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.

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.

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.

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.

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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