Cameroon is often referred to as a microcosm of the continent of Africa. This is largely because of the presence of both Anglophone and Francophone populations, as well as a particularly large number of native tribes. The country also contains all of the continent’s geographical variations, from the arid beginnings of the Sahel in the north, the heavily forested coastal belt in the south west, to the mountainous east, which contains West Africa’s highest mountain, Mt Cameroon.
In 1870, German colonialists settled several areas of present day Cameroon. When German Imperial possessions were confiscated after World War 1, the country split into French and British sectors. These were united in 1961, but the linguistic differences persisted. Government in the former British area is conducted in English, or Pidgin English, and in the larger ex-French area is Francophone. Outside administrative circles, French dominates in Cameroon and has become the most common language, with English somewhat sidelined. There are a massive 279 living languages in Cameroon, divided between a population of only 17 million.
The unit of currency in Cameroon is the CFA franc. This is used throughout the former French colonies of Central and West Africa. The CFA franc is fixed to the Euro, at a rate of 1 Euro for 655 CFA francs. As of 15th October $1 would buy 524 CFA francs, and £1 would buy 972. Despite the pegging to the Euro, western currencies are not accepted in Cameroon or other CFA franc countries.
Because of intense competition between breweries within Cameroon, promotional bottle top caps are occasionally used as currency, especially to pay taxi drivers and bribe police officers.
The climate along the coast is tropical, the equatorial temperatures made more bearable by the prevailing winds coming in from the ocean. In the arid interior it is hot and dry, whereas in the forested regions to the south west it is hot and wet.
The Waza National Park is in the north of the country, and several tour operators working out of Douala or Yaoundé offer week long trips into the park, allowing you to explore the tribal villages and watch lions, elephants and giraffes in the their natural habitat. It covers 170,000 hectares and is open from June until November.
The falls of Memve’ ele are part of the increasingly popular eco-tourism scene. The trails and facilities are all maintained by the local tribe, who welcome visitors with open arms and do whatever they can to show off the natural beauty of their home. They offer hikes in the forest, guided tours of Neolithic caves, and canoeing expeditions down the rapids. One particularly exciting development is the potential for gorilla watching tours to take place in the area. Of course, the balancing act required to make ecologically sustainable tourism successful is a fine one, but with careful planning and support from the government, it could happen.
In Yaoundé, the capital city, there are several museums and galleries worth a visit. On Mt Febe, one of Yaounde’s seven hills, there is a traditional arts and crafts museum housed in an old Benedictine Monastery. The rest of this hill has been set up as a kind of resort. The high altitude means it has a pleasant climate in which to enjoy the golf course, casinos, night clubs and restaurants.
In the mountainous west of the country, a unique style of pottery is produced by the Kirdi and Makatam people. These are usually representations of animals such as elephants or lions and used for ceremonial purposes, although it is possible to purchase them. Other popular souvenirs include mats and rugs made from camel hair, grass, or raffia. The American-style shopping mall is yet to catch on in West Africa, as air conditioning is too costly. Most shopping is done in open-air markets, and you should expect to barter with the vendors. Once they discern you are a (presumably) wealthy traveller, they will often try to charge you over double the usual price. You should remain alert in these markets, although they are not as dangerous as many would believe, as the vendors value the business of travellers and do their best to prevent pickpockets and other petty criminals plying their trade.
In Yaoundé and the other major cities there plenty of bars, cinemas and clubs. Many tourists don’t venture outside the hotel or resort complex, but this would be a mistake as the local’s warmth, hospitality and curiousness easily outweigh the safety considerations. There are no licensing laws and many bars stay open as long as there are still people, and the people stay as long as there is still music. The Cameroonian music scene fuses traditional tribal percussive textures with the flamboyance of funk and jazz influences.
Driving in Yaoundé is reasonably safe, and the roads are good compared to those found in the rest of West Africa. There are streetlights in some areas, but as you get further from the major cities, the quality of roads and lighting deteriorate rapidly. Driving at night is not recommended, especially out of towns, and you should keep car doors locked at all times.
Food & Drink
Avocados, mangoes, pineapples and citrus fruits are readily available and present in much of the local cuisine. When Portuguese explorers sailed down the Wouri River, they found it teeming with prawns, and named the surrounding lands after the Portuguese word for prawn, Camarao. Many dishes in the south are based around the abundance of this shellfish. They are eaten with cous cous, mashed potato or rice. You will find good quality restaurants in the cities. The service is usually good and prices reasonable, although you may have to barter before the meal.
SOCATOUR Tourist Board, Yaoundé: +237 223 3219 www.africa.com