Thursday, 16 April 2009

Minding the Nigerian Drivers

We were staying in Hohoe before going to Wli Falls the following day. I woke up at about 4:30am, discovering that the fan had stopped as there was no electricity. There did, however, appear to be a flickering light bulb through the window, although closer investigation revealed that there was no light bulb, just a distant thunderstorm, so ferocious that the sky was almost constantly lit by lightning. We stood by the window watching the approaching storm, the winds picking up to what must have been gale force. We could see a column descending to the ground silhouetted by the lightning. "I think that's a tornado..." The interest in the storm rapidly turned to concern, as we looked around the room for the most solid piece of furniture for shelter, "ok, get under the bed". Quick check back at the window - the tornado had disconnected from the cloud and was now swaying, "Ah...our tornado is a tree!". We then heard the roar of the approaching rains, turning to a deafening drumming on the corrugated iron roofs of the town. The storm eventually passed, we were so far from the centre that we couldn't hear the thunder, even so, the effects of the storm were spectacular. Disappointed, although slightly relieved we didn't receive the full brunt. With the monsoon rains imminent, this will be the first storm of many.

A trip to Wli falls the following day, the weather wet and grey after the nights storm, but pleasantly cool and a good day for a walk. We arrived at the falls and picked up Evans, our guide, heading for the upper falls and completing the four hour trip in two with Evans and his high speed flip flops racing up the mountain. A spectacular waterfall and an interesting walk with many varieties of plants shown on route. We then went to the lower falls and bumped into Patrick and Paula, a German couple we'd first met at Green Turtle. Paula is currently working in Accra as part of her degree, Patrick is dreaming up an overland trip of his own. We agreed to travel together to Mt Afadjato the following day, Ghana's highest peak.

We set off the following morning to the mountain, preparing for our third day of intensive walking. A European mountain walk would normally involve gradually winding up the mountain to the top. In this part of the world, if you want to go to the top of a mountain, then you take the most direct route. An hour or so later after struggling up a 45 degree slope we got to the top and were disappointed on two counts. Firstly, we were swamped by flies, which we've heard called sweat bees, and have a habit of flying into ears, eyes and nose which can get really quite annoying! Secondly, we could see much higher mountains in Togo, just a few hundred metres away, so the panoramic views over the range weren't complete. We then wandered down to a waterfall at the bottom, more beautiful falls, although with more annoying flies! We returned to Wli for another night where Patrick and Paula treated us to dinner which was lovely (thanks you two!).

A few more things to note about Ghana; in several countries we've had toll roads - £20 tolls in France, 20p tolls in several African countries. Ghana also has tolls, but they're 4p! Maybe I'll suggest this price for the M6 Toll! Secondly, Ghana is the first country where people have been able to pronounce my name, and the name Hannah is no longer a cause of hilarity. I also need to mention fufu, a Ghanaian dish that is very difficult to avoid. Fufu is made from cassava and is like a super-glutinous version of mashed potato that is served with a sauce - usually either goat or fish - and eaten with the hands. It wouldn't be top of our dream cuisine list, but it's certainly an experience! Last, but not least, we've had no real hassles from children in Ghana, only one or two requests for money or presents in three weeks. Compared to the hundreds of requests we'd receive some days in previous countries this was really quite pleasant!

On to Togo, back to ex-French countries with decent bread and not-so-decent cadeau requests. We'd decided to shoot through as we want to hit a notoriously bad road on the Cameroon border before the rains are in full force. A lovely scenic drive through the mountains followed by an argument with a border official about our Visa Touristique Entente. He didn't want us to use the visa as we'd left the block of countries covered by the visa by travelling through Ghana. After much explaining that we had a separate visa for Burkina Faso, and the entry into Togo was our first use of the visa, he eventually gave up/understood and let us through. A night in a pleasant hotel in the mountains followed by a race for the border the following morning. The road wasn't bad, although very uneven. 20km or so from the border we started getting noises from the rear of the vehicle over potholes, which we managed to track down to a broken stabiliser bar on the rear axle. We carried on slowly, spotting a garage with a welder lying across the forecourt just before the border. £3, 7 men and 20 minutes later we were back up and running.

Crossing the border was slow but relatively hassle free. The Togolese policeman doing the car documents was training a junior member. Once all the work was complete he called me over and sent his trainee away. He then asked me for 2000 CFA, a request which rapidly disappeared as he realised that his trainee was on his way back. I suppose it's promising that at least they don't train their juniors in corruption!

Once in Benin (the land of magic - Voodoo is the main religion here), we headed for the coast again, to Grand Popo. One morning while we were doing our washing, Romeo and Edgar turned up. After the compulsory part where they watch us in silence they spotted some real ground coffee on the table that we'd bought in Togo and asked to taste it. So we gave them a few grounds to taste, they promptly announced they'd be back at 4pm to drink some. They turned up again at about 1pm. We weren't ready for coffee at this stage, we had yet to eat lunch, but they couldn't hang around as they had to get back to the office. This wasn't a problem, we could just give them some coffee grounds and they could make it at home they said. So after giving them a lecture on how it was ok to share the coffee, but we weren't going to just give them some they agreed to turn up again at 4pm as originally agreed. We shared a mug of real coffee (made with our makeshift coffee filter of a bottle cut in half and a jiffy cloth) and had a good chat. Romeo really wanted to improve his English so we gave him a book to help him on his way. We also promised to put a picture of them on the website, so here it is!

Next stop, Ouidah, one of the main slave market towns in west Africa and the last place in Africa many slaves would have ever seen. We had a tour down the 'The Slave Route', the sandy 3.5km track to the beach that the slaves took on their way to the waiting boats. Various monuments to see on route and a relatively interesting tour. The usual argument about payment at the end of the tour though - despite having agreed a price beforehand - a genuine misunderstanding I think, but even so there was no way we were going to pay his price!

Off we went to Cotonou to sort out some admin stuff. We decided it was so busy and manic that we just had an ice cream and left again heading towards Ganvie, a stilted village on a lake north of the capital. We decided to spend the night on the edge on the lake and have a tour early the following morning to avoid the hottest part of the day. A really nice village in a lovely location, although the turds and litter in the water didn't add much to it! The word for white people has changed again - we're now called 'Yovo'. The children would just chant this as we went though the village - "Yovo, yovo yovo", occasionally "Yovo, cadeau, yovo, cadeau", which rolls off the tongue quite nicely.

We had a couple of days in Abomey before heading off towards Ketou and the Nigerian border. We wanted to pick up some nice baguettes for lunch before crossing back into ex English territory and the terrible bread that goes with it. To our horror, the loaves changed before the border so we were stuck with horrible bread. The border crossing was totally hassle free apart from the mission to find immigration on the other side of the village. Once we'd entered we then had to go back into Benin to change money, eventually we were on our way to Ibadan.

It wasn't long before we had our first experience of the famous Nigerian roadblocks. Men with boards full of nails ready to kick out into the road if we don't stop - it works! Many of them weren't even in uniform so we had no idea if they were police or just random people. Still all very hassle free, Hannah got asked "Do you want to marry a Nigerian policeman?" at one and a job offer "marketing for the Nigerian Immigration Service" at another. I wasn't nearly as popular! We occasionally got asked "So what do you have for us?", but just saying "Nothing" did the trick.

The quiet roads soon turned into Nigerian chaos as we entered our first big town of Abeokeuta, a heaving mass of people and pollution, litter everywhere. Some people lining the street battling to sell something, fighting for survival, others just sitting on the pavement looking like they'd given up on trying. We crawled through manic traffic glad we hadn't gone anywhere near Lagos, a city with a population twice that of London wouldn't be fun!

We stayed in a random hotel on the outskirts of Ibadan, rudely awoken at 5:30am by the first call to prayer we'd heard in ages. Then rudely awoken again at 6:25 by a knock on the door, we were being offered a bucket of water. Our hotel had no running water or electricity, not because the mechanisms were not in place, but because the infrastructure in Nigeria is so bad that it rarely ever works. Still, 6:25 is a little early.

I've heard several people say that Nigerians are the worst drivers in the world, people who have travelled across India, Asia and South America, so we weren't expecting much. Setting off the next day we had our first real experiences of Nigerian driving. Driving down the busy dual carriageway to get out of the Ibadan area there were cars everywhere, driving down the outsides of the road, along the central reservation and even the wrong way down the dual carriageway trying to make ground. If you stopped touching the bumper of the car in front then someone would dive into the gap. This was all fairly amusing at low speeds through the town, but became terrifying at 100kph on the open road. Personally I would say that Nigerians are exceptionally skilful drivers, but practicing overtaking manoeuvres where you are inches from certain death on a public road just isn't very sensible as it does sometimes go wrong. The many mangled twisted wrecks on the side of the road testified to this. We must have seen hundreds of lorries, buses, cars and tankers wrapped round trees or upside down in ditches, somehow this still didn't serve as a warning to other road users. Road rules just don't exist, it's every man for himself. We'd try to leave a safe gap between us and the car in front, but there was no point as someone would just overtake us and dive into it. Overtaking, undertaking, running other cars off the road, anything goes out here. Our guidebook warns that driving without hooting your horn is considered dangerous and discourteous. We got stuck in a traffic jam on a road with one lane in each direction, yet we had four lanes of queuing traffic going in our direction, on the road, off the road and on the wrong side of the road. Assuming the same thing happened the other side, this lead to fairly rapid gridlock. So we crawled along for two hours, generally off the road, until we escaped the other side. Things become even more dangerous on potholed roads as cars slalom down both sides trying to take the smoothest path. We looked on in horror when we turned a corner, a petrol tanker had just swerved for a pothole and lost control, careering off the road in a cloud of dust and tilting dangerously as the driver fought to get it stable. Fortunately he managed to get back onto the tarmac and carry on - just another day in the life of a Nigerian driver!

A couple of days later, taking a day longer than expected due to another bout of food poisoning, we arrived at Abuja, entering the city was like entering another world. Abuja is the new Nigerian capital, created in the 1970s it was meant to be the model Nigerian city. We left the chaos entering the wide expressways into the city itself, light traffic, street lights and traffic lights (not that there's any electricity to power them). Moto taxis have been banned so there aren't bikes weaving dangerously all over the place. It was all very strange, un-African and to be honest, lifeless. No hustle and bustle, very few people about. After driving in circles for a little while we eventually spotted our target, one of Abuja's top hotels, The Sheraton. We hadn't just won the lottery however, we'd heard we can camp for free in the car park. We were sent round the very back of the hotel (and told "your type go round there") to set up camp next to the rubbish tip, and we're not allowed to use any of the hotels facilities except the shower and toilets by the pool. But hey, it's free accommodation, there are street food joints just down the road where we can get a meal for £1-2 each, which beats paying £10 for a sandwich in the hotel.

We're in Abuja for a visa stop, we've bumped into Julian and Peter here, both cycling Africa and waiting on the infamous Angolan tourist visa. They've been round the back of the Sheraton for three weeks now. Julian is heading for South Africa, then is going to head across to South America. Peter is going all the way down the west and up the east coast of Africa back to Poland. Being connoisseurs of the Abuja tourist scene they've proved very useful. They've also proved useful with contact details for a couple of other overlanders that have been through in the last few weeks giving us information on the roads ahead. We now know we have two choices into Cameroon, either a very bad road, or a very bad road - so we'll go for the second option, a route across the border onto Cameroon's 'Ring Road'. The couple that went through before us have cleared fallen trees and confirmed the route is possible. When they asked the chief of a village if many Europeans came that way he said 'Yes, we had two cyclists come through five years ago'.


Blogger Julian Bloomer said...

Nice post guys - hope you found some bovril in yaounde!

22 April 2009 at 17:13  
Blogger berwyn said...

Hi Friends
Great website; and it was amazing to get a mention in your Abuja section.Glad you made it on our route as not sure on state of the border river after lots of rain.After not seeing white men for 5 years to see you 2 weeks after we went through must have been a shock (just like buses in Uk)
We look forward to reading your next post.
Also nice pic of Julian hope they got their Angola visas at last.
regards Berwyn;Julia;Nigel and Jenny in Franceville

26 April 2009 at 11:31  

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