Cameroon is never going to be first on your list if you haven’t travelled extensively in Africa.
They call it ‘Africa in miniature’ as it has the best parts of the continent wrapped wonderfully within invisible borders. Mountains, beaches, deserts, virgin rainforest, savanna, pygmies, wildlife (including gorillas) and national parks.
It was my first foray into central Africa and vastly different to previous experiences in the East, south and north. Cameroon feels like the heart of the continent — African realness in your face! Corruption is rife, there are people everywhere and during the course of a single bus trip, I witnessed the chaos of big cities, but also absolute virgin rainforest.
Typically, I take travel advice with a pinch of salt. Trouble is always in the next town or a few days before, but never where I am. However, not knowing what to expect from Cameroon I listened to more advice than usual. What happened was I got off the plane fearful for my safety. It took me about half a day to realise that I had nothing to fear. So despite us taking taxis, local buses, arriving after dark, trusting people we met and drinking in local bars, we encountered no trouble at all.
That’s not to say Cameroon isn’t without areas to avoid. Boko Haram is no joke which is why we avoided the far north. The Anglophones in the Southwest were in dispute with the Francophones resulting in gunfire and death, so we avoided these areas too. Cameroonians pay no notice to foreigners and generally we were left to our own devices.
Now if you’re travelling to Cameroon to get off the beaten track, it’s your lucky day. If you’re hoping to follow the backpacker trail then you’re in for a shock. I can count of one hand the number of times we met white backpackers who weren’t missionaries. Cameroon is tough travel in the sense that it takes a long time to get anywhere. Roads are unpaved and public buses are a real adventure. Don’t believe me? Here is a photo of what we looked like after a 13 hour bus ride!
You should bring enough cash to last your trip and preferably Euros, not USD. There are cash points in the larger cities but don’t rely on these to be working or have money inside them. Yes, you’ll end up carrying a wad of cash but it is what it is. Also you’ll struggle to pay the local price so bargain hard. The current conversion is CFA 655 to EUR1.
I changed my money on the black market in Douala which usually I avoid. A French local took me to money changers on the street and got a rate much better than banks. My advice is ask your hotel reception to call a taxi, explain you want to change money, they will drive you there and back and you never have to leave the car. You will only get CFA 10,000 notes from these chaps. Failing this, hotels will change your Euros.
Bills smaller than CFA 10,000 are a constant battle in Cameroon, no-one has change including banks. Shops and supermarkets will look at you with a blank expression when you hand over a large note. I’ve been turned down for a sale because I didn’t have any change so guard smaller bills with your life!
The majority of Cameroonians speak French with the exception of the Anglophone areas in the Southwest. We didn’t speak a lick of French which made things difficult, but we were also pleasently surprised by the number of people who helped us along the way. If you learn the numbers and a few basic French phrases it will stand you in good stead.
Buy yourself a SIM card as 3G in the larger cities and towns is decent, I went with the network provider Nextell. I bought a month package with a CFA 8,000 (4.8 gig) data top up. If you plan to make calls and text messages, you need to purchase two separate top ups, although I only paid for phone calls and was able to send texts also.
WHERE TO STAY
The majority of budget hotels cost CFA 10,000 and were simple but fine. Almost none of them had hot water and some had only bucket showers. Most places supplied a mosquito net and you’ll want to keep a supply of your own toilet paper as general rule. Electricity isn’t always reliable without a generator and even when there was one, there appeared to be a reluctance in switching it on (hence blackouts mid-bucket shower). On the whole, I was happy with the accommodation. See below for a list of where we stayed:
Douala – La Procure des Missions – If you are going to stay anywhere in Douala, it should be here. This place is an oasis away from the hum-drum of a busy city. It’s a catholic mission and has single rooms with en suite (external toilet) for CFA 10,000.
Buea – The Capitol Hotel – There are loads of options in Buea but this is a great place before and after three days of hiking. Rooms aren’t fancy but it is quiet and there is a great bar/restaurant which serves a killer steak, chips with peppercorn sauce. This is one of the few places which sells cold beer. CFA 20,000 per single room.
Mount Cameroon – You can either camp or there are now lodges which have been built at camp 2. If you want to upgrade, this can be booked via your hiking guide. I recommend HADY Guiding Services.
Yaounde – Mission des Casba – This is the place for you in Yaounde. The manager is lovely, you wake up to beautiful singing and it is a great way to forget about the big bad city just outside the gates. A single room at this Catholic mission will set you back CFA 10,000 and they have hot water, yes, I did say hot water! This place is a real find, you can thank me later.
Bertoua – Hotel de Paris – This is a decent hotel and at CFA 12,000, not a bad price for hot water and a semi-comfortable bed. In the evening, cross the road and walk up about 75-100 meters where there is an outside bar with awesome music and cheap beer. Avoid the Phoenix Palace Hotel which is overpriced for what they offer.
Yokadouma – Hotel Elephant – There is only one hotel in Yokadouma so I guess you’ll be staying at Hotel Elephant. This place is basic but I really liked it. Staff aren’t hired for their brains but they have everything you need. If you’re eating the meat dish although very tasty, you’ll discover that the beef dish is almost certainly not actually beef. At a guess, the animal of origin is likely to be goat but that’s probably wishful thinking considering bush meat is so popular and we were offered pangolin in the next town (obviously we don’t condone this).
Mambele – There are two options in Mambele but I suggest you stay at the WWF compound. If you’re in Mambele, chances are that you’re heading into Lobéké so the WWF compound should offer more luxury before roughing it in the forest camp. Both can be booked with the WWF upon arrival:
1) Camp Kombo – Initially a camp to house researchers, Camp Kombo now hosts tourists en route to Lobéké. The camp has bungalows with two single beds in each and outside toilets. Camp Kombo is surrounded by virgin forest with no electricity or water and although there is a roof over your head, it is quite basic. CFA 10,000 per person per night.
2) WWF Compound – This guarded compound is where the WWF staff live and where we opted to stay. There is electricity, bucket showers, washing and cooking facilities, lounge and the best option for charging before going bush. CFA 10,000 per person per night.
Lobéké National Park – You can only camp within the national park and can rent your equipment from the WWF upon arrival.
Bamenda – Zwinkels Guest House – Do yourself a favour and stay here. Read this blog for details.
Belo – Zwinkels Mountain Lodge – Read this blog as a warning prior to booking this place.
Kribi – Gites de Kribi – Being a holiday spot for Cameroonians, things cost more in Kribi so we blew the budget on purpose. There are lots of different room styles but we chose a two-bedroom apartment and paid CFA 70,000 per night. The restaurant serves the biggest prawns I’ve ever seen but if you want great seafood, take a motor-taxi to the sea front to watch the bat flight at dawn. You can select your own freshly caught fish and they’ll cook it up for you…delicious!
There are a number of ways to get around. Some are quite pleasurable and scenic, but others will leave you begging to get off. Keep in mind that if you travel during the rainy season, some roads will be impassable. We travelled in late December and all the roads were fine.
– Shared taxi – This is a great way to get you where you need to go fast, but it won’t be the most comfortable trip of your life. Drivers take a different number of passengers but in my experience, there will be four-five in the backseat, and four including the driver in the front. Taxis won’t leave until full but you can pay more for extra seats.
– VIP buses – This is perfect to get from point A to B in comfort. Expect to stop many times for toilet breaks, police stops, local salespeople, but also to have preachers screaming at you and people selling toothpaste and magic potions throughout. Having said this, you will get a whole seat to yourself and generally tickets are cheap and comfortable. Buy your ticket the night before and swap the holding ticket for an actual ticket on the day.
– Local buses – Local buses are cheap and an adventure. If you don’t have a sense of humour or time up your sleeve, you might want to give these a miss. The order you buy your ticket in dictates your place within the bus (apparently). Most roads aren’t paved, most buses don’t have great suspension, they pack people in, stop often and you’ll end up dirty and dusty. You’ve been warned!
– Motor-taxis – Great way to get around for shorter journeys (or longer if you have a strong constitution). It’s easy to travel with your backpack and is super cheap (bargain hard). If you’re going to be in a place for a few days and you find a good driver, get his number and call him when you need him as it will save time.
– Private driver – You’ll feel like royalty as you blaze through the countryside in style and comfort. It isn’t cheap and you’ll need to pay for the return journey whether you use it or not. If you’re travelling on unpaved roads, a 4WD is obviously better but a local guy will know if the time of year, weather and road standard will work with a normal car. We travelled east in a car and it was fine, bumpy but fine.
A FEW RANDOM THINGS
– Police stops and corruption – Throughout the course of a month, we got stopped by the Police about 70-80 times. Generally, they checked our passport and sometimes yellow fever certificate, but there was one guy who demanded bribes and refused to let us rejoin the bus until we paid him. Don’t pay bribes but if things turn nasty, ask for a receipt with his name and stamp on it, that should hopefully deter him. Stay calm throughout, you don’t want to upset Cameroonian Police. You always need to keep your passport handy!
– Unwanted clothes – If you have clothes or things which you’re going to throw away, offer them to a local. Africans have a wonderful gift of re-purposing items that westerners throw away.
– Warm beer – If you plan on drinking beer, you’ll find that the lack of fridges means you’ll be drinking warm beer a lot. You’ll never get used to it, but you will continue to drink it!
– Food – By the coast you get the most amazing and reasonably priced seafood. In the rest of the country, you’ll find a lack of fresh vegetables and an endless supply of bananas
– Dust – Everything will end up dusty. Just accept it and only take clothes that you don’t mind being ruined. Darker clothes leave you looking more respectable than wearing your best tennis whites!
– Humidity – Bloody hell it is humid. You’ll be constantly sweating and when it mixes with the dust, it gives you the look of a true adventurer.
Cameroon is huge and there are so many variations to what you can see and do. The ideal is to tick off your main highlights and build a realistic itinerary around them. Our unmissable experiences were to climb Mt Cameroon and see the gorillas in Lobeke National Park. Travelling from west to east took about five days but can be done quicker with a private driver (this will be costly). We also did the ring road which has some cool rural areas and places of interest, and finished on the beach in Kribi to swim and dine on fresh seafood. We were both surprised at how long it took to get from point A to B but here is an outline of our travels in Cameroon:
Day 1 – Arrive into Douala
Day 2 – Buea
Day 3-5 – Climbing Mount Cameroon – overnight in Buea on Day 5
Day 6 – Yaounde
Day 7 – Bertoua
Day 8-9 – Yokadouma
Day 10 – Mambele
Day 11-14 – Lobeke National Park (forest camping and gorilla tracking)
Day 15 – Mambele
Day 16 – Yokadouma
Day 17 – Bertoua
Day 18 – Yaounde
Day 19 – Bamenda
Day 20-21 – Belo (Zwinkels Mountain Lodge / Ngawara Tea Plantation)
Day 22 – Douala
Day 23-26 – Kribi
Day 27-28 – Douala – fly out
In case you want to see a short video which summed up our time in Cameroon, click the video below: