Niger Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp

DAY 101 on the big yellow truck and it is starting to feel as if we have spent most of the proceeding 100 days sat waiting to get across the border from Nigeria into Cameroon.

That growing feeling our smooth border crossings to date were merely storing up problems further down the line has been met with reality – and we have not even made it to the border yet.

Quite why Cameroon insists on keeping the land border closed remains a mystery.

We obtained our visas easily enough (the last ones we need ahead of time until well into the northbound leg), paid for and collected in the southern Nigerian city of Calabar, which has become our home for longer than we had hoped.

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Road Less Travelled – Our route to Abuja. Not exactly the fastest leg of the trip

We can fly in, but that poses all sorts of logistical issues surrounding the trucks and all our kit and supplies crammed on board, or even take a ferry (again, plenty of truck-related headaches) while the locals can cross freely.

It is just foreigners who cannot cross a border closed as the Ebola crisis took hold last year and never fully reopened on the Cameroon side, despite Nigeria being declared free of the virus months ago (and never seriously affected).

So instead of turning the corner into the final stretches of West Africa and pressing on south, we are sat sweltering in the heat waiting for a solution or the all clear to head for the border as discussions continue both here and back in the UK.

The good news amid all this uncertainty is the cellulitis which affected my left leg has pretty much cleared up.

Continued instructions to stay off it and keep it raised as often as possible are pretty simple to follow in this heat and a second course of antibiotics was finished just in time to toast our 100th day on the road with (almost) the first beers for the best part of two weeks.

It has limited my options a bit, but has not stopped Nigeria providing a few memorable moments, even as we rattled up the miles to get to the border before our visas (now newly extended) ran out.

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Short Lived – Our view of the mosque from our all too brief home at The Sheraton in Abuja

Our first major destination was the capital Abuja to pick up a visa for Ale. A bustling, modern capital well stocked with facilities, but not so much with sights (although the mosque and church which provided the backdrop to our first night in the city were fairly spectacular) we flirted with a touch of luxury.

Sadly, flirt was all we did as it soon became apparent that the Sheraton Hotel did not want us there, even tucked away behind some disused buildings next to the football pitch, on a patch of grass being used to drain the water from the swimming pool.

An astronomical price hike on previous years – when it has become an established stop-off for overlanders – kept our stay down to one night and was just enough to earn us use of the showers, tucked well away from any more well-heeled guests down the back of the squash courts.

With the much-needed visa and shopping safely on board, we upped sticks and moved all of a few miles down the road for a couple of nights to the City Park, found for us by a former Oasis passenger who now lives in Abuja.

It is far less salubrious than the Sheraton, but far more welcoming (the manager personally bussing a group of us around town in search of affordable, useable wi-fi, finally depositing us at an Indian restaurant round the corner) and giving us the free run of the bars, restaurants (where we marked Jiro’s birthday), 7-D cinema and sporting facilities which dotted the park.

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Pied Piper – Jiro charms the locals at the top of a mountain

Having kicked back and relaxed – as much as possible in the soaring temperatures – we climbed back on board Nala for the longest day on the truck.

Climbing on board at 7.30am in a bid to beat the worst of the Abuja traffic, we finally climbed off in the rather quieter surroundings of Afi Mountain at 11.30pm. When the day’s excitement began.

It was not the plan. We were supposed to set up bush camp much earlier. But having passed through endless miles of empty countryside heading to Abuja, we discovered the continent’s largest population (every fifth African is Nigerian) appears to be stretched entirely along the roads where we were looking for an empty spot to camp.

Eventually, the decision was made to press on to the next morning’s destination up the mountain, in the village close to a drill and primate sanctuary.

Heading up a mountain road is nothing new to us. Nor are branches, leaves, insects and assorted other wildlife being thrown into the back of the truck. Doing it in the dark is.

It all made for a fairly eventful ride until we finally rounded a corner and spotted the other truck, last seen back in Lome, parked up for the night outside one of the two houses which dotted the clearing.

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Ton Up – Celebrating our 100th day in Calabar. Sorry, on the road

Pulling up outside the other, we set about setting up camp and rustling up a quick meal before bedtime – which is when the fun started.

The two guys who arrived on a motorbike – parking it right in the middle of our temporary kitchen – seemed friendly enough at first, welcoming us to the community and promising to take us out to the drill ranch the next day.

Then, somehow, the mood changed and we had a small group of youngish locals (clearly the worse for wear) demanding we leave and threatening to “scatter” our belongings with the leader clearly very proud of his role as the local “vigilante”. He even had an ID card to prove it.

Their attempts to shift us or, more pertinently, get some cash out of us were eventually foiled by the owner of the house’s belated intervention, insisting he was more than happy for us to stay.

A truce was finally called with an agreement for them to come back in the morning to talk things through (they never showed) and we finally headed to bed.

Our reward was one of those days which appear from nowhere and make this trip what it is.

While the bulk of both trucks headed up the road to meet the chimps and drills at the wildlife ranch, those of us nursing a few injuries or waiting for the return of the “vigilantes” and assorted others settled into a morning around the truck.

And as word got out about the visitors, more and more children started to show. Inevitably, a football was produced and sparked off a wonderful day as the universal language of the round ball and laughing washed away any bad feelings from the night before.

Watching Jiro as a ringleader for a pack of children and seeing Joe’s attempt at a cartwheel trumped by pretty much the entire collection of youngsters had us reduced to hysterics.

Even when we had to resort to a water pistol to keep them off the back of the truck, it just prompted more laughter.

Another wonderful, truly unexpected moment which was rounded off with a swim – and, more important, wash – in the river we had barely noticed as we crossed it on the way up.

From all that, it was back to the reality of visas and borders, although the journey down to Calabar was enlivened by the biggest bump of the trip to date.

Those of us who sit at the back know we suffer the most when the truck hits a bump, but none of us were expecting to take off in such a fashion.

The first bounce had everybody off their seats, while the bin and the eskies also took off. The second one threw Terry and Chris into the roof, while my not inconsiderable frame was thrown over the bin and two seats forward.

Remember it all going into slow motion and as my trajectory started going downwards again, the only thought was to try not to land squarely on Linda and forced a mid-air turn to squeeze into the gap she had just been thrown out of while attempting to stop her being thrown even further by my arrival.

Not sure how successful that whole manoeuvre was, but we all walked off to tell the tale.

And to wait…

NEXT TIME: Life at the border – as it happened

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The Horizontal Traveller

IN an ideal world, this entry would provide a perceptive insight into the sights, history and attractions of Benin.

Sadly, my only insight into Benin came from long periods spent lying down. Much of it with my eyes closed.

Not through choice. Would much rather have been exploring the slave trail at our overnight stop at Ouidah or joining the others in making use of the camp site’s very welcome-looking swimming pool.

IMG_3725Instead, my entire afternoon was spent curled up in the shade on one of the sun loungers alongside the pool – under the watchful, slightly confused eye of the waiters – and any exploration was confined to the toilet facilities.

Whatever laid me low hit fast and hit hard, even prompting Steve to suggest his personal malaria test of seeing my reaction to a shot of rum – almost worth it to be granted access to his personal stash of Captain Morgan, but it does get a bit scary when malaria starts being considered.

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New To Me – Our campsite in Ouidah. Evidently. I was too busy trying to sleep by the pool. Thanks to Karla and Ale for the pics.

All had seemed fine as our final morning dawned in Togo.

Two days recovering from the fallout of our Australia Day celebrations had us rejuvenated and ready to move on, our final departure delayed by one final round of visa hold-ups, but it least it gave Matt and myself another chance to sit on the shoreline as the sun went down and the lights blinked into life amid the traffic jam of ships heading in and out of Lome’s bustling port.

A few quiet beers sat around the bar was certainly no indicator of what lay in store, which was still not stirring itself as we geared up for breakfast.

IMG_3727But one bite into a piece of toast was enough to kick everything into gear.

Within minutes, feeling a bit queasy had been replaced by a return of the toast and any attempt to keep hydrated with a cold bottle of water prompted a similar result. To add to it all, my body ached, radiating out from my legs.

It all added up to a testing, if thankfully fairly short, border crossing into Benin and attempts to sleep off whatever had enveloped my system were shaken up by the disintegrating road surface as we neared Ouidah.

As the others caught sight of the pool, my eyes simply sore somewhere cool to lie down and, until the sun went down and it was time to relocate to the truck, that was pretty much it – a couple of rich tea biscuits finally managing to stay down before bedding down for the night on the floor of the truck (which would become my home for the next week).

And, around midnight, the combination of biscuits, sleeping and, finally, getting some water on board did the trick and, awaking with a start, a wave seemed to break over me and flush away a lot of what had floored me. (Not literally. That would have made a mess of the truck).

Still feeling wiped out, the trip out to the stilted village of Ganvie down the coast was never really on the cards and so, sat back on the truck with a couple more of the walking wounded, it was time for even more lying down.

This time it was with my leg dangling over the top of one of the seats, prompting Joe to ask a simple question: “Is your leg swollen?”

The simple answer was yes. And very red. And painful, feeling stretched taut as it pulled at the scabs over my healing bites.

An extremely bumpy road meant a very uncomfortable ride to our bush camp for the night, by which time Helena – whose nursing expertise has been much in demand since she climbed on board in Accra – had diagnosed cellulitis in my leg and had me on a fairly vigorous (ie plentiful and difficult to swallow) course of antibiotics. She’d also drawn and written all over my leg.

With it came the order to stay off my leg and to have it raised as much as possible.

That’s pretty easy when we are parked up – on the beach with my legs up on the roof or stretched on the seats with one leg out of the window – or in my temporary home on the truck floor with assorted soft items from my locker forming an improvised footrest.

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Smooth Runnings – Not the easiest roads to try to lie down with your leg in the air

It has even been possible on smooth roads, but there’s not been that many of them over the past few days as we embarked on probably the most intense spell of driving days to date, turning our back on the coast and heading north through Benin and into Nigeria (again, worryingly easy and adding to the feeling that border complications are being stored up for us) and its capital Abuja, slowed by the combination of poor road surfaces and constant check points.

Lying down on the seats in those conditions brings fresh dangers of being thrown off, while lying on the beach at the front of the truck can be akin to cooking gently at gas mark five, meaning clinging on for dear life or roasting in the sun is swapped with sitting up normally and subjecting my leg to the rigours of the journey and whatever ills are still lingering.

So while the sickness finished as quickly as it started, my leg continues to rise and fall with our travelling conditions.

Each morning, it has shrunk down almost to normal – even my good leg has come down a couple of centimetres, meaning my ankles are properly defined for the first time in ages and my sandals are now too big to keep on easily when walking. Might actually have to do them up.

But by the time we pull into camp at night, it has swollen up again (a little less each day) and it is back to my horizontal vigil.

It’s enough to drive a man to drink.

Or would be, if he wasn’t on antibiotics.

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Should I Stay Or Should I Togo?

IT took Togo all of a couple of hundred yards to throw up a new travel experience – a road sign immediately after crossing the border from Ghana, pointing the way to a whole new country just a short drive away.*

But then, country number seven on this trip is only 56km wide along the coast.

Any thoughts, however, that this was a short, uneventful stay en route to Benin (not that much wider itself) has been dispelled by fresh experiences and incidents – not all of which can be recounted to a family audience.

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On The Road – Our camp on a mountain road in Togo. Best not to sit in the way of any motorbikes

 

We have rattled through more visas, been held up by the police, scaled the highest point in Togo, got a tree stuck in the back of the truck, splashed about in waterfalls, sweltered at the coast, wrapped up against the cold and damp, tried to swim in a lake only a foot or so deep, got up close to a voodoo priestess and a swarm of bees, marked Australia Day in suitable fashion and, briefly at least, lost a couple of souls.

With an angry baboon thrown in.

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On paper, Togo is merely a brief stop – hard to be much else when it makes up such a small part of this huge journey – at the start of potentially the most difficult stretch of the trip, but it has thrown up enough to make its mark.

Not that we were ever going to race through the country. Mainly because, the main road along the coast apart, it appears pretty difficult to race anywhere.

What appears a short hop on the map can produce a long afternoon on the truck as Nala negotiates ramshackle roads, climbs mountains through overhanging branches or circumnavigates a large lagoon (we could still see our starting point in Togoville across the lake two hours after we had set out).

Released from the shackles of Big Milly’s by the final set of visas, we made the break for the border which both trucks were through in pretty rapid fashion (can’t help get the feeling that the smooth crossings so far are saving up a heap of border problems further down the line) and into the outskirts of the capital city Lome.

Once we had somehow worked out how to get two big yellow trucks into one small courtyard, we worked on two truckloads squeezing their tents into a second courtyard watched over by the angry baboon behind his bars – and, evidently, a monkey in a tree which nobody noticed until our truck had moved on – and all using the single shower.

My option, staying in the bar until everybody else had given up trying to use the stuttering wi-fi and gone to bed, seemed infinitely preferable than those queuing up to use it before first light the next morning.

If getting anywhere on the roads can be frustrating in these parts, getting anywhere fast with bureaucracy is just as difficult as we again dived into a round of form filling and sitting outside embassies.

And in a Lome side street waiting for the trucks’ paperwork to be returned by the police after we were caught ignoring a sign saying we should not be on an adjoining street – until, that is, both drivers (both called Steve, just to be confusing) pointed out the signs were actually facing the other way.

This is Africa.

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End of the Road – No option to walk the final few hundred yards to the top of Mt Agou. At least until the saw came out

A hot, frustrating wait was enlivened by a small group of us climbing off the back to feign frustration in an attempt to hurry along the police, which grew into groups heading up the road to the nearest shop or chatting nicely to the neighbours for the use of their toilet.

But finally, freed from police checks and bureaucracy, we briefly broke away from both the other truck and Lome and headed north to what pass as mountains in these parts and the welcome return of bush camping.

Our first overnight halt came pretty much on a road – motorcycles heading up and down the hill drove through camp until well after dark, despite not often bothering with lights – alongside a thin, but hugely refreshing waterfall.

Opting not to head off on a trek to more waterfalls (mainly due to the return of bush camp belly**), the next morning was spent largely sleeping and watching the monkeys scaling the adjacent cliff face.

But there was no need to worry about missing out on any scenery or climbing – it came to us later in the day as we drove up Mt Agou.

The views of the valley were pretty spectacular and the villagers we passed on the way up seemed happy, if surprised, to see us.

Not that we were looking too closely, our attentions being taken by the collection of branches, insects and other creatures which were tossed into the back of the truck by the overhanging foliage as the road narrowed to a single path.

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A Real Buzz -A swarm of bees descends on our base in Togoville

One branch managed to wedge itself into Nala’s innards, requiring some rapid work with a hacksaw, while we finished the last few hundred metres of the climb on foot as some more serious tree surgery was required to clear the road ahead of the final bend.

What we found at the top was not the most spectacular mountain summit, but it provided our home for the night and, for the first time in a couple of months, jumpers and jackets were pulled from the depths of our kit as the cloud rolled in and we had to remember how to deal with a damp night (with the advantage of being able to snuggle up in sleeping bags).

There was no such concerns at the next night’s stop, down on the banks of Lake Togo, after a journey to Togoville relatively short on distance, but fairly lengthy on time.

Based around the gardens of an artistic centre, we found ourselves in the heart of the community with card games and watching football on the side of the street, refreshed by a few beers from the shop across the road.

Those of us who opted to miss the visit to a voodoo priestess spent the next morning swimming (well, paddling – it’s amazingly shallow) and washing in the lake and were relaxing around the truck when the peace was disturbed by a huge swarm of bees which sent us scurrying for cover and even interrupted the card game before settling on a nearby tree.

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Waltzing Matilda – Michael, Me, Skippy and what may not just be Coke toast Australia Day

All a good sign according to voodoo.

It certainly pointed to a fine night once we had returned to Lome, albeit to a larger beach resort down the road, and set about marking Australia Day.

There may only be three Aussies on board, but everybody joined in with relish. Some of the details must remain hazy (mainly because they are), but one reveller was found asleep the next morning in the shadow of the baboon at our previous stop.

Sure the Aussies are very proud.

* That is a short drive in normal conditions. In Togo, that may not be the case.
** Or so we thought at the time. It may well have been a precursor to something else, of which more next time…

 

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