Distance Cycled : 16,470km
Another update, but I’ve only just waded through the last one, we hear you cry! Yes, it’s only ten days since we left Kano but we’re now in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, and find ourselves at the end of chapter one of the expedition with West Africa behind us. Tomorrow we will have been on the road for one year, which feels quite momentous. It feels like another life, when we think back to the last-minute preparations we were making a year ago and, in many respects it is. Over the past 365 days, we have seen such an immense range of landscapes, climbed so many hills, negotiated so many rough roads and encountered such a variety of people and cultural traditions that we wonder if we will find readjusting to “normal” life back in Britain more of a challenge than the life we are leading now! But all that is still a long way off, and we’re certainly not weary of cycling and discovering new things. Nor, for that matter, are we completely fed up with staying in fleapits although we came perilously close this last week…
We gratefully departed from the rather pompously named “Kano Tourist Camp” last Thursday. Although we made friends with the very amicable owner of the on-site restaurant (which we were delighted to find served fantastic Indian food, though regrettably no lager thanks to Sharia law in Kano State), the complex as a whole was run-down and pretty ropey. What made us really frustrated and angry, however, was the fact that the place was overpriced and yet government-funded. The more senior members of staff had suspiciously nice watches and rather fancy outfits – no prizes for guessing which bank account the “refurbishment grants” end up in… However scabby, though, the Tourist Camp would definitely have been a step up from where we ended up that night!
We knew we had a long way to go to the next major town, Maiduguri, and wondered whether the abbreviation on the roadsigns – MAD, 579km – was trying to tell us something…but were thinking we would camp that night if we didn’t reach a settlement. After stopping for a bottle of fanta in a village, we became a bit concerned about the locals, to be honest. Having already paid for our drinks, we were perching on a kerbstone when the shop owner reappeared, rather out of breath, and ceremoniously presented us with a small tin of condensed milk. By the time we had got over our perplexion, he had scampered off and we left wondering whether we were supposed to read something into this gesture. Was this a bizarre ritual or a local tradition? “Remember, children, always give white men a TIN OF MILK”, we imagined local schoolteachers saying. Or perhaps they thought we were hedgehogs? We didn’t hang around for clarification but murmured a vague thank you and goodbye and carried on into an increasingly cloud-shrouded afternoon. By 6pm we were racing along to escape the thunderstorm that was evidently about to engulf us. One look at the inky sky told us there was no chance of camping but salvation came in the form of Birnin Kudu, a small town on the road. Several wild goose chases then ensued as we were directed to a number of fictitious guest houses.
This is perhaps one of the most infuriating and widespread habits of West Africans – they will not say they do not know something. This is not because they wish to lie or deceive, or have a joke at your expense, but simply because they want to help and so think it is better to tell you a village lies 25km away when they have no idea that it is over 40km, or indicate that a guest house lies along that road when in fact that road ends in a sticky, muddy field of maize… With a deep breath, we tried again and again and eventually found someone who said he would show us a place to stay. We rolled up at a semi-derelict building that was once a goverment rest house and Luke was taken off to find the Secretary to ask for permission to stay. Then someone went to fetch a “door opening device” (a bit of wood) as they had evidently lost the key to the room we were given some time ago. The guardian was actually a very sweet man, concerned about our comfort to the extent that he insisted on going out in the torrential rain (by now the storm had arrived) to procure a lightbulb for our bare room. He returned with bottles of coke as well, and hovered as Anna cooked our tea on the camping stove outside the room, helpfully shooing away resident cockroaches and geckos. More wildlife manifested itself in the form of fleas in the mattress and mosquitoes sheltering from the rain, but thankfully both were kept at bay by our mozzie repellant!
The next night we had a rather run-down bungalow all to ourselves in a small town called Misau, where ladies were selling possibly the most delicious fried potatoes in the whole of West Africa – 8p for a bagful. Luke unwisely decided to switch on the air-conditioning,
which looked like it might have been relocated from one of the luxury cabins on the Ark, such was its antiquity. This promptly blew the fuses and we were left in darkness… After another day in the saddle we got to Potiskum, where the find-a-bed challenge began once again, with literally hundreds of people crowding around to help us and failing spectacularly to agree on the location of a single place. “Ah, British!” one elderly man creaked “then they will certainly put you up in the government rest house”. This for some reason did not appeal after nearly a week of nights spent in state-sponsored hovels. So off we went down sandy backstreets, across a grassy common close-cropped by mangy sheep, finally arriving at the Potiskum Polytechnic Guest House. There was no NEPA*, there was no running water but there were also no fleas and there was also a fake 4WD out front emblazoned with the brand “TAYOTA”, which at least made us laugh.
*Abbreviation for the Nigerian Electric Power Authority, used as a general term for electricity. Nigerians claim it actually stands for “Never Expect Power Again”, which is about right!
On Monday we rolled into Maiduguri (we’ll skip over Sunday night as that was actually quite nice and going into detail would reduce your growing sympathy) and checked into the Safari Hotel. This may conjure up images of canvas tents, beds romantically draped with mozzie netting, giraffes by the terrace and rustling acacia trees…but in fact it was another no NEPA, no water affair and we wondered whether the owner had been inspired by Trainspotting before decorating his “hotel”. It was so hot in our room that night with no fan that we relocated to the concrete roof but the mosquito net kept falling down, the wind began to rise to ferocious levels and around 2am the rain came hurling down so we ran back inside. Anna was up again at 5am, unable to sleep, and we spent our “rest day” in Maiduguri in a zombie-like state.
In fact, this didn’t matter too much as there wasn’t really anything to see in the town, despite it being the capital of Borno State. This state, together with all those north of Abuja, is governed by Sharia Law. We had been a bit concerned that two travelling infidels on bikes (especially Anna) might meet with hostility or opprobrium. Once again, our concerns were unwarranted and we have found Nigerians to be among the friendliest and most helpful people we have so far encountered. Sharia Law was first introduced in 2000, the vast majority of the population in each affected state voted in favour of the introduction. So, however draconian it may appear to outsiders, it is not an oppressive credo imposed on an unwilling population. Sharia, as we understand it, governs every aspect of life for Muslims, with judgements made and sentences given by special Sharia courts – of which we have seen a number. Many punishments seem harsh (amputation of the hand for theft, for example) not to say skewed in favour of men. In Amina Lawal’s case – a woman sentenced to death for bearing a child outside marriage – the father was released due to “insufficient” evidence. The pregnancy was sufficient evidence against the woman. It’s been hard to imagine the amiable and tolerant Nigerians we have met either approving of or participating in the execution of such sentences, although we haven’t been left in any doubt as to the religious conviction and fervour of Muslims in Nigeria. And as Sharia is a religious legal system, perhaps it should be no surprise it is so rigidly enforced.
Anyway, after all this meagre accommodation, imagine our delight when we got a reply from the manager of the Hotel Le Sahel in N’Djamena saying that they would be delighted to put us up for free during our stay (as Anna had rather cheekily requested in an email) and wishing us the best of luck with our “great endeavour”. We slept especially well on our first night here, after a rather eventful day crossing from Nigeria to Cameroon to Chad – four passport stamps in a single day, we knew we were in for a challenging time…
We’d already had a long day from Maiduguri to the border town of Gamboru – after 100km or so, the road had deteriorated until it consisted of badly potholed sections of crumbling tarmac interspersed with sections of thick, dark mud. Then the hotel we were aiming for, in the town of Ngala (a few kilometres before the Cameroon border), was full.
By then, we’d had to fix a puncture and had ridden almost 150km, and it was getting late, but we were assured that we’d find a “local” guest house in the border village of Gamboru a few kilometres down the road. We’d planned to avoid staying there, knowing border towns are often grotty places, but there didn’t seem to be much choice… Sure enough, when we arrived shortly before dusk, the first person we asked was reluctant to tell us the way to the “Upper Chad Hotel” as he didn’t think we’d find it suitable. If only he’d seen some of the places we’ve stayed in! In fact, we found this attitude to be quite common all over Nigeria – locals and expats alike assume that any Batauri (white person) will only stay in a tourist hotel – of which there are very few – and often deny the presence of a local guesthouse.) A few more enquiries produced vague gestures before two boys on a decrepit bike led us off down a sandy side-street to the hotel. In actual fact, it was fine – basic, without a doubt, but cleanish, and with a working generator we had light and a fan, as well as plenty of water for cooking and washing. The communal tiolet/shower arrangement wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but by then we were in no position to complain. It might say something about our standards that we thought it was a little pricey at N500 (about £2)! There was a nice red lightbulb in every room as well. Yeees.
Knowing we had another long day ahead of us, we were up bright and early the next morning, and headed straight for the border via a small grocery store where we spent our last bit of Nigerian change on a prodigious quantity of biscuits. The Nigerian officials at the first checkpoint were friendly, and despite the bureaucracy (three different sets of people had to look at our passports, write the details into huge ledgers, and then hand us a “disembarkation” card to fill in before we got our stamps) the process didn’t take too long. At the other side of the bridge, our first encounter with Cameroonian officialdom didn’t go so well, as two policemen stopped us, flicked disinterestedly through our passports, and then asked for a “fee” for using their bridge. Several minutes of impasse were finally broken when Anna pleaded that this was the first time we’d been asked for such a fee in 16,000km of cycling!
(All the while, local people were heading back and forth across the bridge and showing no signs of paying anything!) Once they heard of our trip, though, they sent us on our way, pointing out the moneychanger nearby who gave us a reasonable rate for a few dollars to see us through to Chad. Fortunately, the next official, who we needed to get our transit visas from, was somewhat less corrupt and cheerfully stamped our passports three times each, while dicussing marriage customs in Cameroon and Britain! All this paperwork had taken some time though, and it was almost 9am before we actually rode off into Cameroon.
The transit visa meant that we had to be out of Cameroon and into Chad that day, via a bridge 100km away which closed at 6pm. From the map, it wasn’t clear whether the road was paved or not, but we soon found out as we bounced over ruts and ploughed through stretches of sand… We made slow progress, but at least had a chance to enjoy the landscape, which although flat and superficially monotonous certainly wasn’t dull. On either side of the glaringly white road, dry acacia-strewn scrub was dotted with patches of lush green grass surrounding seasonal pools filled with water lillies. The birdlife was quite incredible, and we saw herons, storks, egrets, lapwings, bee-eaters and redshanks at close quarters – quite a treat after days of following main roads. The few villages were often raised up on earth mounds, whether for defensive purposes or simply a relic of years of building and accumulation of waste we couldn’t tell.
Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be much food available in any of these villages, so after stopping a couple of times for (warm) drinks we were glad to find some deep-fried dough-balls for sale. Together with some mango chutney we had left over, these made a filling, if slightly odd, lunch! We were glad, too, of the two bottles of mineral water given to us by some friendly policemen – we’d stopped to ask them to fill our bottles, expecting to dip into the earthenware pots they store water in. Time was getting on when we’d finished lunch, so we pushed on quickly along a somewhat improved piste and were relieved when it turned into tarmac with about 30km to go. We could make better speed, but were hampered by the wind, which was just as strong as in recent days but now blowing from dead ahead rather than at our backs…
We sped past more wading birds, scooping up titbits from the shallow pools, the water all golden in the soft late-afternoon light. And we also passed several farmers on creaky bikes, who soon got over their initial surprise at seeing us and ratcheted up a gear to stay with us – it’s not only Tour de France riders who appreciate the benefit of sitting in a slip-stream when there is a headwind! Just after 5pm we entered Kousseri, where the weekly market was winding down. Consequently the sandy streets were thronged with motorbikes, pedestrians, donkeys, bundles and baskets, tethered goats and refuse but we inched our way through the melee and arrived at the bridge across the River Chari, which forms the Cameroon-Chad border. The buffoon in the Emigration Office by the bridge informed us that it was not his job to stamp us out of Cameroon and directed us to the “Commissariat” back in the town centre! We were desperately frustrated and not a little annoyed as time was getting on – the bridge closed in 40 minutes and it would be dark in just over an hour. So Anna guarded the bikes while Luke leapt on a taxi-moped, passports in hand. While he was gone Anna remonstrated with the official and made him agree to let us across the bridge even if Luke returned after 6pm. She also asked him what precisely he did do in his role as an emigration officer, if stamping passports was not his job, to which he replied “nothing” without a trace of embarassment or irony. At 6.05pm Luke returned triumphantly (to the evident chagrin of the idiot official) and we whizzed across the narrow bridge to find a much warmer reception awaiting us on the Chadian side.
With paperwork and rubber stamps efficiently out of the way in five minutes flat, the border guards then gave us directions to N’Djamena. They even drew us a sketch map and gave us a mobile number to ring in case we got lost! Then we were speeding off into Chad, as the sky blazed a rather attractive pinky-orange colour – soon it would be dark! We crossed another single-lane bridge choked with traffic and negotiated several roundabouts in the dark, finding out in the process that we were in the minority with lights front and back – most vehicles had one or other if any! A further kindness came in the form of Monsieur Beshir, a passerby who insisted on guiding us on his moped to the hotel, which was very much appreciated – by now we were half-asleep and feeling done-in. It was pitch dark when we finally rolled into the leafy compound of the Hotel le Sahel at 7.30pm.
We’re not entirely disgruntled to be spending a week in N’Djamena as it seems a friendly and unfrenetic sort of place. During the civil war, the city was badly damaged, but several decades on it’s a rather leafy, sleepy place and new buildings have replaced edifices that were bombed out or pocked with bullet holes. There are a lot of expats here, many UN workers as well as NGO staff and private entrepreneurs and businesspeople. As a result there are plenty of shiny Landcruisers and posh restaurants – all vaguely reminiscent of Laayoune and all a bit unsettling, given that the organisations employing these people have a mandate to represent and improve the lives of the disadvantaged and persecuted. But perhaps it helps the local economy and perhaps it’s unfair to begrudge a UN official his steak-frites and Stella Artois. Anyway, rather unlike the hugely spread out Nigerian capital, Abuja, you can walk to most places in N’Djamena. This may prove to be our financial ruin, however, as there is a fantastic French patisserie just around the corner which sells delicious pastries…maybe those expats aren’t so bad after all.
So, it’s goodbye to West Africa. Our final attempt to get a Sudanese visa here ended in disappointment when the friendly consul told us he had no authority to issue us a visa and would have to refer the application to Khartoum – and freely admitted it would take “two weeks, three weeks, a month, two months…” for a reply to come back. So having already resigned ourselves to flying as far as Khartoum to avoid being shot at in Darfur, we’re now looking at a direct flight to Ethiopia. We’re enormously frustrated at the thought of having to get on a plane after all these kilometres of cycling, but are reassuring ourselves with the fact that Addis is actually further from Cape Town than we are here – so it can’t be cheating! From Addis Ababa it will be hard to lose the way – south, south, south! We’re sure we’ll make a few unscheduled detours however – Luke has his eye on a mountain called Kilimanjaro that is “on the way”…