Descending the wouri river in Cameroon with a stand up paddle
Stéphane Nedelec made the very first descent with stand up paddle boards of the Wouri River from Toumbassala to Douala with the Wouri Paddle Team
Stéphane Nedelec made the very first descent with stand up paddle boards of the Wouri River from Toumbassala to Douala with the Wouri Paddle Team
Stéphane Nedelec, who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, and then travelled 600 kilometres down the Seine on a stand-up paddleboard, knows Cameroon well, having spent more than 4 years there. So it comes as no surprise to find out that this challenge-loving man decided to make the first descent of the Wouri River from Toumbassala to Douala on a stand-up paddleboard with his son Quentin (19 years old), his friend Sébastien and his son Loup (16 years old) who currently live in Cameroon.
Once again equipped by Itiwit (inflatable 126x32 SUP, carbon paddles, waterproof bags, buoyancy vests), the team set out to fulfil this dream, "this madness" as Stéphane put it, to experience an extraordinary nautical adventure.
"On November 26th, the Wouri Paddle Team, Sébastien, Loup, Quentin and I finally met after weeks of remote preparation. Seb and Loup live in Cameroon, which is where the Wouri River flows. Quentin is studying in Lyon. I am based in Paris. But Quentin and I know Cameroon well, having lived there for more than 4 years.~
The Wouri is a little-known river because there are few paths leading to the banks. We spent a day with Seb in the bush tracing and tracking from Douala. We also spent time reading literature and studying maps. But documentation is rare and often very old. There is no doubt that there will be some unknown aspects to this journey. ~
The Wouri is a wild river, at least on the first section. And it flows through the middle of primary forest, to make things even more complicated. It’s beautiful but dangerous... the population is hostile: snakes, crocodiles, mosquitoes, bees, .. All we can do is hope to avoid too many unfortunate encounters. Just in case, though, we will have anti-venom serums for snakes with us and some instructions on how to behave in the event that we come face to face with a crocodile. We will also have several anti-mosquito products with us. Above and beyond the immediate inconvenience, it would be nice not to take malaria back hope with us!~
28th October, the alarm goes off in the morning for an hour or so of following the track. We really are in dense bush and access to the river is not easy. We manage to beat a path through with machetes. But it is about 2 hours before the boards are finally in the water and loaded for the 3 or 4 days that this journey should last. The current is impressive from the bridge and we set off on our knees to get used to its rhythm. In fact, the current is really very strong with lots of eddies, but we manage not to fall. They result from the release of water that accumulates under the submerged trunks. We are surrounded by gigantic trees and places that are suitable for stopping are very rare. But we gradually settle into a rhythm.~
All 4 of us are aware of the magic of the place. We have been preparing for this journey for several weeks. And here we are finally! ~
We're really tiny on our boards. The river cuts a swathe through the tropical forest. The trees are gigantic and majestic. The sounds of the flora and fauna add a mysterious note. From the very first paddle strokes, we are isolated, as if we were in another world.~
We are quite comfortable on our paddleboards, despite the unforgiving current which will make us pay for any mistakes. Our progress is good and we are calm. But these first two hours of rowing are in addition to the two hours spent preparing in the bush under the blazing sun, including a good hour spent cutting back bamboo with machetes to access the river. Basically, it’s time to stop for lunch and build up strength again.
We found a small, flat area of land in the midst of some plants that we didn’t know and unpacked food, water, sunscreen and mosquito repellent.~
We surveyed the shoreline to make sure there were no crocodiles coming out of the high grass around us. I didn’t really think there would be because the current is really strong right here, but you can never be too careful. In any case, after the mosquitoes, we were completely surrounded by bees. Very surreptitiously, they turned up one at a time until we found ourselves in the midst of an alarming, buzzing swarm. We decided we would take the time to digest a bit later on. We quickly climbed back on our boards and set off on our journey again.~
Good news, they didn’t chase us once we were back out on the water. Restored and full of energy, we make progress, whilst taking care to remain vigilant. It is beautiful, but we still feel that we are in hostile territory.~
We find ourselves tackling the hardest part of the route without realising it. The current speeds up again and soon rapids with waves of between 50 cm and nearly one metre appear. The forest is too dense for us to get round on foot, so we have no alternative, but to go on. ~
Within the first few meters, we are thrown off our boards. It is impossible to fight against the force of the water and the waves. Even with our weight and kneeling down on the board, we are thrown more than 50 centimetres into the air before we find ourselves in the water. As I fall, my leash undoes and the watertight bag containing the tents and equipment is no longer attached to the board. It is vital that we don’t lose it as it could jeopardize the rest of the route. I manage to catch hold of it, although the furious waters carry us off. But I have no choice but to let the board go. Loup and Quentin somehow manage to catch it, but not to control it. I went from paddleboarding to hydrospeed in a split second, but in the moment itself, nobody finds it funny. We’re not playing in the waves, we’re literally fighting just to keep our heads above water.~
I can see my co-adventurers who are also struggling, holding tightly onto their board. Everyone manages to get themselves out of this first mess without any injuries or damage to equipment. ~
But that was just the beginning. Throughout the afternoon, we alternately experience calm waters followed by these unbelievable rapids. We spend 2 long hours more often under the board than on it. We are swept away by the waves, unable to do anything other than try and go with the current. It is just like being in the drum of a terrifying, outsize washing machine. We just about have time to recover before we hit another stretch of rapids. It's exhausting.
We know that, in the event of a problem, it won’t be possible for help to get to us quickly. No boat can venture into these waters and anyway there is no network coverage for us to call for help. We'll have to handle it by ourselves. This does add a little stress though, especially since Seb and I have our boys with us. We had planned to camp near Yabassi. But just after an even more turbulent stretch of rapids than the previous ones, I spot a section of riverbank that looks particularly welcoming. I shout out the direction, but can see that Loup and Quentin are struggling to join us. The reason: no paddle! As they struggled in the rapids, they had to drop it to hold on to the board. At least they're fine. And we’ll work out the equipment issues.~
As I approach the shore, I spot something orange on the surface of the water. A paddle! I managed to retrieve it. It’s a stroke of luck because we only brought one spare one with us. ~
We somehow manage to reach the shore, fighting against the rising current all the way. We are totally exhausted. The boys were very scared. Loup was caught in an eddy that drew him towards the riverbed. He thought he was staying there. The buoyancy vest and the board did their job, but that doesn’t make it any less frightening. Quentin also thought that we would never manage to get ourselves out of the rapids. They're not too keen on the idea of setting back out the following morning. At that point in time, I just hoped that we would have a restful night, because otherwise it was going to be very hard to continue.~
The area we found to camp suits our purposes and has the advantage of not being in the middle of the forest, which should reduce the number of mosquitoes, the humidity and the worrying sounds of the bush. We set up camp on a small area of unexpected sand surrounded by high grass. We talk a lot to help relieve the stress of the afternoon. Night falls early near the equator. And with the night comes tropical rain. We take refuge in our tents and have a cold dinner. ~
On waking in the morning, although we had all spend the night churning over the events of the previous day, we felt refreshed and stronger. In any case, we have to get back on the water to reach Yabassi, the first village where we can stop. Despite have a really quick breakfast, the smell of food attracted the first bees, just like at lunchtime the day before. We packed up camp as quickly as possible and returned to the edge of the river where we left the boards the day before. The little stretch of beach is so small that we can only set out on the water one at a time. The boards lying in the high grass were covered with bees... impressive. We manage to rid the boards of the bees with a bit of anti-mosquito spray. Seb gets stung by a bee. Then it’s my turn, but it’s just superficial. ~
We put Loup’s board on the water, strap his bag on and he sets off. Then it’s Quentin’s turn, followed by Seb. To position the last bag on the board, I have to carry on as if the bees weren't there. Another sting, I try not to pay attention to it, but I see the sting itself coming out of my bicep. I still take the precaution of removing it and throw myself on my board. Just like the day before, once we’re out on the water, they stop bothering us. Phew! ~
The day before, when we looked at the map, we realised two things - firstly that we were no longer very far away and secondly that the river was widening. This reassured us that we shouldn’t have any more rapids. Good for morale!~
Missed! The river widened, but we still had to cross three or four turbulent stretches before we finally caught sight of the famous bridge that marks arrival in Yabassi and lifts adventurers’ spirits. It only took an hour and a half to get there, but with a few difficult passages. So our break is welcome. If someone wanted to give up, which would be understandable, now is the moment to do so. But we spot the first dugout canoes, a sign that the waters will be calm from now on! So we ask the question: who wants to stop here? The answer is unanimous: we are not going to stop now, with the hardest part behind us! All 4 of us set back off on the water. The adventure completely changes. The river is very wide and very calm. The current enables us to make good progress. We are out of the primary forest. On the banks of the river, banana and orange plantations follow on from each other. We delight in the landscape on the horizon with its incredible colours. The sun’s reflections highlight this sumptuous spectacle before us, and we really make the most of being able to enjoy it. It's absolutely stunning!~
At the water’s edge, locals prepare bags of bananas, plantains and oranges for the boatmen who will take them to market in Douala to sell. We are observing and learning about life on the river. However, we are still more than 60 km away from our arrival point.~
We continue our journey, taking a break from time to time in the shade of the orange trees. Our journey is now much calmer and we are able to really relax and enjoy it. Subconsciously, the frightening experiences of the previous day reinforce this feeling of well-being at this particular point in time.~
The Cameroonians in this region are incredibly kind. People busy harvesting encourage us from the shore, half-surprised, half-amused, by these white people standing on a board. They are very nice and the brief exchanges we have with them are very warm. We are made to feel very welcome.~
After 9 hours of rowing, it is time to look for somewhere to set up camp. We end up in a banana plantation in the middle of some high grass. We quickly understand that the night is going to be difficult. We are welcomed by a cloud of mosquitoes that are as big as flies. They even try to bite us through our wetsuits...~
No sooner do we have time to unload the equipment than a dugout approaches. An incredible conversation ensued between the Cameroonian boatman and Seb:~
Boatman: What are you doing?~
Seb: we’re looking for a place to camp for the night.~
Boatman (amused): but you can't sleep here. This is the mosquitoes’ territory!~
Seb: yes, we’ve noticed, but it will soon be dark. We need to put our tents up somewhere.~
Boatman: Well, come to my house. It’s just opposite, the one with the large tin roof.~
Seb: but we don't want to be a nuisance.~
Boatman: don’t worry, it used to be a tradition to welcome travellers here before~
And so we set back off again to cross the river; amazed by this welcome and very happy not to have to coexist with mosquitoes!~
The people who welcome us are very kind. The house is basic with earthen walls and floor, but it is shelter for the night. We tell them about our adventure and where we come from. They tell us about their lives as farmers and explain about transporting and trading oranges. They offer us beer, we share our sausage. It’s as simple as this, with a photo of the family with our boys as a bonus.
The evening is magical. Our hosts let us use 2 large beds with mosquito nets. We enjoy the sunset before going to bed. What a pleasure!
29th October, 2019 - Early morning alarm - 5am! Our hosts leave early to transport and sell the week’s banana and plantain harvest. They must lock their house. So of course, we fit in around them. We pack up our belongings and swallow a cup of coffee as we watch the sun rise over Mount Cameroon (4,000 m), which extends skyward on the horizon. Another stunning view!~
This early morning start is a good thing, because sunrise over the Wouri is a must-see event. We carry on enjoying the spectacular surroundings unfurl before us with new colours. We have known since the day before that we would reach Douala at some point in the day. This helps us to enjoy these exceptional moments all the more.
The trials of the day will be the heat and blazing sun. But we continue to make good progress. Sandrine, Seb's wife, found a boat to meet us. She joins us in the middle of the morning. She confirms that we are not far away. The supplies she brings are welcome: hot coffee and croissants. A luxury breakfast in an exceptional setting, which will allow us to relish the success of our adventure, albeit a little in advance.
As we approach Douala, there is more activity on the river. Motorized dugouts follow one another, full loaded on the way down and empty on the way back up. We come across sand fishers, brave souls who dive down to the bottom of the Wouri to bring buckets of sand back up to the surface, which they pour into a canoe. The canoe, which is so full you have to wonder how it doesn’t sink, will be sent to Douala for the sand to be used as building material.~
The surroundings are gradually becoming less wild, the water is less clean. Obviously, we are not far away.~
We're making even better progress than expected. After 7 hours of paddling, standing up on our boards, we reach the Wouri bridge, our finish line! We pass under the bridge, All 4 of us side-by-side, more than a little proud of our success. The range of emotions we have experienced are only equalled by their intensity. An extraordinary experience which leaves us with our heads full of memories and images.~
21st November 2019 - Epilogue (and warning)~
Going to the bush is not a trivial matter.~
We have been back at our respective activities for less than a month. The adventure was a little more epic than expected, and not just over the 3 days it lasted. The rainforest has saved some surprises for us for later. The forest is hostile and sneaky...~
A few days after our return, not one of us escaped from the effects of a tropical disease and the accompanying high fevers. After a few days of incubation, we suffered from malaria, typhoid fever or leptospirosis. Fortunately, we have been treated because these diseases can be very dangerous. In the end, we will have spent more time on our hospital beds than on our boards on the Wouri, but we have no regrets. Our adventure was fantastic. We understand how lucky we were to experience it, and to do so together!