17 August 2017 by Justine
This is one of those questions lots of people ask, which I can’t blame them for because I also normally ask other travellers what kind of challenges they encountered in their adventures… So let me give you my personal top 5 scariest moments of our 2016-17 African cycling trip and hopefully feed you with good old second hand adrenaline.
Scariest Moment #5
Spending a sleepless night camping behind a bar with loud drunks in anglophone Cameroun during ghost village
Cameroun and Canada are the two only officially bilingual countries in the world and Cameroun people are always very proud to inform us of that fact. But as francophones are a minority in Canada, it is the opposite in Cameroun and in the winter of 2017, it was the peak of the anglophone crisis. In order to prevent public manifestations screaming for equality, the government decided to block Internet connexion in all anglophone districts, and as a response, the population organized “ghost towns”, days where no one should work, including shop owners, taxi drivers and teachers.
I don’t know why, but during all our stay in Cameroun anglophone districts, I had one of those awkward feeling. Everywhere, people whispering and looking around in small groups during the day, and in larger groups at night. We had left Bamenda, the capital of the anglophone North-West district in late afternoon, and we were hoping for a good camping spot. We asked around, but didn’t feel it. We got to a military control point, used our best smiles and asked the captain if we could pitch the tent near by. Big mistake. The captain ordered us to cycle back to Bamenda (we had just climbed a fairly good way) or the closest hotel, and pay for a room. We finally got rid of him by saying that we would stop at the next one, and entered a nearby restaurant along the road. The mama in charge was very nice to us, but a man that was waiting for transport had the exact same speech as the captain.
Annoyed, we ate diner and waited for the dude to leave to ask the mama if we could pitch the tent in the back of the restaurant : “No problem! But you should come to my house!” she says, pointing a nearby mountain. Not very excited to cycle anything that rimes with “steep” and “far”, we convince her that the little spot behind the restaurant is perfect for us and go set our tent. JP, tired, goes to bed, with earplugs. I take a cold shower and go to bed, but two men outside point a flashlight through my door. I’m wearing little clothing, JP doesn’t wake up and the man speak loudly in a broken African English that I can’t understand. Wide awake, I pay more attention to some voices from the restaurant, now transformed into a bar. I realized that we put the tent between the restaurant and the toilet as I hear another dude walking by and peeing a meter away from our tent instead of going to the toilet five metre further.
I’m then convinced of hearing the captain’s voice, and believing that we will be, 100% sure, discovered by the now drunk militaries. I don’t want to wake JP up as he sleeps like a baby, and I try to relax, but I can’t. All sounds are magnify, all laughs are ill-intentioned. Thanks to my naturally prosperous imagination, tweaked by my malaria pills, I’m shaking in the dark, my eyes wide open, ready for any upcoming problems. At 11:45PM, my luck shines : the electricity is cut. No more music, no more TV, no more light. Within ten minutes, I can only hear the mama’s voice, and then, nothing. The next morning, still tensed, I wake up to the screams of a pig having its throat cut open by the mama’s husband just besides the tent, happily preparing the day’s grilled meat. Just what I needed.
Scariest Moment #4
Running away from elephants in the Central African Republic bush
There is an amazing protected area in-between Cameroun, Congo-Brazzaville and Central African Republic (CAR) that we wanted to visit, and although that last country is suffering from civil war, we know that little piece of paradise is for now spared so we crossed the Sangha river and entered CAR. As we are calmly chatting with some people in a Baka community, some children start screaming. The Chief of the village jumps from his chair and says, pointing in front of us : « the elephants are in the manioc field ! » Everyone starts running toward a forest patch. As I’m running, I’m questioning myself on how safe it is to go check out elephants by foot, but a pregnant women pulls me by the arm, laughing like a child. We are approaching the manioc fields now when we hear a powerful and unhappy trumpeting, and then see everyone that was running ahead of us changing direction, and running TOWARDS us now ! My heart is beating in my throat and I can’t feel my legs anymore… All I can think of is those tiny Baka children that were there first and, of course, JP ! JP was one of the first !!! We are surrounded by trees but… I don’t think those tooth-picks would stop a thirty-ton mammal from passing through. No time for panic (almost) as JP arrives, out of breath, with a strange face :
– Why didn’t you come see the elephants???
– What?? BECAUSE ! When I hear an elephant trumpeting, I usually don’t run TOWARDS the elephant, but in the opposite direction!!! … What did you see???
– As soon as we got to the field, there was three big ones, you know with the big tusks, the real ones, just there, just in our faces! They were surprised to see us (…) but then, the kids, the small kids, they started throwing rocks at the elephants and they scared them away! … Man, elephants are big…
I make a mental note to upgrade my personal definition of recklessness as I watch with a frightened eye the kids, now playing soccer like nothing happened.
Scariest Moment #3
Crossing the Congo river in a three-foot wide wooden pirogue
We could have crossed the Congo river on a ferry or on a bridge, but not. We decided to cycle a 100km-long dirt road leading to a no longer used crosspoint and hope for a pirogue. It took us one week to get there after I got hit by a motorbike, and after we took twice the wrong path and ended up in a religious city-state in the middle of nowhere. The last miles of the road were eaten by the rain, the mud and the jungle, and only passable by foot, bicycle or motorbike.
The villagers were surprised to see us, but quickly saw the opportunity and we started negotiating on the spot. Starting point : they ask 150$ USD and we offer 5. Good start.
– You need to give enough for the men to be motivated. Do you want them to loose motivation half way crossed???
– … No.
The idea of stopping in the middle of the Congo river with unmotivated paddlers doesn’t appeal me too much, so we continue negotiating until we get to a very satisfying deal. All this time, we are few metres away from the riverbank that we can’t see yet. We shake hands, and the courageous paddlers start taking our luggage. We walk to the bank…. And only see small pirogues :
– We thought we would use the bigger ones…
– They are on the other side… I would take too much time to go get them. Let’s use those ones. It will be fine.
I stare at the wooden pirogues, all filled with few litres of water already, take a deep breath, take off my boots and put our passports, American dollars and satellite device close to my heart – in my bra. They place JP and I face to face in one pirogue with two paddlers, and all our stuff in another one with three paddlers. Hands on my knees, I try to calculate the risks of tipping and the odds don’t seem good. There’s only about three inches of pirogue that are out of the water, and the paddlers, standing, are working hard. If we tip, there aren’t any rapids below and I don’t think there are many hippos or crocodiles around but… We would lose all our stuff, it would take us at least one hour to reach the other side, far below, and… It would SUCK.
I can see the other pirogue with our pile of stuff from the corner of my eye. As we follow the shore longer, they are already crossing. I can’t look any longer and I concentrate on positive thinking : Be a poet bag, Justine. Be a potato bag. Potatoes don’t react to the movement of the pirogue. Just… Be a dead weight. Don’t move. Hands on the knees, NOT on the gutters. Potato bag. Potato bag… Until I hear JP scream with an unsure voice : « Good job guys! We are almost there!!! » … Longest 25 minutes of my life.
Scariest Moment #2
Cycling in a suburb of Cape Town after sundown
This is our second day in South Africa, after five months in rural central Africa. We decide to go see a friend in Somerset West. It’s too late to cycle those 45km from town, so we take the train. In the city centre, the railway station is pure chaos. The board shoes half of the info, a lady screams snowy gibberish in a speaker-phone and everybody is running in all directions. An hour and a half later, we finally jump on a train.
The ride takes almost an hour, and the 9 o’clock sun goes down as we descend. Some local children scream in the open windows of the train to entertain the travellers, and the other descending passengers quickly walk to enter a bus that leaves right away, leaving us two in a dark alley. We cycle 100 metres before slowing down at a red light where a group of people loudly laughs. JP is a bit ahead when a man decides to run towards him, but he accelerates and the man, tired, changes direction and comes to me instead. I don’t want to look afraid so I casually keep cycling, and he tries to grab the first thing that he sees – my helmet. He doesn’t succeed, and tries again to scare me by throwing something at me. Waiting for me a bit further, JP is mad : « You couldn’t pedal a TINY bit faster?!? » he says as I realize how easily that situation could have turned wrong : « … What the FUCK is this place?!? ».
Re-living our night bike ride in the suburbs of Buenos Aires again (Gone In PataGonia), I feel like the dumbest tourist around. After being so long in Central Africa’s rural areas where the biggest threats are wildlife, dehydration and malaria, we totally forgot how stupid and dangerous other humans can be. We stop at a nearby gas station to look at our map and ask the Indian gas boy if we’re in trouble for being here : « It’s not good good place, but not too bad » Fair enough. We start cycling as fast as we can on a highway. With our baggy cloths, dirty panniers and JP’s beard, we are far from going unnoticed. Within 7km, the ghetto slowly changes to a middle-class neighbourhood. We stop in a grocery store to buy goods, still on our guards and ready to jump on our bikes to escape. There’s the typical security guard with a machine gun at the entrance. I’m probably trying too hard to look cool by smiling at everyone. I get a suspicious look from the cashier. Welcome to South Africa.
Scariest Moment #1
Cycling in major elephant territory at night in the Congo
To get to central African republic, we crossed the Sangha river with a motorized pirogue, then, we cycled to Pokala. Today, we are cycling to Kabo, one hundred clicks away. In-between, nothing. Only primary rainforest, a muddy road, lots of bugs, two vagabonds on a bicycle, and if we’re lucky, animals. This is major forest elephant, buffalos, wild pig, panther, gorillas and chimpanzee territory, and is fortunately protected by the three neighbour countries : Central African Republic’s Dzanga-sangha, Congo-Brazzaville’s Nouabalé Ndoki and Cameroun’s Lobeke parks.
We try to keep a good pace all through the day but at 6PM, an hour away from sunset, we are still minimum 15km away from Kabo. We spot a fenced cleared site with a communication tower inside. If we don’t want to cycle in the dark, this is the best guess to spend the night. If we don’t stop here for the night, we cycle straight to Kabo. We need to decide now and carry out that decision : « Let’s go to Kabo ! », says JP quite loudly, but scares a wild pig that was hiding behind some bush, screams and starts running – fortunately for us in the opposite direction. « That thing could have broken both our legs by running into us, eh? » « Yep ».
The road until now was flat, but those last kilometres are a bit hilly, just to make things easier. My headlamp is dying and barely lights my surroundings. JP decides to illuminate the right side, leaving the left side to me to light up. I’m not sure if trying to see through the forest is the best option to stay calm or to announce our presence, but for sure making noise will, so I start singing as loud as I can : « De la touretouretou, d’la touretièèèèèè-re ! Qu’on savoure-vou-re-vou-re-voure toute entièèèèèè-re!!! De la touretouretoure… D’la TOURETIÈÈÈÈÈ-RE!!!! » JP juges me for a good ten seconds, than joins me.
Both our brakes are down, but somehow, JP can still break because he can keep his handlebar straight with one hand as he pulls his break cable with the other – I can’t. So on my way downhill, JP yields at me to slow down : « What will you do if elephants are crossing?!? SLOW DOWN!!! » which I do, but too hard, and there I go, flying over my bike and on the ground. I get back on my bike like a ninja, realizing with a bit of pride that I haven’t fallen TOO much off my bike so far in this trip. After more than 20,000km, maybe I am becoming a cyclist, after all. We see animal tracks and piles of poop EVERYWHERE, and there’s that strong wild bush smell that we associate (maybe mistakenly) to elephants in the air, especially in the low points, close to creeks and swamps. We know they are there, but we can’t see nothing while THEY have probably watched us ALL day.
From the moment we decided to cycle to Kabo, I estimated that 50 minutes were needed, and indeed, after that exact time, we finally see some patches of bush turned into small farming fields, and we can see a first light, in the distance. Human activity has rarely been that comforting.
. . .
… Not to mention, getting hit by a motorbike, getting our passports taken away by corrupted authorities in the Congo, sleeping in the middle of nowhere in our little tent in major elephant territories, discovering a nasty pus infected patch on JP’s scalp, and passing by a family of screaming gorillas, hidden in the bush. Yeah !