We circled around and finished our loop of Togo and Benin with a few days in Lome and a few in Cotonou, whilst camping on the beach. One night, we drove off to a nice restaurant we’d heard of, and I jumped into the back. It was dark but I noticed something move across the ceiling, just over dad’s head. I got out my torch and, pointing it at the ceiling, I saw a two-inch scorpion making its way slowly from the open window. “We have a serious problem, James -stop the car, Dad – get out of the car.” Whilst dad and James were faffing around, I grabbed my Lonely Planet Africa, and swiped him out of the car. Or this is at least how I tell the story, it might be different if you hear it from them, but that’s the writer’s prerogative. Of course, no one actually saw it land on the floor, so what ensued, in the middle of the road, was all of us dismantling the inside of the car. Someone spotted it, and a passer-by stamped on it. A sad end for our little adventurer.
We’ve spent six weeks in the francophone West African countries and it’s been a real joy seeing the differences between these small countries. They have a lot of similarities and, give or take, have got the same lot in life. They are all near the top of the list of the world’s poorest countries, and the majority of the population live on less than a dollar a day, but their neighbour is cut from a different cloth. Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and the fastest growing economy, secondary to a massive injection of oil money. It’s GDP per capita stands at eighteen times that of its neighbours, so this was surely going to be one hell of a change. Burkina Faso in local languages means “The Land of the Incorruptible.” Based on this I assume Nigeria means “The Land of Mindless Bureaucracy, Gifts and checkpoints” given our first day’s experience there.
We had decided to cross from Benin to Nigeria further north than Cotonou, with the logic that any border crossing near Lagos was likely to be a disaster. However, what we lacked in our communication was a firm confirmation of which border – like a name for example. Needless to say, I navigated us to a completely different border to the one that James had planned. Once at the border, and aware of our mistake, we thought why not just give it a go? We pulled up at the barrier with all the people in the market, (which lines every border), screaming, shouting and pointing at us. Intimidating to say the least. We gingerly got out and went to the guard manning the gate. We would need to pay 5000 CFA to pass the gate – about 8 pounds, and then would have to pay a further 1000 CFA once we get through. We explained that would be fine, if they could produce an official receipt, and of course they could not. They sent us back to get our carnet stamped at a different, out of the way, office and we both decided this had disaster written all over it and drove on to the next border further north. This was much quieter, so quiet in fact that it did not have a custom’s official there, so there was no way to stamp our carnet without driving back 12 km to the last town, to the customs official who refused to take his bare feet off the desk for the entire proceedings. We hadn’t even got to Nigeria and our patience was already wearing thin. We crossed over and had our papers rigorously reviewed by the Nigerian officials, and they do not miss a trick. We left after an hour, with all our documents in order, amazed we had got through so quickly. We smugly drove off down a quiet country road to the next town – only 33km away and where our bed for the night was already calling.
We drove through a tiny village and were greeted with villagers running at the car with sticks and shouting for us to stop. As a rule, we rarely stop for anyone who runs at the car aggressively so we carried on, until one of them produced a large wooden plank covered in nails and placed in on the road ahead of us. This did not look good. We stopped, and wound down the window with trepidation. “We are the police – Why did you not stop?” No one was in uniform, there was no signs or flags and we were not convinced. We explained we thought they had been waving, and were very sorry, but saw no other option then to get out and play ball. Ultimately, in the following hour and a half we were at this checkpoint, we eventually realised they were police. They explained it was too dusty to wear their uniforms, and anyway the FBI didn’t have to wear uniforms. We had to work our way through the four separate officials – immigration, customs, police and, my favourite, public health. This chap decided it was his job to ensure we were healthy, including checking all our medications, yellow fever status and that our crackers were not out of date. All of them. We have a lot of crackers. So many in fact that he appropriated two packs of them for himself.
Armed with knowledge that police don’t wear uniform if it’s dusty, we head off, hopeful we’d got through the worst of it. We had not. 100 metres down the road, there was a second customs point, and 100 metres more, there was a second immigration etc etc. This went on for hours. All alerted us to their presence by angrily waving sticks, most not in uniform and all asked for gifts. Most did not get a gift. One was offered our gin, bought for 600 CFA but declined our kind offer. It seems our gin is too rough to even be a bribe. I finally noticed that, although most did not wear uniform, some wore bobble hats with “Immigration” or “Customs” written on them. From then on we mostly stopped for bobble hats. Oh yes, and guns. We stop for guns and bobble hats.
It took us two and a half hours to cover 11 km. We head into the town, with the dark road leading in resembling a river bed, with cars stranded at the bottom of a dip, with streams of traffic shouting and beeping at anyone unlucky enough to not have the power to get back up the dip. It was chaos and somehow, with the help of some locals, we found our hotel. We were so relieved to get there – what would surely be an oasis of calm. It advertises itself as a 5 * hotel with parking and a pool, the only option for us as camping is almost impossible in Nigeria. We parked up after fighting our way into the car park, and head to reception – a small hatch being manned by a fantastically efficient woman surrounded by eight Nigerians, all jostling for attention. I collapse in the corner, totally incapable of bringing anything useful to the party, totally ignoring the two men in the foyer in dirty clothes, holding Kalashnikovs, presumably guests, but James joins the jostling, Eventually, she sorts us out a room – standard double, we declined the cinema suite or the hot tub room, but, of course, we must pay in advance. Needless to say we haven’t been to an ATM, as we’ve spent our entire 4 hours in the country in the presence of the police and, after both cards are declined, and they are unable to change dollars, I am seconds from a meltdown. I will always appreciate James organising for me to be let into the room, whilst he walks the dark streets (obviously no city power) to find an ATM.
The next day, we plan to head to Benin City. It’s 185 miles and if the day before is anything to go by, this is grossly optimistic. We set off and make exceptional time, travelling 150 miles in 4 hours with only one checkpoint, so different from the day before. It’s all going so well… We hit a huge traffic jam, which occupies us for nearly three hours and once again, leaves us entering a city in the dark and the traffic, totally exhausted. It’s difficult to say why there was a traffic jam, but there was over 1 mile, in no particular order, a burnt out petrol tanker, two jackknifed lorries and three broken down trucks. We also discovered Nigerians’ total acceptance to driving on the wrong side of the road. The first time being when we were driving at 60 miles/hour on a dual carriageway with a central reservation, overtaking a lorry, when we found a truck driving head on towards us.
Day three in Nigeria, things have got to get better. After 22 km we are flying along with limited police checks - but no, our Nigerian’ gremlins have not finished with us. A bike driving the wrong way down the dual carriageway signals at us that something’s wrong. We pull off where a man on the side of the road tells us our right front wheel was wobbling like mad, and, when we look at it, oil and grease are flooding out. As luck would have it, despite this being a dual carriageway in between two cities with no buildings or settlements, there is a garage on the other side of the road. By this I don’t mean a building, or even a ramp, but two men sitting at the side of the road surrounded by hubcaps. They have no tools, but, once we supply them with the essentials, they pull off the tyre at breakneck speed. The tyre comes off, as does some small balls of metal – our wheel bearings - which have exploded. The men, who don’t speak more than 10 words of English between them, explain it is “Kaput.” I would certainly agree with that. We ask if they know where we can get another – “of course” and they put in a call. A man arrives in less than 5 minutes with a replacement – where he came from no one knows, and where this part came from is anyone’s guess. But it is the part, and after some rather useless bargaining, we settle on paying him “an arm and a leg.” The men put it on and replace the wheel. They explain we need to make sure there is grease on both sides and apply it to our new wheel bearing, and then take off the other front tyre. At which stage, some more wheel bearings fall out… This is all seeming extremely convenient but at this stage we are over the metaphorical barrel, so we repeat the process and get new ones fitted. Whether this was all legit or a complete farce I am not sure. I know we drove in there leaking oil out of a wheel that looked like it could not limp another metre and we were both watching as the wheel bearing casing cracked as soon as the wheel was off. After the event, we looked up how much it would have cost at home, and it seems that it would have been an arm and at least half a leg, so maybe this was not too bad. At the end of the day, Stanley drove out of there.
The day continued in a similar vein. The roads we were driving through were becoming increasingly built up and with that came more police, worse roads and horrendous traffic. The police gave up asking for presents and started asking for cash outright, finding problems with the car. Amazingly our patience outlasted theirs and we got away with only our good will, happiness and the odd email address as bribes. On exiting one of the small towns (large cities to you and me), the road disintegrated into a river. There were holes in the road filled with water so deep they would drown a normal car, which we skirted with the motorbikes and tuk-tuks, until we reached one there was no space to skirt. We were 20 km from our beds but this road was completely impassable. We found a motorbike driver to show us the way round, through tiny villages all setting up for another night without power.
Eventually, we get back on the main road, but as night descends the police checkpoints come thick and fast, sometimes only 500 metres apart, lighting kerosene lamps on the checkpoints next to the soldiers, wearing camouflage, crouched over their AK47s. There are no hotels with safe parking and we have no choice but to keep going til we find one. We arrive in the town we had planned to stop, and think we are hallucinating. There is a Sheraton, which, fitting our luck in Nigeria, is shut. We explain our predicament to the security guard, and he recharges his phone with credit to call his sister, who works at a hotel, then instructs a passing motorbike to show us the way, bargaining him down to a normal price for us.
We head off the next morning, into what can only be described as an apocalyptic storm. There is not another car on the road, and we make hay whilst the locals avoid the downpour. We join the back of a queue, needless to say, on the way into Calabar but even we are surprised by what we find. Ten men have blocked the road with tree trunks and won’t lift them til we pay them money or cigarettes. We are not being singled out, every truck driver, taxi and private car is facing the same thing. We sit tight in the car, until they get bored at shouting and banging through the windscreen and circling the car. We limp into Calabar, where we are greeted with queues for petrol which line the entire road. We draw the line at joining them, and pay three times the price for diesel, still cheap by UK standards. Nigeria – I think you have beaten us.
Although this country has been, and I struggle to find a polite word, a challenge, I can’t say it has been all negative. Every person, including most policemen we have met, have been kind and extremely helpful. On nights when we could stand no more, they have escorted us to hotels, helped with directions around their crazy roads and made us smile in massive traffic jams with their conversation and antics. How these lovely people put up with this completely dysfunctional road system, open faced corruption and constant petrol shortages I don’t know.
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