It had taken me three days to organise transport to Pointe Noire and on the afternoon before the day of departure I met three Germans relaxing in my shady spot by the hotel reception. Turns out they are driving up through Africa and would the next day hit the road to Cameroon.
My instincts began to flash positive messages around my brain but I had a coach booked for 6.30am the next morning. Ok, did they have room for one more? Yes. I don’t have a visa for Cameroon. ‘No problem, we can get one from the embassy here, should only take a couple of hours’ says Michael the organiser and owner of the truck. I sat for five minutes with multiple options, routes, calculations, outcomes ricocheting off the inside of my skull. I had to make a decision and fast.
I’d come a long way and my trip was proving difficult to kick start. This could be the answer. During the 18 days it would take to get to Yaounde, the Cameroonian capital, I could learn a lot about travelling in Africa. We would be staying at some hotels, missions and hostels but mostly bush camping. It sounded much better than plan A, whatever that was.
At 4.30am I should have been getting ready to leave my room to take the taxi to the coach station. Instead, I was wide awake, this sudden and very late change to my plans had my mind going ten to the dozen and I’d managed very little sleep. A torrential downpour began at about 6am, I was to meet Michael at 7.30am for some breakfast and the dash to the embassy. A frantic morning then commenced; organising photocopies of passports, filling in applications. In search of some information Michael discovered that his own Cameroon visa was not in either of his four passports in the truck but in his fifth that was safely back home in Bavaria.
It seems our chance meeting was good look for both of us. If he’d not discovered the missing visa now he would have an unexpected headache at the border along with little if any possibility of seeing Yaounde. Now he needed a visa too. The Cameroon visa fee is 70,000XAF (£89.65), if you need it fast add another 21,000XAF (£26.90).
By 3pm that afternoon, the engine of the ex-military MAN truck fired up and we joined the throng of green taxis winding their way through the streets of Brazzaville (taking out someone’s side mirror down the narrow streets near hotel Saint Jacques as we went). The vehicle attracted much attention, I felt like a celebrity with everyone looking, pointing and shouting and I played my part by waving to the children.
We were soon chugging up into the hills on our way out of town. At about 5pm we pulled off the road and set up camp. As new boy I didn’t know the routines so offered help but actually contributed little. I got little sleep in my tent that night. I eventually got used to all of the animal noises only to be woken by a passing truck thundering along the road we were camped next to and was pleased when morning arrived.
The road was long and very straight. We made regular stops to take on supplies from the roadside vendors. Around lunchtime we pulled off the road and onto a dirt track. We had entered the Lesio Louna Nature Reserve. The tall 4×4 swayed from side to side as the wheels tracked the peaks and trough of the two grooves they followed. The wide sweeping plains were sporadically dotted with trees and termite mounds. After some time we pulled into the camp and was greeted by several smiling rangers.
With negotiations over entry and camping fees concluded we setup our tents then prepared lunch. Gorilla feeding time would be at 7am the next morning, so with the afternoon to myself, I strapped on my big lens and headed down to the river. And guess what I saw on the opposite bank? I took three quick snaps then hurried back to the others to inform them that the gorilla was at the feeding platform. I watched him for about three hours taking many photos and tomorrow hopefully, we’d get even nearer.
Bright and early we were in the boat and heading across to see Side, pronounced Sid e, the gorilla. Apparently, he wasn’t too pleased this morning and he sat arms folded waiting for his daily delivery of 6—10kg of fruit and veg. The boat moored some three or four metres from the platform on-which Side sat looking very disinterested. We snapped away and stared at him until his patience ran out and he launched an avocado at us.
I don’t blame him for being so miserable, we were the only company he’d get that day. At 42 years Side was very much the king of the castle. Apparently there used to be five gorillas on this 17sq km (6.56sq miles) island but they fought over food so much that they were either killed or shipped out. So he lived here all alone with nothing other than trying to hit a tourist with over ripe fruit as entertainment.