Nessun Dorma Til Limbe

IT was more than a World Cup. More than Nessun Dorma, Gazza crying or Pearce and Waddle starting the trend for English footballers failing from 12 yards.

And 25 years on, the impact of Italia ’90 is being felt in some unlikely ways.

It was the tournament which sparked my move, originally as cover for somebody who was heading out to watch it, from news to sports journalism – a switch which came after just a couple of weeks as a trainee and has only been reversed in the last couple of years.

It was the tournament that produced the best book written about football – All Played Out (now rechristened One Night In Turin) by Pete Davies – which served as an inspiration for at least one aspiring young sports writer.

It was the tournament that reminded people that football could be fun after the black days of Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford and hooliganism and set the ball rolling for domestic football to turn into the money-obsessed, commercial behemoth it has become today, bringing with it a new breed of fan who seems to believe the game started with the creation of the Premiership (mentioning no names… but here’s a link to a review of a book by Tim Lovejoy).

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Cooling Off Period – Linda and Ale adjust to the colder conditions in the Cameroon mountains

And it was the tournament which introduced the world to Cameroon.

Yes, they had been at the finals eight years earlier, when there were already questions about the age of Roger Milla, and gone out on goal difference at the group stage to eventual winners Italy.

But 1990 was when the Indomitable Lions really put African football firmly on the world stage, beating Argentina in the opener and reaching the quarter-finals before losing in extra-time to England, dotting their progress with thrilling football, inimitable celebrations and an approach to defending which bordered on the ruthless – as best shown by the brutal tackle on Claudio Caniggia which got Benjamin Massing sent off in that opening victory.

And at times, Cameroon left us feeling as if we had just been kicked up in the air by a big centre half.

But, having waited six days in Calabar and 54 hours at the border, we were finally rewarded with a beautiful country which made our efforts to get in worth it. It could even rank as the most picturesque country so far, certainly the greenest.

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Making Friends – He couldn’t find his tent on the border, but Matt did find Malcolm

Having waited so long to cross the border, our first incursion into Cameroon took us just a few miles, along the new road under construction and down the old one (more of a potted, mud track through the trees, which has taken days to drive down in previous trips) to set up camp for the night.

Our welcome was a torrential downpour from the moment our tents went up – in my case, for the first time under the full canvas since Senegal and without tent buddy Michael, temporarily back in France sorting out a few issues – until just before breakfast.

The torrent failed to calm some of the celebrations at crossing the border (well, we were weighed down by a good deal of beer bought to use up our final Nigerian currency*) but meant a long, thankfully mainly dry night inside the tent – despite the, possibly well-intentioned, badly-executed attempt by someone to move my tent down the track which had me searching for it in the height of the monsoon, left my groundsheet screwed up in a puddle and the sides all but collapsing in on themselves.

Our reward was a long day on the truck and another eventful evening, but most importantly a stunning introduction to Cameroon as we meandered our way through the mountains.

With hoodies, jumpers and coats retrieved from deep in lockers for the first time in weeks as the temperatures dropped – making our jokes from the heat of the border that it was 10 degrees cooler in Cameroon more into prophecies – we were treated to some spectacular scenery akin to the stereotypical view of Africa, full of lush, verdant vegetation and red dirt tracks.

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Multiple Choice – Three of these pictures were taken at sea level, one wasn’t. Not that easy to tell apart

Having spent all day enjoying the scenery, we finally pulled off the road after dark to set up camp, settling on the side of a school football pitch.

The locals, the school caretaker, the villagers who came to welcome us and even some sort of commandant were all happy for us to stay there as we set up camp and cooked up the evening meal.

But some other official was less than impressed – not sure whether he was annoyed at us 343being there or not coming to pay our respects to him as we arrived – and insisted we moved on.

By the time we arrived at our new home for the night in the paddock of the police station and army barracks at Baham (which meant trips to the toilet overnight carried the risk of an armed man challenging you), we had attracted an entourage of officials from the local chief SAM_1182downwards and my back (sore for a few days after behaving itself for the bulk of the trip) had seized up from putting up, taking down and putting up a tent in such quick succession.

A long night prompted a bit of a rethink when we arrived at the seaside town of Limbe.

After an upgrade in Accra, the plan was not to repeat the move until Nairobi (bar the sporadic hostels in the likes of Cape Town en IMG_3996route**), but the prospect of a bed for a couple of nights to ease my back was too tempting to ignore. Once the message had got through to the staff and the process of checking in had been completed. Only took a bit longer than two hours.

Making full use of the room, its shower, the pool, the bar and all that Limbe had to offer – a shortish walk down the coastal path into a very pleasant, chilled out little town – ruled out any prospect of me joining in the assault on Mt Cameroon.

Not that there was ever any real prospect of that happening.

At around 4,100m- about 800m below Mt Blanc – Mt Cameroon is Africa’s fourth highest peak and a tough two-day trek up and down (or three days, as it turned out for a couple of our intrepid half dozen who took up the challenge).

While those of us who remained shopped (largely for pastries and football kits), ate out, used the wi-fi and chilled by the pool, those who scaled the summit returned with a variety of responses, which ranged from “really cool” and “so glad I did it” to “never again”, “that was so hard” and something in Kiwi which is pretty much unrepeatable here.

Dora the Explorer and his friend Boots were unavailable for comment, having wandered off somewhere else.

But reunited in one group back at sea level (evidently, not so easy to ascertain, even with the waves crashing on the rocks behind you) and just 24 hours later than planned, we rolled out of Limbe to see what else Cameroon could throw at us.

Clad in our new Cameroon football shirts.

* Not sure that explains the overheard line from a neighbouring tent: “No, you are not coming in without any underwear on.”
** Talk is turning to what we are going to do in Cape Town as we make the tough trek down the west of Africa. Arriving at Easter, the end of Lent will come as a welcome relief to one inhabitant of the trek who was convinced to give up a solitary activity for 40 days. As many of us will be sharing a dorm room with him, not sure we thought it through…

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54 Hours At The Border

THIS blog attempts to provide readers with an inside view of life on board a big yellow truck as it meanders its way around Africa.

To that end, here is the minute-by-minute account of our attempt to cross the border from Nigeria to Cameroon. Throughout the 54 hours it took us, it was unbelievably hot.

This is what we know about. Somewhere in the background, Oasis head office and unknown officials in a range of countries were lobbying on our behalf to open the gates into Cameroon.

Whoever made the fateful call or sent the e-mail that made the difference, we thank you. But in a way, think we are sort of glad we had this experience.

(Most timings, particularly before the idea to write this appeared some point around lunch on the first day, are estimated. Or taken from Ale’s watch, which is even more of a guess.)

Sunday, February 15

6am (Bush camp, somewhere between Calabar and the border): First sounds of cook group getting up and beginning the process of preparing breakfast. Spend next 20 minutes or so wrestling with the twin dilemmas of how long it is feasible to remain in bed with people walking around my mosquito net and how long before the need to visit the little boys’ bush can be delayed.

6.28am: The latter wins the battle and, having waited for somebody else to undo the lock on the back of the truck, it is a quick sprint onto the back to drop off various items from my tent and collect both toilet paper and one of the shovels.

6.30am: Head off into the undergrowth in search of a decent spot which has not already been taken – or worse, still is.

6.37am: Return to truck, wash hands and make cup of tea from boiling kettle on fire. Sit and wait for breakfast to be ready.

7am: Official start of breakfast, although most people are already milling around and waiting for the clearance to dive into pile of eggy bread.

7.01am: Dive into pile of eggy bread.

7.15am: Wash up plate, fork and mug, flapping to get dry before putting away in the correct containers.

7.20am: Roll up sleeping gear and pack up tent, squeezing it into locker which, despite a tidy up in Calabar two days earlier, is packed to bursting. Change shirt and attempt to tidy hair in vain effort to look reasonably smart to cross border.

7.30am: Take up position on truck, pick up book (dug out of truck’s library yesterday to provide something to read while sat on the truck) and wait for the off.

8am: Roll out of camp.

8.30am: Arrive at town of Ikom, 37km from the border. Cook group shopping (loads of vegetables and bread for dinner, breakfast and lunch with our group on duty from the evening).

9am: Head off in search of cold drinks to spend some of my remaining Nigerian naira. Directed towards fuel station by group of locals keen to have their pictures taken with the large white man.

9.15am: Change remaining naira into Central African CFA as it is illegal to take currency out of the country.

9.45am: Both trucks pull away from Ikom and head towards the border.

9.55am: Toilet stop.

10.15am: Stop on side of road so we do not arrive at border earlier than we intended to.

10.45am: Desperate attempts to go to loo again before we head off as opportunity could be limited.

10.50am: Both trucks head for the border.

11am: Fairly swift progress through first couple of checks, once couple of guards have come on truck and shaken all of our hands.

11.20am: Head 100 yards down the road to closed gate onto bridge heading over river and into Cameroon. Go no further.

11.25am: Finish book.

12.10am: Enthusiastic and noisy church service makes its way down the road to the trucks, complete with drummers.

12.30pm: News comes through that we are missing couple of vital bits of paperwork. It is Sunday, so no chance of getting them. We are going nowhere today.

12.45pm: Church service and drummers return.

12.55pm: Fresh news: Elderly guy in crisp white suit at rear of church procession is the town’s head of immigration. Dispatches Raphael, our newly-acquired Cameroonian fixer, to town over border to contact chief of police and ease our passage.

1pm: Lunch on truck.

1.15pm: Discover have been pipped in the race for the two half-decent books in circulation.

2pm: Clearance to go for a swim in the river.

2.05pm: Guinea pigs sent down to check out river.

2.15pm: Head down track to river.

2.17pm: Jump into river.

2.18pm: Discover river not as clean as hoped.

2.55pm: News update. We are going nowhere today.

3.30pm: Much lying about, reading, sleeping. And trying to keep cool. First exodus to the village bar.

4.30pm: Beers opened out of the eskie.

Our home from home (and shower) on the border
Our home from home (and shower) on the border

5pm: Surrendering to our fate, move trucks away from border and set up camp on the side of the road, a few hundred yards down the road. Verge vegetation given a quick chop to create kitchen area.

6pm: Start cooking – spaghetti with a vegetable sauce/gloop.

7.15pm: Discover someone has used all the hot water to make drinks, so have to boil another kettle to cook spaghetti.

7.30pm: Water still not boiled.

7.45pm: Water boiled, spaghetti in, trying desperately not to overcook vegetables.

8pm: Serve dinner. Joe outlines plan for the next day.

8.18pm: Dinner finished, tents up, first people turn in for the night.

9.50pm: Final few call it quits. Put up mosquito tent alongside Nala.

11.45pm: Had enough of sliding down the slope and turn tent around.

Monday, February 16

5.15am: Local preacher begins very loud, very long sermon to wake up the village.

6.10am: Finally admit defeat and get up to make breakfast.

7am: Kitchen all set up, kettles boiled and bulk of the toast done. Breakfast is served.

7.20am: Break off from breakfast to pack away tent.

7.30am: Breakfast ends. Pack away kitchen.

8am: Everyone clambers onto other truck to head back to Ikom for internet access to e-mail relevant embassies or consulates and ask for help in getting across border.

8.55am: Arrive Ikom.

9am: Copy draft letter to British Embassy in Yaounde asking for assistance. E-mail copy to rest of British passengers for them to use.

9.31am: E-mail to embassy finally sends.

9.57am: E-mail to most of the others finally arrives.

10.31am: Kris gives up trying to compose a new e-mail on my laptop.

10.35am: Ale and Linda borrow my laptop to translate the e-mail into Spanish and Dutch to send to their embassies.

10.45am: Man lights rubbish fire next to truck.

10.46am: First person leaves the truck to avoid the smoke.

11am: Get laptop back. Hope Joe won’t notice the wi-fi hot spot from his phone being used to check Facebook.

11.20am: Joe turns off the wi-fi hot spot on his phone.

11.50am: Kris appears with tray of unidentified meat and rice. Large chunks of it left uneaten, despite being passed around the truck.

1.30pm: Final few people return from internet cafe up the road and we begin the journey back to Mfum.

2pm: Back at base, sort out lunch.

2.30pm: Having sat down on one truck all morning, settle down for a quiet spell led on the other – anything to escape the heat outside for a while.

3.30pm: Decide it is time to check out the bar.

Ben's Place
Ben’s Place

3.40pm: Hit head on roof of low doorway into the bar. Served large, cold beer by Ben, who claims to be 15 but looks younger. Bar has been renamed Ben’s Place.

6pm: Wander back to the truck ahead of dinner after a few, very welcome beers. Slightly the worse for wear.

7.30pm: Excellent meal of fried rice, supplemented (to much excitement from some corners) by the first of the truck supply of Spam.

8.05pm: Just finishing off tidying up when the storm, which has been threatening for a while, starts to become a reality. Wind whips up as we race to get everything cleared up before it really hits.

8.15pm: The lightning which flashed in the distance for much of the previous night moves in and is joined by the odd clap of thunder.

8.20pm: First drops of rain begin to fall.

8.22pm: Suggestion that we take this opportunity to have a shower out in the rain.

8.25pm: First items of clothing removed.

8.27pm: Much to the surprise of any passing locals, a group of white folks in their swimsuits and underwear are standing alongside a big yellow truck in the middle of the road to the border. During a thunderstorm.

8.28pm: Not actually raining hard enough to have a shower.

8.29pm: Water lockers are opened, buckets filled and we are lined up in the middle of the road. First sign of cameras as inhabitants of other truck have wandered down to find out exactly what is going on.

8.30pm: Buckets of water are thrown over us. Possibly the most refreshing – certainly the most bizarre – shower of the trip.

8.40pm: Bucket showers over and pictures taken, it starts raining more than hard enough to have a proper shower.

8.42pm: Scramble back onto truck and all try to get dry and changed while remaining decent. Some better at it than others.

9pm: Stops raining.

9.05pm: Group heads back to the bar. Decide it is too wet – and threat of rain too high – to sleep in mosquito tent, so set up full tent for first time since Senegal.

9.07pm: Discover batteries in both my torches are flat. Collar Martyn to help.

9.09pm: Martyn’s phone, which had been providing light, goes flat.

9.11pm: Matt, Martyn and myself – all of whom have had a few beers – set about setting up tent on the side of the road without a light.

9.20pm: Somehow, tent is up properly. Matt and Martyn head down to bar, but opt to sort out bedding first.

9.35pm: Decide against heading down to bar and opt for early night. Plug myself into iPod, lie down on airbed and discover big stone right under the middle of the tent. Move over to the side.

9.37pm: First set of headlights glares through tent from the road. Debate getting up and putting rain cover over tent to block out some of the light. Decide far too much trouble.

Tuesday, February 17

7.45am: Relative lie-in. Emerge from tent with sore back.

8am: Official start of breakfast.

8.20am: Breakfast is served. Fried spam met with rapturous response – or total disgust.

9am: Quick truck clean.

9.10am: Take down tent.

9.25am: Finally succeed in getting tent into its bag.

9.30am: As most people head back to Ikom for a change of scenery, head back to truck to lie flat on sore back and crash out.

11.30am: Matt, Steve and myself opt to mark 48 hours at the border by walking down to bar for a Coke. Slow walk down as all the locals and the police/military at the checkpoints want to say hello, ask how we are and when we are leaving. Discover bar has no cold Cokes, so have a couple beers instead.

1pm: Wander back up to truck to find the others are back. Have lunch.

1.30pm: Settle down for a quiet few moments on the truck – there’s at least a bit of shade provided by the seats. Some others head down to bar.

2.15pm: Kris loses all hope and declares we will never be allowed into Cameroon. Despite early confidence from most of us, there’s not too much disagreement from those on the truck.

2.40pm: Walk back down to bar with one of the locals.

2.47pm: Joe heads in opposite direction from border on back of motorbike, but denies anything has happened.

2.50pm: Settle into bar with a beer and dealt into the ongoing game of cards.

3.30pm: Steve sticks head through door, tells us to drink up and be back on the trucks in five minutes.

Mfum
Border Etiquette – Waiting to cross outside Ben’s Place

3.31pm: Give up attempting to down remains of bottle of gassy beer in one and leave on the table.

3.33pm: Matt and myself are stopped at police checkpoint. One very vocal guy not in uniform insists we sit down and, we think, demands we buy him a drink. Explain to the guys we had spoken to earlier – the ones with guns – that we think we are about to go and they usher us up the road and quieten the other guy.

3.37pm: Arrive back at truck and break news of Steve’s announcement to those lounging on the seats. Several goes needed to convince them. Frantic attempts to sort everything out and tidy up camp.

3.40pm: Rest of the bar dwellers return, some on back of military motorbikes clutching beers bought at the bar to use up our remaining naira.

3.50pm: Trucks head the few hundred yards back down the border, followed by Joe, still on back of motorbike which had taken him to Ikom after he got a call to check his e-mails, only to be summoned back.

3.52pm: Karla and myself called off truck. May need to head over on the other truck as the only ones not already stamped out of Nigeria.

Ben, left, says farewell to some of his best customers
Ben, left, says farewell to some of his best customers

3.54pm: Everyone called off truck. Final assault on bar to use up naira. Beer and assorted drinks loaded into locker which had been emptied in case we all had to share one truck.

4pm: Steve drives Nala across border, followed minutes later by the other Steve in the other truck. We sit and wait at bar, taking pictures with the locals.

5.10pm: Passports returned, fully stamped out of Nigeria and into Cameroon.

5.13pm: Finally exit Nigeria and walk across the bridge between the two countries.

5.15pm: Cross into Cameroon.

5.17pm: Tread in dog muck (at least, hope it was dog) on the side of road under construction which welcomes us into Cameroon. Not alone.

5.28pm: Board Nala.

5.30pm: Everything stops for flag-lowering ceremony to close the working day.

5.31pm: Leave Cameroon border

5.33pm: Hit first major bump in Cameroon.

5.45pm: Clear Cameroon Immigration and finally head into country number 11.

NB: Just as the finishing touches were being put to this post, a couple pulled into our base in Limbe, Cameroon. They successfully crossed the same border in just four hours. But did they have as much fun? We would like to think we paved the way for their rapid crossing.

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The Horizontal Traveller

IN an ideal world, this entry would provide a perceptive insight into the sights, history and attractions of Benin.

Sadly, my only insight into Benin came from long periods spent lying down. Much of it with my eyes closed.

Not through choice. Would much rather have been exploring the slave trail at our overnight stop at Ouidah or joining the others in making use of the camp site’s very welcome-looking swimming pool.

IMG_3725Instead, my entire afternoon was spent curled up in the shade on one of the sun loungers alongside the pool – under the watchful, slightly confused eye of the waiters – and any exploration was confined to the toilet facilities.

Whatever laid me low hit fast and hit hard, even prompting Steve to suggest his personal malaria test of seeing my reaction to a shot of rum – almost worth it to be granted access to his personal stash of Captain Morgan, but it does get a bit scary when malaria starts being considered.

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New To Me – Our campsite in Ouidah. Evidently. I was too busy trying to sleep by the pool. Thanks to Karla and Ale for the pics.

All had seemed fine as our final morning dawned in Togo.

Two days recovering from the fallout of our Australia Day celebrations had us rejuvenated and ready to move on, our final departure delayed by one final round of visa hold-ups, but it least it gave Matt and myself another chance to sit on the shoreline as the sun went down and the lights blinked into life amid the traffic jam of ships heading in and out of Lome’s bustling port.

A few quiet beers sat around the bar was certainly no indicator of what lay in store, which was still not stirring itself as we geared up for breakfast.

IMG_3727But one bite into a piece of toast was enough to kick everything into gear.

Within minutes, feeling a bit queasy had been replaced by a return of the toast and any attempt to keep hydrated with a cold bottle of water prompted a similar result. To add to it all, my body ached, radiating out from my legs.

It all added up to a testing, if thankfully fairly short, border crossing into Benin and attempts to sleep off whatever had enveloped my system were shaken up by the disintegrating road surface as we neared Ouidah.

As the others caught sight of the pool, my eyes simply sore somewhere cool to lie down and, until the sun went down and it was time to relocate to the truck, that was pretty much it – a couple of rich tea biscuits finally managing to stay down before bedding down for the night on the floor of the truck (which would become my home for the next week).

And, around midnight, the combination of biscuits, sleeping and, finally, getting some water on board did the trick and, awaking with a start, a wave seemed to break over me and flush away a lot of what had floored me. (Not literally. That would have made a mess of the truck).

Still feeling wiped out, the trip out to the stilted village of Ganvie down the coast was never really on the cards and so, sat back on the truck with a couple more of the walking wounded, it was time for even more lying down.

This time it was with my leg dangling over the top of one of the seats, prompting Joe to ask a simple question: “Is your leg swollen?”

The simple answer was yes. And very red. And painful, feeling stretched taut as it pulled at the scabs over my healing bites.

An extremely bumpy road meant a very uncomfortable ride to our bush camp for the night, by which time Helena – whose nursing expertise has been much in demand since she climbed on board in Accra – had diagnosed cellulitis in my leg and had me on a fairly vigorous (ie plentiful and difficult to swallow) course of antibiotics. She’d also drawn and written all over my leg.

With it came the order to stay off my leg and to have it raised as much as possible.

That’s pretty easy when we are parked up – on the beach with my legs up on the roof or stretched on the seats with one leg out of the window – or in my temporary home on the truck floor with assorted soft items from my locker forming an improvised footrest.

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Smooth Runnings – Not the easiest roads to try to lie down with your leg in the air

It has even been possible on smooth roads, but there’s not been that many of them over the past few days as we embarked on probably the most intense spell of driving days to date, turning our back on the coast and heading north through Benin and into Nigeria (again, worryingly easy and adding to the feeling that border complications are being stored up for us) and its capital Abuja, slowed by the combination of poor road surfaces and constant check points.

Lying down on the seats in those conditions brings fresh dangers of being thrown off, while lying on the beach at the front of the truck can be akin to cooking gently at gas mark five, meaning clinging on for dear life or roasting in the sun is swapped with sitting up normally and subjecting my leg to the rigours of the journey and whatever ills are still lingering.

So while the sickness finished as quickly as it started, my leg continues to rise and fall with our travelling conditions.

Each morning, it has shrunk down almost to normal – even my good leg has come down a couple of centimetres, meaning my ankles are properly defined for the first time in ages and my sandals are now too big to keep on easily when walking. Might actually have to do them up.

But by the time we pull into camp at night, it has swollen up again (a little less each day) and it is back to my horizontal vigil.

It’s enough to drive a man to drink.

Or would be, if he wasn’t on antibiotics.

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