Although this was an experience outside of my 40 countries in my 40s challenge , it is one which has influenced all my travels since without me really realising the full extent to how it has impacted me if I’m honest. Recently, I have noticed subtle changes in me and I have started to wonder if my natural responses to this incident made my body respond to situations in a particular way which I’m now seeing is no longer happening. Maybe 7 years on, I’m finally leaving it behind. I hope so!
The 1st August is one of those dates I remember every year but unlike birthdays or anniversaries of great experiences it doesn’t have happy memories. Instead, I remember it as a day I could have been killed by bandits in Cameroon.
I won’t add photos to this post and I won’t name the area we were in as really this could have happened anywhere. You can read it simply as a travel story or take it as advice for your travels, it is entirely up to you.
I was living in Cameroon at the time and was on holiday with a friend. As we lived in the far north of Cameroon which was dry and hot, we decided to spend a couple of weeks on holiday in the west of Cameroon. A lot of other volunteers were doing the same and we had followed on from another friend who was travelling on her own.
We decided to take a bus to visit a lake we had heard was beautiful and not far off the main road. It was a beautiful day when we got off the bus and started to walk down a grassy track chatting away about all sorts of things as good friends do.
It wasn’t long before we noticed we had 4 local men for company. We carried on walking thinking they would only follow for a while until they realised they wouldn’t be given any money to act as a guide for us. We knew from our other trips in Cameroon that this was probably what they were expecting. They continued with us for longer than we had expected and we tried repeatedly to get rid of them but they wouldn’t leave us.
In the end, my friend and I stopped and asked each other ‘What’s your gut telling you, shall we turn back?’ We had both been living and working in Cameroon for 8 months by then and had both had a mixture of interactions with locals and other volunteers so we felt like we had a good understanding of this situation and both felt happy to continue with a plan to stop if they really wouldn’t leave us. We explained to them a few more times that we didn’t want guides and they said they just wanted to walk with us and didn’t want anything in return.
As we showed no interest in them, they soon walked off. We both gave a sigh of relief and carried on walking in the direction of the lake we had been told was beautiful and a lovely place to relax, a nice walk of about 45 minutes at the most. It was a gorgeous day, humid and hot but we were used to worse than that in the far north so this felt like a nice cool day for both of us. We walked along taking photos, chatting and laughing and talking about the next part of our holiday.
Finally, we came to a point where the trees cleared and we could see the steps leading up to the point where we would be able to look down to the lake and get some great photos. Whilst we made our way to the steps, we were too busy to notice the 2 men who stepped out of the bushes greeting us. These were different to the ones we had got rid of at the start of the walk.
We started climbing the steps , my friend ahead of me as I stopped to take photos of the scenic view we had just left. One of the men ran on ahead to catch up with my friend whilst the other stayed with me and whilst he was quiet the other one was trying to engage us in conversation. Due to our encounter with the previous 4 men, we were more aware of what we said and how we behaved as again we just wanted to be left alone to see the lake. We both made it up to the top of the steps and could see the huge hole before us, however I don’t think either of us actually saw that lake and we certainly don’t have any photos.
For the next 3 hours or so, we basically bargained for our lives. The more vocal guy threatening us and demanding money in French. We responded and there were even times when he simply chatted but we were always on guard of how his mood could change. He couldn’t believe that 2 white women would volunteer in a country which wasn’t their own so we talked to him about where we lived and worked, the people we knew and the teachers we trained. Again he demanded money, which again we declined having. He wanted our cameras but we refused. He threatened that as women, he and his friend could choose to do anything they wanted with with us and that there were only 2 ways we could get away from this situation, over into the lake which we couldn’t even see or down the steps we had just climbed up, about 500 steep ones which they could easily push us down.
My friend and I realised when the quiet one went off to sort something that we now had to bargain somehow as we certainly couldn’t outrun them as this would no doubt result in us falling down the steps trying to get away. We realised we had to at least get down safely and then we might have more of a chance so as he had asked for our camera bag, I turned my back, took my camera out of the bag and made sure it was around my neck and hidden under my jacket and handed him the camera bag. They didn’t get the camera but they got the camera bag and a memory card I had forgotten to remove but at least we were able to get down the steps safely although they both hung closely to us as we descended.
At the bottom, the vocal guy started to threaten us again and started talking to the other one about getting the machetes. I watched my friend get more and more angry and telepathically tried to tell her not to start anything as I knew that if she threw the first punch or whatever that that would be it, we would have no chance of survival.
The pushing and shoving continued and was getting more and more aggressive and I continued trying to bargain with them, trying everything to get everyone to calm down. At some point, in the distance we saw a man approaching and we shouted for his help, he didn’t help us but that gave us a chance to run knowing that there was at least a witness. I have never run so fast in my life, my friend following behind and just when we thought we were clear and they weren’t following the more aggressive guy was suddenly wrestling with my friend. Again we got away and we ran faster until we came to a point where we realised we had taken the wrong turn along the way but happy to continue as this path took us through paved paths and closer to houses. Along our return to the road we realised that the guy had managed to get my friend’s phone out of her pocket in the struggle.
We walked on, neither of us really talking, just lost in our thoughts of how close we had come to being killed and how lucky we were to be walking away. Unfortunately the bus conductor on the ride home tried to get more money out of us for our fare and our anger came flooding out. The passengers on the bus were so apologetic for what had happened and reassured us we were now safe.
Now perhaps you realise why 1st August is always a date which stops me in my tracks. Maybe one year something will happen to make it a nicer memory or I will simply forget it. Has it put me off travelling? No, not at all. I have so many good memories from all my travels and especially from Cameroon. Did it change me? Undoubtedly so and no doubting ways I don’t even know. We survived and in the days that followed, we kept telling ourselves that but we never really discussed it together apart from the odd sentence or look. I tell people at times along with other memories of Cameroon as it didn’t turn me against the country because it could happen anywhere and I no doubt have many experiences to share from my other travels.