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Wednesday, May 23

Nigeria - YOU’RE WELCOME!!!!

Brett: We decided to take the Nikki/Chikanda border into Nigeria as we had heard that the border crossings further south are really bad. The border was easy and we entered the land of the screaming WELCOME! Adults and whole schools of children literally scream it at you from the moment they notice you until you are out of sight – takes a little getting used to being so alien from the English culture we have been living in for the last few years. It was nice to be welcomed but we felt very conspicuous, and wished we could just be ignored instead. We drove along the good tar for a short way and onto the washed out dirt roads shown on T4A that most overlanders use – the roads are a little slow going at 4h for 120km, but the good road from the south is probably slower overall with dozens of checkpoints. The road was full of motorbikers who would shout their WELCOMES accompanied by lots of long and loud hoots (to say “watch out I am here”, “hello”, or “WELCOME”) and if we stopped, they would stop to chat.One motorbike took the theme a little far when we stopped for a quick lunch of pineapple and custard, and came to stare at us, asking us why we hadn’t invited them to join us for lunch, and declaring we were “wicked” when we just stood there amused and still didn’t share it with them. Some way along the road, we met some French overlanders in 3 vehicles going the other way. They had basically done the same route around Africa as us, but in reverse. It was nice to chat to them and swap a few stories as the number of overlanders in Africa has dramatically dropped off in the last 18 months, and it was great to see other people out there.
There were a few free camping options, but we were sure we would be discovered as the area is very populated, so we stopped at the first hotel we found in Kaiama called Pissio Guest Inn. The place seemed ok and we chatted to the owner, a well educated guy called Prince. The guesthouse is a bit of a shebeen as well, so we went for a few drinks at the bar. We asked about food and Prince did warn us that the meal, which he said was Goat assorted soup, “might not be quite what we are used to”, so we asked him in what way, and after a long pause he replied, “spicy”.  We thought the assorted would mean assorted cuts of meat, possibly some rib, chop, and steak, and we didn’t pay much attention to the fact that he was rubbing his hands over his belly at the time. We thought, “well,we have been eating bush meat at road side stalls, so this can only be better”. Well, the meal came and we realised that he wasn’t rubbing his stomach as he described the meal to ask if we were hungry, but rather to describe the ingredients – the furry bits were stomach, and we also had some skin and windpipe in there. The taste stuck with us for quite a long time, and Mary must have been fairly traumatised, as she wrote a whole Getaway blog article about it (http://blog.getaway.co.za/food/culinary-adventures-nigeria/). We filled up on pounded yam (like pap) afterwards.
Finally we settled down to sleep, but with the shebeen music thumping and some curious passers by coming to prod the tent at odd intervals we didn’t get much rest. We had been offered the use of a room so that we could use the bathroom (which didn’t have running water, except from a hole in the ceiling when it started raining), which Prince had said we could just pay a nominal amount towards, but in the morning we found we had actually been charged the full room rate, plus a fortune for the Goat assorted soup. It wasn’t the end of the world, and there hadn’t really been any other places to stay, so we just let it go.
The road “improved” to potholed tar, and it was slow because of the trucks not letting past because they were swerving around the potholes. When we reached the junction at Mokwa, it felt like we were in the Nigeria we had imagined – the towns were packed with thousands of stationary trucks, and the few that were passing through were hammering along and pretty much pushing the oncoming cars off the road as they overtook on corners. We filled up on cheap petrol ($0.60/l) – diesel is 75% more expensive and not as readily available. The rest of the day’s drive was much better than expected – we were stopped at a few checkpoints and mostly had very little hassle, although one guy did invented an issue with my drivers licence, claiming it had already expired -   very assertively told him he was mistaken, the date he was pointing to was the start date and it clearly stated that the license was valid for a year from that date.
Mary: We reached Bida, a pretty heaving town, and bought a local sim, then started the mission of finding accommodation. We stopped at a few small guesthouses and asked about camping but Nigerians don’t really get the concept, seeming embarrassed that we should want to sleep in a tent instead of a room, or just ignoring the question altogether and showing us rooms. They also wanted to charge about $30 for some fairly grotty rooms and the one manager that did understand the concept of camping suggested we pay double the room rate for the pleasure. Eventually, after much shopping around, we found a reasonable place called Al Haramain Guest House where we managed to negotiate a room for $16. I suspect the prices are so high because of all the foreign oil workers, and a few of the hotel owners seemed genuinely offended that we would try to negotiate the prices down. We also had a few hotel owners ask if we were from Japan, which was a bit strange, although we have also had some little kids screaming out “China, China!” (or sometimes, “Go back to China!”) when we drove by.
The drive started off fairly easy the next day, but 50km from Abuja, we passed through Kwamba and right in the middle of the slow traffic, we encountered Stick Men. These are a lower life form, dressed in civilian clothes, sometimes with high vis jackets, who carry planks or sticks with nails in them, which they use to hold you up in the road while they extort money from you. They usually carry some form of ID, (in our case several different home-printer style ones), and some documents to show they are collecting an “official” tax (in our case, they said the tax was a type of council tax, as well as some TV license tax, and the documents were junk mail and debt collector’s adverts). We had about 10 of these guys surrounding the car, aggressively demanding money, but not telling us how much, demanding the paperwork for the car, etc. When we refused and told them we would only give them our documents at a proper police station, it escalated and they started threatening to pull the number plates off the car and were trying to open the back canopy and kicking the car. They started off demanding 500N ($3), but it very quickly went up to 5000N($30) and eventually they said only 15000N ($100) would be ok. We couldn’t go anywhere because of the planks with nails either side of the tyres. We weren’t prepared to pay and didn’t have much money on us anyway. All this time, most cars in traffic slowed to see what was going on and then drove off, and we thought we saw one police car passing so we hooted like mad to try and get their attention. Eventually one guy turned up and observed for a while and then spoke to them. He eventually convinced them that as we were tourists, the “tax” should be low, so he asked us to give them the $4 that we had on us and he paid them another $3. Then one of the stick men on the other side of the car started saying that he would need to be paid separately, as he was actually a “drug enforcer”, and our friend had to plead with them “from his department to theirs” to be reasonable. Just before we were finished, Brett caught one of the guys with his hand in my window trying to steal my slip slops – he was terribly embarrassed, saying that they weren’t thieves after all. Then they took photos of us on their mobile phones before finally clearing the sticks away. We drove off a safe distance and stopped to check the car for damage, but fortunately there was none. The spot was at N09 13.093 E007 10.077, with one army checkpoint (probably meant to stop this kind of thing??) 5km before and after – there appears to be a small road around in in T4A which is probably worth taking. They seem to stop and harass the locals too, probably for a lot less money, but they won’t pass up on a foreigner. In retrospect we were lucky, as Mike & Emma had 3 separate groups doing the same thing around this town, and  a better approach seems to be to speed up and drive straight at them so they have to jump out of the way and don’t give them a chance to stop you, or if you have no choice to stop, stop in the middle of the road and block the traffic.
After that checkpoint, we joined the motorway into Abuja, which was a relief but totally chaotic. Cars were driving on the wrong side of the motorway against the traffic, weaving all over the place and driving way too fast, and there are U-Turns in the fast lane as part of the design, in case you suddenly decide you’re going the wrong way, as many people obviously did. I sat gripping the door handle and sweating all over the upholstery, trying to keep my eyes closed but hissing out “oooh” and “nyaaaaaa” every time a car came careening towards us. We finally reached our destination with several new grey hairs and checked in at the Sheraton. The hotel is one of the most luxurious in the city, but somehow they let people camp there, all with official check-in forms and everything. We were shown to the Tourist Camp ($4pppn) around the back by the head of security, a very serious man called Morgan. The camping is where the kennels, rubbish and mosquitos are. We set up our tent with a view of the city skyline on one side and a pile of discarded Sheraton furniture on the other. The spot we were staying in is where all the guard dogs are, so we felt safe from intruders (maybe less so from rabies). We had use of the showers in the squash court (great to have hot water for the first time in ages), but couldn’t afford any of the facilities so had to skip on the pool ($15 pppd), gym ($20 pppd), tennis courts ($20 pppd) and internet (something stupid like $15 per hour). We also mostly couldn’t afford to eat at the restaurants although we did go out for a shared burger at the poolside cafe once or twice as a treat. We soon learned that the Elephant Bar does a half price happy hour which makes the drinks almost affordable, and part way through the hour they usually hand out some kind of miscellaneous spicy meat snacks. The bar is full of old white men on business trips and young, pretty local girls looking for companionship,  which makes for interesting people watching. There were huge numbers of security guards and army at the Sheraton and it increased during the week we stayed, with Boko Haram threatening attacks in Abuja – there were 2 big navy busses and 6 army pickups inside the grounds, and another 4 army vehicles chock-full of jumpy army chaps parked outside the property. Obviously the campers pose a bit of a security risk too, as we had to give them photocopies of our passports, details of our travel plans, details of where we had been in Nigeria, etc, and were visited a few times during the week by different well-dressed security men sent to check up on us.
Brett: Abuja is not the easiest city to walk around, with massive highways and very few pavements, but we did try to explore on foot a bit, playing frogger to cross the multi-lane highways. There are embassies of every country in Abuja, but other than visa shopping (which was pretty our full time job), there is not too much to do, so we went in search of entertainment and found the Silverbird shopping centre. It is just a short walk (and one mad dash across a highway) away, so we treated ourselves to lunch at the Nandos-knockoff chicken place and a movie. It was far too complicated to walk to the embassies and we didn’t fancy driving, so we took taxis when we were on our various visa missions (we’ve written these up separately in the “for overlanders” section) and mostly they were great (official green good and cheap). They all drive way too fast and weave all over the place, but one enthusiastic taxi driver we met had his favourite Christian song playing loud, and the more he sang, the faster he drove. We managed to overtake three other cars while going wide on a corner and merging into traffic. He would then accelerate hard, taking his hands off the steering wheel and raising them in time to the music through the AMEN, AMEN, AMEN chorus and then put his hands back on the wheel in time to take a corner. He was very relaxed, because God was looking after us, but warned us that we should be careful of those wicked Boko boys. We saw a fair amount of Abuja as we visited the various embassies for visas and were really surprised to find it almost totally barricaded with police and army checkpoints, concrete blocks outside every building to stop car bombers, security guys checking boots and looking under cars (for bombs I guess) at every shopping centre and office block, massive high walls, electric fences and razor wire, much more than we have ever seen in Joburg. There were armed security guys everywhere and the atmosphere was definitely one of waiting for something to happen.
We eventually left the Sheraton and went past the posh SPAR to stock up, finding many of our South African favourites including Pro-Nutro and pro vita biscuits. We were in heaven in the meat section, and decided to treat ourselves to as massive 1.4kg whole fillet of beef which we stuck in Mike & Emma’s fridge (since ours didn’t cope with the week at the Sheraton without power). On our way out of town, some traffic police pulled us over and said we were in trouble for taking the flyover instead of going under a bridge, or something similar. They were insistent they would have to fine us since they had warned us before, but we were equally insistent that this was the first (& last) time we were driving in Abuja and he had definitely not warned us before, and that we didn’t have time to stop and chat since we were leaving town.  The roads were hectic again with villages mushrooming along the highway, taking over the slow lanes with taxis and market stalls. Other than the hectic overtaking by locals, the drive to Makurdi was easy. We camped at the Dolphin Complex Hotel ($3) - the rooms and bathrooms are terrible but it has a nice courtyard to camp in and a bar area, and the staff were friendly. There was no shower so we snuck a bucket bath using an outside tap where the view was partially blocked by our cars, and were just thankful that nobody came wandering round the other side of the building. Although it is a bit shabby, this place has such a relaxed feel and they seem really used to gringoes camping in their courtyard from all the overlanders passing through.
Mary: We saw other stick men on the roads, but they all ignored us and we concluded that most of them are legitimate haulage toll collectors, collecting a small fee only from locals carrying goods and issuing receipts – it is only a few who have turned this into the nasty extortion business we experienced, but after our experience we couldn’t really drive past them without getting jumpy. The last 10km into the Drill Ranch (entry $35pn for us with camping) is through very scenic rain forest on some fun but easy 4x4 tracks. The place itself is really fantastic – we camped in a small forest clearing and could use the lounge/kitchen and open air shower. The forest is incredibly humid and we were soon sweating til we were wet through. The staff and volunteers are very knowledgeable and we got to watch them feeding the Drills and Chimps – with wheelbarrow-loads of bananas, ground nuts, and pineapples - in their large natural areas with electric fences. The Drills are pretty much like big baboons with shiny, plastic-looking faces and blue bums. They are rescued from being pets or orphaned by hunters, and looked after until they can be reintroduced to the wild. The Chimps, on the other hand, can’t be reintroduced to the wild because they are aggressive towards humans – which we witnessed when the cheeky buggers started chucking pebbles at us when they wanted to be fed. After a manic photography session we headed to the Canopy Walk – the longest and highest in west Africa – made from metal planks suspended up to 25m into the canopy. It started to drizzle just as we were finishing, but we decided to head up to the waterfalls with one of the volunteers and go for a quick swim in the pools. By the time we got back to camp it was pretty much bucketing down and we were soaked, but still warm. We grabbed our fillet which we had started marinading earlier and headed for the kitchen braais. It was a lovely evening, with the rain hammering down on the thatched roof, drinking wine and feasting on beautiful fillet steak, sauteed potato & onion, and Brett’s special salad. We also met the resident civet, which is (mostly) tame, who came to visit. He was a bit of an ankle-biter (or a big toe biter in Mike’s case) but pretty gentle with his little nips and very curious about us. It was amazing to see one up close and incredible how dog-like they are. In the night the rain got harder and we were really worried as we have heard horror stories about the road into Cameroon being really bad in the wet season. We also experienced the biting midges, sandflies and mosquitoes in full force and I’m not sure our ankles will ever be the same again.
We stayed two nights and finally left late to go to Ikom, the last big town before the border to Cameroon and the start of the infamous Ikom-Mamfe road. We had a recommendation from the staff at Drill Ranch for a restaurant in Ikom where you can get “point-and-kill” fish, ie point at the fish you want and they will kill it and grill it for you, but we couldn’t find it anywhere. We stopped for a drink and fell into conversation with a local politician/businessman and his sidekick, who said they knew the place and would take us there. We followed him to Reho Farms, which is mostly a fish farm but also a sprawling restaurant set in lovely gardens. The staff were lovely and gave us the full tour. They did indeed have point-and-kill fish, they were massive catfish, served with roasted plantains, and in fact that was the only thing on the menu - so although the long whiskers and the big mournful eyes were making us a bit nervous, we pointed and they killed. We sat drinking with the politician guy, who was full of all kind of insights (including that women really don’t have any worries in the world, and that men really have much harder lives), until lunch arrived - it was absolutely delicious. A young and very pretty girl turned up to spend the afternoon with politician-guy and his sidekick (somehow we suspected this was not the wife he had mentioned earlier) and we all had a pleasant afternoon of drinking beer and talking rubbish. Eventually the politician and co headed home, leaving Mike their whole day’s drinks bill - he had offered to buy him a beer if he would show us the way to the restaurant. We settled in to the courtyard round the back to camp ($14 per car) the heavens opened again, leaving us all a bit worried about the road ahead.
In retrospect we were lucky that so little went wrong in Nigeria – many people seem to have had quite a lot worse hassle than us – but we still felt like we couldn’t relax. We met many lovely, ordinary people but it seemed like anyone in any position of power, from the people directing you where to park, to the security guys at the shopping centres, to the police and embassy officials, all had a massive chip on their shoulders and were generally pretty terrible. It’s a pity that you feel like you can’t really explore the country, but then again overall it is the one place both of us would probably not choose to go back to.

For Overlanders:
Nikki/Chikanda border Benin to Nigeria: The Benin customs at Nikki was hidden and we only found it because we had a waypoint (N9 55.640 E3 12.571). Benin Immigration and Nigerian Immigration, Health check and Customs were all at Chikanda and easy and friendly – they felt long but it was only 1h30 in the end. The health check officials searched our passports for any mention of Uganda, apparently because of the Ebola outbreak 5 years ago – luckily we were using our other passports and the flags on the car were facing away from him – we had also been warned to hide antibiotics, but had no vehicle searches.
Congo Visa – (N9 04.245 E7 29.539) – Friendly, < 24h processing, applications throughout working day, $100pp (payable in Naira). They have a very long list of requirements, but really only want to see a visa for the country after Congo (DRC), ID photos and passport photocopy.
Cameroon Visa – (N9 04.284 E7 29.383) – They were all initially unfriendly, but warmed up in time. $100pp (payable in West African CFA). They need ID photos, passport photocopy and copy of carnet.  Applications normally only accepted 10:00 - 12:00 and 48h processing although Mike and Emma met up with us after we had collected our visas and with Mary Elizabeth (as they called her), queen of visas, got them do to Mike & Emma’s in 1h30 with an extra tip to the ladies in reception. I think they could have done it in about 5 minutes if they had wanted to, but the wait made it look like they really earned the fee…
Angola Visa - Impossible to get even Transit visa in Abuja… this one has been so much of a mission that we will write it up as a separate Angola Visa post sometime…

2 comments:

Pepe Yanes said...

Can't wait to know how the Angola Visa gets sorted out! And the Ekok-Mamfe road too!
Good luck!
Pepe Yanes

Anonymous said...

The stick men seem tame compared to Mauratania! But chimps look sad. Claire

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