Nomadik and Co: From Ireland to South Africa - Part II

From Cotonou, the capital of Benin it was a 50km leg to reach the Nigerian border. Nigeria had become this imposing entity and taken on an aura of chaos that we were about to confront.

Missed the first part? Check it here: Nomadik and Co: From Ireland to South Africa - Part I

 

Meanwhile the wet season had temporarily gone into its shell leaving behind dark, heavy, grey clouds that served to mute the usual excitement we felt when getting back on the road and replaced it with trepidation. We were moving into the heart of the adventure.

Approaching the border we were directed around back which we took to mean that we would be dealt with separately. The customs building was a cavernous structure with tight offices staffed with an excess of apathetic men and women in a variety of uniforms. One lady took the temperature in our ears to screen for ebola and then we were interrogated on the porch by another man asking many very specific questions with no way of verifying any of our answers.

He was terse without being a bully and as we readied ourselves for a long process we were then whisked into another office full of jovial border guards watching soap operas with the volume turned up way too high. Within a few minutes we were on our way without even the hint of a bribe or any trouble. And this set the tone for the remainder of our experience in Nigeria.

Lagos was a mash of humanity pushed right up to the curb and often spilling over into the road. A city of 20 million people converging on the opportunity a city offers, our experience was one of contrasts from bougie upper class bars to a vibrant and gritty music scene and youth culture at the Fela Kuti Shrine.

Like most large cities in Africa, when travelling on a motorcycle, it wasn't really our scene. For all the negative sentiment we had heard before arriving, Nigeria never treated us poorly and became one of the highlights. Perhaps that had something to do with low expectations, being able to speak english and engage with people, and the intensity of it all. Most intense of all was the traffic.

Nigeria was on an entirely different level. Trucks belching black smoke, truck carcasses left to rot after terrifying accidents, trucks on fire. I think I even saw a dead body on the side of the road. Our first encounter with wildlife took place in Nigeria, however, it was bushmeat being sold by local hunters.

There is no sympathy in Nigeria and the level of corruption is evident everywhere. We encountered more check points than we could count and quickly we realized the best strategy was to just keep going. We refined our approach by opening our helmets to appear friendly and slowing down (they don't like speed) to close the gap between us so one person wouldn't get caught behind once the first has run the gap.

We also realized early on that no African male in a position of authority wanted to have that authority undermined and that there was this sweet spot where as his hand came up to order us to stop we had this moment to flash a big grin and thumbs up. At this point he now knew we weren't going to stop and that he had a choice. He could follow through ordering us to stop and have his authority undermined in front of his peers or subordinates, or be the good guy that grants us passage. It worked almost every time.

That was not the case for the locals, however. The Nigerian people fear the police and have no recourse to complain. We learnt this first hand our first night out of Lagos.

In sub-saharan Africa we had been able to find secluded camping spots by simply turning off the road and riding through the low forest a short distance where we wouldn’t be bothered by people. In Nigeria, the forest had become a dense jungle and the population denser yet. We spent some time looking for somewhere we might be left to our own devices, but quickly realized that just wasn't going to happen so we changed tactic.

We pulled into a small dwelling, our noisy bikes announcing our arrival. The man of the house came out with a disturbed look on his face, unsure what was going on. When we removed our helmets the tension in face visibly fell away. His name was Blessing and when we asked if he knew of a safe place we might camp, he immediately insisted that we stay with he and his family and immediately sent his eldest son to buy us bottled water and a small packet of overly sweetened white bread.

Over dinner I enquired what he was thinking when he heard our motorcycles coming up the track to his plot and saw us clad in all our stormtrooper riding gear. He replied that he feared that we were the police and that as soon as he realised that we weren't, he wasn't worried at all. It was confirmation of what we had seen at all the checkpoints we had merrily skipped through.

Blessing was a true gentleman, offering us corn from his garden and pears and pia, a small avocado style fruit from the trees above his outdoor kitchen. We pitched our tent inside the dirt floored living room to keep the mosquitos out and find some shelter from the impending monsoon. We were no longer able to ride as long as we wanted due to the wet season that could strike with little notice. We couldn't pull off the road and avoid attention like we had on the beaches in Morocco or the savannah in Mali. We would be relying on the people we were meeting and on the temperament of the weather. We would be doomed if we didn't.

Lying sweating on my mat in the dark, humid fetidness of the jungle that night while the rain lashed the metal roof and brilliant flashes of lightning exposed the sparsely furnished room, a sense of just how at the mercy of the road we were washed over me. We were in it and it was all around us. It stuck to our skin even. It was what we had come for. At the height of my drowsy euphoria a thunderclap set the aether, and my bowels, rumbling. I ran to the toilet and would so numerous times throughout the night.

Mercy. It is an adventure until it's a prayer.

We made it to Calabar without incident on the roads or with the weather, and spent a few days at the Pandrillus headquarters, a drill monkey and chimpanzee sanctuary that boasts the best reproduction program for primates in captivity. It’s director, Peter Jenkins is an abrasive American with a bounty on his head for his efforts combating poaching, the destruction of forests and generally trying to preserve and conserve a truly spectacular part of the world.

He and his wife Liza embarked on an overland trip from Europe to South Africa in a Land Rover 29 years ago but only made it as far as Nigeria where they have dedicated their lives to conservation. Peter is a character straight out of a Wilbur Smith novel, and now into his 60’s he regaled us with stories of adventure and misadventure as he has fought to protect a place he solemnly described as “Eden” when he first arrived.

While we relished the opportunity to imbibe tales of an Africa that existed decades ago, it was gratifying to know that our company was equally as appreciated. Other than intermittent foreign volunteers, we suspected there there are not a lot of drinking buddies.

Heavily hungover we made our way north to the actual sanctuary riding remarkably good roads that climbed into the mountains. The riding was pure joy as we snaked along smooth black top over fast rollers that unweighted the bikes. People would periodically materialize out of the foliage, bent at the back with machete in hand from a day's work holding the jungle back from encroaching on their small plots of cassava, flashing generous smiles as we passed.

On our first morning at Afi Mountain Drill Ranch we were awoken by the blood curdling screech of a chimpanzee. Assuming it was just another day in the jungle we rolled over and snoozed for another hour only to learn that it was in fact a commotion caused by male chimp who had escaped a few years ago and now come back, chasing one of the staff on her morning run and putting the fear of God into her.

The poor guy was tranquilized with a blow dart, returned to an enclosure and the crisis was averted. Needless to say, everyone was a little on edge over breakfast later in the morning.

 

After the initial excitement, the Ranch was good respite from the road and one of the rare occasions where we were able to take a few days to relax without working on the bikes or managing visa applications or other errands. Watching the monkeys and chimpanzees occupied us for hours and a lazy swim in the river during the heat of the day was a welcome tonic to the constant motion of riding.

We could have stayed a couple more days, but progress needed to be made. Peter had suggested that we avoid the main border crossing into Cameroon at Ikom and instead take a more rural route further north. We jumped at the idea assuming Peter was letting us in on some of his abundant local knowledge and an adventure that he felt we were up for. Little did we know that he was throwing us to the wolves.

To be continued......

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