Words and pictures by Jan Quinten and Mariska Wennink.
These days it’s quite possible to drive across Africa in a normal 2WD vehicle, as (with a few exceptions) there are tarmac roads connected all the way around. But anyone who thinks that driving on tar in West Africa is easier and more comfortable than driving on dirt roads, is partly mistaken.
Although dirt roads can be very rough and unpredictable, the only predictable things on African tar are huge potholes, and heavy traffic comprised of pedestrians, cyclists or donkey cart drivers. And the moment the locals are in charge of a vehicle with an engine on board, they think they’re Lewis Hamilton. These tar roads are mostly narrow, especially the older ones which are all heavily cracked and worn away at the sides. Driving our 2.4-metre-wide truck on these roads is no fun, and often costs us a mirror.
But the real reason that we skip the tar and drive the small paths and dirt roads through Africa is that you see a totally different Africa. The villages along the tarmac roads are dirty and full of rubbish; and the ugly houses are made of rough unpainted concrete and corrugated steel. We prefer the countryside, which is less populated, and where villages consist of mud- and clay houses with thatched roofs; most importantly, here the people wave at you; they’re sincerely happy to see you, and not just your wallet.
However, after having been stuck for three days in a swamp in Benin, and driving a rough path 90 kilometres through the bush into Nigeria in pouring rain, we found ourselves relieved to be driving on tar again. We’d decided to drive through Nigeria on tar as we hadn’t considered the country to be a destination, but just an area to traverse on our journey south. The north of the country was unsafe at the time because of clashes between Muslims and Catholics, and the south, specifically the Niger Delta, had been a no-go area for years.
So we drove through the middle of the country on tarmac, spending only ten days in the country. It has to be said that we didn’t feel unsafe; we even wild-camped most of the time. The people were very friendly, with the exception of a few guys who tried to collect a road tax by throwing nail-festooned planks onto the road. We spotted this too late to stop, so fired up our brights and spots and announced our intention of pushing through by using our 160 dB train horn. It scared them away – and fortunately they took their planks with them.
So, Nigeria was easy. But there was a dodgy section of road waiting for us right after the border in Cameroon – the notorious N7 between the villages of Ekok and Mamfé. In the dry season, the road is 2WD friendly – if you have a bit of ground clearance. But we were travelling without a timetable, schedule, or detailed planning, which meant that sometimes we ended up in the wrong spot at the wrong time – and this was the case now.
It’d been raining for weeks. Not just raining, but also pouring from time to time. And from where we were in Nigeria, that was the only road into Cameroon. There were some other roads, but as far as we knew, there were no bridges. And the rivers were running much too high. Further north there was another road with a bridge into Cameroon, but then we’d have had to drive all the way back southwest through the mountains. And we’d just read on the internet that more than 20 000 people had been evacuated from that area because of extreme flooding and landslides. So, that was a no-go.
There was a boat going from Calabar in the south. But hey, this was an overlanding trip, not a boat cruise. Besides, boats in this part of the world aren’t that safe either; so it had to be the Ekok-Mamfé route. But before crossing the border, we first wanted to know more about the condition of the road, because sometimes it can be really impassable, with truck-sized holes and waist-deep mud. Once on the other side of the border, there’d be no way of getting back as we had only a singleentry visa for Nigeria, already used up. And, on the Cameroonian side, the N7 is the only way into the country.
We asked the border officials on the Cameroonian side about road conditions, but no one could tell us for sure. We would just have to wait a while for people coming from Cameroon into Nigeria – they could tell us more, we hoped. But the only people who crossed the border were traders coming from Ekok who hadn’t travelled further on the N7. They said they thought it would be okay. ‘Your truck is high enough, it will do the trick.’ We decided that it would be wise not to wait longer but to go, as the weather was good and the sun shining brightly.
Customs on both sides was quick and easy. Then, while we were driving through the small town, an enormous lady shouted at us, ‘Don’t drive that road. Don’t go; you will die there!’ We saw some old, lifted 4WD Toyota bakkies parked here and there. Really battered, the sides totally scraped, fenders flattened, mirrors and tail-lights gone. There was also quite a number of little 125cc motorcycles (Chinese brands unashamedly tagged Keweseki) so full of mud that you could hardly see the engine itself – the mud was totally baked around it.
Another lady told us not to go further. ‘Mud till here!’ And she pointed at her neck. We looked at each other. It couldn’t be that bad, or no one would have been able to get through. They had to be exaggerating. And if it was that bad, why hadn’t we got the information on the other side of the border? Well, too late now.
At the end of the village the path split. On the left, a narrow flat path. On the right, a wider stretch, but with a steep uphill some 50 metres long. We took the right side, engaging 4WD. Struggling with traction, we slipped and slid, with mud spraying from all sides. We made it to the top of the hill, but it wasn’t an easy climb. Our Michelins XZLs couldn’t throw off the sticky mud; the tread, almost two centimetres deep, was immediately covered.