The good news yesterday, at the bus station, was that we got picked up by our hotel van. No need to battle with taxi and moto drivers to negotiate a fare. We have treated ourselves to slightly more upmarket accommodation, in fact way up from the Catholic missions, tents and basic hotels so far. Pool on the roof, gin-tonic in the bar and AC in the room. And a hotel shuttle van.
Douala is not a pretty city – like all the others we have seen so far, Ndjamena or Ngaoundere, Yaounde or Bafoussam. There is construction going on everywhere, or rather, there are building sites everywhere, but not much seems to be happening. The main roads are a chaos, with cars that ignore most basic traffic rules, and motorbikes for which there appear no rules at all. Many of the bikes are actually moto-taxis, the more luxurious have a sun roof mounted. Having spent more than enough time in cars, so far, we opt for a walk, which is kind of complicated, because there is no pavement, and if there is, it is occupied by parked cars, or a stall selling fruit, or sim cards, or anything you can think of. So we are forced onto the main road, where we need to negotiate our space with the cars and the motorbikes. In the rare parts where we can use the pavement, it is full of holes exposing the water drains, more often than not plugged with rubbish. Those concerned about crime in the streets have no idea about the real dangers.
We have a vague plan, trying to locate some old German and French colonial architecture. Surprisingly, some of these places actually have explanation signs mounted next to them, in French and in English, giving some historical details. The first we reach is the Douala cathedral, dedicated to Saint Paul and Saint Peter, built by the French is 1936. It is a simple structure, suitably large, with stained windows inside, and, more importantly, electric fans. We take a short break here, recovering from the oppressive heat outside – Douala being at the coast, it is much more humid here than we have so far experienced this trip.
Some of the German buildings look more derelict. We encounter an old two-story construction with louvre windows, I wonder if these are still original. They don’t look bad. Apparently, this is now the office of a law firm, although the car selection outside suggests differently. The Mandessi-Bell villa (historical sign! That’s how I know) was completed in 1910 in the classical German colonial style, for the wealthy plantation owner David Mandessi Bell. It is not being used, except part of the ground floor veranda that has been taken over by an entrepreneur selling bags and artefacts; he doesn’t claim grandfather age of the rather new masks. Another mansion is La Pagoda, despite its French name, also built by the Germans, in 1905, for the Auguste Manga Ndoumbe, aka King Bell. Once again, the building is currently not being used, it is closed off.
As a counter weight, we walk into the Doual’Art, a gallery exhibiting modern art. The current show, by a local artist called Ruth Afane Belinga, is a rather powerful cry for women’s rights, in paintings and installations. Afterwards, outside the gallery under the trees is another recovery moment.
Refreshed, we continue our walk, to include the old Law Courts (1930) and the house of the former French district chief (also 1930), a rather elegant Art Nouveau-style building which is in good shape, as it currently is in use as the High Court.
For lunch we have set our sights on the, apparently rather posh, Le Deniere Comptoir Colonial, a fish restaurant at the other side of the port. It is actually not easy to get here, because normal taxis are not allowed into the port area. So we have to find a five star hotel, from where we can take another taxi, which may enter. Why? No idea. But I am glad we did, because the alternative, walking, would have been a long, hot and rather uninteresting exercise. The taxi driver claims the restaurant is closed, but we have talked to them by phone, so we know it is operating. Right! Nothing posh restaurant, Le Dernier Comptoir Colonial is run down place, almost collapsing – although with some fantasy you can imagine its former grandeur. But they have a jetty protruding into the bay, great views, and fresh fish. Having finally made it here, we are not going to turn around without lunch!