another ‘Gateway Countries’ blog, this time I am heading to West Africa. Please note – WEST Africa. I haven’t been much to the rest of Africa, bar Ethiopia, and I’m sure as an introduction to the whole continent, there are easier countries to start with such as South Africa for example.
West Africa though is different, and probably contains the hardest travelling I’ve done in my life including some marathon journeys across borders, dealing with heat, malaria and other fun things. I came so close to choosing Ghana over Cameroon for this post, which is somewhat ironic because it was the first the West African nation I visited and I was swamped with culture shock almost immediately. I nearly went with Ghana nonetheless because the official language there is English. But hey, not everyone who reads my blog has English as a first language anyway, and the good thing about Cameroon is two European languages are common there.
True, French is on the whole more used than English, but in the North English is far more widely spoken. As you go central and south, well, it’s mostly French but you’d be able to get by, with a bit of luck, with just English.
I went to Cameroon in June 2011. Late June, early July, which worked out surprisingly well despite being in the rainy season. If you look at the Cameroon weather chart, you’ll see there are spots where it doesn’t rain so much, and then suddenly it’s bucketing down every day again. In fact, in over two weeks in Cameroon there was really only one day lost to rain, and outside that it seemed to rain at night or not at all. When it did rain, WOW is all can say. That was RAIN. But it also meant that despite being ever so close to the Equator, temperatures remained in the mid-twenties for the whole time I was there. Compare that to 35 degrees in Ghana with 100% (or near enough to) humidity and it makes things so much easier.
Transport is pretty easy in Cameroon, buses ply most routes and are as good as any of the buses going around Ghana or other West African countries. There are bush taxis too to the not quite so frequented places, if you feel like trying a journey in a taxi packed with as many people as they can get in there.
The capital Yaounde is hilly, spread out and pleasant, and that’s not something you can say about a lot of West Africa cities, let alone capitals. Compared to say Bamako in Mali, it’s highly favourable. Bamako appeared to me as just a sort of ‘splat!’ on the map. The hill country north of Yaounde is really pleasant, the people are friendly and laid back and it’s really interesting – did I mention that I met a local King? The Fon of Bali (that’s a small town in Cameroon) has a palace you can tour for a fee. The villages and around are pretty amazing too.
The thing that’s so great about Cameroon is that it feels like real, ‘jungle’ Africa, the place in children’s books. It’s so green and beautiful anywhere near the coast, with some nice beaches in the southern town of Kribi, that despite lodgings of questionable quality, it’s a little chunk of paradise! I took a boat trip into the jungle on the Lope River as well, and that really did feel like a place in the heart of Africa.
Douala was supposed to be bad, but for me I thought it was fine. Not amazing, but not dangerous or mad either. The eating is great there, and in general is pretty good around the country with a strong French influence for those (like me, I admit it – I have to be careful with allergies) not so willing to try all the local delicacies.
On the downside, two issues really I guess. Cameroon is not that well connected to the rest of the world, and the flights are not cheap. You can say that about most flights into West Africa though, regardless of the destination. I flew with Swiss Air, there are a few more options. You’d probably be talking at least $1000US from Europe.
Money is the problem inside Cameroon as well, just bring cash is all I can say. Traveller’s Cheques? Worthless pretty much. ATM cards… LOL. Occasional, very occasional chances to use credit cards and not advisable. Accommodation is the big bummer – definitely the worst value for money I have ever known! 35 Euros for a very bare and basic room with two beds and a TV. It’s fair to say that Ghana is better on that score.
All in all, though, it has pretty much all that other countries in the region have, but is the most chilled and easiest place to see and do them. Yeah, it’s one of my favourites. You may not have thought much about going to Cameroon. I suggest, well, you do!
Do check out my ebook on Cameroon – Short Journeys: Cameroon (free on Amazon from 11-14th July! That would be Seattle time I think)