Almost every aspect of our visit to Cameroon was enjoyable. I loved the people, the beautiful landscapes, and our guides were terrific. But our interaction with Victor Awasung, the operator of Equatorial Tours, seriously tainted what was otherwise a wonderful visit. Here’s the story if you’re thinking about signing up with them:

There aren’t a lot of options visible on the Internet for tourism in Cameroon. Equatorial Tours had a decent, if not very polished, website and responded quickly to our emails. Despite finding almost no references to them by others, they seemed like the best option. It took us a while to put together an itinerary with them because we were still sorting out the rest of our travel schedule to other countries. Victor urged us to pay sooner rather than later to secure our reservation and promised us our itinerary would be flexible. Like many tour operators in developing nations, he required payment by wire transfer or Moneygram/Western Union so we settled on a price for a tentative itinerary and we sent him the deposit via Moneygram. Subsequently, we decided to extend our tour by one day to accommodate our flight schedule and agreed upon a price for the extra day.

We met Victor at the Douala airport. Victor is a big, jovial, back-slapping kind of guy. We had a hiccup transferring the rest of the money from the US to Victor, but it was quickly ironed out (the bank in Douala didn’t support Visa Cash Advance transactions despite Equatorial Tour’s assertion that they did). We paid Victor the cost of the original itinerary length, plus the cost of the extra day. Things seemed to go well for the first few days of our tour. In our first meals with him, he spent several minutes talking about how he had given tours to royalty to several different countries as well as Janet Jackson, and how he’d been giving tours in Cameroon for over 10 years. This was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser but we shrugged it off (as it turns out, none of the three employees we met had worked for Victor for more than a year). We visited Maroua and Waza national park and our tour guide, Patrick, was fantastic – extremely helpful and always looking out for us.

On the morning of the fifth day of our tour, Victor sent us a curt email asking us for a significant additional amount of money to continue the tour. He claimed that he had pre-paid for a 4WD vehicle to take us to the next part of our tour in the southeast of the country but that the 4WD had developed serious engine problems, that the company he had pre-paid would not reimburse him, and that the extra money was to cover the cost of a new 4WD that he was having to rent at a high price because of the short reservation notice. Unsurprisingly, we were alarmed and angry at this unexpected development. We had no way to verify his claim, and we felt that even if he were telling the truth that the extra cost should be his responsibility, not ours. He said he understood our position but that he didn’t have the money to cover it. He was very convincing. It’s still possible he was telling the truth, although his later actions cast doubt on that.

My brother and I discussed our options at length. Our travel schedule was relatively inflexible, we were sure that Victor wouldn’t refund our money if we abandoned the tour, and we really wanted to see Cameron. So we decided unhappily to pay an extra $1,000 to continue the tour. I phoned my sister in the US to wire the money to Victor. She miscalculated the transfer amount and wired Victor 20,000 XFA (about $45) more than she was supposed to. Victor assured us he would refund the excess.

Before leaving for Lobeke in the southeast, we discussed a change in the itinerary with Victor. We wanted to make the trip there and back in two days each way instead of three . This would enable us to make up for the day we lost ironing out Victor’s surprise extra fee and hopefully even gain a day back that we could spend in Douala. The itinerary change was understood by all involved, including our guide and our driver. Victor said this would be no problem.

The trip to the southeast was enjoyable and uneventful. Our guide, Elvis, was very helpful and friendly like our guide in the northeast had been. On the way back though, Elvis asked for a $45 loan for gas. Apparently, Victor gives his guides the amount of money he thinks they’ll need and they’re on their own if they exceed that amount. We obviously loaned Elvis the money with the promise of repayment by Victor on our return to Douala. At this point, Victor had now taken $1,090 more than the stated tour cost and agreed to pay $90 back to us for the overpayment and gas loan.

More surprises awaited us on our return to Douala. Victor first produced an early copy of our itinerary and claimed that our tour was over. To his surprise, I was able to produce emails that showed that we had in fact paid for an extra day and that moreover we had paid for an activity – a day at a Pygmy village – that he not only hadn’t provided for, but that really didn’t make any sense (there’s not really a lot to do at a pygmy village other than take pictures of their unusual houses). There was some entertainment value in watching him re-read his own email three or four times while furiously thinking about how to explain it away. In the end he basically just reneged on most things. We got him to loan the company car to Elvis for an extra day to take us around Douala provided we pay all gas and meals.

The next morning we found out he also expected us to pay for our Douala hotel ($70) the previous night (which we had agreed was included within our tour length). Victor claimed by phone that he had pre-paid a hotel in a different town on the way back that he expected us to stay in, and that as a result he “didn’t have the budget” to pay for a hotel in Douala so it was our responsibility. This was dubious on several levels. First, he hadn’t mentioned anything about this little detail the night before when we had arrived in Douala. Second, we had discussed our itinerary upon leaving for Lobeke and our tour guide, and our driver had all understood that we would be staying that night in Douala – so if Victor hadn’t understood it, it was his fault and responsibility, not ours. Thirdly, in my opinion it’s very unlikely that he actually pre-paid the hotel. Pre-paying a hotel is rare in Cameroon because 99% of the hotels require cash payment (no Visa support). To pre-pay he would have had to send the money via Moneygram invoking another fee. We also know he hadn’t pre-paid our other hotels.

At the end, Victor gave up any pretense of making a valid case for taking money from us. Although he had come up with explanations for the $1000 extra for the 4WD, the $70 for the last night of the hotel, and the $50 or so for the last day of expenses, he never denied he owed us $45 for our overpayment or the $45 for the gas loan to Elvis. He had a different strategy for dealing with that. He repeatedly rescheduled meeting with us until we checked out of our hotel the very last day and then – shockingly — he didn’t show up despite telling us by phone a half-hour prior to the meeting that he was on his way. We even had lunch at the hotel for an hour and a half after the meeting to give him the benefit of the doubt and I sent him an email saying he could send the money via Moneygram if he really intended to pay it back. Unsurprisingly, he never replied. As sketchy as everything else was, we probably would have kept our mouths shut had it not been for this blatant robbery.

So in the end, we paid over $1200 extra for our tour (22% more than the original price). His fraud was especially annoying because we had gone out of our way to try to lower costs for him. Cameron and I have spent a lot of time in small companies and we know how hard it can be. So when it was discovered that I had left my passport at the Waza hotel an hour after leaving, I paid for the extra gas to go back and get it. And for the entire tour, we ate just two meals a day instead of the three that come standard with most multi-day tours.

We’re not totally sure why Victor treated us like he did. We certainly paid him enough. We know what the hotels and meals cost and even when making very conservative estimations at his other costs, we gave him enough money to cover our expenses with plenty of cushion. In fact, our tour cost was more than double the cost of an equivalent tour in Egypt of the same duration, even though Egypt has a higher per-capita income! At any rate, this was our experience. I’m sure other Equatorial Tours customers had better experiences than we did, but it’s a good idea to be careful.

Update: Equatorial Tours has threatened to sue me for defamation as a result of the original contents of this post. While I stand behind everything I said in that post, I have edited it to remove the alleged defamation.  Victor still doesn’t deny that he owes us money and he still has not repaid us two months later. I have also received information from the US Embassy in Cameroon that they have received similar complaints from other customers of Equatorial Tours.

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