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Nigeria

7th February 2005 to 22nd February 2005

The crossing into Nigeria at Nikki was quick, smooth and efficient and not quite what we had been expecting. It was the first time our Yellow Fever card had been checked and Grommet was searched for illegal fruit and veg with the official making a small note that we were carrying a tin of mushrooms.

The officials assured us that Nigeria was a very safe, peaceful country that welcomed tourists but don’t stop for anybody! Two border crossings in one day, no matter how efficient, still take time, so here we were bush camping on our first night in Nigeria.

We were all a little tense, having read all the tales of bandits, robbers, etc. and if you read the official web site of the Foreign Office, you wouldn’t visit Nigeria, let alone travel. The small band of wood cutters who emerged on our arrival, bid us all welcome with a small bow then went on there way, leaving us in peace to get organised and cook.

The piste from Nikki to New Bussa, was now number one in the hard piste list. Each small village we passed we were greeted by a hale of frenzied greetings and not a bandit in sight. Passing the Kainji Dam we quickly found a place for the night and some more bush camping and more pleasant, polite, welcoming locals. We are finding this rather hard to come to terms with, as this was not what we had expected at all.

Moving on, there are now more and more frequent police and military checkpoints, we have had no problems, everybody is again friendly and welcoming and quite surprised to see, a/ white people and b/ tourists, assuming us to be some form of Government Agency or even worse missionaries! Requesting gifts of calendars and Bibles.

It is quite reassuring that should anything untoward happen along the way, there is always someone with a big semiautomatic weapon along the route to lend a hand.

We still hadn’t managed to obtain any local currency so headed for Bida, a large town where we were advised by one of the banks to try the black market! Finally we found a bank that would change dollars but only $100 bills, fortunately we had one.

Now with some local currency, we could by fuel and provisions or at least enough to get us as far as Abuja, the capital.  

We had been told that the Sheraton Hotel in Abuja welcomes overlanders and allows them to camp for free. When we arrived we were directed to the lower car park while the girls went to see the Assistant Manager and enquire if this was in fact the case, it was! Fantastic! We could camp and use all the facilities for free. ‘From the bush to 5 star, Geraldine would be proud’. Wow! This was some luxury, lounging by the pools, drinking cold beer, surrounded by air hostesses and foreign diplomats.

Abuja is a thoroughly modern city and reminded me of Canary Warf, in London except with a huge mosque in the centre. The problem was with the luxury of a swimming pool, we were too lazy to explore the town. In the evening, we spoilt ourselves and had dinner in the excellent buffet restaurant and were all full to exploding point. I took advantage of the rest and gave Grommet a thorough check over, an oil change and grease up. The hotel’s mechanics were surprised that we, white men, could actually do these things and that our vehicles contained all that we require.

We all agreed that we must move on before we got too accustomed to this luxury life. In Abuja we found a cash point at the Hilton hotel and then loaded up with cheap Nigerian petrol at 0.25Euros per litre, strangely, here in Nigeria, diesel is more expensive than petrol and often hard to find. We left Abuja and headed for the Plato Region and Jos.

The road from Abuja id fantastic, a two lane dual carriageway, the only problem is, they forgot to tell the Nigerians that they must drive on the right and is not uncommon to see cars and trucks heading towards you. 

Here in Nigeria, the driving is crazy, overloaded cars and trucks drive far too fast for the condition of the road. In a matter of seconds a beautiful asphalt road can became a rough potholed piste. The road side is littered with the wrecks of those that didn’t quite make it, cars, tankers, trucks and bush taxis, their rusting skeletons, a chilling memorial.

We had hoped to make it all the way to The Yankari Game Reserve after Jos, but due to our now relaxed nature, opted for another night in the bush at a place called Vom. The guide book describes the area as perfect for camping amongst the rocky hills, obviously, nobody has been there since all the villages had sprang up. The piste finally ended with a bicycle track so that’s where we stopped to camp. The air here is a lot cooler with a fresh breeze that had the Germans running for their fleeces. Still no bandits or robbers. The highway had a very heavy police and military presence following the Deputy Prime Minister’s visit to Jos. Being stopped every few kms or so and being asked the same questions, can became a little tedious, still we kept our cool and it was interesting to see the assorted range of weapons on display. I think, the road blocks are primarily to control the ethnic tension between Muslims and Christians which still exists in this area, rather than to hassle us tourists.

We reached the Yankari Game Reserve at the same time that the Harmatan wind, the game warden at the entrance was not the most welcoming we had come across and proceeded to hassle us about cameras, money, etc. But due to the Harmatan were not prepared to pay the exorbitant rate for a ‘professional camera’ or video camera and settled on a rate for a 35mm compact camera. The route from the gate to the lodge was hard and demanding and we arrived in need of a cold beer and shower. Because the generator is only run at night, we had to settle for warm Fanta and no shower. The lodge and its outbuildings had seen better days and were in a very rundown, dilapidated state, the toilets and shower facilities had no water until the morning. Arriving back at the vehicles to cook, we met Koen and Heidi, two Belgiums travelling around Africa in a green Mercedes camper. We had actually just missed meeting them when we were at the Monkey Sanctuary in Ghana and had been given their details by a Canadian guy we had met there called Duncan.

We never imagine that we would meet them as they were supposed to be getting a move on to miss the rainy season! Here at Yankari, there is also a hot spring where we spent 3 luxurious hours in its crystal clear waters that are at a constant 30 deg C, we were all looking like prunes. While floating about, the river was visited by a troupe of baboons that they had come to eat and drink. It was incredible to be floating about with wild baboons, just a meter or so away on the bank. The reserve was a huge disappointment, compounded by the weather that meant it would have been impossible to see all but the largest of the animals, the state of the place and the unfriendly attitude of the staff along with the exorbitant costs, we all decide it was time to leave. This was a shame as anything to do with wildlife especially here in West Africa should be given huge support, but in a park where poaching exists and a staff that doesn’t care, what chance is there? So following our hot bath, we decide to move on, a small convoy of three vehicles back out in to the bush.

Outside the park, we found a nice spot to camp for the night by a dried rived bed outside a small village, we were joined by the locals who came to meet and greet this estrange group of white men, they were a little disappointed that we hadn’t stayed in the village, but we were a relieved as we could get a good nights sleep and cook in peace once everybody had gone home.

The in-shala navigators had agreed on a short cut and as with all African short cuts we were soon travelling on confusing labyrinth of sandy tracks, demanding ratted rocky hills and descents and not quite as short as promised. The surprise was how well Heidi and Koen’s Mercedes van handle the piste. Eventually, after long hard days of driving, we found the asphalt road; I used the term asphalt loosely, as the road was no better than the piste we had just left. Tired and hungry we found a perfect spot in an old road works site. We had barely parked when our first visitors arrived, they were some of the sons of the local Chief, who were students studying at the University in Jos. They were at home because they were on strike over pay for their tutors. We had a great time discussing current and foreign affairs along with the usual African miss conceptions about Europe and the United States. The following morning they returned with their father, the Chief who wanted to be photographed with the white men. We were quick to explain that we didn’t have a Polaroid camera and that we were on a long journey and that it would be a long time before we could post some prints. No problem, they had already sent for the local photographer who would be here shortly.

We couldn’t believe, when the guy arrived with the camera, flash and some film. We gave him a couple of rolls of print film and he set to work. With the formal photos with the Chief over, it was now a frenzy as everybody wanted photos with us and in particular with the girls, it was a relieve for us all that only a few of the Chief’s twenty sons could make it, otherwise we could have been there all day.

Following the photo session with the Chief, we headed for the ferry at Ibi.

The convoy structure worked very well at the roadblocks, Grommet would arrive first, meet and greet the police, army, etc. I would explain who and what we are before everybody else arrive and thus we normally could continue without any hassle.

The River Benue was low due to the dry season and the first half could be crossed by a small causeway of reeds and sand for a small fee. We then arrived at the ferry. I would hardly describe it as a ferry, more a collection of rusty pontoons tied to a pair of pirogues with small outboards. We agreed on a price and I drove Grommet on board. Once on board, the agreed price began to escalate, firstly because we were white tourist, obviously with plenty of money and then because Grommet was ‘so big and heavy’. The price reached a point that it would be cheaper to buy the petrol and make the 300km detour. I was about to drive off the ferry when fortunately for us the Minister for Agriculture and Ecology, who happen to be travelling on the ferry at the same time, step in to negotiate on our behalf. We paid what we felt was the right price and unknown to us at the time, the Minister paid the difference. The ferry set off upriver to the landing stage, fortunately for us the river was very calm, otherwise we would, probably have had an impromptu swim. Blanca and I were now faced with a dilemma, we were on one side of the river and the rest of the group where still on the other side preparing for the fantasy ferry price. Luckily, our friend, the Minister, stepped in once again to negotiate on our behalf to ensure that we could all cross for a reasonable price and continue our journey together. We were touched deeply by this, again something we had never expected in this “dangerous land of bandits and thieves.” With Grommet now safely on dry land, Blanca had to return to the others and explain the situation and ensure that the agreed price remained the same. With four wheel drive and diff locks everywhere, Ralph and Judith were quickly through the soft sand and safely on board the ferry. As for Heidi and Koen with just two wheel drive it was a different story. They very quickly became stuck. With Grommet and the winch on one side of the river and the Ifa on the ferry there was nothing for it  but to dig and push. Fortunately everyone at the “ferry terminal” lent a hand and eventually the camper was also on board. The problem now was with the weight of the two vehicles the ferry was stuck in the sand. More shoving and pushing and eventually the ferry was free, but this freedom was short lived when they became stuck on a sand bar. Eventually they arrived, what should have been a quick ferry crossing had taken at least four hours. I mean while had spent the time completely unaware of the drama unfolding downstream. At one point I imagined that they had all decided to drive rather than pay or that the ferry had gone to a different landing stage. I left my group of assembled onlookers and went to take a look and was relived to see them slowly making their way up stream. Exhausted by the day’s drama we found a quiet little spot by a small pool. Unfortunately this turned out to be the local village “bath” and it wasn’t long before we were joined by the whole village keen to meet and greet the white man. Every body we have met in Nigeria have been very polite and courteous, watching our every move as this group of aliens from another world with their mobile houses, cook, clean and go about their daily business. Cooking always causes a stir in particular when the men cook, as here it is solely women’s work. The villagers were all sad that we were leaving and were keen to study us more.

After another night in the bush, well actually on a school playing field it was time to say goodbye to Heidi and Koen as they were in a hurry to enter Cameroon before their visa expired, so we bid them farewell and set of for Calabar to get our visas.

Calabar, I am beginning to hate these cities with their small motor bike taxis. They buz about like flies and are a law onto themselves. Not good news in a big bustling city with Grommet, the big German truck and the inshala navigators! Still I’m not aware that we ran anybody over………How many people can you fit on a 125cc motor bike? So far we have counted at least four and a child!

Eventually we found a hotel that could accommodate us and for the right price including room with shower and toilet. ”The Paradise Hotel” opened in 1988 had gone the same way as most things here in Africa and had obviously seen better days. It must have been quite impressive when it opened, with its own zoo, nightclub restaurant and bar. Fortunately the zoo animals had been rescued by some animal rights campaigners before they became part of the menu, pick your bush meat and the only occupant left is a small crocodile who has made its home under the bar and is now impossible to capture. The night club and restaurant have been taken over by various evangelical churches who take it in turns to preach fire and brimstone and praise the lord any time day or night. Its funny here in Nigeria, its easier to open a church than a business…….. Well at least, the beer is cold and cheap, and the cold rusty shower water eventually ran clear and we were very close to the Cameroon embassy. The Cameroon embassy had also seen better days, I guess the fee for the very expensive visas must just go on the very big 4x4 staff cars. The staff were most unhelpful and not very welcoming, we were beginning to hope that this would not be a reflection of the country that they where representing. The guide lists Cameroon as another country full of “thieves, bandits, extortion and corrupt police”. Our search for somewhere to eat eventually lead us to a new luxury hotel with restaurant now open. It is hard to find variety from rice and sauce which usually has something floating around in a red oil, but exactly what, is a secret. Africa so far is defiantly not for the gourmet unless of cause you are in to bush meat, smoked grass cutter (rat) is suppose to be especially good. Fortunately we were the only customers as the “restaurant” simply consisted of a small room with one table and seating for eight. The food was simple, good and cheap, it was so good we went back the following evening for more. I was feeling a little more adventurous than the rest and opted for some of the “African” food on the menu. Following the managers advice I chose beef with soft veg, which actually turned out to be beef with spinach flavoured with dried fish. The problem was that the flavour of the fish was such that everything tasted of fish. The spinach was now green fish, the beef was taff chewy fish and the fish just fish! Just a bit too much fish for me especially as I was expecting beef!

Now we have the Cameroon visa it was time to move on. We left Calabar and headed for the border. The road started promisingly enough but it wasn’t long before the now surrounding jungle had encroached on the road and reduced it to a single lane. Fortunately this doesn’t appear to be a very popular route and the traffic was minimal. It was starting to get late when we finally arrived at the border and our exit from Nigeria. We had survived! Next stop Cameroon which is just over the bridge.

Nigeria had been a huge and pleasant surprise, we had encountered no bandits, robbers or thieves on the contrary the people, local villagers the police and military had greeted us with a real sincere heart felt welcome which we will find hard to forget and has been one of the nicest countries we have visited so far.   

One final note here in Nigeria the vehicle of choice for the bush is the Toyota Starlet or Corolla which is loaded to breaking point, the driver will quite often share his seat with a passenger, it is driven at full speed in a rally style. Here we are gently nursing our 4x4`s gently over the rocks and sand.


Grommet takes the lead


What? No bandits?


Bush cooking


Are you robbers or bandits?


Nigerian’s answer to Ayers Rock


A bat at the Sheraton, Abuja


Fixing Grommet at the Sheraton


Lounging at the pool


Driving on right or left


The end of the road, Jos


Camping at the end of the road


Germans fleeced up


So, you must be Heidi and Koen


Water to wallow in


Warthogs take a bow


Warthogs


Wikki warm springs at Yankari


Bush camping after Yankari


We now have a convoy!


Us with the chief and some of his sons


Two snappers


So, what was the price again?


Off, at last


On the ferry


Camping by the village bath


Camping by the school


Heidi and Koen


Progress has no date!!


Welcome to Paradise


Pick a church


Waiting for the bride


On route to the border


Tractor in need of light repair


Umm, great road!!


The bush reclaims the road


Storms brewing over Cameroon