Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle
The exit from Niger was easy, the customs guy knew what to do with the carnets, and whilst the lady stamping the passports was painfully slow and wanted to see our driving licences for no apparent reason, the whole process was generally as simple as it should be. Our arrival in Nigeria was a little more fraught. The guy stamping the passports couldn’t find our visas, and set about stamping Ed in for a four day transit. We had to point out our visas and get the transit stamp crossed out and replaced with the one month tourist entry we'd paid for. With this done, we spotted the customs building over the road and realised that we would need to head over there to get our bikes stamped into the country.
So when a guy came and told us we'd need to go over there, we thought nothing of it. We headed over the road with our carnets in hand, and made for the customs office. The guy was trying to get us to go upstairs despite the customs office being downstairs, but wouldn't tell us why. We kept asking him if he was the guy who was going to stamp our carnets, and his response was simply that he was the one who'd told us we needed to go over to that building, so we should go with him. It started to get quite heated as the guy just wouldn't tell us who he was or what he wanted, and in the end it was our British desire to avoid a scene in someone else's office that made us follow him. Once up there, we saw the name above the office door - the SSS, the Special Security Service. Here, his calmer colleague tried to explain that all they wanted to do was find out where we were going so they could afford us protection. They didn't want to restrict our movement at all, but proceeded to ask us which countries we'd travelled through, and where we planned to go after Nigeria. Once again, there was a fascination with our "mission", and who was "sponsoring" it. It seems the majority of Nigerians don't understand tourism and certainly have no interest in adventure, so our journey completely confounds them - what could possibly be motivating us to spend so long and so much of our own money looking around and experiencing new things?
The SSS wanted to know where we planned to go within Nigeria, so we told them of our plan to visit the Yankari Game Reserve, which was about the only firm plan we had for the country, bar getting into Cameroon at a convenient point. They proceeded to offer no advice on our security, and as they'd gained no more information from us than is readily available on this website, we couldn't help but feel that they'd completely wasted our time. After further thought that evening, we realised that our security was actually of no interest to them whatsoever, and of course they, in their cack-handed way were trying to ascertain why these bizarre white men had come to visit, if it wasn't for the underhand reasons they suspected.
The first place of note that we arrived in Nigeria was Katsina, a not insubstantial place where we expected to be able to stock up on cheap fuel. Nigeria is known for it's cheap petrol, the going rate is currently N70 per litre, and with 250 Naira to the pound that's about 30p a pop. However, while fuel may be cheap, it is anything but plentiful. Of all the hundreds of fuel stations that were built in a distant boom time and that still line the roads, only a minority have signs outside advertising the fact that they actually have fuel to sell and long queues of customers, while the majority now stand derelict. We did find fuel without a queue outside the town however, and were soon back on the road to our planned destination for the night, Kano.
If we had thought Katsina was busy after the peaceful villages of Niger, Kano was something else. It's a big place - the population is over 2m, and the driving style is something else. The place is packed with vehicles and everything exists under a permanent smog of diesel fumes and two-stroke smoke. We got a proper introduction to Nigeria as an armed convoy ploughed through a road junction in front of us, two armoured cars each with one forward facing and one rearward facing machine-gun toting guard poking out of the roof turret, plus an assortment of cars with blacked out windows and sirens blaring. Everyone else simply kept out of their way, so we followed suit.
The Kano Tourist Camp at which we stayed the night was cheap and had a veneer of smart cleanliness if not modernity. We suspect that if we'd been willing to stump up the cash for a room we might have got better facilities, but for those of us camping out with the cockroaches in the carpark, the toilet block was pretty disappointing, even to us hardened overlanders. It only cost us N300 each to camp however, which is about £1.20, plus a further 200 for a meal and another 40 for a coke.
On the 6th, we were headed for what we had earmarked as a highlight of Nigeria, the Yankari Game Reserve. We arrived to find it reassuringly expensive - a mere 300 Naira to get in, but a further 1000 for each camera you bring with you - though of course these camera tickets are never checked once you're inside. Rooms are available in various levels of dilapidation for upwards of £20 each, but our camping option for £2 each seemed good, until they decided to make the charge for the warm springs mandatory rather than optional as suggested on the printed tarif, whether you use them or not. There were no facilities for campers whatsoever, despite the fact the place has been operating for over 50 years and has a tarif for camping. The toilet facility attached to the bar looked like it had been the scene of a Hollywood movie shoot-out, the basins either hanging off the wall or broken, or both...
All this was bound to pale into insignificance however, when we took our game drive the following morning. The signs lining the road into the park warned that animals would be crossing in front of us and that we should keep our speed down because they "had priority", which boded well. Guide books suggested that visitors were likely to see Hippos, Waterbucks, Elephants, the lucky ones mights spot the occasional Lion, and all were guaranteed more Baboons than they could shake a stick at. We'd already been practicing shaking sticks at baboons around our campsite to keep them off our food and out of our tents, so we felt our stick shaking proficiency was getting quite high despite the loss of a whole loaf of bread early on in the campaign.
A further frustration of the place was another Special Security Service agent keen to speak to us. He was friendly when we first met him, asking merely that we go and see him before we left. When we'd checked in for the camping, Chris and Dan who knew their passport numbers by heart had been able to provide that information to be disseminated to the various interested authorities. Ed however hadn't, but had promised to provide it later. By the afternoon of our full day in Yankari he had done so, but the SSS guy was quite angry that we hadn't been to see him already, and angry that he hadn't been able to steal personal information for all of us from reception just after we arrived. We had no time for him however as he was rude, arrogant and ill-informed - Ed's passport number was there for him to take and we were not going to delay our trip to the warm spring to sit in his office and tell him what his colleagues at the border already knew about where we were from and where we were going, and the exact nature of our "mission". When he raised his voice at us in front of a group of visiting schoolkids, we made the point to him that he hadn't told us who he was, shown us any identification or made any formal request for specific information from us before stealing our passport numbers from reception. At that point he stomped off to steal another passport number from reception and we made a point of not bothering to go and see him as requested.
One aspect of the Yankari experience that didn't disappoint however was the warm spring - we were half expecting a run down hot tub with peeling paint. The reality was a deep, wide clean sandy-bottomed stream running out from a hole at the bottom of a cliff face into a shady gulley, apparently at a constant 31 degrees centigrade. Floating around in the warm water for a while helped relieve the frustrations of not being able to have a shower, and those relating to the meddling authorities.
Mikey arrived on his BMW in the afternoon, so we were able to catch up with him and find out what he'd been up to since arriving in Nigeria whilst we were still in Niger. The two guys he'd been travelling with (Chris who we'd met at the Horizons Unlimited meeting last summer and Nick, the American we'd met in Nouakchott) had picked up their Cameroon visas in Abuja, the new capital of Nigeria (as of 1991) and, knowing we'd need to get the same they passed us full details of what we needed and where the Cameroonian High Commission was.
We also had an interesting chat with a local teacher who was supervising a school party to the park and the warm springs - he'd travelled in the UK, and also had a frustrated british student with him. He felt that her frustrations were well founded, because as he saw it the UK was 600 years ahead of Nigeria, where they are still having extensive (and presumably quite effective) campaigns against corruption and violence. He also felt that it was not surprising that the SSS bothered us - he said that Africans are not adventurous, and cannot understand why people would want to see the world. This is certainly a gross generalisation as we have met some who have travelled and found it very interesting, however it would explain why the SSS would suspect us of espionage.
On our second and final night camping in the Yankari car park, we were awoken at 2.30am by some local guests playing astonishingly loud music on the verandah of a nearby hut. We knew that there was no one to complain to who'd actually be interested and more than likely the staff were part of the party. The need to sleep with earplugs in a game reserve was not one that we had foreseen, but rather sums up the disappointing nature of the place - the undoubtedly great potential is squandered by poor management and demotivated arrogant staff, the facilities are both poor and overpriced, and the overall service is so far removed from what you'd expect of a wildlife reserve that we'd actually not recommend people bother. We felt this was a great shame - what we'd hoped to be a highlight of this part of the trip was actually the least pleasant time we were to spend in Nigeria.
The following morning, on Saturday 8th December, we rose not well rested but awake, to set off for Jos. Jos is a predominantly Christian town, which contrasts with the predominantly islamic flavour of our journey through Africa so far. Chris, Nick and Mikey had found most accomodation full to capacity due to a large christian event going on, and had stayed in a christian mission at the edge of town. We followed suit, met the very friendly people running the place and wandered into Jos. There is an easy-going feel to the place which contrasted greatly with Kano which was a much more bustling town. We were after only a few things - a bite to eat, the possibility of buying some Central African CFA which we were told we needed for our Cameroon visas, some simple provisions for the next day's breakfast and an internet cafe so we could contact friends and family, even if we wouldn't have time to provide this site with a long overdue update.
The bite to eat was quickly and easily sorted, though Ed learnt the hard way that Nigerian food is spicy by default. If the menu actually specifies that it's spicy, it'll be practically inedible. We don't know what they use, but with the uranium from neighbouring Niger cheaper than it used to be, we'd not be surprised if some of it actually made it into the occasional pizza. With food sorted, we were onto the next task but finding somewhere to change some money was proving problematic. We knew that there were money changers on Beach Street, but the policeman who asked us where we were going was simply unable to understand us.
"Where are you going?"
This is not an uncommon experience for us, but of course in most of the countries we've come through we've been trying to converse in French. We had noticed however that on some occasions our not-even GCSE french has been better than that of the locals. The same is sort of true in Nigeria, where it seems that the locals struggle to understand each other - though it often seems that the listener is making no effort to try and comprehend what's being said.
Having found Beach Street and the money changers, we found that not one of them had Central CFA, though a few had Western CFA as used in Senegal, Mali and so on. We set our sights on the provisions and quickly obtained some jam, and we were all set for the internet cafe.
We found an internet cafe and got an hour's worth of emailing done, but managed to leave the jam behind when we left. All in all not the most successful afternoon we'd spent, but interesting nonetheless.
After a good night's sleep in the mission, we no doubt disappointed our hosts a little by being keen to get back on the road on Sunday morning. Our target was Abuja, and with our experience of african cities in general, and large Nigerian ones in particular, we were keen to give ourselves plenty of time to get ourselves sorted when we arrived.
On the way we noticed that even in Nigeria, many homes are still mud huts, although the people living in them are never far from a modern building. Nigeria is an interesting image of a possible future of some of the other countries through which we've travelled. They have tarmac dual carriageways, but there are market stalls on the slip roads. They have modern concrete bridges, but there are still people washing in the river below. They have a smart modern capital city that could be in Europe or the US, but it suffers from frequent power cuts so many businesses still have a diesel generator.
As we'd suspected, with the GPS location of the Cameroon High Commission given to us by the others, finding that was no problem. Getting some local currency proved to be an issue when Chris inserted his card into a cash machine only for it to freeze up and cease to respond to input from the buttons - with his card trapped inside. The security guards milling around suggested we just wait, but we eventually persuaded them to call the ATM service guys, whose numbers were on the machine. After a lot of waiting, the verdict was that Chris' card would be safe in the machine until the following morning, when it could be released at 8am when the bank opened.
On a brighter note, we got a phone call when we'd returned to the room. Chris answered and was surprised when a female voice asked if he was the fat guy.
"Is that the fat guy? I'd like to speak to the fat guy, not one of the skinny ones, the fat one"
It was an improvement over the various, mostly Mauritanian men who've tried to invite themselves onto the back of Dan's bike over the course of the trip so far, but Dan wasn't that easily distracted from the task in hand of going to get some cash in town and it was about to go dark, and he needed to get a move on.
"Well that's nice but we're just off out so maybe later"
So started a string of phone calls to our room over the next two days, which Chris was happy to field for amusement value.
The following day we got to the High Commission nice and early to get our visa applications in, after discovering we couldn't get Central CFA anywhere in town we had to pay in Naira, which was very expensive at N14750 each - the most expensive visa yet at nearly £60. After getting a bit of shopping and laundry done during the rest of the morning, we spent the afternoon in an internet cafe trying to get an update uploaded on this site only to be confounded by the power cuts and a frustratingly slow connection. After two hours we'd not succeeded in getting much done apart from eroding our Naira stocks at an astonishing rate, so we gave up went back to the hotel for some dinner.
Here we found ourselves being propositioned again, but in an altogether different way. The local TV Station, based downstairs in the same building had spotted our bikes outside and popped up to the restaurant for a speculative meal and scout around. Being the only group of three people, and the only three white men in the room, we weren't that hard to find and we were asked if we'd agree to be interviewed the following morning. Flattering though this was, we were going to be busy the following day and trying to leave as soon as possible, so we declined the invitation, much to the disappointment of the crew.
The embassy had promised our visas would be ready for 2pm on Tuesday 11th December, which was cutting it a bit fine to make a break towards the border. We'd planned to stop at Makurdi, a reasonably large town on the way which should be able to provide decent accomodation options. We spent the morning trying again to find some Central CFA so that we'd have something to survive on when we arrived in Cameroon. We'd been told that there was a bureau de change at the Sheraton hotel, and money changers in the street nearby, too. Three grubby overlanders headed over to the Sheraton and made themselves comfortable in the air-conditioned foyer while they waited for the bureau de change to open. We mused on the fact that if you turned up at a posh London hotel in dirty motorcycle kit you'd get turned away, but the white-man factor made a difference for us here, where we were instead made quite welcome. Chris was in need of some tapes for his video camera, and he found some in a little electronics shop out the back of the hotel. In the window there were a number of other exciting purchase options for Dan and Ed to ponder. You could buy new, still boxed controllers for a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (but no time machine to travel back to when the SNES still roamed the earth). It was also interesting to find some brands of mobile phone on the market here in Abuja, which you just don't find in the UK. Interestingly, "Awang" and "Nokla" also share Nokia's tagline of "Connecting people".
When the bureau de change opened, it became apparent that it was in fact just a box of tat at the back of the Sheraton's shopping centre, the vendor of which would also change some money on the side. He specialised in buying people's left over holiday money and could only sell Naira or US dollars, he had no CFA at all. Disappointed, we moved on to the roadside money changers, who also proved to be devoid of CFA.
Finally, at 1.30, we were finally able to leave Abuja behind with Cameroonian visas in hand. We had quite some distance to cover, but the roads were good and allowed fast progress. We came up behind a slow moving armed convoy heading towards Makurdi, and it wasn't entirely clear whether it was possible to pass it. Having passed the rearmost couple of vehicles, it became clear to Dan that his presence amongst the convoy was not appreciated, as the gunmen in the turrets of the armoured cars turned to face him while the vehicles he'd just passed pushed their way back past. With the road too busy and twisty to pass the whole convoy in one go, we had no option but to follow it at convoy pace into town.
The target for the morning was to get to the Cameroon border, a fair distance to travel in itself, and then into the next country via Ekok and thence to Mamfe, this last section being 50 miles on dirt roads of unknown condition. The Nigerian road section was despatched quickly until we got near the border at which point we started being stopped by police checkpoints again - for the first time in Nigeria. It was understandable but disappointing as we'd not really allowed time for these delays, and having to explain the validity of a Nigerian visa to a Nigerian police officer gets a little tiresome after a while.
Overall, our feelings about our time in Nigeria ended up reflecting a mixture of surprises. We found the people in the rural areas very friendly and helpful, which shouldn't come as a surprise but given the nation's reputation, did. As most brits would, we found the presence of armed police everywhere a little alarming, but were pleasantly surprised by the lack of hassle at police checkpoints - an issue we'd been warned about. Perhaps the route we'd selected was not a troublesome one, or perhaps the problems aren't what they were. On the other hand, we were disappointed by the hassle at the borders and at Yankari from the SSS.
True to form, the exit formalities at the border took longer than expected, a clear hour and a half of traipsing from Customs office to Police office to Narcotics Enforcement office to SSS office and back to Customs again to watch the officer start to process our carnets. We could sense the time we'd allowed to get to Mamfe slipping away from us, as we were already well into the afternoon and the light would not be good for long. Over the other side of the bridge in Cameroon, things were a little more efficient, though there was the strange arrangement of a registration office where we were to present our passports but not get them stamped, and then another office less than 100 metres down the road where we could get ourselves and the bikes stamped into Cameroon.