Out of Abuja
From leaving the Abuja, it was nearly 600km and five full days of cycling to reach the Cameroon border. But first, back to Nigeria. I had entered Nigeria with some trepidation. I knew little about the country, but two words above all others I associated with it. Corruption and Kidnapping.
If I had confined myself to hotel rooms with television and the newspapers, my view would probably have changed little. But one reason I am travelling is to see for myself. Make up my own mind.
While I was in the country, it was reported in all the major newspapers about four journalists who had been kidnapped when returning from a conference. Fortunately they were later released. But this highlighted that the problem of kidnapping, which in the past has been confined to the oil-rich delta region, is spreading. The paper’s were quick to comment on the root causes of this phenomenon. Attributing it to two primary factors. One being the lack of respect, discipline and morality of today’s disaffected youth. The other being the lack of work opportunities for today’s young unemployed men, which in turn was attributed to the underlying problems of national power. For despite having massive oil-reserves, electricity supply throughout Nigeria is sporadic and inconsistent and you can only realistically guarantee power for a few hours each night unless you had your own generator.
But travelling through Nigeria as I have, it is impossible not to come away with a different view. Of course, the problems of kidnapping and corruption and poor infrastructure are all true and apparent. But people I met talked openly about these issues. Acknowledgement, surely, is the first stage in combating any problem. For fans of programs like Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week, political satire is a popular way of highlighting current issues and indeed, it was with a sense of humour that many people discussed these issues.
As was typical of my time in Nigeria, I met friendly, chatty people who made me feel welcome, made me laugh and made my time in Nigeria so memorable. Every time I stopped I’d make new friends. It was this that more than made up for the rain…
Rain, Rain, Rain
The five days to the border were not particularly interesting from a cycling perspective. The roads were relatively smooth and pot-hole free. There were no major hills which involved me pushing the bike. Plenty of tiresome ups and downs which seemed never-ending though. The one constant factor was the rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. I was always wet. Clothes drenched. Grey skies. Mist.
Fans of Forrest Gump will know of all the different kinds of rain there are, from the descriptions of his friend Bubba. But that is in Vietnam. Here in Nigeria’s rainy season there a only three kinds of rain. The first I call a miserable drizzle. This isn’t really an accurate description, but I like the sounds of the words together. Actually, it is like a fine mist permeating throughout the air. The sky is clouded but the light remains bright. It is only a matter of time however, before this all-pervading wetness soaks you. The second is just plain rain. Rain like you get on a wet, downcast day in England. With depressing grey skies. This was the most common kind of rain. Not really bad enough to seek cover, but soon enough demoralises the spirits. The third is the tropical downpour. Torrential. A waterfall from the sky. Thunderous drops rebounding off the road create a virtual surface a foot above the tarmac. A curtain of water concealing your surroundings. You don’t want to be caught out in this. Fortunately, these torrential downpours don’t last long.
I stayed in guest-houses. During long wet days in the saddle I was spurred on by thoughts of a shower (yes, more water I know!) and a bed to sleep in with a roof over my head. When the rain was really getting me down, I hummed to myself Monty Python’s ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’. Humming the same song for hours on end gets really annoying!
Road Under Construction
Mostly I cycled on main roads. But when I reached a small junction town of Aliade, I took a smaller road direct to Ogoja. Things started well. The tarmac continued. Now I was cycling through rural countryside, past small hamlets. But then, abruptly, the tarmac ended. The dirt road weaved through a small woodland. It felt like a day out in the Chilterns. I expected the tarmac to resume on the other side. Instead, I weaved along the dirt road avoiding puddles of muddy water lying where tyres had carved out deep grooves in the soft earth. To begin with, this was fun. It was a long time since I’d been off the tarmac and it made the cycling more enjoyable. Time, if not distance, passed quickly, as all my attention was focussed on picking a path ahead. And then I came to a bridge.
On the other side of the bridge, a wide tract of thick, sticky mud lay ahead. Two tyre tracks ran deeply through the middle. It was too slippery to cycle on these thin, slick strips. It was impossible to move through the rest of the quagmire – the mud stuck to the tyres until they would no longer turn. I half carried, half dragged the extra-heavy bike to the side and removed as much mud as possible. I then pushed on through the overgrown verge, occasionally having to surmount chest-high piles of dirt. All of this – a road under construction, so I was informed. I swore and sweated my way under the midday sun (which, typically, had appeared for the first time in three days) and covered barely two kilometres in an hour. No road would have been better than this one under construction. It felt more like destruction.
It was with relief that I rejoined the tarmac. Tired and hungry I looked forward to getting a very late lunch and finding somewhere to stay in Ogoja. What according to the map should have been only a couple of kilometres more, turned into fifteen!
One other consequence of the rain was that throughout the day I would be wearing wet clothes. My wet shorts would rub on my legs and resulted in the skin rubbing raw. The sweat would run down the backs of my legs. The ensuing stinging pain became too much. I removed my baggy shorts – resigning myself to the fact that I had become one of those cyclists who wears only lycra. Cutting up a tubigrip from my first-aid kit, I covered my bleeding thighs and knees. I looked a right state bandaged up. I looked a right twat in my tiny padded shorts. But at least the pain went away!
Since it is only the beginning of the rainy season I expect there will be many more days when I shall be dressed in such a horrific style. At least it will avoid any further comments about the large hole in the backside of my baggy shorts – a new one appearing with every one that is sewn up!
Just before I reached the border, I was stopped at a police checkpoint. ‘Good evening,’ I said to the uniformed officer as I shook his hand. ‘Good evening, I think you know who I am,’ came the authoritative response. Confused, I looked hard at his unfamiliar face for some recognisable feature. Nothing. I looked closely up and down his uniform – no badges or stripes. ‘Err, no I don’t think…’ and then I saw his name badge – Francois! I know a Francois! Last time I saw Francois, he was in his stripy blue boxers in Benin. Last time I heard Francois’ name, it was from a happy lady in the next bedroom… Brought abruptly back to the present, the fully-clothed Francois stood in front of me explained, ‘I think you know my uniform. I am a policeman’. Of course I know that! It was of course a different Francois. And what a ridiculous thing to say anyway! I brought my eyes back up to his face and tried not to wonder what colour boxer shorts this policeman was wearing.
And I took that image with me all the way to the border.
Well, that’s enough for one post. Adventures in Cameroon to come…