenneth’s warning and the fact that the worst was still ahead, we predicted Number 8 would soon wage a revolt and threaten to leave us unless we cough up some more cash. Only time would tell for sure! [View Interview]

Once assembled, we went into battle once again. For Sheri and I, it was day 11 and the end was still nowhere in sight. By mid morning our convoy had reached the start of the trench and in many regards the end of the line [View Road Prep]. I was now in the lead position and from the moment Betty entered the trench, the going seemed to become exponentially more difficult. If we thought we were moving slowly before, then now, we weren’t moving at all. Hemmed in and bogged down, with little room to work and no room to maneuver the trucks, the ruts were giving us a terrible fit and advancing a few meters seemed nearly impossible.

With our progress nearly at a standstill, Betty’s winch came into use so often that we stopped reeling it back in and the cable finally broke free of the spindle (which we repaired with a spare bolt Rolf had on hand). Concerned that the motor was going to burn up, I decided to give it a rest. And when the winch stopped turning, we stopped moving, as Kenneth’s brawn over brains attempts to muscle us forward were going nowhere. Our lack of forward motion did little to deter Kenneth and crew from sticking with their strategy, which in the past seven hours had gotten us nowhere. [View Betty - Stuck]

Frustrated after having tried unsuccessfully several times to implement a different strategy, Martin and I sent Kenneth and his crew off to have a late lunch so that we could work uninhibited. Our strategy was simple. All the digging, pushing, and rocking seemed unnecessary to us. Instead, we decided to use the eight sand plates we had between us to build a rolling bridge. The idea was to fill in the ruts and then lay four plates down on each side, just in front of the truck, drive to the end of the plates, pull the back two off and move them to the front, move forward and repeat. It was relatively quick and easy, and it worked. Within an hour, we’d moved our trucks further than our entire crew had managed in seven hours. It was a thing of beauty, which reminded us just how much we enjoyed working without all the extra distractions. We were moving!

The balance of the afternoon was more of the same as we utilized our rolling bridge to slowly crawl forward and, after winching and towing all four trucks through a challenging mud hole [View Mud Hole], we called it quits for the day.

On a side note, I’d like to offer a word of caution to anyone who’s considering building their next home in a trench. As I’m sure anyone familiar with World War I would agree, it’s not the glamorous living arrangement one might expect. For starters, it’s muddy and wet, which means you and everything you own is muddy and wet. And as I’m sure you already know, wet equals mosquites, which in these parts means malaria. Also, the narrow dirt walls don’t affort you a wealth of living space as they’re so close together that you can barely crack open the doors on your truck. Not ideal should you need to get inside the truck to grab say, anything you own. The ground isn’t exactly polished marble either. Tromping around in the pitch black of night in slick mud has a number of potential downsides, just one of which is when, unbeknownst to you, the legs on your camp chair slowly sink into the mud and then falls over with you in it. Not particularly fun when you’ve just taken a nice bucket bath and have just sat down, in your only semi clean pair of clothes, with your dinner in your lap, looking forward to a little relaxation. And it doesn’t help that the muddy bottom is about as level as a roller coaster and your truck is leaning forward and sideways at about a 15 degree angle and you have to use a rachet strap to keep from sliding out of the tent. And to top it off, there’s no easy way in or out of the trench which makes going to the “toilet” a bit of an adventure.

In any case, as we were setting up camp, I overheard Number 8 and crew arguing with Rolf. As it turned out, they decided to do exactly what we’d predicted. They threatened to stop all work unless we doubled the cash. So fixated on how to extort more cash out of us, Number 8 was banking on the fact that we had to have their help. And I’m sure he was completely convinced that the “white man” couldn’t get through without his crew and would pay anything to keep them on. What he failed to consider was the following:

1.) We hired them because we wanted some help to speed up our passage, NOT because we had to have it to get through

2.) We hadn’t paid them anything yet since our deal stated that we only paid at the end after they’d helped us get through

3.) Threatening us constituted a breach of contract (i.e. contract terminated)

4.) We were now over halfway through and still had the 60,000 CFA we’d planned to pay them, which we could now spend on a new crew to help us the last 500 meters

So, in a nutshell, we decided to fire Number 8 and the rest of them for breach of contract. Because they didn’t uphold the deal they’d get nothing. If Rolf and Martin wanted a new crew we could get one using some of the cash we’d just saved courtesy of Number 8 and his generous crew of helpful volunteers.

As I lay in bed listening to the rhythmic pounding of Tom Tom drums coming from some distant village, I couldn’t help but feel that we were so close to the end, only 500 meters in fact, and yet the light at the end of the tunnel was still so very far away. Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow, we are going!

 
 
 
 

Rainforest Bush Camp - November 14, 2006
This morning started off exactly like we anticipated. As usual, Kenneth, Victor, Number 8 and the rest of the crew showed up for work, I’m sure believing that we’d meet their ransom demands and all would proceed as usual. What actually happened was a bit different. Shortly after everyone arrived, we called Kenneth over and communicated our decision. Basically, all that was said was that we had a deal for 60,000 CFA and that the deal called for five guys to work with us until we made it through. Number 8’s attempt to leverage us was a clear breach of our deal, and we weren’t going to put up with it. The deal was off. They were all fired! Our only concession was to offer Kenneth and Victor an opportunity to continue working under the terms of the original offer of 2,000 CFA per day. Take it or leave it.

At first, Number 8 and his boys seemed surprisingly calm. Then they realized that we weren’t paying them for the work they’d already put in and they all went ballistic. There was no point in reasoning with them, as logic holds no place in Number 8’s world. Rather, the majority of our team agreed that the best approach seemed to be to ignore them all together, focusing our attention on the road ahead. I’m sure, had we stuck to this strategy, they would have eventually grown tired of arguing with themselves and would have gone home. Unfortunately, our dysfunctional team was about as cohesive as two opposing magnets, and Rolf and Eric, ignoring everyone’s advice, got a charge by shouting right back. Needless to say, it did little to defuse the situation, and did a lot to distract us from the task at hand.

Meanwhile, we went about the monstrous task of dredging and filling in two massive mud holes that stood squarely in our path. Throughout the morning, we made slow but steady progress, aided for a short time by Kenneth who’d agreed to stay on under the original terms. Unfortunately, Kenneth’s help was short lived as Number 8 threatened to beat him up if he continued working. Still not getting anywhere Number 8 turned his sights on us, threatening to bury our trucks in the trench if we didn’t pay up. It was a lot to tune out and by midday, we’d had enough. To deal with our growing problem, Martin and Christine volunteered to go into the neighboring village to talk with the chief. They returned some time later, bearing good news. They’d explained our situation to the chief and he’d sided with us, condemning their actions and noting that Number 8 had a history of causing trouble. He went on to say that we had the full support of the village and he’d help us find a replacement crew.

Later in the day, we took a break from filling in dirt to discuss our plan. Eric and I had just come back from surveying the remaining 500 meters and felt that it was doable without additional help, although we acknowledged that it would be difficult and would likely take us at least another three days. Regardless, we were in support of going the distance alone. Martin and Rolf on the other hand were in a very different camp. Both were adamantly in favor of hiring some additional help and Rolf in particular was hell bent on getting out as soon as possible. He even went so far as to demand an additional head, to serve as his personal assistant. Neither seemed open to negotiation and to avoid any strife, Eric and I decided not to push our position.

With the decision made, Martin, Christine, Sheri, and Sharikay set off to see the chief and organize our new crew and Eric, Rolf and I headed back into the trenches to take a crack at getting Betty through another hole. Following a full day of work, the hole had been dredged and filled in with dry dirt. It was still soft however and so we laid down our rolling bridge and I gave it a go. Just as my front wheels made it to the other side, the rear right wheel started to sink into the soft ground and before I could make it to safety, Betty sank so deep into the soft dirt that even the winch couldn’t muster enough power to get her out. After resetting the winch, we gave it ago and dragged her out, just barely. It was the only forward progress our four trucks had made all day. With all of the commotion and the work required to fill in the hole, we’d managed a gain of 30 meters.

On the other side of the hole we pitched the tent again and spent our second straight night in the hole. An evening that was equally as enjoyable as the first.

 
 
 
 
 
  Auyakaba - November 15, 2006
[View Interview] This morning ushered in the dawn of a new day. We were met first thing by our new crew, an efficient, down to business team of mud slinging, hole dredging, recovery experts, lead by one of the village elders appointed by the chief to aid us to the end. From the minute the first shovel struck the dirt, it was clear this was a very different group of men. The polar opposite of Number 8 and his clan. All morning we worked non-stop, like a well oiled machine. Kenneth and Victor were back as well bringing our ranks to 15. Even still, the going was exceedingly slow and we’d hardly moved at all by midday. It was clear, very clear, that we were still a long way from the finish line.

Just as this reality was settling in, we received a major break. A local man from a nearby village came to let us know that a village a couple of kilometers on the other side of the “bad” road had called in a bulldozer to repair their badly damaged road. Skeptical, Martin and Eric hiked to the village to have a look, while the rest of us continued to grind away. A couple of hours later they returned, followed close behind by a giant Caterpillar. It was a glorious site, which turned out to be almost too good to be true, as the bulldozer operator nearly crapped his pants when he saw the road. Shaking his head, he said “It is impossible. To Dangerous. The bulldozer could be lost.” Not willing to take no for an answer we did a bit of begging, which prompted the operator to develop a new idea. Instead of repairing the main road, he’d cut a new track along the edge of the rainforest.

Within half an hour, the bulldozer was toppling trees and cutting a new track. It was an awesome sight and everyone was celebrating liberation day. And perhaps the best part… the bulldozer filled in Moonlight’s diversion and created a new track that the locals could use free of charge. The only hickup? Number 8 and his crew showed up and tried to stop the bulldozer by claiming that the operator was cutting the track on private land. Fortunately, the bulldozer driver knew the law and the law states that you can cut back the forest to 20 meters from a public road. We were going! And soon we were gone. Liberated at last, by a unexpected turn of fait.

By mid afternoon, we were through the worst of it, liberated from a seemingly endless jungle track that had taken nearly two weeks to traverse. We’d reached the end of the proverbial tunnel without ever having fully seen the light. On the other side was the rest of Africa. As our battered convoy slowly limped into the nearby village of Auyakaba, the realization that we were free began to sink in and with that realization came a wonderfully intoxicating sense of euphoria one gets after accomplishing a seemingly insurmountable task.

Auyakaba received us with a warm welcome, the chief inviting us to camp on the grounds of the village’s primary school. Once settled, I mustered enough energy for a trip down to a nearby river to fetch water for a much-needed bath (which I took before an audience of a half dozen school children). And that was as far as we got. The balance of the day was spent curled up in our camp chairs in a state of near coma, only finally coaxed out several hours later to crawl into the more comfortable confines of our tent. We were free at last.

 
 
 
 
 
  Mamfe - November 16, 2006
Clean and well rested, we woke up to a new day and a new realization. We were now out of the mud, but the mud was far from out of our trucks. It had been the most horrible of roads. 32k in 13 days, with the last 4k taking six days, thanks in large part to a bulldozer. Staring out of our tent, the early morning light revealed a field of carnage. The fenders and mudguards that once adorned Eric’s truck were now piled in a heap on the roof and his rear bumper hung loosely from the chassis. Rolf’s troop carrier looked like it had been side swiped by an earthmover. Martin’s Land Cruiser was in a similar state with scrapes and dents along the side panels and a busted out taillight. Betty faired no better. Her two front fenders were gone. The mudguards were gone. The rear bumper, which was ripped almost completely off, was now held in place by a piece of red and yellow climbing rope. Our sand plates, which survived the Sahara without a scratch, were bent and twisted like pretzels. One of our shovels was MIA. The other was KIA. Everyone’s brakes were shot, ours new only three weeks earlier were now completely spent. Everything, inside and out, was covered in mud. The windows, seats, floorboards, instruments, dashboard, storage cases, clothes, tools, GPS, everything. And underneath the mud was a thick layer of olive green mold, a side effect of spending two weeks in the damp rainforest.

The morning was spent tying up loose ends and undoing some of the damage inflicted on our trucks and equipment. Between driving back and forth over our sand plates to straighten them out and repairing our winch, everyone got together to settle up. This should have been, and I’m certain would have been, a painless affair had Rolf not been in the mix. Regrettably, Rolf had one last surprise for the group. When it came time to pony up for the bulldozer, Rolf refused to pay, arguing that nobody had consulted him before hiring it. Before anyone could hardly say a word, he jumped in his Land Cruiser with Heike and sped off (unbelievable considering less than 24 hours earlier he’d said he was willing to pay whatever it took to get out as soon as possible).

With Rolf gone, one problem was out of the way and one problem still remained. Number 8 and the rest of his crew showed up demanding their cash. This prompted another visit to the chief, who was unfortunately away when we arrived. Instead, we sat down with the village elders to plead our case once more. Again, the village sided with us and we walked away only paying a fraction of the agreed upon fee for their services. Number 8 et crew were furious and we were quickly on our way. Destination: Mamfe.

The relatively smooth dirt road leading to Mamfe started off easy enough. Then we realized that Eric and Sharikay were missing. Turned out their front left wheel came flying off. After turning back, we found their truck nose down in the dirt on the side of the road. The tire had bounced off the road and into a dense thicket of thorns.

In Mamfe, we found a wonderful little lodge on the banks of a picturesque river where we setup camp. The best part was that they had a little restaurant with cold beer and excellent fresh chicken and chips. The balance of the day, night, and next morning was spent, much to the dismay of the resident chickens, eating and drinking as much as we could stuff down our gullets. It was exactly what we needed. We were one big step closer to recovery.

 
     
  Rainforest Bush Camp - November 17, 2006
(Sheri Writes) Number one on our agenda this morning...a long, HOT shower. It was the first shower Jim and I had taken since Nigeria that didn’t involve fetching water from a river or well. After two weeks in the mud, we were covered in a layer of seemingly impenetrable grime, which only came off with a struggle. Needless to say, the shower was a welcome treat and it was wonderful to finally feel truly clean again.

Liberated from the mud, everyone was preparing to hit the road. Martin and Christine were headed for Bamenda while Sharikay, Eric, Jim and I were headed to Limbe and then on to Yaounde to sort out our gearbox. A former boss once told me that “All men are brothers when in foxholes together.” I think in Cameroon at least, this holds true, as we felt like we’d been through a lot together and it was hard to see Martin and Christine off. Before they hit the road, we all got together for one last meal. By most measures, it wasn’t anything special, just some African omelets and bread. It hit the spot however and gave everyone an excuse to hang out a little longer before going our separate ways.

Afterwards, we said our goodbyes to Martin and Christine and then Jim and Eric went about trying to free the brakes and trucks of mud. With thick mud caking the calipers, disks, hubs, wheels, and the entire underside of the trucks, it was a difficult, almost futile effort that only began to undue the damage done during the previous two weeks. In the process, they managed to work up quite an appetite and by midday, we found ourselves back at the restaurant gorging on chicken and fries once more.

With our stomachs full and smiles of satisfaction on our faces, we set off for Limbe, thrilled at the thought of trading in Cameroon’s rainforest mud for black volcanic sand beaches. The road down to Limbe was pretty slow-going. Lots of potholes, but thankfully only a manageable amount of mud! Having made it nowhere close to Limbe, we located a fairly hidden gravel pit just off the main road and setup camp for the night. Still surrounded by rainforest, it was a wonderful setting and we spent the night sipping cold beers and reminiscing about the past couple of weeks.

 
     
  Limbe - November 18-19, 2006
(Sheri Writes) The drive today proved to be just as bad as yesterday. The badly eroded dirt roads were littered with potholes and we quickly began to understand the animosity felt by English-speaking Cameroonians towards Cameroon’s francophone government.

Every English speaking Cameroonian we met delivered the same message, “You see this! This is Cameroon. We are suffering here!” And this message usually served as a prelude to a long monologue describing how the small anglophone part of western Cameroon was being severely neglected by the country’s French-speaking government. The road from Ekok to Mamfe spoke volumes and as we headed further into English speaking territory, the story was more of the same. The roads were completely neglected and the general infrastructure appeared to be in a state of decay (a striking contrast to the well maintained paved roads we later found in francophone Cameroon). The message was clear. The English-speaking Cameroonians were unhappy and there was even talk of secession. An idea that was probably just talk, as it was hard to imagine tiny English speaking Cameroon waging a successful revolt. Only time will tell.

By the time we reached the paved road a few kilometers outside Limbe, we were exhausted and eager to find a suitable place to camp on the beach. Going on the advice of others, we setup camp at Mile 6 Beach, a stretch of black sand beach situated on a small cove at the foot of fog shrouded Mount Cameroon. It was a picturesque spot, only slightly spoiled by the brightly lit oil refinery just to the south and an endless processional of oil tankers off shore.

The following day was part R&R, part admin day. In between cleaning the mud out of our tent, truck and clothes, we hit the beach for a dip in Atlantic’s calm waters. I’d dreamt of taking a swim every day while we were digging out of the mud in the hot and sticky rainforest. The water was calm and the temperature just right. It was a delightful way to unwind and rejuvenate our worn out bodies.

 
 
 
 
  Yaounde - November 20, 2006
(Sheri Writes) This morning we packed up our beachside camp and departed for Yaounde. Along the way we stopped to see the lava flows created by Mount Cameroon’s eruption before heading on to Douala, where we stopped for lunch. We were now in French speaking Cameroon and the badly potholed dirt roads we’d come accustomed to gave way to smooth tar. Traveling on tarred roads, we made good time and arrived in Yaounde around 5pm.

On the way into town we got lucky and spotted the Toyota dealership. Eager to fix our broken gearbox, we stopped to have a quick chat with the service supervisor. A well-composed gentleman, dressed in a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard, he seemed more like an attending physician making rounds than a mechanic. After providing a brief overview of Betty’s myriad woes, the supervisor scheduled us for an appointment the following day.

By the time we left Toyota it was dark, which made finding our way to the Protestant Mission a little more challenging. Navigating by waypoint, we weaved our way through heavy traffic, slowly honing in on our target. Along the way, our progress was further delayed by the local police who stopped us to troll for bribes. We eventually talked our way out of it and not long after, found the mission tucked away atop a hill overlooking the city.

Located in a stately (but tired) old home surrounded by a well manicured lawn, the mission seemed to be a pleasant oasis fromYaounde’s hectic streets and the mission’s caretaker invited us to camp on the lawn. It seemed like a good setup that only came with one obvious catch. The caretaker locked the doors at 10pm and our only toilet was a very smelly hole outside. After getting settled, the four of us walked into town to grab some dinner and do a little exploring.

 
     
  Yaounde - November 21, 2006
(Sheri Writes) Over the past year, we’ve slept through some trying nights – woken up repeatedly by calls to prayer, donkeys, dogs, roosters, goats, villagers, gunshots, tom tom drums, singing, honking horns, jackals, and even a marauding band of warthogs. Nothing however, was quite like last night. First there was the pack of barking dogs that decided to tear each other to shreds. Then there was the incessant squawking of a particularly annoying bird. And finally there was the crazy man who wondered onto the mission’s grounds around 3am and started to sing and later yell at the top of his lungs. Unfortunately, what he lacked in sanity, he made up for in vocal stamina as he managed to keep singing and yelling until the sun finally came up, at which point, we climbed out of bed exhausted, and I’m guessing he went to sleep. It was one of those nights that can best be described as miserable.

With much to do, the four of us divided into two groups. While Eric and Jim headed for Toyota to sort the trucks, Sharikay and I went in search of visas. Our first stop was the Gabon Embassy, where we filled out our applications and handed over 70,000 CFA ($140), 30,000 of which was loaned to me by the friendly receptionist, and were told to return in three days to pick up our visas. Eager, to get them sooner, we pushed the consul for a faster turn and she eventually agreed to have them back to us in three hours. Perfect!

With three hours to burn, our next stop was the US Embassy where we hoped to get some ideas on where four grubby Americans, fresh out of the bush, might be able to spend Thanksgiving. The embassy itself was amazing and when we stepped inside the sprawling compound, it was like stepping into another world. A very American world, surrounded by a well manicured lawn overlooking a golf course. Inside we found everything we’d forgotten existed including fancy office furniture, A/C, and automatic flush toilets (a real luxury in a place where flushing usually means dipping a bucket in a barrel full of water and then dumping it in the toilet). It was a tiny taste of home at a time when home seemed pretty far away.

Inside we were greeted by Katie, a friendly consular official on her first embassy tour. We told her our story in hopes that she might have pity on our four very pathetic souls and invite us over for Thanksgiving. No such luck! Other than a Thanksgiving party on the 22nd, there wasn’t anything going on for the holidays. Everyone at the embassy was spending time with their families and consequently, it looked like we would be spending our Thanksgiving with a pack of barking dogs, a squawking bird and a crazy man!

Dejected, it was back to the Gabon Embassy to pick up our visas before returning to the mission to meet up with Jim and Eric. Unfortunately, getting back into the embassy proved difficult as the guard refused to open the door because I was wearing a pair of Montrails trail shoes (the same pair I was wearing this morning). The standoff outside the gate continued until we were finally able to solicit the aid of another consular official we’d met earlier who agreed to make an exception so that we could pick up our visas.

Back at the mission we met up with Jim and Eric, who looked exhausted after a long, frustrating day at Toyota. Apparently, in eight hours, the mechanic only managed to change our brake pads and hadn’t even touched our gearbox. Moreover, they’d accomplished about as much on Eric’s truck, only they’d managed to somehow disconnect the alternator in the process so that now it wasn’t charging properly. It was far from ideal, and what was worse was that they’ll have to go back tomorrow for round two. In the meantime, we all agreed that food and drink was the best way to heal our wounds and so we all headed around the corner for a little Castel and Chinese. Just what the doctor ordered!

 
     
  Yaounde - November 22, 2006
(Jim Writes) It was another early start this morning.... really early, after being kept up for the second straight night by our nocturnal neighbors. While Sheri and Sharikay were at the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) embassy applying for visas, Eric and I spent a second straight day at Toyota, watching Betty’s gearbox being pulled apart. Shortly before closing, the service supervisor called us into the service bay to explain what was wrong with the gearbox. Betty was in a terrible state. Suspended on jack stands, with her transfer case strewn about in a million pieces on a nearby table and a gaping hole in the center console where the shift levers used to be. It was a painful sight that I’d liken to waking up in the middle of your own open-heart surgery. Worse however, was the diagnosis, which the supervisor delivered in a matter of fact way that lacked in bedside manner. In short, the teeth on the high gear were slightly worn, which was causing the transfer box to slip out of gear. To fix the problem, all the gear (all the gears actually) would need to be replaced.

Had we been in the developed world, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Unfortunately, Yaounde was far from developed and subsequently the needed parts were far from available. Moreover, the service supervisor didn’t seem to care about helping us find them. All he told us was that the parts weren’t available (not in Yaounde, or Douala, or anywhere else in Cameroon) and they’d have to be ordered, which would take a minimum of 25 days (that’s African for indefinitely). After delivering the message, he gave me an unconcerned look and said, “Let me know what you want to do” and then he walked off.

With Betty now torn apart and our Cameroon visas due to expire in two weeks, this wasn’t an ideal situation. Needing a bit of time to sort out a solution, I grabbed some clothes out of the truck, got a list of the part numbers, and told the service supervisor I’d call him later to discuss further.

Back at the mission, we discussed our options. There weren’t many. Ordering the parts from the local Toyota dealership seemed out of the question as our visas would run out long before the parts arrived. That left either a.) Having the parts shipped from Europe or b.) Having the gearbox reassembled in hopes that it might still work and we could get to Gabon where we could try to get the needed parts.

Tired and frustrated, Sheri and I decided we’d need a night to sleep on it before deciding what to do. With Betty laid up at Toyota, “sleeping on it” meant pitching Eric’s ground tent and sleeping on the ground. Not a big deal, were it not for the marauding pack of dogs that promised to rip us to shreds in the middle of the night.

 
 
 
 
  Yaounde - November 23, 2006
(Jim Writes) Thanksgiving Day. This morning we got up, more tired than when we’d gone to bed. Last night was another test of patience as we endured the sounds of canine warfare and the crazy man’s late night rendition of “I’m a Bloody Loon. Won’t Someone Please Shoot Me!” As everyone scurried about, stowing away the tents and getting ready to face the day, we discussed our plan. It was Thanksgiving and we all agreed that it would be nice to find somewhere special to have Thanksgiving dinner. Before celebrating however, we had some pressing business that needed to be attended to. Most importantly, we still needed to sort out what to do about our gearbox and we needed our passports back from the DRC Embassy. In order to be efficient, we once again decided to divide and conquer. Sheri and Sharikay would head to the DRC Embassy to pickup our visas. Afterwards, they’d seek out a suitable restaurant to have Thanksgiving dinner. Meanwhile, Eric and I would go in search of an internet connection and phone so that I could sort out what to do about the truck.

While we were off searching for the internet, Sheri and Sharikay were receiving a lesson in African politics at the DRC Embassy. (Sheri Writes) Up to this point, with the exception of Nigeria, we’d had very little trouble getting visas. Today was different. When we arrived at 10am, the time we were instructed by the embassy to return and pickup our visas, the receptionist informed us that they were not ready yet and that we should have a seat. An hour later we were still waiting. No visas. Curious to know what was going on, we asked the receptionist for an update. The receptionist responded that our visas wouldn’t be ready today. Apparently, we’d been waiting for nothing. As it turned out, the chief, who was the only person authorized to sign our visas, wasn’t at the embassy. In fact, he wasn’t even in Yaounde. He was at a convention in Douala and, as we later learned, wasn’t scheduled back until Friday. This was irritating to say the least. Instead of providing us with this information yesterday, they’d taken our 90,000 CFA and our passports and had told us to return the following day to pick up our visas. And when we’d returned, they’d told us to sit and wait, indefinitely! Now, our money had been deposited, our passports were being held hostage and it was all we could do to get reliable information on what was going on.

Over the next two hours, Sharikay and I worked in tandem to sort out what was going on and force some progress. All information indicated that the earliest we’d get our passports back was the following Monday. Not acceptable. Without passports we were stuck in Yaounde and more susceptible to police bribe attempts, as the law states you have to have your passport on you at all times. We continued to push, until finally one of the receptionist’s contracted a spontaneous virus that sent her running for the toilet and the other simply vanished. We were now very annoyed!

With the receptionists gone, we searched for anyone we could find that looked semi official. Eventually, we found two men that looked the part and we pled our case, demanding either our visas or passports and cash back so that we could get our visas in Libreville. No luck. The money was already in the bank and, no surprise, they weren’t willing to cough up any cash.

Now furious, we continued to argue our case until, just short of contacting the U.S. Embassy, they agreed to return our passports on Friday morning at 9am. Skeptical, it seemed to be the best we could do and so we agreed to return at 9am the following day to collect out passports and visas. It wasn’t what we’d come for but at least we were better off than when we’d arrived.

(Jim Writes) Having come up short on the visas, Sheri and Sharikay departed the DRC Embassy to search for a place to celebrate Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, back at the internet cafe, I was researching potential solutions to our gearbox problem. As I saw it, there were only two options:

Option 1: Order the parts from England and have them shipped to Yaounde

Option 2: Contact Toyota Gabon to see if they could get the parts. If so, put the old gearbox back together and, if it still worked, head for Libreville to have the work done there.

To sort out an answer, I contacted Matt Savage to get his opinion. After giving Matt and update on our situation, he strongly urged us to fix the gearbox in Yaounde rather than heading to Libreville. His argument was simple. The block of wood had gotten us to Yaounde but it was a temporary fix. Now that the gearbox had been dismantled, it may or may not work again when reassembled. Furthermore, even if it did, who knows how much longer it would hold. It was sound advice as it would eliminate the risk of breakdown and save us the cost of having the gearbox pulled apart again in Libreville. On the flip side however, there were some drawbacks. For starters, our truck was stranded at Toyota and inside was everything we owned and the thought of leaving it there for a week or more was concerning. Moreover, the thought of being stuck in Yaounde waiting for parts to arrive from England was unappealing to say the least. Many more nights camping at the mission and we’d be on trial for murder! Time was of the essence however, and I quickly contacted Carl at Milner Off Road in Matlock, to see if he could ship us the needed parts. Fortunately, he could.

Around mid afternoon, Sheri and Sharikay returned from running errands and we all sat at a little roadside bar to discuss our options. As unappealing as it was, everyone agreed that Matt’s suggestion was the best option. Reluctantly, Sheri and I decided to proceed with ordering the parts from England. That meant that we’d be stuck in Yaounde for another nine days waiting for them to arrive. On the positive side, we’d made progress and had what appeared to be a workable solution to our problem. On the negative side, we’d be stuck in Yaounde and wouldn’t be able to see any more of Cameroon before our visas expired.

Our sulking didn’t last long however, as Sharikay and Eric, in the spirit of the holiday, gave us quite a Thanksgiving gift. Feeling our pain, they invited us to join them in their truck for a little side trip through the Ring Road and Kribi. It was a generous offer and one that we very much appreciated as it would allow us to get our mind off of our truck until the parts arrived.

Uplifted by their generosity, we all shifted our attention to Thanksgiving dinner. Thanks to Sheri and Sharikay’s research, we had one good option available. The Hilton. It was the nicest hotel in town and they had a wonderful restaurant that was calling our name. Eager to give thanks for, among other things, no longer being in Nigeria and no longer being stuck in Ekok we returned to the mission to put on our best clothes and head for dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner at the Hilton turned out to be as close to perfect as you can get in Yaounde – many thousands of miles away from your home, friends, and family. The special on the menu was turkey with stuffing and it was wonderful. The four of us had an excellent Thanksgiving together and we all agreed that, current troubles aside, we had a lot of reasons to give thanks!

 
     
  The Ring Road - November 24-27, 2006
(Jim Writes) Today our objective was to finalize details for the parts shipment, pickup our DRC visas, and if all went well, depart for the Ring Road. While Eric and I headed for Toyota to inform the service supervisor of our plans and reorganize our trucks for our upcoming road trip, Sheri and Sharikay headed back to the DRC Embassy to pickup our visas.

(Sheri Writes) We arrived at the DRC Embassy promptly at 9am. Inside we were met by the same two receptionists who instructed us to have a seat in the waiting room and someone would be with us in 30 minutes. An hour later, with our blood pressure starting to rise, we asked for an update. The receptionist instructed us to wait 30 more minutes. Not eager to spend another day waiting for nothing, we demanded to know what was going on. They ignored us. We pressed further, which only seemed to agitate them more. With tension building on both sides, Sharikay tried to remind them that we needed our passports ASAP so that we could leave Yaounde. In mid sentence, one of the receptionists cut her off. In response, Sharikay unloaded a “Shush!” that would have made Austin Powers proud. The verbal volley that followed was less than cordial and ended with the receptionists cutting off all communication with us.

So far we’d burned over an hour waiting in vain for our passports and had managed to progress - backwards. Needing a different strategy, we sought out the two semi official looking men that we had consulted yesterday. When we found them, they informed us that our visas weren’t at the embassy. They were in Douala with the chief. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. The story just kept getting worse. After another hour had passed as we struggled to figure out what was going on, a man came over and instructed us to come with him in a taxi so that we could collect our passports. By this point, we were completely confused. One minute we’re told our passports are in Douala, the next we’re going in search of them in a taxi. We had no idea what was going on but jumped in the taxi anyway in hopes it would carry us closer to our documents. A short time later we arrived at a bus depot. There we met a woman who handed us a manila envelope. Inside were our passports.

Nobody ever explained exactly what had happened. From what we could deduct, we’d made such a stink the previous day that the embassy had sent our passports via courier to Douala and back so that the chief could sign them. I wasn’t sure if I was more excited about getting our passports back or horrified that they’d traveled all over Cameroon via public transport. Regardless, we finally had them back and we were free to travel again.

With passports in hand, we joined Jim and Eric at Toyota. By the time we arrived, they’d already brought the service supervisor up to speed and were in the process of reorganizing the trucks in preparation for our trip to the Ring Road and Kribi. Our primary objective was to secure all of our belongings, as best we could, and get out the items we’d need over the next several days. Complicating our efforts was the fact that Toyota insisted on leaving Betty unlocked with the keys in the door. It’s bad enough leaving your loaded truck in the service bay of a third world garage, much less with the doors wide open and the keys hanging out. As a work around, we decided to move all of our most valuable stuff to Eric’s truck and move what was left to our cargo area, which we could secure with cable locks. It wasn’t bullet proof, but it went a long way towards reducing the risk of theft.

Alas, we were packed and after a couple of quick stops for fuel and food, we were on our way. For the next few days, Tale of Two Travelers would be a party of four. By night fall, we’d made it to the small town of Mekenene, a couple hundred kilometers north of Yaounde. There we found a nice hotel with a friendly manager who wouldn’t allow us to camp but offered to let us cook in a large room out back. After doing the typical shuffle through a handful of rooms with a broken this or busted that, we finally found a suitable room where we turned in for the night. Exhausted, we were asleep before our heads hardly touched the pillow. And we managed to stay asleep until 3am when we were awoken by a blaring bus horn just outside our window. It was a horrible noise that possibly could have awoken someone in a coma and once it started it never let up. From 3-6am the horn let out a loud burst every few minutes. It was maddening. Worse than the barking dogs and the squawking bird, and the crazy singing man, and the calls the prayer, and the howling jackels, and I think every other nocturnal annoyance combined. By 4:30am I was on the verge of going insane. Unable to take it any longer, I slung open the window and began screaming at the top of my lungs for them to stop. They didn’t, and we didn’t get any sleep until the honking stopped and the roosters began to crow.

(Sheri Writes) The next two days were spent exploring the southern portion of the Ring Road, a 367 km circular track through beautiful countryside and traditional kingdoms. A very relaxing and peaceful setting, it provided a much-needed reprieve from our vehicle woes. From Mekenene our route took us to Bafoussam and then on to Bafut, where we stopped at a catholic mission which allowed us to camp on their lawn. It was a wonderful visit made even more memorable by the warm hospitality we received from a sister, who invited us in for citronella tea and fresh homemade banana bread.

From Bafut, we continued east, stopping briefly at the fon’s palace, before slowly working our way through beautiful countryside towards Foumban. Along the way, we found a quiet bush camp, just off the main dirt road, where we camped for the night. The next morning we were going about our usual morning routine when three men from a nearby village wondered into camp. As they watched us going about our daily chores, Eric decided to strip butt naked, in plain view of all, and take a bottle bath. While this horrified me, it did nothing to dissuade our guests, who continued to watch us like a Sundance premier.

In Foumban, we spent the morning visiting the sultan’s palace. There we got to witness an interesting collection of tribal artifacts, including furniture and jewelry made from human bones. From the Palais Royal, we ventured into the market and then on to the artisans section. Along the way, Jim put in a call on the sat phone to Carl at Milner Off Road to check the status of our parts shipment. Fortunately, the shipment had already made it from Toyota to Carl and was on its way to Yaounde. Relief! Everything was running ahead of schedule and the shipment was due to arrive at Toyota by Thursday (Nov. 30) or Friday (Dec. 1) at the latest.

After lunch, we all agreed that we’d seen enough of Foumban and we decided to head back to Yaounde to check in on the truck before continuing south to Kribi for a couple of days on the beach.

On the way back we stopped in Bafoussam for the night. There we met two Frenchmen on a two-year expedition in which their goal was to climb the highest peak in every country in Africa. Chatting over beers, we mentioned our gearbox problems and told them that we’d ordered parts from England and would almost certainly need to get visa extensions in order to receive the parts and make the necessary repairs. As it turned out, they’d already looked into visa extensions and they told us that Cameroon no longer issues them. Celian, the expedition’s leader, went on to explain that our only option would be to apply for a seven day exit visa. This info came as a bit of a surprise as our Lonely Planet guide stated that you could easily apply for a 30-day extension in Yaounde. Now concerned that we’d have little to no margin of safety should our shipment be delayed, we quickly revised our plans to include a trip to the immigrations office upon our return to Yaounde.

 
 
 
 
  Yaounde - November 28, 2006
(Jim Writes) Back in Yaounde, we went in search of the office responsible for granting visa extensions. Our first stop was the headquarters of the National Gendarmaire. No luck. They didn’t handle visas. The Gendarmaire directed us across town to the immigrations office. They couldn’t help us either. Next it was on to the Police. Another dead end. Finally, we were directed to the Police des Frontiers . This turned out to be the right place. Unfortunately, they expressed little sympathy for our situation and told us that they don’t issue visa extensions. Basically, we only had two options. We could apply for the seven-day exit visa Celian mentioned or we could write a letter to the chief explaining our situation and request a 30-day extension. The problem with the second option was that the application cost 100,000 CFA ($200) and would very likely be rejected. Perhaps the only good thing to come of it was that the officer suggested that we wait and apply for the seven-day exit visa on Monday, December 3, since their office was closed on December 2nd, the date our visas expired. At least this would give us an extra day, making the seven-day visa effectively good for eight days. Not sure what to do, we decided to draft a letter to the chief and have our good friend, Chadi, back in Washington translate it into French. That way we’d be prepared to go down either path come Monday.

Afterwards, we returned to the Protestant Mission where we endured another night of barking, squawking, and singing. It was miserable and we vowed that, come hell or high water, it would be our last night camping there.

 
     
  Kribi - November 29-30, 2006
(Jim Writes) With our parts not scheduled to arrive until the end of the week, we left for Kribi for a couple nights of camping on the beach. Similar to our little side trip to the Ring Road, Kribi’s tranquil beaches provided a much-needed distraction and allowed us to see another very beautiful area of Cameroon.

In Kribi we setup camp at Auberge Tara Plage, a quaint little hideaway tucked away on a secluded beach surrounded by tropical rainforest. It was a relaxing retreat in which we passed a couple of days swimming, reading, exploring the Chutes de Lobe, and discussing what to do about our visas.

On Thursday afternoon, in the middle of a cutthroat game of Backpacker, we received a pleasant surprise when Martin and Christine’s Land Cruiser showed up at the Auberge. It was an unexpected reunion in which we spent the evening drinking cheap box wine and trading war stories.

During the evening’s festivities, I gave Martin an update on our gearbox problems and told him that we’d ordered the parts from England. Martin’s response gave cause for concern. An Africa overland veteran many times over, Martin had dealt with similar situations in the past and he expressed his doubts that our shipment would arrive, much less clear customs. Martin went on to suggest that we start looking into alternate options including sourcing a used transfer box in Yaounde. Ugh!

By the time the wine boxes were empty, we all were tanked. Fortunately, our tent was only a few meters away, a couple meters too far for Martin who passed out in the front seat of his truck.

 
 
 
 
  Yaounde - December 1, 2006
(Jim Writes) This morning we departed Kribi for Yaounde. We were headed back to deal with our gearbox. Sharikay and Eric were headed back because, like us, their visas expired on Sunday and instead of seeking a seven-day extension, they were planning to leave Cameroon tomorrow for Gabon.

Back in Yaounde, we headed for Toyota expecting our parts to be waiting on us. They weren’t. The service supervisor was away for training and nobody else had heard anything about our shipment. Not a great start. Before leaving Toyota, we went into the service bay to check on Betty and move our stuff from Eric’s truck back to ours and vice versa. It was a tangible reminder that, come tomorrow morning, Sharikay and Eric would be gone and we’d be on our own to deal with our broken truck.

From Toyota, we checked into the El Panaden hotel, unwilling to endure another sleepless night at the mission, and then headed for the internet to check on the status of our shipment. Carl had emailed me the tracking number and when I looked it up I realized he’d shipped the package via TNT, not DHL as I’d suggested. I entered the tracking number on TNT’s website. The last update, which was over 24 hours old, listed the shipment as being delayed at the airport in Paris. A little concerned by our express shipment’s lack of progress, I searched TNT’s website for their address and phone number in Yaounde. The website listed a number but no address and when I called the number nobody answered. The phone just rang and rang.

Eager for answers, I called TNT’s UK number directly. One the other end of the phone was a friendly customer service agent that looked up our shipment and said it was delayed due to a weight restriction and that our parts would be on the next flight out. This wasn’t ideal but at least it would arrive in Yaounde tomorrow. Now a little behind scheduled, I tried to get some additional information out of him in preparation for our package’s arrival. I asked him where the TNT office was in Yaounde. He did a quick search and said there wasn’t one. I asked for a contact number. He searched again, but could only find the same number I’d already called. Fearful I wasn’t going to get very far with TNT in Cameroon, I asked the agent about customs clearing procedures. After another search, he came back on the line and said that he had no idea what the procedures were but offered to assign a special services team to help us sort it out once the package arrived.

After hanging up the phone, Sheri and I reflected on what we’d learned during the past hour. Our package was delayed. My search on TNT’s website had produced information that was over 24 hours. TNT had no local offices in Cameroon and their UK customer service desk seemed friendly but short on information. These weren’t the answers I was hoping to get. It wasn’t even the shipping company I wanted to use. We’d seen DHL trucks zipping all over Yaounde and they had an office directly across from our hotel. Meanwhile, our shipment, a very important shipment, was in the hands of a shipping company that was as absent in Cameroon as our package. Hopefully, our parts will be on the flight later tonight as the agent said they would. Only time will tell.

 
     
  Yaounde - December 2, 2006
(Jim Writes) We woke up this morning at 6:30am, eager to confirm that our parts had made the evening flight out of Paris. When the internet cafe opened at 7am, I was waiting by the door. Inside, I looked onto TNT’s website and entered our tracking number. The status of our package was unchanged. The last update was now 48 hours old and still listed our package as delayed in Paris.

Frustrated, I returned to our hotel room to update Sheri. As we sat on the bed discussing next steps, we started to grow increasingly concerned. In a couple of hours, Eric and Sharikay would be gone and so would our safety net. Our visas expired tomorrow and realistically, all we could count on was a seven day extension. With the clock ticking, our parts were going nowhere fast, stuck in Paris for three days and counting. Moreover, our repeated attempts to contact TNT’s Cameroon number came up empty and nobody at TNT UK could tell us where our shipment would arrive in Cameroon or what we needed to do to get it through customs.

In an effort to avoid bigger problems down the road, I put together a quick decision tree to better understand the potential outcomes associated with our shipment being delayed and develop an appropriate contingency plan. Here’s a brief summary...

Assuming we could only get a seven day exit visa and we delayed getting it by a couple of days, the latest we’d have to be out of the country would be Tuesday, December 12. That meant that, at the very latest, the parts would have to clear customs by Friday, December 8 so that Toyota could install them on Monday the 11th. If the parts didn’t arrive by Friday, we’d need a contingency. Here were our options:

Option 1 (Used Parts): Find and install used parts. The pro to this idea was that all the legwork could be done while waiting for the parts shipment to arrive. The challenge however was finding exactly the parts we needed in Yaounde, which meant this was far from a guaranteed backup.

Option 2 (New Visas): Get a new visa. To do this we’d have to get to one of the countries that borders Cameroon (i.e. Nigeria, CAR, Gabon, Equitorial Guinnea, Chad). This was a bit easier said than done. Without our truck, we’d have to either fly or take public transport. A quick check of flight schedules showed that there was very limited (often once or twice weekly) service through Douala to the neighboring capitals and it promised to be a very expensive option. Libreville seemed to be the best option for public transport but would take approximately two weeks round trip to get everything sorted.

Option 3 (Reinstall Broken Transfer Case): Reinstall the broken transfer box, replace the wooden block and head for Libreville. Without Eric’s truck to offer a tow, this was a scary option given Matt’s strong warning. There was no guarantee the tranfer box would work when put back together or make it all the way to Libreville, nearly 1,000k away. I hated to think about the problems we’d endure if it failed in the middle of nowhere. After all, we couldn’t even get it fixed in Cameroon’s capital city.

Option 4 (Ship to South Africa): Our last resort, it wasn’t a desirable option but it needed to be considered. A quick check with the shipping companies showed that this was probably possible from Douala. How to get the truck to the port however would still need to be determined and we’d have to make arrangements to get out of the country as well. All in a weeks time.

Most of these options came loaded with all the third world hoops and hurdles that make all such tasks challenging in Africa. We hated the idea of shipping and the cost and further time delays associated with traveling to another country to get new visas wasn’t desirable either. On the other hand, sourcing used parts seemed like a reasonable backup, PROVIDED we could find the parts, and I was also open to reinstalling the old box and heading for Gabon, if we had another truck as backup. Fortunately, I’d contacted Celian via email yesterday, and he said they could help. Problem was that they wouldn’t be back from CAR until after our seven-day extension had expired.

A little stressed, I bounced these options off of Eric for feedback, Together we managed to poke a number of holes in each one. While there may not have been a clear-cut solution to our problem, I think our stress was more than apparent. Feeling our pain, Eric clearly wanted to help and ultimately offered to stay behind for a few more days so that his truck would be available to tow should the need arise. It was a generous offer that we appreciated immensely. In exchange, we offered to pay for their hotel and visa extensions as well as any expenses associated with a side trip back to Kribi or any other part of Cameroon.

With some of our stress now reduced, we spent the balance of the day working our plan. We called TNT repeatedly trying to get updates on our shipment. There were none. We started our hunt for used parts. We emailed Toyota Gabon to see if they could get the parts we needed. We researched shipping options (just to keep the option open). After a long day, we’d made good progress. If only our package had done the same.

That night we took Sharikay and Eric out for Chinese to say thank you for staying behind. It was an excellent dinner in which we were joined by two Brits on Yamaha 650’s also fighting their way south towards Cape Town. Clearly tired and mentally spent after too many miles on too many bad roads, they seemed close to throwing in the towel (and ultimately, they emailed us from Congo to say that they had). Talking with them helped to keep everything in perspective. For all the stresses we were currently faced with, we never considered turning back. We were too in love with the adventure that is Africa!

 
     
  Yaounde - December 3, 2006
(Jim Writes) Woke up this morning to another day in paradise. With our visas now expired and everything closed, there was only so much we could do to advance our cause. Another trip to the internet revealed no change in the status of our shipment. Our parts were still sitting in Paris. UGH! So much for express shipping!

With our visas now expired, we spent the day pretty close to the hotel not wanting to tempt a cop into a bribe. Despite our efforts however, we still did’t make it through the day unscathed. On the way back from grabbing dinner, our taxi was stopped by a police roadblock a few blocks short of our hotel. The police at the roadblock demanded our passports, which we said we didn’t have with us. Of course this was a big problem, which kicked off a big discussion. In a bluff, I invited them to accompany us to our hotel to get them. Unfortunately, one of them called our bluff and walked with us all the way to the hotel. At the door, I knew he wasn’t going to back down and I knew that, despite the fact that the officer at the Police des Frontiers had told us we wouldn’t be hassled, we were only in for more hassle once he figured out our visas were expired. So I dashed him something small and bid him goodnight. I hated doing it but I really didn’t want to spend the next couple of hours dealing with it.

 
     
  Yaounde - December 4, 2006
(Jim Writes) After a quick trip to the patisserie, we headed for the internet cafe for our daily a.m. update. Again, the TNT website showed no change. Our parts were still sitting in Paris. With each passing day, time was running out and the total lack of progress was becoming very frustrating. We immediately called TNT UK hoping to get more information. This time, the agent on the other end of the phone was anything but helpful. A typical, “It’s not my problem” service rep that clearly didn’t appreciate the urgency of our situation and was quick to pass the buck. “You need to talk to Sue. She’s handling your shipment.” Unfortunately, Sue wasn’t available. We’d have to call back. When I finally spoke with Sue, she had very little information to share. The gist of our multiple conversations was that the package hadn’t left Paris yet. It was scheduled to depart tomorrow. She had no idea where the package would enter Cameroon, much less what the process was for getting it through customs “That’s something you need to talk to the TNT representatives in Cameroon about.” Not surprisingly, she couldn’t produce any contact information for TNT in Cameroon! Instead, she forwarded me to a TNT sales rep in Paris, which was no help at all.

Nearing the end of my rope with TNT, I contacted Carl to ask for help. Carl didn’t have any information either but said he’d look into it. Later that afternoon, he communicated the same update I’d received from Sue. The package was supposed to depart Paris tomorrow.

Thoroughly frustrated with our shipment’s total lack of progress, we joined Sharikay and Eric at the headquarters for the Police des Frontieres to apply for our visa extensions. After reconfirming with the officer that it was highly unlikely we’d receive a 30-day extension, we submitted applications for seven-day exit visas (not wanting to pay a $200 application fee that would almost certainly yield nothing). A trip down the street to one of the many sidewalk copy vendors, an easy to fill out form, and 15,000 CFA and we were well on our way to getting another week in Cameroon. The officer said that we could come back tomorrow to pick them up.

The balance of our day was spent working on contingencies – searching for used parts and trying to organize backup parts in Gabon.

 
     
  Yaounde - December 5, 2006
(Jim Writes) Another day trapped in Yaounde. One day closer to being kicked out of Cameroon. We checked the website. No new updates. Our parts were still stuck in Paris. With no progress since last Thursday, we’d now given up hope that it would arrive in time. After my morning call to TNT got us nowhere, Sheri and I made the difficult decision to have TNT return the parts to Carl. We were convinced our shipment wasn’t going to make it out of Paris and it seemed like a better option to get the parts back to Milner. At least Milner could re-send them via DHL or forward them on to Gabon.

When I contacted Sue and requested that she pull the parts, she responded by saying that I wasn’t the sender and therefore couldn’t direct her to pull the shipment. Milner would have to make the call. A quick call to Carl and he’d take care of it. A few hours later and I got an email from Carl saying the shipment had just left Paris and couldn’t be pulled. I called Sue back again and asked for information on when and where the shipment was scheduled to arrive and how I could get it through customs. Again, she said I’d have to talk to TNT in Cameroon and once again, she couldn’t find anyone for me to contact.

We were furious, frustrated, and stressed at the same time. Nothing was going our way and TNT seemed to be our greatest obstacle. They’d sat on the package so long in Paris that we’d virtually run out of time to get the parts through customs and install them on the truck. Without anyone to contact about customs clearance, it seemed hopeless.

 
     
  Yaounde - December 6, 2006
(Jim Writes) A morning check of the tracking number showed that the parts were still in Paris. Ugh! Many calls to TNT got us nowhere. Nobody could explain exactly where the package was. All we knew for sure was that we couldn’t have it returned to England and it wasn’t in Cameroon. We’re going mad!!!!!!!!!!
 
     
  Yaounde - December 7, 2006
(Jim Writes) Getting absolutely nowhere with TNT, Eric and I decided to head over to Toyota to see if they’d heard anything. They hadn’t. There was no sign of our parts and the service folks were about as helpful as TNT. Just as we were leaving however, we met Moses, the fleet service manager for the US Embassy. Moses was everything that TNT and Toyota weren’t. As soon as he heard our story he offered to help any way he could. He’d never heard of TNT but said he’d see if he could find where their offices were located. In the meantime, he suggested we head for the freight building at the airport to see what we could find out there. We agreed to meet back at Toyota later that afternoon to touch base.

Unfortunately, our trip to the airport was another dead end. When we stepped out of Eric’s truck at the freight building we were met by a group of drunk vagrants who did everything possible to impede progress. Nevertheless, we found our way to the head customs agent who explained how the customs clearing process works. There was no sign of our package but at least we were one step closer to clearing it if and when it ever arrived.

Back at Toyota, we met up with Moses who said nobody had heard of TNT. No surprise. Sheri had now joined us as well and suggested we ask Moses about a used transfer case. I asked and Moses replied that he knew someone that might be able to help. A couple of calls later and he said he’d found one and it would be delivered to Toyota first thing tomorrow morning so that we could have a look. Eureka! It was the first break we’d had in several days! At least we had someone on our side.

 
     
  Yaounde - December 8, 2006
(Jim Writes) Friday. We were now down to the 11th hour. With only two business days left to either install a new transfer case or reinstall the old one, time was of the essence. Our plan was simple. If Moses’ friends showed up by 8:30am with a used transfer case, we’d install it. If they weren’t there by 9am, we’d proceed with reinstalling the broken parts and hope for the best.

At 8am, Eric, Sheri, and I caught a taxi to Toyota. We arrived shortly before 8:30am. Right on schedule. That’s when we hit our first snag. Before we got in the taxi, we’d negotiated a rate of 1,000 CFA (the same rate we always paid). As we got out of the taxi, I handed the driver 5,000 CFA, the smallest thing in my pocket. The driver handed 2,000 CFA. He was attempting to rip us off. Not in the mood, an argument insued and we refused to get out of the taxi. The argument continued for five minutes or so before the driver, not knowing exactly what to do drove off, with us still in the car. We demanded to go to the police. A bit confused he pulled into a nearby gas station, likely trying to figure out what to do next. Next he drove back to Toyota and disappeared inside, leaving us alone inside the car. Concerned about missing Moses’ friends, I decided to leave Eric and Sheri to sort out the taxi while I headed for the service department.

When I got to the service department there was nobody else there. As I sat waiting for Moses’ friends to arrive, I decided to run back out front to check on Sheri and Eric. When I got to the front of the building Sheri, Eric, and the taxi were gone. Back at the service department, I started to regret my hasty decision to leave Sheri with Eric in the taxi. This time of year, Taxi crime is rampent in Yaounded and it occured to me that Sheri and Eric had just driven off with a driver who could take them anywhere he pleased. I had that terrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that one gets when they start to worry about someone they love. I very much wished I hadn’t gotten out of the taxi.

After what seemed like an eternity (in reality it was less than 30 minutes), Sheri and Eric showed up at the service department. Turns out they’d taken the driver to the police and the police had forced him to return our money. A small victory for the traveler.

Somewhere along the way, I broke my drop-dead time, as I continued to sit waiting for Moses’ friend. By mid morning however I was growing increasingly concerned that he was a no show. At 10am I checked with Ashu, the mechanic in charge of reinstalling our gearbox, to see if he’d heard anything from Moses’ friends. He said that he hadn’t. I asked him if he would loan me his mobile phone so that I could call Moses. When I called Moses to ask about his friends, he told me that they’d stopped by Toyota at 8:30 and had met with Ashu so that they could see our truck to make sure they had the right box before they brought it over. According to Moses they did and they were due back at Toyota anytime to show it to us.

Just as the horn sounded signaling Toyota’s two-hour lunch break, Moses’ friends returned carrying the used transfer case. On the way to lunch Ashu and Toyota’s transmission specialist came out to have a look. According to the transmission specialist, it wasn’t exactly the right part. Very close, but something was off. After a brief discussion, Moses’ friends said that they had a different one that was almost certainly the right one and they said they’d go back and get it. With the clock still ticking, they headed off again. It was already too late to reinstall our broken box so we decided to wait and see what they came back with.

Several hours pasted and they still hadn’t returned. We were so frustrated because we were once again dead in the water and time was running out. Then another potential break. The receptionist told me that she’d received a call from someone about our parts. Apparently they’d arrived in Douala. That’s all she knew.

With so little time left, we kicked into high gear as we tried to sort out what to do next. Unfortunately, getting Toyota to help was next to impossible. The service rep at the front desk just ignored our requests for help, disappearing into the service bay. It was almost the close of business on a Friday and our parts were so close yet still so very far away.

Getting nowhere, I went to a call box on the street and tried to call the number the receptionist gave me. There was a man on the other end, but I could hardly hear him over all of the street noise so I asked him to call me back at Toyota in five minutes. He called before I was able to get back inside the building and the service rep answered. I watched as they carried on a conversation and then the service manager hung up the phone and disappeared again with out saying a word. When I finally was able to grab him, all he said was that our parts were in Douala so they wouldn’t be able to help us install them. Damn-it! Nobody is willing to help us!!

Just as we were trying to sort out what to do Moses called to see if the used transfer box had arrived yet. I told him it hadn’t but that our parts had. All we needed to do now was get them through customs and to Yaounde. Moses said he’d call the number himself and see if he could sort something out. The problem was that it was the end of business on a Friday. While Moses worked on getting the parts, I worked with Ashu to arrange for Toyota to come in and install the parts over the weekend. Ashu agreed to come in if we needed him. Progress!

By close of business, the used parts hadn’t turned up and Moses was still trying to figure out a way to get our shipment out of customs and to Yaounde. At 7pm, I called Moses back to touch base. The good news was that he’d talked to customs and worked out how to get the parts clearned. The bad news was that they were now closed for the weekend. The earliest we could get them out of customs in Douala was Monday morning.

Eric and I talked about how we might possibly work it out. Monday was our drop-dead day for getting the truck back together, as we had to be out of Cameroon on Tuesday. Even if we were at the customs building when it opened Monday morning, there was no way to get the parts back to Yaounde and installed in time. We were so close, yet our nightmare just wouldn’t quite end.

 
     
  Yaounde - December 9-10, 2006
(Jim Writes) After thinking it over some more, I called Moses and left a message on his cell asking him to have his friends bring the other transfer case to Toyota at 7:45am on Monday morning. If they didn’t show up by 8am, we’d have no choice but to reinstall the broken box. There just wasn’t time left to get the new parts out of customs and get our truck put back together.
 
     
  Yaounde - December 11, 2006
(Jim Writes) D-Day. Tomorrow we have to be out of the country. This morning we showed up at Toyota promptly at 7:45am. Moses’ friends weren’t there (apparently, Moses never got my message). With no other option, we were forced to give the go ahead to reinstall the old box, which I’d arranged before I left on Friday. The service supervisor was back from training so I let him know what needed to be done. To which he gave me a smug look and said, “I’m sorry. It’s not possible for us to install your box today. We’re already booked solid”. I explained that I’d already worked this out on Friday and he just looked at me and said that he was sorry but it wasn’t possible. As you might imagine, I went ballistic and demanded that the box be reinstalled as we’d done everything in our power to make sure everyone at Toyota was aware that it needed to be installed today. He said that if I wanted it installed I’d have to talk to the service manager. The service manager was a Frenchman that we’d seen around many times but had never met. I introduced myself, explained our situation and fortunately, he understood and told the service supervisor to get it done ASAP. The superviser just stared at me and then walked off.

The rest of the day was spent waiting for our broken box to be reinstalled and praying that once it was it would still work. As we waited, we learned that Moses had called and left a message for us early in the day saying that he’d worked out a way to get our parts to us. Unfortunately, nobody at Toyota bothered to give us the message. Another example of the great conspiracy against us!

By mid afternoon, Ashu came to let me know that Betty was ready to go. Nervous, I climbed inside, refitted the block of wood and prayed for the best, as I slid the gears into first and gently pressed on the gas. Believe it or not, Betty rolled forward. The real test however was the steep hill just outside the Toyota parking lot. Before Toyota had taken Betty appart, we’d removed the block and without, it she didn’t make it 5 meters up the hill. Now who knew what would happen – block or no block.

At the bottom of the hill, I gave her some gas and she rolled forward, slowly climbing the hill. The box held in gear and we made it to the top! A massive sigh of relief!! Across the street I had a mechanic repair one of our tires, damaged on the “bad” road, and then setoff for the hotel. Betty was back on the road and we were forever free of CAMI Toyota. Now all we could do is pray that Betty would get us to Libreville almost 1,000 kilometers away.

After leaving Toyota, we made a quick trip to the internet to order the parts AGAIN. This time from Toyota Gabon. Already in the hole for over $1,500, it was a painful call to say the least. Another $1,000 down the drain. We had been in touch with the helpful parts department who said they would be able to order the parts from Japan and that they would be there in 14 days. All we could do was hope for the best—that we would get to Libreville without any problems and that once in Libreville, the parts shipment would go smoothly. Regardless, one way or another, either under our own power or towed by Eric, we were leaving Cameroon, a country that had been one long never ending challenge for us.