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Where the queen of Bafut wants biscuits

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Scott MacMillan

'Good afternoon. We'd like to meet the fon." Rob limps up to the gate of the royal palace and presents our request for an audience with the local king to a woman wearing a patterned frock and flip-flops. This, it turns out, is Ma Marie, Her Majesty the Queen herself - or one of them, anyway, for the fon of Bafut has over 40 wives.

We're near the heart of Cameroon's Ring Road country, also known as the Grassfields, where a line of barely navigable dirt track traces a rough circuit through mountainous pastures and forests that brush the Nigerian border. For those who can bear the driving conditions, layers of sharply undulating hills stretch into a hazy horizon, covering a land dotted by volcanic crater lakes, waterfalls and grass-thatched palaces inhabited by local chieftains and kings, or fons. The fon of Bafut is a paramount lord of the area.

The young queen regards us, a ragtag bunch, with a measure of scepticism. Following a spill on his motorcycle, Rob is hobbling along on a swollen ankle, which he later learns is actually fractured, while Luke, Roger and I have caked ourselves with red dust by circuiting most of the Ring Road at a breakneck pace of two days.

The route to Bafut involves a collection of different drivers, the oddest of whom, a local road engineer named Peter, speaks only in a high-pitched falsetto voice. We find him through the owner of a restaurant where we've broken the journey. For about US$40 (Dh147), Peter gives us three spaces in the back of the cab of his pickup for the 110 kilometres from Nkambe to Wum, the northernmost and worst segment of the ring road.

"I am not a transport company!" Peter squeals disconcertingly when the restaurant owner demanded a tip for his referral. "Don't disturb my mind!" The mood turns sour, and the altercation nearly gets us booted from the back of the cab.

We finally set off, the pickup crawling along for hours, pitching itself into the track's deep ditches and then crawling out again. "You come to see us suffer!" Peter says, his voice as high as a Puccini aria. "Now do you see how we suffer?" The condition of the road is bad enough, but the driver's voice is downright disturbing.

We eventually reach Wum, and the following day, Bafut, but with so much hard travel, we barely have time to enjoy the scenery. This explains the state we're in when we finally approach the royal palace.

Alas, it turns out one can't just walk up to the fon and shake his hand. "Meeting the fon," Ma Marie explains softly, "is very expensive."

First, one must request a special dance performance, which will cost about $30 (Dh110); next, one must invest in a suitable gift, the fon's preference being a case of Amstel. The fon will then make his appearance.

"I'm happy not to meet the fon and just take the tour," says Rob.

"Seems a bit dear," Luke agrees.

After high-tailing it around the Ring Road in an effort to make the most of our time, I'm realising the value of things left unplanned. A journey needs space to breathe, for too much scheduling can suffocate the unexpected, the strange serendipity that make travel so rewarding. This meeting with the fon seems too staged. We decline.

Instead, we tour the palace grounds with the queen as our guide, ending outside the Achum, a holy inner sanctum covered by a pyramidal thatched roof where the fon communicates with his ancestors. We sit in silence, savouring the quiet atmosphere of the walled compound.

"So the tour is over now," Ma Marie says. She pauses a few beats. "Don't you have something for me?" she asks me directly. "After all your inquisitiveness? Some biscuits, perhaps?"

I'm taken aback. We did ask her a lot of questions, particularly about her marriage to the fon. But we've already paid the entrance, guide and camera fees. I cover the awkward moment with a smile and the bare truth, which is that I'm bearing no biscuits - nor any gifts worthy of a queen, for although a monetary tip may have sufficed, a few coins hardly seem right for royalty.

I've been solicited for gifts endless times in Africa, usually by children who ask for cadeaux, and I've had some strange and unexpected encounters in my travels. But having a queen ask me for biscuits - well, that's something I really hadn't planned for.

"Normally I'd invite you out for a drink," I finally say to Ma Marie. "But I don't think the fon would be too pleased with that. Would he?"

"No," the queen replies, gently as ever. "He wouldn't." Strange serendipity has its limits.

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com

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