Motorcycle Trip through Central Africa

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Following are excerpts from letters sent home by Jim Ludden (Peace Corps Nigeria VII 1963-65) about a motorcycle trip through Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, and Cameroon with Johannes (Jonny) von Foerster (Nigeria VIII). Jonny's photos of this trip are available at Motorcycle Trip Photos

9 March 1964
I went to Onitsha last Sunday and talked to Will Craven, who attempted the journey in question, but was unsuccessful because of illness. I learned a lot about conditions of road and lodgings as far as he went, and he had a letter from a terminated PCV who went home via Stanleyville hitchhiking. He gave good info on Congo. Will terminates next Xmas and may go home via Stanleyville and the Nile, joining us. A Canadian who went to Timbuktu this Xmas wants to go, also, and I may have found another in a British follow from Uzuakoli. 

In the former French countries there are no native hotels, and we will have to cook or eat in the very expensive French hotels. Last Sat and Sunday I had lunch in native hotels for 1 shilling and 2 shillings. Good food and cheap. No stomach trouble. Missions have the only flophouses in French colonies, and Peace Corps is becoming less welcome in the more crowded ones. I propose to take folding cots and sleep in primary school buildings. 

The route will go thru Bangui, Central African Republic, probably via Cameroon. If time runs out we will take a steamer from there to Brazzaville. Time permitting we go to Stanleyville, and down river Congo from there. If we still have time, we will go into the Ruwenzori Mountains. Will says we should not attempt more than 500 miles in a week, Many of the roads are terrible, and we would need a day or two each week for sights, laundry, etc.  

19 March 1964
My camera has for three or so months been in Lagos for repair, and I got it back last week—un-repaired. The only camera-repairman in Nigeria refused to fix it as his store doesn't carry that brand! So I will make one last desperate effort to iix it myself, then negotiate with Sears to have them repair it. This means tangling with customs, altho that is not impossible. I may just send it home and buy a cheap camera here—altho import duty on cameras is very high and there are no inexpensive ones. Also the film is often spoiled by the high humidity, replaced by Kodak, but nevertheless your pictures ruined.

23 May 1964
Over the holiday I worked on Peace Corps cars and tried to get some visas in Lagos. Lagos is really a city, with rich and mediocre suburbs, a good bus system, and a changing central city.

Transport to and from there, is, thru the Western region, is bad, not so much because of the roads, which are few, but sufficient, but because of the lack of organization of the taxi drivers. For instance, Onitsha is the main trading city of the Eastern Region. The taxis for Lagos leave from there. Before they get out of the city they have to cross a long, expensive, and corrupt ferry. They could better work it like Calabar, which has another motor park across the water, and passengers go across the ferry, then look for a taxi.

21 July 1964
My plans for Christmas vacation are changing with the troubles in the Congo. I will probably not be able to get a visa to go to Stanleyville, so will take a leisurely trip thru Cameroon to Bangui in Central African Republic, then north from there thru northern Cameroon (where the women still put discs in their lips) to Fort Lamy and Lake  Chad, returning thru Northern Nigeria. [We actually went the other way around - clockwise.] That should give me a fair view  of equatorial Africa and a good view of the savanna. Then if I travel to Europe via ship I will see (at least the coast) the rest of West Africa, which I gather is just like Nigeria, except more corrupt.  


9 August 1964
I have fixed up my Honda CB125 with two big parachute bags hanging below the rear seat. Each bag holds about 1 1/2 cu ft and should support 50 pounds. With a folding camp cot and mosquito net I should be able to travel anywhere. All I need now is a plastic gasoline jug holding about 2 1/2 gallons [which we did not take or need]. That will give me a range of 400 miles between gas stations. Change of clothes, medical kit, some food and water, spare light bulbs, and a little money should take me anywhere. I hope Congo cools down before I leave.

7 Sept 1964
My Honda broke a piston but I was able to drive it 250 miles home from Onitsha, stopping in Enugu to greet the new volunteers and show them how to ride and service Honda motorcycles. My engine is on the floor before me partly dismantled. Some of the bolts are being very stubborn and I can’t separate the block from the crankcase. The mechanics are so bad that I decided to repair it myself. [I was able to replace both pistons with only the tools that came with the motorcycle.]

October 1964
I will go to Lagos between the 10th and the 25th to get visas for our holiday trip. Have to come back for Thanksgiving, as there will be a turkey dinner in Item.

8 November 1964
My plans for the big trip are gelling well. We are three now, and we will probably go north in Nigeria first, so as to be among friends if trouble arises early in the game. I rode to Onitsha Monday and back Tuesday, five hours in the saddle each way, to check up on the plans, as the mails are too slow. [Jonny Von Foerster, my travel partner, was stationed near Onitsha.] I have the major part of my equipment accounted for. I can easily carry a cot with mosquito net. We will carry extra gas and water, stove and food (tho we hope we don't have to cook much), and money. [We took only money.] The Peace corps is giving me $262.50 for this vacation, plus my regular allowance of $150. By the time we get to Yaounde we will know if we feel like a side trip to Gabon to see Schweitzer. Also know if we feel like climbing Mt. Cameroon. I sure do miss a trip to East Africa with its game preserves and a hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro with snow. That will have to wait until I am a rich executive or something. Some of the kids are trying to hitchhike there, but with all the trouble in Congo and Sudan [some things never change], they may never make it or may have to fly back. 

14 November 1964
This vacation will be one of the most expensive I have ever organized. We figure about $300 each, not to count depreciation of cycles, visas, special equipment. I am going with two other PCVS, Johannes (Jonny) von Foerster and Ken Potts [group VIII, Onitsha]. Each have bigger cycles than I, but the roads are so terrible that I shouldn‘t have much trouble keeping up with them. 

School is essentially finished for this year. What a nice long vacation we get, but it can't be all holiday, as I have only 35 days Peace Corps vacation left, the rest must be project. I leave for Lagos on Monday noon (I hope), to get visas; but Jonny can’t leave till later, so we will probably not start our holiday until 10 Dec or so. 

12 December 1964, Saturday evening

Here we are in Wamba, a village on the southern flank of the Jos Plateau. We are two days from Onitsha. Jonny found a girl to squire around the Eastern Region which put us back four days starting and, for all we know, Ken is still in Lagos getting his wiring straightened. He wired us to go ahead.

14 Dec

Now near Jos, where we spent a day looking around and fixing equipment. No word from Ken [Cramer]. We got free room and board at the District Officer’s house in Wamba and are doing nearly the same here. Tomorrow we try to rebid Jonny’s rack, the go on to Bauchi. The people in the north mostly have hot and cold running water and lights all the time, teach at well-equipt schools.

The road was gravel and very dusty so we try to take a bath when we arrive. The other night we have a nice swim in a river. This afternoon I went rock climbing here on the Jos Plateau, which is at 4,400 ft elevation and very cool at night.

I’m having a great time and the fellow I’m with just bought a Hausa camel-hair blanket which is very nice. I’ll look for one tomorrow: $12. The road to Maiduguri is tarred from here. I am carrying books to Bauchi, so when we reach there my load will be about fifteen pounds lighter.

Jos is a white man’s town—strictly colonial—with an American (segregated) high school. The museum is good, tho very small; it has a large collection of contemporary pots from all over Nigeria and some archeological stuff. The rest of the plateau is very bush, but some parts are densely populated. In some areas the women wear only a bunch of leaves or strings of beads about their waists with a small loin cloth. They live in round huts made of adobe blocks and grass thatch roofs. There are few trees here. In the bush there are no markets—strictly subsistence living. There are over 30 tribes on the plateau and they are dominated by the Hausa from the north.

22 Dec

Yesterday we arrived in Ft. Lamy, Chad, after a hot, dusty ride on a long but smooth dirt road from Maiduguri. This town easily lives up to its reputation as the world’s most expensive capital. We spent $7 on a crummy room for two with cold water, no soap, and sagging beds. It is the cheapest in town—there are no African hotels; this one, as all others, is run by a French family. After spending $3 for a light supper last night we decided to go to the African quarter for lunch and spent $3.5 each for a Sudanese meal, huge but cheap. We finally found a Nigerian hotel (food only) where we can get rice with sauce for $0.25 (usual price in Nigeria: $0.07). We may go back there for breakfast.

The French have a real colony here—opposite to Nigeria. An entire French family will run a store and there are french cafés, night clubs, hotels, etc., with almost no facilities in the African quarter. Meat, butter, newspapers, cheese, etc. are all flown in daily from France. The French army has a lot of boys here. Since it is nearly Xmas, all the native traders have upped their prices on local goods, tho the quality of leather goods is excellent and there is lots of ivory and brass. We will wait for ivory goods until Bangui, after Xmas. We can’t afford to stay in fancy towns after this, tho we should be able to stay and eat in Nigerian-operated hotels elsewhere. It was fun while it lasted: wine, bread, and cheese in a French open-air café with colored lights in the trees and music. Sigh.

New Year’s Eve, Bangui [via postcard]

Still having fun eating French food and drinking French wine. The entire organization of the old French colonies is different from the British ones. Ivory is not so cheap here as I had imagined (or hoped) but we are trying.

Tomorrow we go toward Yaoundé. The roads promise to be rocky and mountainous, and we are still 2,000 miles from home. Between big towns there is no food available, no African hotels or even bread-sellers as there are in Nigeria.

12 January 1965, morning

Since the last letter, things have been a bit rough, but we have smooth sailing now. We got a bug on New Year’s Day and had to sty two extra days in Bangui. After leaving Bangui by the southern route we hit 140 miles of deep sand, through which we often had to push the bikes. One day we went 110 miles in eight hours—and stayed overnight in a village with a trader. The roads in Cameroon are much better.

Cameroon is much more civilized than the other two countries [Chad and Central African Republic]. Here you occasionally see houses with tin roofs and often plastered and white-washed. In Chad or CAR never. We stayed with missionaries in Batouri and Edéa and at a native hotel in Nanga-Eboko—the first native hotel we have seen since leaving Nigeria. In Yaoundé I was offered $600 cash for my bio, but the man (a Hausa trader) couldn’t find the money. (That is almost half more than I paid for it!)

Today it is on to Kumba, then Buea. We will get free lodging from here on out, we hope, with Peace Corps. Only ten days to get home but it is enough. We are considering taking a boat from Victoria.

captionTrip Route (clockwise)

20 Jan 1965

Home again, home again, riggidy-jig. we made it: Or at least I did, and Jonny was only a bit late—he didn‘t see a truck until it was too late and had to hit a bridge to stop, but he only slightly damaged his cycle and didn't hurt himself, and he was only 80 miles from home. Good luck or something. I had no trouble at all, a credit to Mr. Honda. 

In Bamenda I bought $60 worth of handicrafts —mostly brass castings— which was all my remaining Cameroon money. Unfortunately I couldn't buy some beautiful stools and carved panels as they were too big to carry. Some of this, plus some of the stuff I got elsewhere (mostly ivory) will come dribbling in. The brass is mostly too heavy and will arrive in my sea freight. I sent a package from Bauchi, Nigeria, which contains some sandalwood beads (unfortunately perfumed), a [Yoruba style] talking drum, and some things carved from gourd. 

Well, we covered 4,000 miles in 35 days, or 6,000 miles in 2 1/2 months,if you count preparation. I spent £50 plus 45,000 CFA in 35 days, or about $600, counting depreciation and preparation. We saw how different the results of French colonialism are from those of the British, and many areas with no idea of a market economy, even after the introduction of a cash crop by the Europeans. After leaving Ft. Lamy, we did not see a single painted house or tin roof (outside of the towns) until we got to Cameroon.

Twice there were. two-day intervals where we didn't see another motor vehicle. We stayed in Nigerian hotels, French hotels, missions, gov‘t rest houses, with Peace Corps, and once slept in a primary school building. We ate Nigerian food, Sudanese food, American food, French food, and no food. Sometimes we were so full  we couldn‘t get up from the table, and once for two days we had only one meal, plus a few bananas.

For 2,000 miles (Ft. Lamy to Bangui to Yaounde) the peasants have none of the results of technology. The question arises: is this a result of 1) low population density, 2) French rule, or 3) no history of slave trading? The high density of people and long history of trading in slaves and palm oil in Nigeria must play an important part in the wealth of the peasant here, aided by the British idea of hiring native clerks, laborers, drivers, etc. The black Frenchman speaks excellent French—primary schooling is entirely in French—but has lost all his traditions. Many educated Nigerians speak terrible English; but also many have a feeling or appreciation of traditional songs and dances, etc. Ft. Lamy is full of Citroen 2CVs, owned by the poor French shopkeepers and clerks. Yaounde is full of black Mercedes, owned by the black Frenchmen. But even in Yaounde the shops are run and staffed by ex-patriots, the Africans are only figureheads in the government. 

The recent election mess in Nigeria was just about as Time magazine put it. About the only people to get killed were politicians, but many of the little people have been hurt for a long time by the political bigotry and selfishness. The progress of all Africa is greatly impeded by the corruption in the governments. 

I don’t think that Chad, Cameroon, or Republique Centrafricaine have a chance of separate economies. There are just too few resources and too few people for a market. 

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