Nigeria - January/February 2011

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Africa » Nigeria
January 29th 2011
Published: May 30th 2011
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Ah Nigeria: a country whose most famous export must be email scams. Its reputation seems to precede it - everyone’s heard about ‘dodgy’ Nigeria but it was time to have a look ourselves. The first afternoon we drove roughly 50km and were stopped a crazy 14 times by “PUS” – our nickname for ‘Police Unofficial Stops’ given that most of the ‘Police stops’ don’t appear too official at all. They are usually just nosy, want to look around the truck etc and though they are always carrying large guns and rifles, they are very infrequently in any sort of uniform at all. The shortest distance between two police stops was 47 seconds of driving time. One time they stopped us and wanted to check all our headlights worked.... whilst some of the most dilapidated cars in the world drove merrily by - with no headlights whatsoever. Hence, the first day we made barely any distance.

Nigeria is the most populated country on the African continent – it’s said that one in every five Africans is a Nigerian. This was evident from the first town we drove through. That second day, the first long drive day; we drove through Abeokuta, Ibadan and Oyo followed by a very important bar stop at Ogbomosho. The sheer number of people is really something to take in. The senses blur with the colours of all the traditional clothing and materials, the sounds of the markets and honking horns as the roads clog up, the various sounds of African drumming and music pumping from loud speakers and cars all up and down the streets. Traffic is particularly heavy on Sundays, having such a large Christian demographic. It’s all very hectic and our eyes were glued to it. The countryside and towns are very heavily populated compared to previous countries on this trip. We made fairly good distances that day, and so the bar stop at 4pm was much appreciated.
We were heading North East to Abuja and as we climbed, the air lost its sticky humid texture and started to get drier – Bunny was in her element, loving the hot, dry heat.

Our next few days were all spent in much the same way, longish drive days through the sprawling towns and villages of Nigeria on our way to Abuja. The huge tuberous Cassava lines the roads and even median strips at times, the chalky white vegetable drying in the sun and producing an odour something like sweaty feet. The heat was bliss, the humidity almost gone. The people were friendly and we largely enjoy our drive through the country. English is back instead of French which we of course always find a tad easier! So are all the religious shop names and signs everywhere. The sheer number of billboards advertising hundreds of different churches, priests, religious ceremonies and the like is quite mind-boggling. Side streets off the main road have dozens of signs pointing down the road to all the different churches, all with quite creative religious names.

It turned out to be only 4 nights of bush-camps to Abuja, due to some sections of greatly improved tar sealed roads (interspersed with some of the largest pot holes we’ve had so far). On entry into the city, Hastie and Andi decided the fastest way to go directly to the Sheraton where we were staying was to follow a taxi straight to it (we were in some hurry to pick up Vicky’s replacement passport from the Canadian embassy), so we managed to pull over a taxi, pile Big G into it and off we set. We all thought it was quite amusing to watch Big G stick his arm out the window and wave directions the whole way so that we could distinguish this particular green taxi from all the others crowding the roads. “Follow the green taxi with the white arm!” ;-) On the way we spot a new record for passengers on a single motorbike – a family of seven!

Abuja was only founded in the 1970s, with most construction starting with the oil boom in the 1980s... so the town is a lot more modern than most other areas in Nigeria. It actually feels completely different to a lot of Nigeria! It’s quite clean, and effort has been made to plant trees in the median strips and generally there seems to be some pride in this, the ‘new’ capital. The modern skyline is punctuated by The National Mosque which is quite picturesque both day and night when it glows against the city backdrop.

However, there is not a lot to do in Abuja ‘culture wise’ and so we all found great joy in the very nearby Silverbird cinema complex, really new and only about 5 minutes walk from the Sheraton where we were staying. Daily cinema sessions commence – we watched “The Town”, “The Green Hornet”, “Faster”, “The Tourist”, “Harry Potter 7.5” and “Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn-Treader” – all pretty good! Think “The Town” was perhaps the pick of the bunch. To boot, there’s air conditioning and internet that’s a bit faster than usual so we were pretty happy. Everything is good – well except for possibly the rudest staff in the world, working at the cinema and net cafe.

When I say we stayed at the Sheraton, we actually camped there – probably not something that happens at any other Sheraton around the world, but here we are camped out past the pool, past the tennis courts, past the random dog kennels...... a little bizarre but at least the location is good, there’s black-market money changers lining the road outside and inside it’s actually an ok set up. After movies we would sit by the truck and our make-shift campsite and watch literally hundreds of bats come home to roost in the tree above us. It was surreal, there were soooooooo many, winging their way towards us, dipping and flying through the air. They never seemed to end, the air was full of them. Crazy.

We ended up having to stay at Abuja for 8 days, waiting for visas. On about the 4th day 6 of us head off to a local ‘wholesale’ market for a beer run. We manage to accumulate roughly 24 slabs of beer plus some Smirnoff Ice for Bunny and a few other small necessities. The market is full of Nigerian boys running around with wheelbarrows; one such kid eyed us up as soon as we entered the maze of stalls. He trailed us (bizarrely from the front) and then when we got supplies we loaded up the wheelbarrows – a funny but quite helpful system! – Which just cost a small tip.

That afternoon we were challenged to a Soccer (Football for the Brits!) game by ‘African Trails’ – the other company doing a Trans-Africa overland trip who happen to be in Abuja at the same time as us. We’ve got quite a few keen footballers on our truck so a time was arranged and it ended up being a pretty good game!! Martin, who has never played a game before in his life, was goalie - and surprised everyone with his natural ability in the position, he was constantly making great saves!!!! We have Flippo footage to prove it! Our team won 5-2 (one of their 2 being an unfortunate own-goal from Falcon!) Yeehaa!!! The game ended, as all good games should, with the beginning of Happy Hour at the Sheraton bar.

That night Abuja was hit by the “Mango Rain” which only occurs every 10 years or so! Nice luck! The rain was torrential and what’s more, arrived while we were all at Happy Hour at the Sheraton’s ‘Elephant Bar’. We all sprinted from the bar, racing back to our campsite where we are met by organised chaos as cook-group tried to shelter the dinner currently in progress and others ran around putting tent window covers down and hammering in pegs. In minutes we were all absolutely DRENCHED in the pelting rain and then huddled inside the truck eating our dinner. Bunny had run to and from the bar twice because we thought some people hadn’t realised it was raining and dinner was ready! All a bit miserable, we dealt with it in different ways, some hitting the bar again, some having a ‘truck party’ with Af-trails group and others hiding in tents.

On the 5th day, with the rain still in recent memory and the Manager of the Sheraton Abuja offering us a particularly good rate (even though this Sheraton is not a 5 star by Western standards, and the room is 3 star at best while still being pretty expensive!!) we decided to upgrade from camping to a room. It’s nice to have a few relaxing days with a spot of TV, air conditioning and frequent showers! Also helps to be able to charge everything electronic we’re carrying and re-sort our bags. So the days continue in Abuja, punctuated by trips to the market, happy hour drinking sessions at the hotel bar, movies on TV, lying by the pool, trips to a nearby bakery and some great local food (particularly something we believe is called Mafi or Masa – little crumpet type things served with a spinach sauce to dip into). I know it sounds bad, and not very ‘cultural’ but there really isn’t a lot to see in Abuja – it is more a financial or business capital with not an awful lot of history and more a visa stop than anything else. Which is ironic; as it’s for visas Martin and Bunny don’t need, as we end our trip in Cameroon. One day near the end we find a new bakery nearby called ‘Cherry Bakery’ and what a highlight, ice cream! We’re all excited by events such as this.
Finally, Angola and Congo visas in hand, off we went, heading south to Calabar with a detour to the Afi Mountain Drill Ranch. We were sad to say goodbye to Marc and Emma, some awesome people who are going on ahead for two weeks and we therefore won’t see again before we fly out. They are some of our favourite people; Marc is often Bunny’s 500 partner! We hope to catch up with them when they finish travelling in a year or so back in the UK.

On the road, we suffered a small delay in Lafia where we were driving along the main road and began to see large columns of black smoke and fires about 100m ahead. Suddenly we hear multiple gun shots ring out and Hastie does about the fastest U-turn the truck’s ever seen as we hightail it out of the immediate area. As we drive quickly back in the opposite direction we are quickly surrounded by panicking people crowding the streets and running, stall owners quickly closing up shop, and armed security guards coming to quick attention outside the surrounding shops and banks. It was all pretty hectic and out of the blue! We found a local police station who were, as yet, unaware of the situation, so they let us have lunch in their carpark and then eventually went to have a look, packing a ute with police armed with rifles and AK-47s.... returning an hour or so later telling us it was safe to head on our way. We drove back through the town and past the blackened parts of the road from the riot fires and several burned political campaign posters. We are still not sure exactly what caused the mini riot, and not exactly sure we want to!

As we headed south the humidity set in with a bang, and the landscape turned into lush forests as we entered the scenic Cross River National Park. We stopped for lunch an hour and a half from the Drill Ranch and the onset of ‘sweat bees’ started. We had been warned about these previously by Andi and Hastie, who coined the term for the annoying little bugs that fly around you constantly. They don’t bite which is nice, they just swarm around you relentlessly, no matter how many dozens or hundreds you swat. We couldn’t wait for the truck to start going again and reach our destination for the day. Off we headed up the dirt track, which was pretty slow going and meant ducking every, say 5 seconds, for large branches and trees that came in the truck from all angles.

Afi Mountain Drill Ranch was set up by a couple of over landing Americans in 1991 - to save the local, endangered, Pandrillus monkeys. It is said to be one of Africa’s most successful conservation organisations and, happily, is proudly supported by the Nigerian government. It is set amidst lush rainforests and houses several large groups of Pandrillus monkeys which live in really large, natural forest enclosures. These are either captive bred to increase the Drill population or orphaned monkeys that have been rescued or dropped at the sanctuary and are being rehabilitated. The sanctuary is trying its first release back to the wild in a few months – there will be 127 released and these have been separated out into their own enclosure. Overall they have about 350 Drills (of only 3000 still alive on the planet!) on the site and we believe they have about 21 hectares of forest. There is also a chimp enclosure with 28 chimps that have been rescued and rehabilitated, but these are impossible to re-release to the wild after they have been habituated to humans. The sanctuary appears to be doing a great job, particularly in aiming to re-educate the local people of the area that it’s socially unacceptable to kill these endangered species. The Drill monkeys have a very small natural habitat – being just in the Cross River National Park area of Nigeria and northern part of Cameroon, their biggest threats are hunters and deforestation.

The first afternoon near the ranch, we bush camped about 2km down the road and the afternoon/evening was spent sweating profusely and batting at sweat flies. Pleasant. A couple of gunshots ring out during the night and we hear the next day that poachers are still entering the area. Some of the volunteers had gone out in search of them during the night but found nothing (except poor Amalie having a pee in the bush – surprise on both sides! They saw her shape hunched down and thought she might have been a poacher skinning a monkey). The following day we went down to the ranch where we first had a guide show us around 4 of the enclosures. The Pandrillus monkeys are quite a weird looking species of monkey, the males - which are much larger than we expected – are quite bizarre. Their bums are a bright rainbow of pinks and blues (the brighter the colours, the more testosterone) and their faces are so large, black and shiny that they look like plastic. The females in heat had some unsightly swollen pink bums! At one such cage Martin managed to get some monkey porn on Flip, which lasted about 45 seconds, and was hilarious.

Our favourite cage had to be the Chimpanzees though – it is insane how clever they are!!! They really are very intelligent. Most are the ‘typical’ black furred chimps which Bunny thinks are quite cute, but there was also one or two Saharan chimpanzees which have grey fur, and at first glance look like older chimps but are actually a different breed. Some of the chimpanzees in particular had us highly amused, one large brown one would race up and down and imitate us if we jumped up and down or danced, but then he would start screeching at the top of his lungs and pick up objects and throw them at us!!! And what aim!! Loads of us got sconned with sticks, dried monkey poo and various objects, including a coconut he went off and apparently got especially! Bunny got slammed in the calf with a rock as she high-tailed it away from the cage once! Several monkeys would get large sticks and make to climb over the fence at us. They knew which items they could throw straight through the gaps in the fence, and which they had to throw high (eg, coconut) over the fence. We could have stayed there for hours just watching them, they were that amusing! Clapping, doing press ups and so on!
After this we headed back to the central area where the two American volunteers were administering medicines and doing paperwork. We learned that there are also a very limited number of gorillas in the Cross River area but they are barely ever seen, it is estimated there are about 23-25 in two family groups. This makes the Cross River Gorilla the most endangered primate species in the world and of course we didn’t see any! They only live in this one small area and a small area in northern Cameroon.

After the monkey part of the sights we headed off on a walk along forest paths and up to the canopy walk, which is reputedly the longest in West Africa at over 400m. It is brilliantly high at places, pretty vertigo-inducing! It is uncommissioned yet (not sure why – perhaps not up to safety standards?), so the price is really cheap at less than a pound each! Woohoo! Once commissioned the price is estimated to be about $50USD! After this we were all led hot and sweaty to a spring where we could swim – much appreciated by the majority of us who were in there in seconds – though going under taking slightly longer as it was pretty freezing. Once in though, it was very refreshing and we all had a good scrub down too – most of us finding that the gravel on the bottom was a pretty good exfoliator. After this we trekked back through the forest to the main part of the ranch, trying not to raise our body temperatures too much again!

On reaching camp we were relieved to find that the sweat bees were not as frequent, though still present so we headed off to a nearby stream with Ryan, Amalie, Lindi and Neil to pass a few hours with our feet and drinks cooling off in the stream. Ok, stream is a bit of an overstatement – it was more a trickle but pleasant enough to while away the hours and the absence of bugs was much appreciated. That night ‘shitcan’ was back in and Bunny managed to equal the current record for cans stacked and then go on to win one round and come second in the next and she’d only played once before – must have been the Smirnoff ;-)

The following day found us travelling south again towards Calabar, through more lush green, jungle landscapes. We arrived in Ikom about 11.30am and spent a few hours in town doing the usual – wandering, trying local food, trying to check emails at slow internet cafes and stocking up on drinks. Martin and Bunny spent an amusing half hour in a local bar watching one of the ‘Nollywood’ (Nigerian Hollywood) soap operas. It was poorly shot, poorly acted and the plot was ridiculous – but the locals loved it!! We spent the whole time trying not to laugh, or cry.
Then it was on to the bush-camp where it was amazing to see exactly how much pruning 20 odd people can do if they work in a team as we cleared enough space for our truck, tents and kitchen/fire area! Then it was time to fill out our last visa form for the trip, Cameroon. Dinner was followed by Bunny insisting on a game of ‘Roxanne’ – the drinking game we’ve played many a time in East Africa before but hadn’t yet done so on this trip. I think it was a new game for everyone else but a great laugh and resulted in a few messy people later on. Anyway, it was just to empty more cans for ‘shit-can’ ha ha. ]

The next day we arrived in Calabar before lunch. Not many places for a truck to stay so we stay in the car park of one of the most dilapidated hotels we’ve ever seen, with the unlikely name of ‘Paradise City’. We’re shocked to see it was only built in 1988 – it looks like it was built in the Stone Age. We head out into town but it’s Sunday so most shops are shut. We eat lunch at ‘Chicken Republic’ which didn’t have most of the items on its menu but did happen to have some good ice cream – go figure.

After this we head to the Calabar branch of the Pandrillus Ranch. This is where the majority of monkeys are dropped when they are found or rescued before they mend them up, and send them up to the Afi Mountain Ranch. There is one cage of 50 Pandrillus who are the original monkeys the sanctuary had and they are kept there largely for educational purposes, for local visitors, schools, universities and so on. They also have four cheeky chimps between 2 and 5 years, who, the American volunteer tells us, are eight times more of a handful than the 50 Pandrillus put together. The 2 year old chimp is adorable. The volunteer has been working there since August and it’s great to find we are the only ones there as she led us around the various cages and told us more about the history of the sanctuary and individual monkeys and the social groupings. There is one Drill baby that was only 6 weeks old, it’s adorable with a little Mohawk and huge eyes in a face which is largely blue/pink but beginning to be mottled with the black fur coming through. It’s tiny little body looks almost blue because of the mottling of the fur. There are also about 7 tiny crocodiles, that we were surprised to find out were actually one year old, and a deer and several parrots as well. It really is a rescue centre for animals that are found and dropped off there, like chimps that have been found as illegal pets and so forth. It was a great visit, really glad we went!

That night Martin and a bunch of others found a bar running a promotion to ‘win’ free Star Beer tshirts, caps, pens, key-rings etc. You had to drink two beers to do a lucky dip for a prize, but Ian and Martin sweet talked the promo girls into more-or-less letting them have whatever we wanted. We even won an extra T-shirt which we gave to Hastie. Everyone was completely munted by the time they got back to camp, decked out in a range of Star paraphernalia – very funny stuff.
After dinner we headed back but the promo girls were gone so we moved on to another bar where Bunny loved the hip hop music. After that we found another bar.... well tables in someone’s front yard but we chatted to a few locals and then at the end one of the guys said he’d pay for all our drinks, he was a Nigerian guy, CEO of an Oil and Gas firm – pretty nice of him!

Following day Bunny’s cook-group decided on the fastest meal yet – hotdogs! - but then were flabbergasted to find that it took them 2 hours to track down sliced bread (and that’s after they gave up on the hot dog buns!) Insane, and melting, they finally got back to the truck to find Emma and Marc visiting us – they are still in Calabar! Woohoo, great to catch up with them again and do lunch at a local joint. That afternoon we whiled away some hours on the internet and then later Martin returned to the bar with the Star Beer promotion to win Bunny a cap (and got quite lucky, winning another few small things and a t-shirt he presented to Lee at dinner).
The next day it was finally time to leave Nigeria, we returned to Ikom briefly to get a few supplies and stock up on water etc. Bunny, Martin, Ian, Kirsten and Ryan raced off to get ice cold drinks in a bar we found the last time we were here... so nice on a scorching day!! Then it was a short drive to Mfum/Ekok for our cross into Cameroon. As usual it was a lengthy process leaving, forms to be filled etc etc. But it wasn’t too bad, and before we knew it we were heading across the bridge from Nigeria into the last country of this trip: Cameroon!

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