Officials in Uniform
My first full day in Nigeria was a long one. All 161km of it. The day was broken up with checkpoints. 21 of them. But no-one wanted to see my passport. Customs men wore grey uniform. Police were in black from beret to boots with automatic rifle slung across the shoulder. Immigration had tank tops your grandfather would wear, with ‘Immigration’ knitted across the midriff. Some stopped me to ask questions. Where am I going? Where have I come from? When did I leave England? What is my mission? Will you marry me? Some just wanted to shake my hand. I love you! Be my wife! What’s up? Can I have your number?
Chaos in Abeokuta
The first big town I arrived at was Abeokuta. I cycled right on through. It was chaotic, hectic, noisy. Plain crazy. The roads were a maze weaving round the hills, crossing each other at random it seemed. Roads jammed. Police in bright orange tried to direct traffic at junctions. Some drivers followed the hand signals, others decided for themselves. Mind alert, strong arms, steady balance, I held the bike upright and negotiated slowly passed the taxis jostling for position and motorbikes weaving between. Occasionally I put a hand out on a car bonnet and regained composure. Nerves of steel were needed. Determination to proceed forward was the key. I didn’t stop. I just kept on slowly. But I didn’t know which road I should take. Nor did many people I asked it seemed. They all pointed in a direction. But every direction was conflicting. Eventually I employed the help of a moto-taxi and followed him to the highway for Ibadan.
Once out of Abeokuta, peace returned and I could again enjoy the road. Over a sea of hills. Up to a peak and down into a trough, a huge green swell. It was endless. Nigeria is big. Big and beautiful.
Pot-holes and Break-downs
After Ibadan I joined the highway north. I joined the trucks. Oil tankers and trucks old and older. The lorries hurtled passed me on the good sections of road, churning black diesel fumes into the air. Slowed by the pot-holes which spanned the width of the road, the trucks slowed, backed-up, tried to overtake each other regardless of oncoming traffic and often broke down causing yet more chaos. At these sections, two-wheels wins. I could dodge around the potholes, find the flat line and continue unabated, overtaking the lorries. Until the smooth tarmac returned and the lorries once again overtook, the driver’s mate waving to me out the window.
The roadside was littered with burned-out wrecks. Rusted skeletons were all that remained of some. I saw tankers stranded, the driver’s cabin detached some way ahead, brought to a stop in a field or by a tree. The crew sat waiting for help, unhurt and unperturbed.
I stop regularly along the route. Re-energise myself with coffee or coke. Each time, friendly people. One stop, an albino boy is coaxed out from a house. The men laughed out ‘White! White!’ The albino boy retreats, self-conscious. But I am sunburnt and covered in a thick layer of black grime from the dust and diesel smoke. I am not Yoruba black. But I definitely not white either.
Cycling through another small village, I see a young boy of about six carrying a tray of bananas on his head. Bananas are good. I pull up next to him, and softly say so as not to scare him, ‘Excuse me, could I buy some bananas?’ The boy turns and then sees me. His eyes widen, he jumps back, stumbles and runs off to the safety of the old men on a bench. He turns again to face me, a look of horror on his face, body shaking with fear and tears begin to run down his cheeks. I can’t help but laugh. Nor can the women who have seen the whole episode. Now being laughed at, he cries more. One lady goes and brings me some bananas and gives the boy the money. By the time I am ready to leave, half the village has come over to see what is going on. Only the boy remains at a distance, looking quietly on.
A Police Escort
As I proceed steadily north and turn off the main highway onto the Abuja road, there are fewer towns. Rural settlements with round thatch huts are interspersed between expansive fields. I cross the Niger river. It’s the first time I’ve seen it since Mali. But considering it’s so far downstream and now the rainy season, it is neither wide or imposing or fast-flowing. But it is beautiful here.
I plan to stay just outside Abuja, in a junction town called Suleja. To get there, it’s another long day. After 130km I am getting tired so stop for an early dinner. With a belly full of rice I think I will have enough energy to get me into Suleja. But I underestimate the hills. My tired legs can’t pedal up them. I resort to walking. It is getting late, but I will make it. And then a police truck pulls me over. I am to get a lift with them. DPO’s (Divisional Police Officer) orders. The words, ‘I want to cycle,’ pour out of my mouth. My legs and head and racing heart all shout out, ‘Help me on the truck!’ But nobody hears this cry. I am allowed to cycle but they will follow me into town. I concede and start pedalling. Once in town, the DPO takes over and escorts me to a suitable guesthouse. A guesthouse that is more expensive than I would normally pay, but I am tired and don’t have energy to argue.
I hear the DPO talking to the guesthouse manager – his officer’s will be patrolling the area and checking in. They want to make sure I am safe. At midnight I see a flashing light in the courtyard. The following morning, I am not allowed to leave without another escort. I explain that it’s not necessary, but the DPO is following orders from the District Commissioner. I must be safe he says. I appreciate the concern but feel that this attention is unnecessary and a waste of police resources. But I am overpowered and overruled. I am escorted to the Abuja highway and left to cycle alone. My safety now in the hands of the speeding truck drivers.
A Break in Abuja
I am camping in the grounds of the Sheraton hotel, with ‘more of my kind’ (according to the security guy at the entrance). ‘More of my kind’ turns out to be John and June from New Zealand, who are travelling to Cape Town in a Toyota. It’s good to have company for a day or two.
I have collected two more visas in my passport. Just one more is needed to get me across to East Africa, but I shall get it in Cameroon. I have been eating well and drinking well and planning the next bit of the route. I’m looking forward to it!