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!