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Elephant Safari in the Cameroun!

Sunday, January 27th, 2013
The elephant herd

The elephant herd

Our first day off

In N’Djamena people work Monday to Thursday 7.30am to 4.30pm with one hour for lunch. Friday and Saturday they work mornings only and Sunday is their day off.
Our first Sunday arrived and before we could ponder what to do with ourselves in our new and unfamiliar environment, Annabelle our Belgian host, rang and asked if we would like to go across the river to the Cameroun as she had heard there was a 150 strong herd of elephants an hour’s drive south.
Horrors, we are just acclimatising to being in Chad and all the security measures that entails for foreigners in these risky times, the Foreign Office says Brits can’t leave the capital and Annabelle is suggesting she take us, without any papers, permits or visas to another country on some clandestine trip!! We looked at each other BUT then the lure of the elephants was just too great so I think we hesitated for about one second!!
At this point I think I should introduce you to Annabelle as I think she will be featuring often in this blog! In this very male orientated, mainly Muslim country she is amazingly one of the directors of the Chadian company Geyser SA, with whom Carlo now works. That in itself tells you she is no ordinary woman. She is mid 30’s, married to fellow Belgian Marc. They have two boys, Albert and Hughes, 14 and 10 years old respectively. The family has been living in Chad since 2008. Before that they spent at least 10 years in other central African countries. So now that I have painted the picture of this lovely family you can understand that we felt we were probably in knowledgeable and safe hands. Well as safe as you can ever be in today’s Africa.So off we go, in the out muted coloured clothes, walking shoes and sun hats as instructed by Marc.
Driving out of NDJ (N’Djamena) was in itself exciting as the traffic in this part of the world is chaotic. Bicycles and mopeds come at you from all directions and there really are no road rules, well none that people abide by! Meandering in and out of this dusty traffic are thousands of people ranging from toddlers to old men with sticks and few seem to look right or left. Expats, when they arrive in Chad, are given security briefings about what to do when they have an accident …. basically get the hell out of the place and THEN ring, in our case, the head of security at Geyser. He was formally the Chief of Police in Chad. Useful man to have on your side.
Annabelle is skilful at negotiating her way out of town in spite of road diversions taking us right through the frenetic central market. We cross the long bridge over the muddy Chari River which is the border between Chad and the Cameroun. Here we encounter the first of FIVE checkpoints, two to leave Chad and three to enter the Cameroun. Carlo and I are quite anxious about our lack of documents, Annabelle isn’t!! Unsurprisingly at each check point there is an issue ranging from ‘But your car insurance papers are out of date’ to ‘You don’t have a permit to leave Chad so how will you get back in’!! Each time Annabelle and Marc patiently and skilfully laugh and joke with the official and after much shrugging of shoulders and them repeatedly asking ‘Well what should we do now then?’ we are told to proceed. We do so without paying a bribe to any official. At one check point Annabelle did have to ring the big boss of Geyser before the car was allowed out of Chad. Amir Artine, the big boss, is a very influential man in Chad and in fact this week has been promoted to Government Minister for Rural Development and Cattle Farming! The officials then wish us good elephant viewing. No one even looked at our passports nor those of the two children in the back of the car!
After this nerve-wracking (for Carlo and I) episode the rest is relatively plain sailing until we have to get into a dugout canoe! We drive south for about an hour. The countryside is dry, dusty and sparsely vegetated. We wonder what there is for 150 voracious elephants to eat? We enter a small unsigned game reserve where the local ranger joins us in the car. ‘Lots of elephants have babies so it is very dangerous if you go on your own’ he tells us. OOOOOOK I feel another little adventure coming on!
We drive slowly along dusty tracks barely wide enough for a vehicle to pass, the bushes scraping the sides of the car. The vegetation is now quite dense as we are running parallel to a large river. We stop periodically to listen for the elephants, for sounds of breaking vegetation. Suddenly there’s a loud trumpeting behind a bush immediately on our left. A huge female elephant is waving her ears angrily at us, her trunk high in the air. A baby disappears into the nearby undergrowth while our guide is shouting ‘recule, recule!’ (reverse, reverse!). Annabelle, calm as ever, slams the gear into reverse and we retreat to a safe distance. We then realise there are lots of elephants all around us. With no choice, we sit quietly hoping they are more frightened of us then we are of them! They were and quickly disappeared into the undergrowth. Phew!
Onward and we reach an open beach on the bank of the brown river. We park in shade and walk down to the water where our guide points out that the large herd of elephants are on an island in the river. He also points out very large hippo footprints….. not really what we want to see at this point as hippos have a habit of sleeping at the bottom of the river and popping up when least expected.  Such as under a canoe! The guide spots some local fishermen with dugout canoes and signals that we want to cross to the island. Marc is meanwhile muttering that this is a national park so why are fishermen allowed to be here. He is of course right. Moments later we are clambering into a wobbling, water-logged canoe with the owner shovelling water out as fast as it comes in.

Annabelle and family cross the rive first

Annabelle and family cross the rive first

We follow with the park guide

We follow with the park guide

Fish being dried in the sun

Fish being dried in the sun

We reach the island and walk straight through an active fishing village where the Africans are drying fish on rush mats. Tilapia and glistening tiny silver fish like anchovies lie covered by flies and stinking in the 40 degree midday sun. Just beyond this village we hear and see dozens of elephants crashing through woods and fields as they eat their daily 100kg quota of fodder. White cattle egrets swarm around them taking advantage of the disturbed insects. What a wonderful and breathtaking site. Our guide is very cautious and keeps us at a respectful distance, not taking his eyes off the elephants. We lend binoculars to our curious entourage of fishermen who laugh and scream with delight – ‘they are SO close’. I am cursing that I chose to leave my large, super Canon camera in France as I fight to use my new dinky Panasonic Lumix. Carlo is meanwhile snapping away successfully with the Iphone.

Carlo with IPhone

Carlo with IPhone

Dugouts in various states of repair

Dugouts in various states of repair

We eventually drag ourselves away and back to the dugout canoes to cross back to the car. I get into a canoe with Carlo and sit down not realising the seat in this one was balanced on bricks. I end up in the bottom of the canoe with a crash as the seat collapses. The nearby black children roar with laughter.

Curious fishermen

Curious fishermen

Children in fishing village

Children in fishing village

Our dugout man

Our dugout man

The morning ends after we drive further up stream looking for crocodiles, but without success. As we left the fishermen two of them came behind us on mopeds, using our car as a protection barrier between them and the elephants. They hugged our rear bumper. Then without warning Annabelle slams on the brakes as we again come face to face with another rather large, trumpeting female elephant. Again it’s a case of ‘Recule, recule!’ but of course we can’t unless we flatten two motorcyclists!! Our guide is getting quite agitated, his arms flailing around outside the window trying to make the fishermen move back. They CAN’T reverse as they are stuck in deep lose sand. We just watch with our jaws open as the elephant decides whether to charge or to retreat. All goes quiet, she looks at us, swings around and lopes off into the forest in a cloud of dust.  Luckily for us it seems the animals in this little known park are as yet keen to avoid humans.

A teenage elephant

A teenage elephant

That’s enough action for today!   Our ranger is dropped off as we leave the park. We repeat the five checkpoints and re-enter Chad amid  waving hands and wide smiles from the officials, shouting to ask if we saw the elephants.  Indeed we did!   The checkpoint barriers were raised one after another as we sailed back into Chad without showing a document.
Half an hour later we were eating Chinese food in a local restaurant in N’Djamena with Annabelle and family. The day ended with coffee and chocolates (melting fast in the heat!) back at their house. How civilised. What a crazy life this is and suddenly it no longer seems so foreign!!

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The Road to Moundou

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

[subscribe2]The Road south to Moundou

 

Taken from the car as we head south

Taken from the car as we head south

The plan was to leave before 8am, we leave after 9.  But that’s  Africa.  We set off in two vehicles, one Annabelle’s 4 x 4 with Carlo and I and our more valuable baggage, the other our 4 x 4 driven by our current driver Mohammed who takes the bulky baggage, various theodolites and other equipment needed by Geyser (Carlo’s employers) in Moundou, 450 long kms away to the south.

The first challenge is to negotiate our way out of NDJ (N’Djamena).  Road diversions take us into crowded, almost impassable corners of the city.  We come to t-junctions where all traffic is coming at us and we see no way forward!  It’s incredibly dusty, crowded and noisy ……. and very atmospheric for photos BUT Annabelle gently says ‘don’t take any unless we have an escape route!’.    OK got the message loud and clear.  At this point in time the only escape route is vertically as we are grid locked in this crazy central market mêlée of people and traffic.  We sit patiently in our air-conditioned bubble and inch forward painfully.  Somewhere in this madness we are due to pick up Annabelle’s driver.  Thank heavens for mobile phones as he is finally located sitting patiently by the roadside near one of the last roundabouts leading out of town.  There he is with his luggage tied up neatly in a carpet and his prayer rug tucked under his arm.  He changes with Annabelle and now we can hit the open road………

Clusters of mud huts flash by, village after village.  The tarmac road is good for the moment.  The driver is cautious though as cattle, camels, goats and Africans can cross the road at any time, traffic seeming irrelevant to them and they definitely take priority!  We pass through various ‘peage’ where our driver hands over 500 francs.   As the drive progresses I get braver and take out the IPhone, trying to grab the odd village photo without too much blur.  The driver does not like this in spite of Annabelle’s persuasion.  I can see the visual side of our stay in Chad is going to be VERY difficult.  Here are a couple of shots taken on the run so to speak ……..

 

Quick snap from the IPhone!

Quick snap from the IPhone!

 

Lunchtime and we are all starving.  We reach the halfway town of Bongor where Annabelle has been told about a reasonable restaurant in one of the back streets. It takes us several detours of this busy town before we locate it.  Down a rough dirt track a narrow doorway opened into a dusty courtyard and there inside is a covered cooking area, a palm tree, a few plants and a shaded eating area to the side.  Our driver brings the car into the courtyard for safety.  Bowls of water and soap are bought to us and I should then have known what was coming next ….. or should I say what was NOT coming next, CUTLERY!!   Not being able to understand what was on the menu (the verbal menu) we were invited into the kitchen to check the contents of each pot.  Smelled and looked good.  We all agreed the lamb stew with vegetables was for us.  With it we ordered ‘maize’ which came in the form of a solid white lump made in what looked like a jelly mould. Mohammed, the first driver, ordered a meat sauce to go with the maize.  Our driver was still washing himself in preparation for praying.

Lunch being served - meat stew.

Lunch being served – meat stew.

 

Our lunch en route and not a knife or fork in site!  Fingers only!!  Right hand only.

Our lunch en route and not a knife or fork in sight! Fingers only!! Right hand only.

 

We all sat around a low table and ordered drinks.  The safest option was soft drinks from bottles.  Various fruit flavours were offered.  They came in the brightest, most fluorescent colours that I have ever seen in a drink. After drinking the grenadine flavoured one Annabelle had a bright red indelible moustache for the rest of the day.  Heaven knows what colourings and preservatives they contained!  Though the drinks were unpleasant to say the least, the food was delicious once we learnt how to get it into our mouths with our hands.  It was a matter of digging into the maize with our fingers and then dipping the white starchy blob into the hot stew.  I would have found chopsticks easier!!  Watch and learn I thought as I studied our drivers deftly eating with long, elegant fingers.

After the meal was over water and soap was again brought to our table to wash our now very messy hands  – at least those of Annabelle, Carlo and mine!  Our table looked like a two year old had been let lose without a bib. THEN we were offered the toilets.  Annabelle just raised her eyebrows and said ‘You might find Chadian toilets quite a challenge!’.  She opted not to use them. I thought I might as well see what the fuss was about.  Behind a corrugated iron door was a concrete floor in the middle of which was a round hole about 4 inches in diameter, yes 4 inches!!  There was also a tiny stool about 6 inches high.  The room was quite clean in an African sort of way so I was just left to conclude that the Chadians must have the most incredible ability to aim well for that tiny hole!!!  Perhaps this is where the stool came into play? I was almost afraid to try using this toilet.  No paper of course but then we all know why we don’t use our left hand to eat.  More washing of hands followed.

This is becoming bit of a ‘warts and all’ blog!  Hope after the above you will stay with us and continue the journey!  In the mid 1970s I spent a year driving across Africa, starting in the south.  That way I had gradually and slowly become acclimatised to the tougher and more basic side of Africa.  On this trip, and 35 years later, we were being flung into it at a head spinning speed, and all this in less than a week in the country!  My eyes are wide open in amazement this time round but  already, day by day, I sense a familiarity returning, thanks no doubt to that trip from my long distant past.  For Carlo, as always, he just takes it in his stride, the African genes being well and truly cast in his blood from his childhood and long life living in Southern Africa.

Back into our aircon bubbles we continue for the next 100kms on a ‘diversion’ along a dusty and potholed red (laterite) earth road before rejoining the main tarmac road running south.  The tarmac road being repaired, runs parallel to the dirt road and sits on higher land than any around it. This is to protect it from the serious floods in the rainy season.  Last rainy season the local villagers had to sleep on this road when their houses were under water!  Now we also understand why suddenly we are seeing rice paddies replacing the earlier sorghum fields. The terrain has changed.

Once we get back onto the tarmac we wished we hadn’t as it is so potholed that the journey became one of zigzagging from side to side to avoid the bone shatteringly deep holes and trying to do so without colliding with slower or oncoming vehicles.  We reached Moundou as the sun was setting.  It was a glorious blood red ember in the clear sky but as soon as we got to the town proper it became obscured by a hazy cloud of dust and pollution which hung in the air like an opaque blanket.  Quite atmospheric pictorially (I silently imagined my fingers on the shutter of my Canon) but a nightmare for those driving their mopeds or walking around.  I noticed quite a few cyclists wore surgical masks and that the trees which lined the streets were coated in a thick film of red dust.

Welcome to Moundou and Geyser’s southern engineering operations in Chad.  It took about 8 hours to get here.  Carlo’s teams of young surveyors gather around him the moment we drive into the compound and as on day one Annabelle introduces us as we shake the endless hands of  Maxime, Ma-loum, Badoum, and even Cherubin (!)  all beaming from ear to ear and ready for their two week’s training.  Way you go Carlo, I’m off to write my blog in the isolated splendour of the Cotton Club Chad hotel!  More Fawlty Towers than you can imagine ……… until next time.

Our abode at Le Club-Coton-Chad hotel.

Our abode at Le Club-Coton-Chad hotel.

 

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Our Southern home

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

[subscribe2]CLUB-COTON-CHAD, MOUNDOU

 

Our room is right under the palm tree

Our room is right under the palm tree

The dining room (thatched hut in background)

The dining room (thatched hut in background)

The bar and lounge at Club-Coton-Chad

The bar and lounge at Club-Coton-Chad

As the name of our hotel indicates, we are in the cotton growing region of Chad, in its southern and second largest town, Moundou also known for the ‘Gala’ brewery and nearby oil exploration. This is a more tropical part of the country than N’Djamena where we have come from. But with this tropical climate comes the greatest curse in Africa, malaria. The malaria in this region is serious. Our clothes are sprayed, we sleep under impregnated nets, we burn mosquito repellents in the room and at dawn and dusk we cover every inch of skin with lotions and potions or thick clothes. All a bit of a palaver in this hot weather but better to be safe than sorry.

I’ve just been trawling the web to see if I can find out more about Moundou and unsurprisingly I am met with endless blank pages on Trip Advisor, Yahoo etc. BUT I have unearthed the following: Moundou is a beautiful place for local walks. You can visit the Logone River and the National Museum. People in Moundou are very cooperative. There are new developments along the riverside. There is also a national ballet dancing bar that is an attractive area to visit and learn about southern culture and civilization in Chad. Don’t forget to visit different Roundabout Stadium. I am now so intrigued about the ‘national ballet dancing bar’ that I think Carlo and I will have to go and find it!! We might as well check out Roundabout Stadium while we’re at it. I do love Africa!!

Now I have to tell you more about our hotel as we have had smiles of amusement on our faces since the moment we checked in! It’s certainly a ‘no frills’ hotel and star ratings wouldn’t apply but there is something very endearing about its weather worn personality and the people who run it and who work here.

 

Elegant lady who looks after the rooms

Elegant lady who looks after the rooms

Diane,a waitress here.  She like my nail varnish!

Diane,a waitress here. She like my nail varnish!

The end result

The end result

We had arrived at dusk, hot and dusty after our 8 hour drive from NDJ so once in our room a shower seemed a priority.  I went first and all I can say is that the scene was like a snake charmer trying to tame a spitting cobra!  The first jet of water shot out of the shower and hit the wall behind my head, then a splutter before the next jet hit me full in the stomach.  I was finally assaulted on the face by its last burst of spitting fury.  Now I understood why someone had put a water bottle between the wall and the shower head (see pic).  While all this erratic spitting of water was happening I was fumbling with the taps because it seemed that hot water was coming out of the tap marked in blue and cold water was coming out of the one marked in red.  Hmmmmm!  Eventually as more water flowed, the trapped air escaped and my cobra seemed tamed.

The head of the spitting cobra!

The head of the spitting cobra!

The next day the plumber was called and jubilantly proclaimed ‘Oh I see the problem, the hot and cold pipes have been reversed’.  With that already known comment and no other explanation, he disappeared for the day.  By now the protesting hot water cylinder had developed a persistent and annoyingly loud three second beep (something to do with the water pressure Carlo assured me).  That night, as if in sympathy,  the air con unit burst into life roaring like a small jet engine, adding to the incessant beep, beep coming from the bathroom. Then at dawn a flock of crows landed on our corrugated iron roof, sounding like a rats with clogs on.  The orchestra was now complete and all we could do was laugh as this cacophony of different noises got us up early and ready for another day in Moundou .

Come back soon as there SO many endearing stories about our time at Club-Coton-Chad …..

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