The Banyo Border

We had known for a long time that one of the most difficult and dangerous parts of our journey would be crossing from Nigeria into Cameroon. Since late 2017, the entire South West of Cameroon has been pretty much impassable due to the so called ‘Anglophone crisis’ or ‘Ambazonian war.’ The few travellers who have managed to cross the border here, have reported passing through ghost villages destroyed by government forces and narrowly avoiding shootouts with insurgents, not something we especially fancied. With a motorbike it is possible to skip most the most problematic parts of the region by taking a passenger ferry from Calabar, Nigeria to Limbe, Cameroon, but the Gulf of Guinea is notorious for pirate attacks and the boats are dangerously overloaded. Just the week before we arrived, a ferry had capsized, killing over 100 people (it was estimated that there were more than 200 passengers on board, the boat’s capacity was 75). That left us one option; we couldn’t through the South West of Cameroon, we couldn’t go around it, so we had to go over it. The only problem with this plan was that it meant entering Northern Nigeria, another area often considered ‘off limits’ due to ethnic and religious conflicts and it’s tendency to be, as I like to put it, a bit ‘kidnappy.’ It also meant doing a long and extremely difficult section of off road and several river crossings, in the middle of rainy season.  We were in other words, in the middle of a proverbial shit sandwich. 

The one thing we didn’t have to worry about was the weather. Perhaps sensing we had enough on our plates, the universe conspired to bring us blue skies, free from the grumblings of thunder and  lurking storm clouds that would begin to build around mid-day, growing gradually darker and more ominous, before finally unleashing a deluge upon us. Millions of droplets of rain, which would fall with the speed and force of ball bearings, ricocheting of every hard surface, until there was as much rain coming from the ground as from the sky. We were in the midst of rural Nigeria, riding past green, rolling hills and round mud huts with pointed thatched roofs.  As we approached each village, along the roadside there would be different brightly coloured stripes. For a moment I thought they were bizarre traffic markings, then I realised it was various grains, left to dry in the heat which radiated from the tarmac.  

We decided to make the most of the warm weather and stopped early for the day. We hadn’t been at our guesthouse for long when we had a visitor, we recognised him straight away as the soldier manning the checkpoint at the entrance to the village. He was dressed in army fatigues and had a machine gun slung casually over one shoulder. He told us we were very welcome in the village and after chatting for a while, asked us if we needed anything. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast (the only offering we had found on route was some very unappealing and slimy looking catfish), so we asked him if there was a restaurant nearby and he insisted on going to fetch us some food. He told us the price for chicken, plantain, jollof rice and sauce, it was a little on the expensive side but he assured us the portions were big and foolishly we agreed. He returned around 20 minutes later with a tiny morsel of chicken (little bigger than a nugget) and plain rice, there was no jollof or plantain and (of course) no change. To top it off, he demanded extra money to pay for his taxi. We argued for a bit, but in the end relented, deciding it was worth it to be left to eat in peace.  

Selfie stop

The lady who owned the guesthouse had been eyeing the solider suspiciously and as soon as he left she came over, she let out a long, low hiss “aishhhhh, that man is no good, you no can trust him.” We asked her the price our meal and calculated that we had paid the soldier around 3 x as much. Between the food and the taxi, we reckoned he had made about $10 off us. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you think that a labourer in Nigeria is lucky to get $1-$2 per day, its a tidy profit for 20 minutes work. That would have been the end of the matter, except that the officer decided to pay us another visit. Not satisfied with his earnings, he offered to go and by us some beer. When we made it clear we thought his “delivery charges” were a little bit on the steep side, he changed tack, pestering us unrelentingly to buy him a beer instead, as a “thanks.” We firmly, but politely told him no, but he was not giving up. 

Somewhat unusually, it was me who finally snapped. Like the storm clouds, since our arrival in Nigeria my frustration at the corrupt and predatory police force had evidently been building and it seemed the time had finally come to unload. Almost before I knew what was happening, I was on my feet, wagging my finger in the manner of an irritable school matron, “I just hope, Sir, that if you ever visit my country and you need some assistance, someone will treat you exactly as you have treated us.” The solider nodded enthusiastically, the meaning of my words clearly lost on him, “yes sister, I hope so too, now about that beer?” I tried a more direct approach, “Sir, you cheated us, we know the price of the food, we gave you three times that and now you come here asking us to buy you a beer?” “No, sister, I wouldn’t not do that, that is the price” and so on and so forth, until I found myself coming over all religious, loudly declaring “God knows the truth!” Warming to the theme I continued, “Does HE not say, that you should do a stranger no wrong?” I am not remotely religious, but knowing that most Nigerians are I thought this may cause him to feel a hint of remorse. Not so. “Yes sister, you are right, HE knows I did not cheat you….just give me one beer….” 

The first off road section, not far from Guroji

I find the angrier I get, the posher and more high pitched I become. I was by this point, apoplectic with rage. I have no idea why I said what I said next; I think that I was perhaps conscious of the fact that he was still a officer of the Nigerian army and also happened to be armed with a machine gun, so a certain decorum had to be maintained. In other words, I couldn’t tell him to F*** off so I said the next closest thing. Anyway, whatever the reason, what I said next, in my highest, poshest voice was, ‘Just go to bed, Sir! Go To Bed!’ Whilst pointing, for emphasis, in the direction he should be heading. There followed a stunned silence. Whether it was the shock of being shouted at by a woman, or whether there is something about being ordered off to bed that transports us all back to our childhoods, I do not know, but the middle aged army officer with the machine gun, responded in the manner of a petulant toddler ‘I can’t go to bed’ he mumbled ‘I’m still on duty…’ I didn’t miss a beat, ‘Well go and do you duty somewhere else!’ Suitably chastised, he sloped off into the darkness. A couple of second passed, before we all burst out laughing, realising that I had just (successfully) ordered a fully grown man armed with a machine gun off to bed. 

Our goal for the following day was to reach the town of Takum. We checked our route on ioverlander (an app we use) and the road looked like it had measles, full of ominous red warnings from other travellers about kidnappings and inter-ethnic riots en route. It can be difficult to gauge how seriously one should take these warnings, most of the information comes from the police, who use it to try and insist that tourists must pay huge sums for an armed escort, but we were none the less on high alert. The police were clearly worried about something as there was a checkpoint every 3km or so. Although perhaps not that worried; at one checkpoint a particularly short officer came running over to pull back the log on wheels that blocked the road, a second glance revealed he was around 8 years old. We looked over at the benches where the rest of the officers would normally be sat. There was not a single person over 10 years old. Had the kids stumbled across the checkpoint and decided to play at being soldiers? Were they ordered to cover whilst the grown ups went to a bar? Were they the army youth division? In Nigeria, all were a possibility. We had all but forgotten the threat of kidnapping when, on a particularly quiet stretch of road, we spotted an open bed truck roaring towards us. I just had time to register the 10 or so men, all clad in black balaclavas, holding machine guns aloft in the air, before it zoomed past us. It was difficult to imagine a non-nefarious explanation for the balaclavas (it was edging towards 35 degrees), but as they evidently weren’t interested in kidnapping us, I decided not to dwell on it.  

We set out from Takum early the next morning, intent on getting some serious kilometres under our belts. We were convinced we had found a handy shortcut, a road which ran right along the border of South West Cameroon. It was seriously muddy and potholed and locals armed with sticks had taken it upon themselves to set up checkpoints, where they demanded money for protection, but we estimated it would save us at least 6 hours of riding. We had made it about 30km when people started shouting at us to turn back. At first we were sure we had misunderstood what they were saying, but when 5 different people told us the same thing we finally believe them. Apparently the government had exploded a mountain in order to build a new road, but never got round to building the road. The only other route would take us into Ambazonian territory. Reluctantly we turned back. 

As we continued our journey through the North West, we came to understand just how diverse an area it is. The state of Taraba, is the most multi ethnic of all Nigerias states, with over 80 different tribes distributed amongst the major religions of Christianity and Islam. As we passed from one tiny village to the next, the inhabitants look strikingly different from one another; different skin tones, different face shapes, styles of dress, elaborate jewellery, tiny girls with brightly made up faces, men and women with intricate facial tattoos and multiple piercings.

The next day, was when the adventure really began. We set off from Serti, where we had spent the night in some run down huts, owned by the nearby national park. The road quickly climbed up into the mountains, with spectacular views and sharp hairpin bends and only the occasional boy herding goats for company.  We stopped at the town of Guroji, for an enormous plate of fried yams, topped with additional shavings of fried yams (we figured we needed the carbs for what was to come). From Guroji we had around 130km of remote and seriously tough off road track, until we made in to Banyo, the main town on the Cameroon side.

The first part of the route was a compacted dirt track, which cut through the hills like a vivid red scar. Every now and then we would hit sticky sections, where the mud was too thick to have been dried by the sun, but for the most part it was pretty easy going. The scenery was some of the most spectacular of our trip so far. Green rolling hills, stretching as far as the eye could see, cows grazing placidly in the distance, if it wasn’t for their extremely large pointed horns, we could have been in the West Country. As the day wore on, we climbed higher, the road grew gradually more rocky and the scenery more dramatic. For a time, a mist descended, so thick we could barely see a meter in front of us. Then we popped out of the clouds and saw our route laid out in front of us, a thin and wiggly red line, stretching far into the horizon.

The aftermath of our crash

The muddy sections grew worse and we passed an SUV abandoned in the sludgy mire. We made it through, only to hit a series of incredibly steep rocky tracks, strewn with enormous boulders. In the late afternoon, hungry and exhausted, we hit another section of compacted dirt. This time however, it was damp and as a result, was like driving on glass. Not realising this, Leon touched the front break and before either of us realised what was happening we had hit the ground. Hard. The engine guard took the bulk of the hit, bending under the force. Other than being slightly winded, both Leon and I were fine, though it would have been a different story without our bike gear as I had came down pretty hard on my elbow.  We continued on our way, with a great deal more trepidation. 

Finally we reached Mayo N’daga, where we decided to stop for the night. Within moments we had drawn a huge crowd. People were enormously friendly, one guy led us off to the villages only guesthouse, while others promised to keep a look out for Fab, who was some way behind us. The village itself was hugely colourful, from the dusty red streets and houses, to the painted blue and white striped mosque and the beautifully bright chadors (Islamic full length cloaks) worn by many women. The guesthouse turned out to be a few rooms out the back of a bar, but the rooms were clean enough (if you ignored the smell coming from the drop toilets – West Africa is the only place where I would pay extra not to have an en suite ) but at a cost of 1000 Naira (£2) we weren’t complaining. The owner, Jacinta, embodied everything I had come to love about Nigerians, warm, welcoming, quick to laugh and endlessly curious, she insisted on cooking us dinner, setting us up a makeshift dining table and chairs out of empty beer crates, refusing to charge us for food as we were all, by then, “her good friends.”

The next morning, I wanted to go and take some photos of the mosque and Jacinta offered to walk with me. On our way we crossed paths with a man whose face was covered with intricate tattoos. With Jacinta translating, I asked if I could take his photo and smiling shyly, he agreed. Afterwards I asked Jacinta why he had so many tattoos and she told me it was because he was a “Bodabe.” At the time I thought this must be the name of his tribe. Later, I looked up the word online and the only reference I could find was in an article about a series of brutal attacks by Fulani Herdsman against Mambilla farmers in the Taraba region. This article translated the word Bodabe, to mean Fulani mercenary killer. It was an unsettling feeling. I had wanted to take this man’s photograph as a reminder of the astonishing diversity of the people of Taraba state, something which, for me,  made it one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have ever been. But this photo suddenly told a different story about diversity. It told a much sadder story, about a place which is predominantly rural and poor, which has often been a flashpoint for inter-ethnic conflict between sedentary farmers and nomadic herdsman. It told the story of what can happen in multi-ethnic communities, when there is pressure on scant resources and when groups begin thinking “our” poverty is because of “them.” 

After saying our goodbyes, we set off from Mayo N’daga and promptly managed to get lost. Fab, luckily managed to find the right way, as our route took us over a series of rickety wooden bridges and narrow planks, which would have been impossible with a 4×4.

Finally we made it to the border of Nigeria. As we waited for Fab, a friendly (and slightly lonesome) guard invited us in for a cup of tea and slice of bread. Originally from a big city in North, he had been stationed at this tiny rural outpost for the past 8 months. Another officer was supposed to relieve him after 6 months, but so far no one had come. 

As we entered Cameroon, storm clouds started to gather. We followed an extremely steep and rocky road back down the mountains. The first of the three river crossings we traversed easily. We reached the tiny village where our passport were stamped, just in time for the downpour. We took shelter in the only restaurant, where we were served enormous plates of rice and kidney beans topped with some kind of sauce, consisting mostly of animal fat. This was the first time in the trip we had had beans (it would not be the last) but at that moment, they seemed positively exotic. 

Almost as soon as we left the village, the mud track we were following descended sharply, taking us down a steep and incredibly slippery hill. It was not a dignified descent by any means; Leon and Jim kept their feet on the floor, waddling, ungainly from side to side, but they made it down (I walked). From there, it flattened off, but became even muddier, a sludgy, gloopy mire, with enormous waterlogged trenches. I ran along side, pushing from behind when the wheels dug in. We made it through, only to find another extremely steep, twisty descent and at the bottom of that…a river. It was fast flowing and it looked deep. When it comes to crossing rivers you need to know a few things, how deep is it? Is there a shallower route across? What’s the rover bed made of? Are there any submerged obstacles? How easy is it to get up the bank on the other side?  The only way to work this out is to go for a paddle. Recce complete, Leon went first, he tried to power through at speed, but found himself digging in to the soft sand, in danger of toppling over and submerging the bike. Fab dived in and pushed him out. It was touch and go making it up the bank on the other side, he swerved wildly, struggling to get control of the bike, but at last he did, eventually reaching the top. The others followed suite (albeit with considerably less drama). The last of the 3 river crossings, seemed like a trickle in comparison and at last we found ourselves in Banyo.  

After such an adventure getting there, Banyo itself felt like an anticlimax. Nigeria is a hard act to follow and in comparison people seemed rude and unfriendly. It didn’t help that we had no money. There was no ATM in the town. We arrived just as the money changers were closing and despite our pleading, the rude and officious little man behind the counter refused to help us out, meaning we couldn’t even have a beer and some barbecued meat to celebrate! We strongly considered getting back on our bikes and driving the other way. 

It is perhaps unfair to judge Banyo based on our experience, the town is home to many refugees fleeing the Ambazonian conflict, so understandably most people have more pressing concerns than chatting to tourists. The following day, as we rode around the periphery of the South West region, it was easy to understand why the English speaking Ambazonians wanted their independence. Despite the area being rich in natural resources, the region has been left out of the development which has taken place elsewhere, there is no infrastructure, no tarmac roads, no banks, no public transport. The wealth is instead squandered by the ruling French speaking elites. The scenery was beautiful, but it barely registered. Exhausted and starving all we could think of was making it to the next big town, Foumban where we hoped we would find an ATM.  

Foumban, turned out to be the unexpected highlight of Cameroon. Along with a well stocked ATM, it had the best bbq in West Africa, delicious fried chicken, cooked with onions and peppers, served with freshly baked french bread and a fascinating royal palace and museum (shaped like a spider and serpent). I spent a great few hours learning about Ibrahim Njoya, the most famous of the Bamum kings (who died in 1933) who created his own writing system and calendar, had over 600 wives and wrote his own version of the Karma Sutra (sadly not available for purchase in the gift shop at the time of my visit). 

After Foumban we head South, I fly back to the UK for 2 week, for a family wedding, before we continue our journey to Gabon, one of the countries I have been most looking forward to!

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