Aja and I had a good chat over breakfast about the future of Cote D’Ivoire. She says that she’s as optimistic as she can be about the elections in November – it’s as if the whole country is holding its breath until then.
As for the ‘What The Hell Is Wrong With Africa’ question, her take on the matter is that most people who want to leave (which is like pretty much everyone) have no realistic concept of what Europe is like and so it can – and does – take on an air of a fantasyland in which you can pluck money from the trees and the streets are paved with gold. The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Of course, the reality is very different.
Aja was lucky enough to visit London a number of times when she was younger so she could see for herself it was no Big Whoop. She was quite blunt about the subject – why on Earth would I want to leave my home, my family and my friends and work every hour that God sends to live in a cold flat in a cold city when I can work fewer hours and have a much higher standard of living by staying in Cote D’Ivoire?
All we have to do now is explain that to the rest of Africa.
After wishing Aja all the best and thanking her profusely for her hospitality, I got a taxi over to the eastern Gare to get transport to the border, which was provided in the form of a minibus. We reached the frontier with Ghana in heap good time and my border crossing was remarkably smooth.
Once on the Ghana side of things, I managed to squeeze onto another bus for the capital – Accra.
At last. I arrived about 7pm and headed over to the Novotel hotel where Rocco the Cameraman was lurking in room 605. It was like arriving on another planet. I’m not one for Proper Hotels at the best of times, and so far on The Odyssey, when I use the term ‘hotel’, it is in the loosest possible meaning of the word. It’s usually a euphemism for ‘guest house’, ‘B&B’. ‘youth hostel’, ‘backpackers’ or ‘cockroach infested hovel’.
But at least all the places that I’ve stayed in so far had a bit of personality. You’ve got to have a bit of The Bad and The Ugly to really appreciate The Good, but these homogenised chain hotels really break my heart. It’s the lack of humanity – I experience a similar kind of melancholy in airports, supermarkets and shopping malls. A place where nobody gives a damn about you, who you are or what you do. They just don’t want you to complain. Or sue.
After leaving Mandy in Australia in June 2002, I headed over to New Zealand. I arrived in the Backpackers in Christchurch at around 7pm, blue as hell and in the mood for going straight to bed and having a little cry. By 8pm, I was with ten new-found mates in an Irish Bar, watching that Ireland v Italy game. By 10pm, the bartender was dispensing free drinks and I was dancing on the bar and hugging strangers.
Has this sort of thing ever happened to anyone turning up on their own in a chain hotel? Of course not, Hilton would have a pink fit at the very idea of a bunch of guests getting together and going out on the lash, I mean, really – could you imagine! But that is not the only time that has happened – every backpackers I stay in will generally result in a mini-adventure, usually involving beer, dancing and a good time had by all.
But I wasn’t paying, so tonight I will not complain. Or sue.
Rocco the cameraman reminds me of Scott Jones (which is proper odd as Matt the Producer reminds me of Stuart Lanceley). He is classic Aussie stock and his level of humour is just as low as mine (and Matt the Producer’s), which means that we should get on just dandy. I could think of nothing worse than being lumbered with a sourpuss who didn’t think Michael Jackson dying was the funniest thing that’s happened for ages. Oh don’t look at me like that, I’m not the one who put wine in Coke cans, gave it to small children, called it ‘Jesus Juice’ and then…well, you know.
After a quick shower (two in a row, my word – I might actually be, you know, clean if I keep this up), Rocco and I met up with Tanko, the legend to end all legends. He had brought with him, my other passport (thanks Dad!), a replacement sleeping bag (thanks Mum!) and an emergency GPS thing (thanks Alex!).
Tanko and his brother then took us out for a bite to eat. I asked for classic Ghanan fare, and that’s what we got – a ton of meat for ‘starters’ and what I can only describe as SPECIAL CHILLI FROM THE NEW PARKGATE for mains. I don’t care that Special Chilli means nothing to most of the people reading this… THOSE IN THE KNOW will know EXACTLY what I’m on about. Just goes to show you that great minds (in this case, those of Ghana and China) think alike. The great thing is that I was pining for Special Chilli the other day – I didn’t get to grab some while I was in Liverpool. By the time that I had finished it, I was fuller than Gilbert Grape’s mum’s left welly.
Tanko Hamza – you utter legend! I retired, sleepy, full and happy. I slept in my Novotel bed, not caring one sot that they had probably folded the end of the toilet paper into a little triangle and placed a strip of paper over the toilet seat to let us know it had been ‘Sanitised For Your Convenience’.
I had a chance to charge up my batteries and check my e-mails for the first time in godknowshowlong. There was no way of progressing past Benin before the embassies opened tomorrow morning, so I was in no particular rush to get there.
I decided to check out the market and get my beard trimmed. You know at the end of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ when Belle kisses him and he turns into the prince? Yeah! Then Tanko’s nephew took us out for a quick jaunt around Accra. We headed to the Memorial Park only to find out it was €75 to film in there, so we went to the castle instead – only to discover that filming is banned outright. If in doubt, always find something to eat.
We went to the Ghanan version of McDonalds and stuffed our faces with hamburgers and chips. Yum. I had an ulterior motive though – I needed a good toilet. Remember me bragging recently that I had made it this far though West Africa eating all kinds of fly-covered junk from the side of the road without getting ill? Well, after two nights of really decent grub, I guess the irony was too much for my guts to handle. No explosive follow through’s or anything, just enough blurgh for me to be a little concerned. Rocco gave me a couple of his ‘poo tabs’ (yes he wrote that on the box in biro) and that bunged me up a treat for the next three days, so no biggie. You just wait until I get gastroenteritis…
Anyway, my spidey-sense told me it was time to leave, so we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags. There, I met a girl carrying a Manfrotto tripod bag, which could only mean that she was a film-maker. She wasn’t. But her sister was, so I was half-right. Had a good chat with them, made me feel proper amateur with my little A1 camera. But I was glad to have Rocco around. Everyone else that I’ve met is a little less than convinced when I say I’m making a television show. The Cape Verde police didn’t believe it so much, they kept me in jail for 6 days.
After a while, Tanko arrived to say his farewells. He had just come straight from a wedding (don’t worry – it wasn’t his and yes I made that joke) and was dressed in traditional Islamic attire. We had a chat about the road ahead – turns out he has a friend in Kuwait who may be able to smuggle my ginger ass into IRAQ! How cool would THAT be? Hearty handshakes and thanks all around, then it was a quick stroll over to the minibus area and before too long, we were on our way to Togo. To go to Togo is to go to a go to Togo a go go. So there.
It’s a short trip to the border and once on the other side (visa issued there and then, THANK YOU TOGO!), we found a shared taxi that was going all the way to Cotonou, the capital of Benin, in all but the name. While we waited for the taxi to fill, I met a guy who told me the hilarious story that German Togoland (as it was then) was only leased to the French and now that the lease is up, he is desperate for the Germans to come and reclaim the country so that they have somebody sensible in charge for a change. So if any Germans are reading this and are still aching for a bit of liberstradum, I’ve found a place where you’ll be welcomed with open arms. So not like Poland then.
Tell you what though, he’s given me a REALLY brilliant idea for the next Indiana Jones movie. Oh come on, after that last effort, they look like they need all the help they can get!
True to their word (usually taxis that say they go over borders drop you at the border and then run away giggling) we got into Benin and all the way to Cotonou, arriving before ridiculous o’clock at night, which was a bonus. If I hadn’t been quite, quite knackered, I would have bought a bottle of bubbly – Benin is country number 100!!!
Halfway back to Mandy.
An exceedingly frustrating day – first up, the Niger embassy was closed because it’s Independence Day over there at the moment. It’s going to be closed tomorrow as well. So I went to the Benin Direction Immigration Emigration office and tried (and failed) to get hold of this mythical five-country, Francophone visa that is alluded to in the Lonely Planet. Funnily enough, there were a couple of other backpackers who were trying to get their hands on exactly the same thing.
If only it ACTUALLY EXISTED. But it seemed to the Benin authorities that we were the first people to ever ask for it. And me and these other people all just happened to get there on the same day. Hmm…
Anyway, Ahmed from Germany, Eve from The Netherlands, and I would be frustrated in our attempt to escape from Benin today. Even the American guy, Ben, was having difficulty just getting a Benin Transit Visa just so that he could leave. You see, Ben in Benin wanted to go Togo. True! Oh yes my little droogy-woogies, the West African Bureaucratic Horrorshow was in full swing.
I thought that I would get back to Rocco around 10am. In the end, I met him at 1pm. Then because of my change of plans, we had to go back to the Benin Immigration Emigration so Rocco could get sorted with a visa extension.
It wasn’t until 5pm that we jumped a Bush Taxi north. I was hoping to get as close to the Burkina Faso border as possible, but after a cop at one of the ubiquitous checkposts told the driver, it was too dangerous to drive at night and he pulled over (next to an open drain, what a wonderful smell you’ve discovered) and everyone had to sleep in the car until daybreak. Rocco did what was only natural and chucked at the side of the road.
Once dawn had crept up on us unawares, the driver finally took us to our destination. A bus journey to the next town and then – as there were no buses to the border, we hopped on motorbike taxis to the imaginary line that separates Benin from Burkina Faso.
In a stroke of genius rare in the political elite of Africa, the late Thomas Sankara (Tom Sank to his mates) changed the name of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso in the mid-eighties. Why? Well because it means The Land of Honest Men.
As any educational psychologist worth their salt will tell you, if you tell someone they are bad over and over again (as my teachers often did to me), they will eventually think – oh well, if everyone says I’m bad, I must be a bad person, so it’s my nature to do bad things. Then they’ll go off and set a cat on fire or make Indiana Jones IV. The converse is also true. Now, knowing the power of Semantics, Tom Sank changed the name of his country so that anybody being corrupt and dishonest is not just a liar and a thief, but is also a traitor, no less. The result is startling. Even people who would quite happily cosh an old lady to death just to get a better view of the football take a dim view of traitors – so in order to not be seen as a traitor, the good people of Burkina are bribe-adverse in a way that their West African brothers could only dream of.
Simply put, you cannot be a dishonest man in the Country of Honest Men. That’s the power of Semantics. For more information, see Great Britain.
As Rocco’s passport was in Cotonou getting his visa, he couldn’t cross the border with me, so I left him and made my merry way towards Niger, which I planned to border-hop. My Burkina Dasho (see what I did there?) was making good time all the way to Fada N’Gourma, the crossroads of the country. I had the good fortune of getting the last place on the bus so I didn’t have to wait for it to fill up.
Unfortunately, the road to Niger (country 102) was not so smooth. Because of recent bandit attacks (looks like somebody didn’t get the message about being honest), the road is closed except at certain times of the day, and I just missed out on the last convoy. So I had to wait until 4pm. Any hopes I had of getting back to Rocco today went straight out the window.
And then when I eventually reached the border – more problemo’s. Not content with ruining my plans yesterday by having an inconveniently timed independence day, today they were having an election. Which meant the border was closed, to everyone, until tomorrow. Bah.
I had a chat with the border guards on the Burkina side and explained what I was doing. They said I was free to go over to the border and step back if I wanted to, but that the Niger border guards are not nearly as much fun and may well shoot me. So I found a grotty little Auberge run by a great guy named Frederick, and I crashed for the night.
Frederick offered me a lift over the border on his bike, so at the cock’s call, we were hurtling towards Niger at a great rate of knots. There is a good 20km between the border guards and the border runs down the middle, so there was no bureaucratic tomfoolery to cause me problems. Once past the sign welcoming me into Niger, we rode for another half a K, just in case they had put the sign in the wrong place, I got off the bike, looked around for a bit and then we turned around and came back. I don’t know what Niger is, or what it does, but I’ve stepped foot on its soil. A perfect border hop, methinks.
On the bus on the return journey to Fada N’Gourma, I sat with a couple of deaf guys who were from Liberia. One of them was heading to Ouagadougou (best name EVER) to teach American Sign Language to deaf kids there. In just a couple of hours, I learned the signs for British, Australian, Film, Travel, Love, Beer, Whiskey (amongst others) and the entire alphabet. Not bad for a morning’s work. I have to say – signing is A LOT easier than French.
After signing my goodbyes, I had to get back to Benin. I found a minibus that was going to Porga (the village where I had stranded poor Rocco) and hopped on board, but (as always) we hung around for AGES waiting… waiting for what I don’t know, the bus was full, don’t forget that I’m on West Africa Indigenous Time here.
Although getting over the border was not plain sailing, I got stamped out of Burkina, but it was still a good few kilometres to the Benin border post. While I was getting my stamp, the bloody minibus up and left! The rotter! So I had to get another minibus, which got about halfway before promptly breaking down, so I got out (much to the chagrin of the driver who was adamant he’d have the problem fixed in a jiffy, but then they always say that) and got myself a motorbike taxi to Porga.
Once there (and stamped back into Benin), Rocco and I took a couple more bikes to the next town and from there, we jumped a minibus back to Cotonou. I stuffed my face with some grilled meat and paid double to get the front seat to myself so I could get my blog up to date, which I did (almost).
By the time we got to Cotonou, it was 5am. We spent over an hour (by the end of which I was ready to kill, kill and kill again) riding around on the local moron-mobiles (motorbike taxis) trying to find our hotel, WHICH WAS ROUND THE CORNER.
Cotonou taxi drivers are the WORST in the world. They speak not a word of French (the official language), so you’ve got no chance with English. YOU MIGHT AS WELL BE TALKING CHINESE. They do not know what a hotel is, or an embassy, hospital, road or train station. Even when you DRAW THEM A GODDAMN PICTURE.
During the day, the utter ineptitude of these guys is actually quite amusing, but at five in the morning after sitting squished into a minibus for 15 hours, one’s patience is wont to fray…
What they do is ask you where you want to go and after you say the name of the place 15 times, they say yes yes, get on and they go. They don’t know where they are going, they just go. When you finally get them to stop (by screaming at the top of your lungs and clipping them over the head in the style of Basil Fawlty hitting Manuel), they will look at you blankly before doing a U-Turn and trundling off in whatever direction pops first into their stupid little minds.
They took us, at half flippin’ five in the morning, to the CINEMA! Seriously! We wanted La Hôtel Concorde. They took us to the Cinema Concorde. Then, after I threw my hat on the ground and stamped on it, they took us to Hôtel Concordiere. After AN HOUR AND A HALF, we arrived at our Hotel, which was AROUND THE CORNER FROM THE BUS STATION. We could have walked it in five minutes.
AND they tried to kill us. Seriously – I was nearly broad-sided by a car, and Rocco escaped almost certain squishy death on a roundabout. It was enough that he got off his bike and got on another one.
Then (when we FINALLY arrived) they wanted more money. I stuffed the agreed 1000CFA in the guys pocket and walked off. Rocco, bless, stayed trying to reason with them despite my frantic FORGET THEM eyes and hand gestures.
Crikey. It was easier to communicate with the deaf guys.
After getting to the hotel, I had worked for an hour or so on getting a video speech for my mate Michelle’s wedding uploaded onto YouTube, so it was light before I got to sleep. Two hours later, I was back awake with things to see and people to do. Although after last night’s (morning’s?) shenanigans, I was slightly more than reluctant to get out of bed, but there was no time to rest on my laurels.
I got the wedding vid uploaded and sorted out a few bits and bobs online before unpacking my bag, repacking it and handing it over to Rocco. He would not be accompanying me to the next country, Nigeria, as (obviously) IT’S TOO GODDAMN DANGEROUS. But luckily for you lot, I’m as expendable as the crew of the Nostromo, so happy days off, I jolly well pop. Rocco would be flying over to Cameroon and meeting me there.
If I was going to get mugged, kidnapped, smashed up in a car accident whatever, I didn’t want to be losing my little lappy and my undies along the way, so I only took my camera, my passport and my toothbrush with me – the rest of my gear, I gave to Rocco.
So with just one little bag and two huge balls of steel, I stepped into the breach. Well, after two motorbike taxis took me the wrong way first, of course. La Gare Routiere pour le bus pour Nigeria was just way, way beyond their comprehension. Anyway, I had the pleasure of a shared taxi to the border where I was a bit worried about the fact that my visa had expired last week, but if the guy on the border noticed, he didn’t let on and before I knew it, I was in Nigeria, country 103.
I had massively changed my route across Nigeria because of the riots last week in Maiduguri over the introduction of Sharia Law, which had killed hundreds of people. Instead of taking my originally planned northern route, I’m taking the southern route into Cameroon – one that skirts perilously close to The Niger Delta – the dodgiest bit of one of the dodgiest countries on Earth. But in a choice between being kidnapped by Muslim fundamentalists or angry fishermen, I’d plum for the fishermen every time.
The bush taxi from the border to Lagos was driven by John the taxi driver – who seemed convinced that he was driving Miss Daisy. I liked him because he said that Nigeria was better when the British were here. Oh pipe down – he’s right…it was – the kleptomaniac leaders of this place have stolen, according to the estimation of their own corruption, commission, – get this – $352,000,000,000 since the late sixties. Three Hundred and Fifty Two Billion Dollars. More than 4 times the aid given by The West to the whole of Africa over the same period. Nicked. So el Presidente could buy a house in the Azores, a massive yacht and send his kids to Harrow. Meanwhile, most people here live on less than a dollar a day.
The only good thing is that leaders of Nigeria historically haven’t lasted very long; there’s a kind of Golden Bough situation in which you have to kill the incumbent to become president, so once you are president, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder until the day that Johnny Come Lately decides he quite fancies running the largest country in Africa (into the ground).
I also disliked John the Taxi Driver because he almost killed me several times. He did this by driving really slowly and by not bothering to look in his mirror before pulling out. To be fair, he couldn’t see out of his back window, but then he had inexplicably covered it in (patently non-see-through) cardboard. Now Nigerian drivers are MANIACS, but John wasn’t, so every time he changed lanes (which was often), he would invariably cut up a boy-racer thundering along at one hundred and stupid miles per hour. The journey to Lagos was supposed to take 90 minutes. It took over four hours.
But there were mitigating factors. The road was bloody awful and the traffic was horrendous. But hey, I got to Lagos in one piece so I’m not going to complain. Better Late than The Late, as a helpful roadsign in Ghana said the other day.
In Lagos, I met up with Tony, my CouchSurfing host for the evening. Tony is from Ghana himself and is one of the toppest blokes I’ve ever met. From what I can gather, Ghanans are one of the most chilled out bunch in this region – the pitch opposite of your average Nigerian.
We searched for a while for a place to grab a beer and some food because it was after 9pm and everywhere was closed. Now, you may find it surprising that in the biggest city of the biggest country in Africa, most of the places shut up shop so early, but there’s a nice simple reason why – there is never any electricity.
Oh yes – did I fail to mention that as well as being a bunch of thieving scumbags, the political elite here are so inept that they cannot even organise their country to enjoy the same sort of reliable electrical power grid enjoyed by Britain for the past one hundred years? Yup. The gigalitres of oil that they drill every year cannot seemingly pay for any power stations or electrical infrastructure, so everyone has to make do with their own generators. So no late night bars, no night clubs – speakers, lights and refrigerators use a muck load of power, which the state electrical company NEPA (No Electrical Power Again) consistently fails to provide.
So Lagos at night is about as fun as slamming your fingers in the door and the lack of street lighting make it a muggers paradise. And we were on Victoria Island, the poshest bit of the city – complete with fancy hotels and sky scratchers and everything. But no power, no, that would be silly.
Tony’s gaff was great – up a spiral staircase, furnished with good taste and a nice big flat n’ widescreen television. Which made a nice ornament as most of the time, there is no bloomin’ power to watch the damn thing. I settled down on the coach and got some much needed shuteye. I’d be up early again tomorrow morning.
At 6am, Tony kindly dropped me off at the nearby taxi rank and before too long, I was sitting under a flyover in a minibus with a guy named George because he thought it wasn’t too safe to have me mooching around Lagos in the dark under an overpass. Why one would locate a bus station under a flyover is quite beyond my programming, but this is Africa, so let’s roll with it.
There was a cluster of minibuses all geared up and ready to go to every corner of the land. The corner I wanted was in the bottom right and is called Calabar. Once the bus to Calabar had its full compliment of passengers, George let me go and I bagged the seat behind the driver (the safest one) and strapped myself in TIGHT. I had heard stories about these minibuses that would make your hair stand on end – they don’t call them ‘maulers’ for nothing.
From the outset, it was obvious that my driver was a maniac. It didn’t seem to register in his stupid thick head that he wasn’t driving a rally car, but was transporting 20 people – including women and children – who might take unction at having their brains smashed out all over the dashboard. His cavalier attitude, I assume, was spawned from the fact that someone had daubed some catchy logo about Jesus on his van. Therefore, logic runs, that he could drive as dangerously as he damn well liked and be safe because Jesus is looking after him.
I’m not too up on the whole metaphysical conundrum that is Jesus’s daily schedule, but I’m sure the son of the chap what invented every sub-atomic particle in the universe has better things to do with his Fridays than look after some suicidal maniac who is driving down the wrong side of a motorway at over 100mph.
You don’t meet too many drivers over the age of thirty round these parts. Funny that, eh?
So the rollercoaster began. Over 200 police checkpoints, over 100 smashed cars and trucks abandoned at the side of the road, 17 accidents that had just happened and had not yet been cleared off the road (including a petrol tanker that had crashed and blown up) and one accident I even caught on camera as an eighteen-wheeler slammed into the side of a minibus that was attempting to DO A U-TURN AT THE BOTTOM OF A HILL ON A MOTORWAY.
Do the police stop and fine people for speeding, driving erratically, overloading? No. They just tap them all for bribes – dash – and leave them to it. It’s like the diarrhoea, malaria and AIDS around here just aren’t killing enough people, so they invent a new ways to prematurely shuffle off this mortal coil.
Idiots! And for all my grumbles about the state of the roads in West Africa, if this is the way people carry on when they get a motorway to themselves, then they damn well don’t deserve them. At least the dirt tracks and potholes keep the speeds down. Nigeria however, has very good stretches of dual carriageway, but thanks to the monumental stupidity of the drivers (minibuses and trucks in particular) and the indifference of an underpaid and underfunded police force, they resemble little more than the epic truck and car chase at the end of Mad Max 2.
Except the hundreds of petrol tankers that ply the roads are not filled with sand, but something much more inflammable.
At one point, we were going at over 100 miles an hour on the wrong side of the motorway carriageway, overtaking somebody who was also driving on the wrong side and hurtling towards a blind corner on the crest of a hill. If ANYTHING had been coming the other way, we would have been toast.
I screamed at the driver to slow the hell down and to stop driving like a fool. The stupid fat women sitting next to me giggled. Shut up white man, I was told – this is a black man’s road.
I guess things in Nigeria are so bad that the people here welcome death as a nice alternative, like a holiday in the Algarve. I read that despite its overwhelming poverty, Nigeria was the happiest nation on Earth; no wonder – they are all 100% convinced that they will survive their own deaths. I’d be pretty happy if I had that kind of magic juju. But the practical upshot is that, as in pretty much all of West Africa, life is cheap. Which is possibly why people don’t take on their hilariously corrupt governments, bother to wear condoms, ensure their children are educated, inoculated or even taught basic hygiene and why so few people from anywhere else on the planet, choose to live here.
Well, I love life and I can safely say that I will never – never – take a ‘mauler’ down that road ever again. When I got out of the death machine, I seriously wanted to smash my drivers face in, and I’m a lover, not a fighter. But what would be the point? He was too dumb to see the bigger picture and he’d probably be smashed to death before his twenty-first birthday. I just felt sorry for the passengers he would no doubt take with him, the rotter.
His idiotic driving had not got us to our destination any quicker, and it was past 9pm before we alighted in Calabar. Our journey had taken us perilously close to the troubled Niger Delta region of the country, but in a bit of timing rather untypical of The Odyssey, an amnesty had come into effect yesterday and so there was a bit of a pause in the fighting – a pause just wide enough to squeeze a ginger scouser through without him getting kidnapped.
I was hoping to get the overnight ferry to Cameroon (the southern crossing is shot to bits in the rains so the only way in is via water), but it was not to be as the other passengers assured me that the boat had left, but that there would be another one at seven thirty in the morning. Looked like I’d be stuck here for the night.
The hotel listed in the Lonely Planet was being renovated, but the guy who was watching over the place, a pygmy named Roland, let me kip at his gaff. And who else do you know who can say they stayed at a Pygmy’s house? Let alone one called Ronald.
Roland lived in a simple one-room shack in the poorer side of town, but he was working nights so I had the place to myself, except when one of his young female (presumably single) neighbours who saw me arrive, started knocking on the door saying she needed to get in for some excuse or whatever. I was onto her game (whether it be ‘on the game’ or otherwise) so I just acted dumb and waited for her to leave. Sidewalk’s for walkin’, not fancy walkin’.
Roland woke me up by firing up his little generator outside the hut. The lights came on and so did the telly. Wow we take electricity for granted. I got up and watched a bit of a bloody awful Nollywood film (Nollywood is the Nigerian Film Industry, the third largest in the world after Hollywood and Bombay, but the less that is said about it, the better) and then I got ready to head down to the docks to catch this mythical boat to Cameroon. But unlike most myths, there was actually a boat. However, it left at six thirty, not seven thirty. I had arrived at seven.
Time for Plan B.
Now, after three weeks of non-stop West Africa, Calabar was a breath of fresh air. Grass! Trees! Pavement! Road signs! Restored Buildings! No Litter! (Seriously!) It looked like what African cities should look like, but don’t because somebody is usually pocketing all of the nation’s cash to spend it on stuffing their faces with jewel-encrusted Faberge eggs rather than making the place look attractive. Or making sure that everyone here doesn’t die before they hit forty. One of the two.
Ooo, and Calabar sported a MASSIVE Nigerian flag (the biggest in Africa! My motorbike guy was excited to tell me), which was ultra-cool. Britain should invest in a MASSIVE Union Flag to fly above Holyrood, just to annoy the Scots.
Seeing as I had missed the boat (in more ways than one), I got a motorbike taxi guy to take me to where the speedboats leave. The guidebook recommends against taking the speedboat option into Cameroon, but I had no probs, apart from the fact that it didn’t leave until after 12, so I was left waiting, having already changed my Nigerian money into Central African Francs, all the while having had nothing but a pack of biscuits to eat all day.
Tell you what though, the speedboat was worth it. Amazingly, they DIDN’T overload the damn thing (they tried as they always do, but the driver actually told a couple of people to get off) and we were all provided with lifejackets. Speeding through the mangrove forests was pure bliss. A network of rivers, deltaring out into the sea, separated by these amazing trees that stand on their roots as though tiptoeing through the mud. Treebeard and his friends standing sentinel over the disputed Bakassi Peninsula region – claimed by both Nigeria and Cameroon.
Even the sporadic rain was not enough to destroy the magic – there was ne’er a ripple in the water, save when a boat passed us by, the occupants enthusiastically waving to the nice ginger man with the silly hat on.
A couple of hours of touring the Mangroves later, we arrived at the Cameroon border town of Ekondo Titi. Sounds like a Japanese skin flick. And, regular as clockwork, there was a problem. My visa for Cameroon had expired and even though the embassy in London had said it would be hunky-dory and that I could get it extended on the border, the border guy did not want to let me in. In fact, he wanted me to get on the next boat (which would now be tomorrow), go to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, and get a brand new visa. My jaw hit the ground. But… TIA… WAWA… er… dash? Nope. Wouldn’t even take a bribe.
It seems in Africa that you only pay bribes for doing nothing wrong. When you actually need to bribe somebody to get them to help you out of a pickle, they suddenly develop a fit of morality and decide that things are best done through the proper channels. So I waited for an hour for the guy’s boss to turn up. They had a conversation in French, the boss shrugged and stamped me in straight away. Ah, my border guard just didn’t want the responsibly of allowing a scouse into the country. It all makes sense now.
So on to my next adventure… the road to Kumba. Which sounds like… er, never mind. When I’ve been on other road in Africa, people have told me they were ‘bad’, but as with humans and dogs, roads have various degrees of badness. This road was beyond bad: it was barely even a road – more like a 50km stretch of hilariously churned up mud. The only way that I can describe it is if you’ve attended the Glastonbury Festival in a year when it has been muddy and you can imagine trying to drive a 2-wheel drive car with 7 people crammed into it from the Farmhouse to the Stone Circle via the market area without using the metal roadway.
A Herculean Task.
We got stuck in the mud about FIFTEEN times. Seriously. There were people who made a living out of standing at the side of the road and helping push hapless motorists out of the sludge. And please don’t forget that this is the MAIN ROAD to Nigeria. Unbelievable.
At one point, I got out of the car (because it was stuck) and was being physically pushed up a slippery muddy slope of slop by a group of enterprising children led by a kid named Kingsley (who, if I was Madonna, I would have certainly adopted). My ‘Vans’ were caked in mud, which had started making its way towards heaven via my jeans. I was trying to film all these shenanigans, it was night by now and there were no lights to guide my footfalls and so the inevitable happened – I fell over.
In the sloppy mud. Humph!
Now, let me explain something. Over the last decade or so, I’ve been to a lot of festivals – Glastonburys, Leeds and Vs. I’ve attended Roskilde, Donington, Exit, Bangkok 100, T in the Park and Bestival, amongst others. And in over fifty festivals, I have never – never – fallen over in the mud. It doesn’t matter how drunk I am, how crowded the moshpit or how many people attack me for sporting a hilariously offensive flag, it’s just not cricket. And here I am, in the middle of Africa on a Saturday night, Stone Cold Steve Austin Sober, and I go head over heels like a epileptic ice-skater.
In the words of Othello, “Sh*t, Cassio – there goes my reputation down the swany”.
So, eventually – eventually – I get to Kumba at some ungodly hour, but my trials are not yet over. I still have to get to Douala to meet up with Yaz’s brother Hugo who would be providing me with my digs for the night. Yaz is a mate of mine from Liverpool who originally hailed from around these parts. I hopped on a minibus and we arrived in Douala (the road was good) some time after 1am.
Douala was a threatening place to be dropped off in at that time of night. My phone was running low on battery and I was worried that I wouldn’t get to meet up with Hugo, but Yaz’s mate Liberty came to my rescue. He arranged to meet me at the pub (and by jingo, I needed a cold one) and I gorged myself on tasty barbecue meat from the vendors outside while we waited for Yaz’s family to arrive.
It would be 4am before I got to bed, after valiantly trying to get all the mud off my trainers, jeans, arms, legs, face, hands and jumper. Although the only thing I succeeded in doing was to make a big muddy mess all over Hugo’s bedroom. Sorry mate!
After a couple of hours of shuteye, it was back on the case for your favourite ginger wanderer here. We left the house in search of Liberty (Yaz’s mate, not the concept) and it was POURING DOWN with rain. By the looks of things, Hugo hadn’t been driving for too long and a combination of him stalling the engine and the relentless WET resulted in the car battery dying an ignoble death. We had to push the car up out of a pothole on a hill with the rain teeming down and a storm drain thundering away just inches behind our rear tyre making failure not an option.
I nearly gave myself a hernia, my well-worn Vans slipping and sliding in the wet, but eventually we got the car free and after I got it push-started, we soon got to Liberty’s gaff. From there, we all went to the bus station for Yaoundé, the capital, where Rocco the Camera Guy was waiting for me, having flown there LIKE A SISSY (sorry Rocco!).
I said my Thank You’s and Goodbye’s and headed off on a big coach through the storm towards rainbows and blue skies on the other side. I was supposed to get in to Yaoundé at 4pm, but T.I.A. and so I arrived at about 5.15pm. Which normally wouldn’t be a problem, but today we were booked on the train that would whisk us up north overnight. And the train left at 6pm, and Rocco had been told to arrive by 5pm or risk having his brains sucked out with a straw by ALIENS. Or something.
In a bit of Law that would make Murphy gag, I got the slowest taxi driver in the continent to take me to where Rocco was hiding like some witness relocatee, custodian of my backpack and laptop, which had thought better of hurtling through Nigeria the wrong way up a one way street at 150 miles per hour. I had two minutes to unpack and repack my stuff, fling my muddy clothes at the startled hotelier (I’ll be back!) and scarper before the train left without us.
Bah, what was the rush? The train didn’t leave until twenty past six. We had bags of time. Unfortunately, while Rocco was in the (inevitable) scrum filming me enter the train station, some cretinous jackanape unzipped his camerabag and made off with the radio mic. Rocco noticed within seconds, but by then it was too late.
Highly aggravated by the loss of our equipment, we boarded the train and made our way to the couchette – our sleeping quarters for the evening. The train was great, reminded me of my days in the Raj – and it’s my first train ride in Sub-Saharan Africa. Good stuff.
The only problem was that the train had a nasty habit of throwing you violently left and right like a ragdoll as it chugged along. Which wouldn’t have been a problem – if only I had someone to spoon. Night, night.
The train arrived at 7am in the central Cameroon town of N’Gaoundéré and, if we were VERY lucky, we could make a border hop to Chad today and get back in time to have a kip and catch the first bus south in the morning. The plan seemed sound and within just half an hour, we were in a minibus heading north to Garoua. It’s a good five-hour journey and so, we got in about lunchtime. We had an hour before our next bus, which would take us to the border town of Figuil (not marked on the standard map) so we went to a local eatery and enjoyed a good Cameroonian lunch.
The name ‘Cameroon’ actually comes from a corruption of the Portuguese ‘Rio dos Camarões’, meaning River of Prawns, so perhaps I should have had a Prawn Salad, but I’m only prepared to tempt fate when I know there are Western Toilets along the way.
In good time, we had made it to Figuil, which, let’s face it, sounds like the name of a dwarf in a fantasy novel. From there, it was a short hop on motorbike taxis to the border. I was nervous that I’d get turned back on the Cameroon side before I was anywhere near the border (like what happened to me in Tunisia), as neither of us had visas for Chad. But I needn’t have worried. The Cameroon guys were as nice as pie, they stamped us out of the country and we were on our way.
My motorbike driver was another boy-racer. I might use the term ‘pounding ride’ but I know that you’d all take that the wrong way, so I’ll just say that the road was rough. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before we crossed the river into Chad. Chad is such a ridiculous name for a country. Seriously, we should lobby for the name to be changed to ‘CHAD!’, capitals and exclamation mark being mandatory.
I don’t really know much about CHAD!, what it is or what it does? It seems to keep a low profile next to its noisy and unruly neighbours, Nigeria, Sudan, Libya etc. My only contact with CHAD! was the guys on the far border post, who were thoroughly decent chaps, who even invited us to go another 10km into their country to get entry and exit stamps as souvenirs.
But time was pressing on; I had stepped foot in the country and that’s all I needed to do, so we snapped a few photos of the flag, chucked a U-bolt and fanged it back to Cameroon. Bye CHAD!, sorry I didn’t get to see much of you, next time eh mate?
Our timing back to Figuil was impeccable – a large coach was just leaving for Garoua and the sun set as we travelled south towards our next target – the border with the Central African Republic. Oh yeah!