Distance Cycled : 15,568km
We’re fast approaching the edge of the map in our dog-eared West Africa guidebook now! In fact, as we’ve cycled through Nigeria over the last few weeks, it has occasionally felt like we were leaving behind the known world and entering uncharted waters (literally at times, given the amount of rain that falls when there’s a storm)! As we said in our last update, we were approaching the Nigerian border with some trepidation – after all, when was the last time you heard something good about Nigeria? But we have sailed through customs, checkpoints, villages and towns without encountering any hassle, nastiness or violence. Our arrival in out-of-the-way places has caused a bit of a stir at times, however – more on that later.
Our first few hours in the country didn’t seem particularly auspicious, even on the Benin side it took 30 minutes for a border guard to s-l-o-w-l-y and d-e-l-i-b-e-r-a-t-e-l-y enter our details in his ledger (actually an exercise book showing a grinning Ronaldhino on the cover). We fleetingly wondered why he kept his office padlocked when the most valuable items appeared to be a battered desk, plastic chairs, a collection of yellowing newspapers, a colourful plastic clock (with German numbers, bizarrely) and a clutch of eggs. Perhaps the eggs had been confiscated from a border-hopping chicken? There was certainly a very agitated hen peering in at us accusingly, but it stopped short of entering the “office”. His lack of efficiency caused us to wonder what might happen when the border was busy – until we saw that the last entry in the ledger was from April! A few kilometres on we reached the Nigerian post and realised the Beninois official did indeed occupy luxurious quarters compared to his Nigerian counterparts. A portly official was sitting at a rickety desk outside when we rolled up. He looked slightly horrified to see us but soon regained his composure and smilingly asked us to fill in immigration cards while thumbing through our passports. Meanwhile, a younger officer who seemed to be in charge appeared from the shack behind him. Lovingly, they stroked the fancy hologram on our Nigerian visas and then asked us how long we would like to stay. Then a tricky manoeuvre with a biro followed, as the guards attempted to alter the date on the rubber stamp to 2005. Next came the search for the inkpad, with a muttered conversation along the following lines:
“It is all dried up, I do not believe it will function”
“You know I meant to get that thing replaced”
“Yes, I think that is what you should have done”
“I am going to rejuvenate it”
At this point guard one poured a liberal quantity of water from a plastic kettle onto the inkpad, then shook it and did a few test-runs on the back of an official directive, with predictably watery results.
“Hmm. It does not seem to be working”
“Yes, not working”
Eventually, and just before our patience ran out, they plucked up the courage to actually stamp the passport, wrote “90 days” in biro underneath the hopelessly faint mark and waved us on our way. It was not over, yet, as 100 metres further on we encountered a Public Health checkpoint…
“Stop, stop. Leave the bikes. Where are your health papers?”
Again, it was a comedy double-act, man number one reeking of alcohol and looking very crestfallen when we whipped out our vaccination certificates, not that he actually looked at them in any detail. Man number two was more friendly but insisted on recording our exact planned itinerary for Nigeria, which took some time. He wrote everything in an illegible red biro scrawl on a manky A4 sheet, so I doubt the information will ever be seen or read by anyone. Hoping that was that, we pedalled off only to be stopped by three more officials, manning the Customs Post…
“Let me see your papers for the vehicle”…
This time we groaned audibly and then patiently explained these bikes have no motor. “We use these” Anna said, prodding her thigh, which they thought was pretty funny. At first, we thought they must be after a bribe, but it gradually dawned on us that they simply didn’t know what to do with us! In the end we got away and, once out of sight, flopped down under a tree to escape the midday heat, have some lunch and laugh about the border crossing. We were a bit frustrated about how long it took but relieved nonetheless to have survived our first brush with Nigerian officialdom!
Since that first day we have passed through perhaps fifty police check points. These generally consist of two chunks of tree (foliage sometimes still attached), lying across the road and a bench under a tree where between 2 and 8 policemen sit admiring their reflections in the shiny metal of their semi-automatics. More often than not they are dozing off, and perhaps only a dozen have asked to see our passports. As ever, they want to know what on earth we are doing! The same is true of local people in general. We get the impression that Nigeria’s sizeable expat community locks itself away in air conditioned compounds and high-security suburbs. To get from A to B, they hop in a 4×4 with smoked-glass windows and zip along the highways at 150kph. So to see a white person out and about in a village or an out-of-the-way town is a rare thing indeed. Sure, we’ve been causing a stir since Morocco but in Nigeria it’s on a diferent scale! Arrive in a vilage and, before you have bought a loaf of bread, a crowd of 40 or more will have surrouned the bikes. Stop to get a Fanta, and the shopkeeper’s extended family will be invading the shop in a flash, followed by dozens and dozens of nosy neighbours. It’s just incredible how fascinating people find us – they might stand and just look at us for an hour. It makes you feel a bit like a animal in a zoo or an exhibit in a museum. The little children are most horrified by us, occasionally bursting into tears, running away or touching us to see if we actually do exist, but it’s what the adults say that has had us in stitches.
Here’s a selection of our favourite questions, comments and reactions:
“What is your mission?”
“I am not even sure if it is man or woman.” (While looking at Anna.)
“Aaaaah, you people are trying.”
“They are on exploration. You see they are having map. yes, it is funded by their government.”
“On a bicycle? With this bicyle? Eeh, I am finding it hard to believe.”
“Aah, you are British. So you meet with your ambassador and he gives you money so you can feed.”
“They have come to see the white men.” (A shopkeeper pointing to the throng of kids peering in at the door.)
Near Kosubosu just inside Nigeria, we met a friendly Greek man who took us under his wing, escorted us to a guest house and helped us change some US Dollars into local currency – the Naira. Currently, you get about 140 Naira for one dollar and the biggest note is worth 500, so it’s yet another country where we have to carry wads of cash. There are no coins, so you can imagine how screwed up and bedraggled the smallest notes are – they are the ones that change hands most often in an economy dominated by micro-commerce. 5 Naira for a bag of water, 10 Naira for a few bananas or 20 Naira to get across town in a shared minibus. 6-year-old boys calculate change correctly in the blink of an eye, moneychangers count huge wads faster than the speed of light and wallets are generally dispensed with in favour of plastic bags – bulkier and waterproof to boot! In a country where the average citizen is incredibly poor, there certainly an awful lot of money about, changing hands constantly.
Our Greek friend was working on a road rehabilitation project… but unfortunately the road in question was not the one we had to take! No-one in Kosubosu thought to mention that it wasn’t really a road at all. About an hour after we left the village, we stopped at the top of a hill and rested the bikes up. Looking around, all we could see was dense, emerald forest, the red earth road slicing through the sea of green and reaching off into the hazy distance. No habitation, no power lines, in fact no sign of any human being ever having been here…oh, except for a rusted-up digger, obviously abandoned during an attempt to rehabilitate the road some time ago! As the day wore on, the road deteriorated and proved itself to be a showcase of difficult cycling surfaces! Huge potholes spanning the track had filled with rain and doubts about their depth meant the safest option was to dismount and push the bikes around or occasionally through them. In places they had dried up enough for the water to evaporate but the ooze left behind sucked and pulled at our feet and clogged the chains. Later in the day, huge gullies appeared, leaving a foot-wide strip that was navigable. Again, we dismounted fearing we might fall into one of the metre-deep gullies. In the heat of mid-afternoon, just as the surface seemed to be drying up and not resembling a riverbed quite so much, the surface disappeared entirely and we found ourselves trying to cycle uphill on knobbly bedrock, before the surface returned in the form of three inches of sand. We were suddenly reminded of ploughing through the Sahara more than six months ago, as the bike computers struggled to register 5kph and our socks gradually filled with sand. We almost cried with relief when, after 90km, we finally arrived at our destination – the small town of Kaiama. As we peeled off our sweat-soaked and mud-stained clothes, admired our cuts and bruises, and had a bucket shower (no doubt clogging the drain with sand) we began to come back to life. Out on the street we found a lady selling hot food and tucked in to a big dinner of rice and spicy beans, with the added delicacy of a chunk of spinal cord for Luke (you know, sometimes it’s good to be a veggie). As we ate, we stared in disbelief at our map of Nigeria which did indeed mark the day’s route as a “Primary Paved Highway”! For the first time in our lives, we were tempted to sue someone for damages – physical and psychological!
For the next few days the road traversed a sparsely populated landscape of quiet but beautiful forest, and thanks to the reappearance of tarmac we were able to take our eyes off the road and look around a bit more. One thing we have been seeing a lot of is cows, great big white zebu with wonderful tapering horns. The herds often include a dozen sheep or goats as well, and all the livestock seem to get along quite happily – there’s always a herdsman with a big stick if they don’t. Your “average” Nigerian is fairly stocky and well-built but these herders look startlingly different. For a start they are tall, slight and lighter-skinned, with longer faces and elegant limbs. Dress is an eclectic mix of colour and custom. You might see a man in a sombre indigo tunic-and-trouser outfit, a boy in football shorts and flip-flops, then a group of women with orange, red and purple wrap-around skirts, Sometimes you see traditions merging in a single person wearing elements of local and Western clothing, which can look quite comical when it’s a pair of combat trousers with a beautifully embroidered shirt, a Bon Jovi t-shirt with a long, colourful skirt or a frilly first communion dress worn with with a string of juju beads (to ward off “evil spirits”). Whatever else they wear, all Fula men have a hat of some description, from cone-shaped straw and leather ones through black bowler hats and floppy cotton sombreros to three-cornered cloth caps topped with pompoms! Not to be outdone, the ladies wear bright block-printed headscarves, necklaces, bangles and enormous ear-rings and many have a chunky plait woven into their hair on each side of their face, the bottom of which curves outwards and might end in an orange or a red pompom. Normally we only encounter a single herdsman who will flash us a brilliant smile and raise his stick in greeting as we go by, but occasionally we stumble on a village on market day where a number of Fula families might converge. Then, surrounded by curious onlookers quietly watching you, we really get the impression that these are proud and, somehow, noble people. It’s something about their elegance, bearing and effortless grace and their spontaneous laughter, high spirits and smiles that makes them somehow different. Now, every time we spot cows on the horizon, we know a warm greeting is not far away. And we play guess-the-style-of-hat, of course…
Despite having to wait for the odd herd of zebu to cross the road at their leisure, we made good progress for a few days and soon found ourselves approaching the Kainji Dam – Nigeria’s equivalent of Ghana’s Akosombo Dam and home to a hydro-electric power plant. More exciting for us, however, was the fact that the river in question is the Niger! Back in February we were in Faranah, mere miles from where the headwaters of this African giant rise in the Guinean highlands. Throughout March, we followed the river as it grew wider and entered Bamako, and in Segou with Luke’s parents we took a pirogue out onto the river as it wound through the inland delta. So it was quite amazing to stand on a bridge and look down into the water which had travelled so far and through so many of the same places as us. The Niger turns south, is joined by the Benue and then flows down to its true delta before joining the ocean in the Gulf of Guinea, thousands of kilometres from its source. We won’t see it again, now.
As things stand, nor will we see the confluence of two other great African rivers – the Blue Nile and the White Nile. They join in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and the Sudanese authorities don’t seem too keen to issue us with the necessary visa to enter the country. For some time now, we have thought we would have to fly over Darfur given the continuing conflict in western Sudan and the humanitarian crisis in the IDP camps near the Chadian border. So, reluctantly, we planned to fly from the capital of Chad – N’Djamena – to Khartoum. We have had little trouble obtaining visas for onward travel so far and were a bit stunned lastweek by the unequivocal “no” we got from the Sudanese embassy in Abuja, here in Nigeria. We tried speaking directly to the consul, getting the British High Commission to plead on our behalf and asking Anna’s mum to ring the Sudanese embassy in London, we had no positive response. The consul in Abuja told us to apply in Cairo or London – two cities which seems to be cropping up a bit in the news in recent days but both equally inaccessible when you are on a bike in the middle of Nigeria! So we may find ourselves in Ethiopia sooner than planned… Thanks to Ethiopian Airlines at least we won’t have to worry about the financial burden – they have generously agreed to sponsor us by providing our flights free of charge.
In fact, we had a good few days in Abuja on the sponsorship front. First up came a visit to the Hilton – with over 600 rooms the biggest, as well as one of the plushest, hotels in West Africa. They’d expressed an interest in sponsoring us, and a few nights living in luxury seemed too good an opportunity to miss! So we marched boldly into the lobby and headed up to meet the sales team on the first floor. The whole place was quite surreal – it felt like you were in New York or Geneva, or on a luxury cruise-liner, rather than in one of the most impoverished areas of the world. The team were all very welcoming, but even with the 50% discount they offered, their cheapest room was a bit over our daily budget, at USD117.50 a night! We did take advantage of the rather posh toilets on the way out but resisted our usual urge to fill our pockets with loo-roll to supplement our supplies… Fortunately, Ibrahim – the very friendly Lebanese owner of the Villa Hotel nearby – had also offered to help out, and provided a fantastic room for 6 nights at the unbeatable price of gratis! The combination of a luxurious room and an incredibly warm welcome (which included an invite to his Sunday brunch, Lebanese-style) was better than anything we could have hoped for and his hotel knocks spots off the Hilton… So our time in Abuja was a mix of relaxation and frustrating bureaucracy!
The ride north from Abuja took us through some very pleasant, green, and gently hilly countryside – but unfortunately the road was anything but pleasant. A two-lane dual carriageway, inhabited by deranged truck drivers and speeding minibuses is not our idea of fun, but with 100km days proving (relatively) easy to manage, we knocked off 500km fairly quickly. Along the way we paid a visit to the Emir’s Palace in Zaria, the first of the seven Hausa states of northern Nigeria (more about this below…)
We’re now in Kano, a huge and bustling city of about ten million people – in fact they are conducting a census this year which should help establish the exact number. It’s a pretty unenviable task, when you consider many people don’t have fixed addresses and a “household” is a pretty fluid concept here. Yesterday, we climbed a sandstone outcrop that rises up above the bustle of the Old City to get an overview of the metropolis. It was quite an incredible view – tin-roof shacks mingling with older mud-walled compounds as far as the eye could see, with the odd white-and-green minaret rising starkly above the one-storey dwellings. Next to the city’s main mosque – which holds up to 50,000 worshippers for Friday prayers – is the palace of the city ruler – the Emir – and apparently it’s quite easy to get an appointment to see him if you are a native of Kano. We didn’t quite manage to srop by for cucumber sandwiches, but did make the acquaintance of an ebullient man named Baffa, a local government officer. He saw that we were looking vaguely lost after our climb up the hill and offered the back of his motorbike as a taxi service back to our hotel. Actually, moped taxis (achabas is the local terms) whizz all over Nigerian cities and are much more effective and rapid than cars and buses. It can be a bit nerve-racking sitting on the back of one, though, especially with a driver like Baffa whoinsisted on truning around all the time to bombard Anna with questions about our trip, what we think of Nigeria etc etc. When we arrived back, he insisted that he would like to show us some more of the city and arranged to pick us up at 8.30 this morning to take us to see some sights!
So we had a great tour of the Kofar Mata dye pits, where hard-working men have been churning out vivid blue cloth for centuries. The process hasn’t changed much in 500 years, and the dye pits – a metre or so in circumference and up to six metres deep – are filled with the same mix of water, crushed indigo, ash and potassium as they were in the 15th century. It’s a long process – you have to wait 3 months just for the ingredients to ferment, but then the dye is good for up to a year. The pits are filled with a murky green liquid and it doesn’t look very promising until you see a bit of white cloth being dipped in and pulled out a deep blue colour. It can take up to six hours to achieve a really deep shade of blue, as the colour builds up with each cycle of immersion and oxidation – hot work in the equatorial sun. Disused dye pits are covered over with huge cone-shaped baskets, presumably to avoid contamination by leaves, plastic bags, wayward goats and unwary toddlers. Although we don’t normally buy any souvenirs, we succumbed and so Anna now has a cotton shirt, dip dyed at the pits and embroidered in the alleyway behind. A souvenir of West Africa and by far the smartest thing in our “wardrobe” after nearly a year on the road!
From Kano we will head eastwards to the Cameroonian border, passing through the towns of Potiskum and Maidugiri, and hope to arrive in N’Djamena by the 1st August. That will be a special day as it marks one year on the road so we are hoping there is a cake shop somwhere in N’Djamena, it is after the capital city of Chad… We will then sadly be wrapping our bikes in cardboard and bubble wrap and taking to the skies. There’s just no way through Darfur at the moment and no alternative route unless you fancy a trip through the Central African Republic and the DRC, which we don’t. So, we’re not exactly sure where our next bulletin will come from, but it should be online in the next 3 weeks or so.