by Kae Lewis
Soon we were at the border office, once more awaiting the pleasure of the authorities. Our passports by this time were becoming rapidly filled, mainly with internal police stamps. At the Nigerian border-post, the guards greeted us in perfect English which quickly reminded us that Nigeria was once a part of the old British Empire. We had heard only French, Touareg and Arabic until now. The Nigerian customs officers asked for and stamped our carnet-de-passages en douane which was the first time we had needed it in Africa. However other travelers that we had spoken to had been asked for it in Algeria.
Once in Nigeria, we were driving across open savannah with dried well-chewed grass and a park-like scattering of leafy green trees. We stopped at the walled city of Katsina to change money but found that the banks would not accept traveler’s cheques. Although we had some cash, we decided to wait until we reached Kano to conserve our supplies. We had come to realise by this time that to bring exclusively traveler’s cheques to Africa would be a mistake. They are accepted only at banks in the main cities. To change money in the countryside, it is essential to have a supply of banknotes, French francs for the old French colonies and American dollars everywhere else. We had brought some francs but no cash dollars, and we were to regret this more as time went by.
Nigerian roads, although mostly in good condition, were a nightmare. Suicidal taxi drivers operating grossly overcrowded minibuses bore down on us from every direction. If they wanted to overtake a vehicle on the road, there was nothing that would hold them back. Often we were forced to swerve rapidly in the direction of the ditch as one careered towards us on our side of the road.
There is a well-thought-out philosophy amongst Muslim drivers. Theological teachings dictate that our fate is controlled by Allah and that there is nothing we can do to influence our ultimate destiny. Hence careful and considerate driving is felt to be not only a waste of time but perhaps to be some hindrance to Allah as he tries to carry out His will. At least that was the only explanation we could think of as we were constantly swerving to dodge the kamikaze drivers coming towards us.
We were checked frequently by police road blocks where one arrogant fellow, his ego over-inflated by the khaki uniform and rusty gun, rudely demanded our papers.
“What’s this for?”
“Where did you get that?”
“Why have you got this?” he demanded as he picked through our belongings in the van. We began to wonder if perhaps it had been better in Algeria and Niger where we had been unable to understand the questions and had just shrugged in reply. At least then, we did not have to control rising anger at the arrogance of the questioning. He eventually had to let us go because we had all the required stamps from the previous checkpoints, and he could think of no other reason to delay us further.
We arrived in Kano that afternoon, becoming immediately ensnarled in a chaotic traffic jam. It was a slow grind through the honking traffic down the main street to the camping ground near the Kano Club. The campsite was a dusty yard surrounded by a very high stone wall. A few hardy tourists were camped around it and we parked beside them under the shade of a tall leafy Jacaranda tree.
A derelict concrete building in the yard held some showers which did not work due to lack of water pressure. By now, we had come to accept life without this Western defilement of pure natural living, and I had even stopped dreaming about soaking in a hot steamy tub. Out in the yard, there was a tap that produced a dribble of water most of the time, and we were unbelievably grateful for that. A watch guard was kept on the gate night and day to keep the scavengers away while the high wall around the yard was topped by pieces of jaggedly broken glass, an inexpensive way of discouraging intruders. We were pleased to have found this haven away from the chaotic streets just outside the gates and surprisingly, were not charged camping fees.
The corrugations, ruts and holes in the Saharan sand had caused cracks in several places in the front axle of the van. Evan decided to replace it here before proceeding any further because he wanted to avoid having it break in some remote village where we would be unable to buy a replacement. The VW axle is gigantic and not practical to take along as a spare part. Our camping yard however was within easy walking distance of the main centre of Kano with its stocks of spare parts, and so was ideal for carrying out the repairs.
The next morning, we walked down to the bank to change some money. Here we met with a good dose of “tranquility” (not to be confused with lethargy), finally managing to obtain our money in just over an hour. While Evan, with his pocket full of money, went off in search of his axle, I walked to the post office to collect our mail. The streets were crowded with a bustling humanity but I felt reasonably safe walking alone, as many other women were doing the same. It was so nice to see the friendly smiling faces of the ladies on the streets of Kano after the all-enveloping black veils of the Sahara. I had hated the veils so much, especially all that they represented in the absolute repression of human rights, freedom of movement and enjoyment of life for Muslim woman.
I finally reached the post office about three long dusty blocks away. We had arranged with friends and family to write to us care of the Kano post office because it had been the one place we were fairly sure we should reach. The mail was addressed to Evan Lewis, Poste Restante, Kano, Nigeria and was held by them until we arrived. We had given everybody a list of post offices where we could be reached, subject to the proviso that our route could be changed without further notice and that they should not include anything of value since we may never receive it. I also posted off some letters which in fact took three or four months to arrive in New Zealand. In the meantime, our families had no idea whether we were dead or alive so it was an anxious time for them.
The footpaths were cluttered with rickety little stalls selling an infinite variety of useful and not so useful items. One stall was entirely devoted to selling plastic bicycle seat covers. Pretty cotton print fabrics predominated, together with a mixture of locally-made crafts and cheap plastic nick-knacks, probably imported. I also saw many fruits and vegetables and canned goods for sale.
I found that nearly everybody spoke English but when I enquired about prices, everything was too expensive for us. This was because we had changed our money at the bank at the official government rate which had been set too low. In the end, I bought a dozen eggs and walked back to the van, deciding that for now we would live on our imported food.
Evan had to buy a second-hand axle and springs because the only garage stocking new parts was closed for a week for stocktaking. Prices were higher than in Europe, and he was skeptical about the quality of the axle he had bought but it was all he could find. It was to be delivered later that day but now began the long task of dismantling the front suspension. It would be nearly a week before we would once again see the true color of Evan’s skin as he generously coated himself in grease and powdered it with dust and flakes of rust.
We were regularly visited in the yard by hawkers, the first of whom brought a tray laden with hokey pokey. Perhaps teaching the cook boy how to make hokey pokey was one of the better aspects of English colonial influence. In any case, we relished this caramelized sugar candy, just like our mothers used to make back home in New Zealand, another English colony.
During the day, we were pursued by long quick-footed Agama lizards: the males had red heads, blue abdomens and yellow tails while the females sported only a yellow head and tail. They would creep up on us until they deemed it a safe distance and then, at a flick of an eyelash, would dart off with a loud rustling of dried leaves. There were thirty or forty of these creatures living with us in the yard that week, and there was always a couple on the ground near the van.
At night, the bats soared amongst the branches above our heads. Each evening, we sat talking to the other tourists while munching hokey pokey and ducking to avoid the large black leathery bats that were careering straight at us. We gained valuable information about routes, road conditions and visas from these sessions with other tourists, speaking for the first time with someone who knew about road conditions in central Africa. He was a German operating tours through the area and was confident that we would make it through. This news came as a relief to us because it was the first time we had heard first-hand that our hair-brained scheme of driving from London to South Africa was feasible.
We had understood from our guidebook that visas for Cameroon were available at the border but another group told us that this was no longer the case, and we would have to go to Calabar or Lagos for them. Calabar is on the west coast of Africa, near the Cameroon border, and we made up our minds to try there first. Because Lagos had a reputation for being one of the dirtiest, most dangerous cities in the world, we would try to avoid it at all costs.
As Evan had suspected, the replacement axle was faulty but somehow, he managed to arrange for it to be exchanged for another one. It was expensive, and although the dealer had insisted it was nearly new, the bearings were badly worn. So Evan hammered the bearings out of our original axel and then fitted them carefully into the replacement one.
By now, he had discovered that as well as a cracked axle, we had several broken springs. It was indeed fortunate that we had decided to stay in Kano to repair it, and that Evan had some spare springs bolted on the underside of the chassis. All this was heavy and time-consuming work, and a struggle for Evan as he fought for hours to undo rusted bolts. It was oppressively hot in the dusty yard, made worse by the high wall that surrounded us, keeping out any stray breezes there may be.
Before reassembling the suspension, Evan took a well-deserved afternoon off, and we walked into the city centre. We were almost overcome by the stench coming from immense piles of rotting refuse dumped on all the footpaths, gutters and traffic islands. In fact in places the road was narrowed down to one lane due to piles of garbage encroaching on both sides. A dead rat the size of a well fed tom-cat was lying amongst the muck in the street.
The market-place where Evan had bought his axle was a maze of jerry-built shacks stacked high with merchandise, especially mechanical bits for cars, bicycles and motorbikes. In the little back streets, there were dozens of small factories, back-yard mechanics, repairmen, butchers and craftsmen such as weavers and cloth dyers, mat-makers and leather workers. Their premises, usually just a square of beaten earth in the market place, were a hive of activity. We were fascinated by the cloth dyers whose vast cauldrons of blue dye were set in rows in the open. When they stamped in the cauldrons to mix the dye with the cloth, their legs were stained permanently blue.
Since it was Friday, the people were crowding into the mosque for prayers, and near the entrance we found a number of fruit and vegetable stalls. They were selling large juicy pineapples very cheaply but perhaps we would not have been so enthusiastic if we had realized that this was only the beginning of an almost continual diet of pineapple for months to come. Once we were well stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables, we thankfully made our way back to the haven that our dusty old camping yard had become
We were six days at the campsite before the van was mobile once more. On the advice of the other tourists there, we had bought three more jerry cans for petrol, giving us a total of eleven. We would need the extra capacity because of the long distances between petrol stations in central Africa. We also bought some extra 20 liter plastic canisters for water just incase, although they had been expensive.
We filled all our jerry cans with petrol and at last were on our way once more. As before, we were at once caught up in a gigantic traffic jam. With the sun beating on the vehicle roofs and turning the interiors into ovens, the drivers were invariably impatient and prone to fits of anger which they took out on their horn buttons. At one large intersection, a roundabout was proving itself totally inadequate to control this volume of traffic. As we edged around it, the gaps between the cars became less and less until eventually one hit us from behind. The driver immediately jumped out to accuse Evan of having braked too hard. It looked as though Evan was about to receive a punch on the nose when suddenly a gap in the traffic opened up before us, and we were able to make a dash for freedom.
Once out of the Kano traffic, we traveled southwest towards the Nigerian coast. We climbed above the open savannah and into a thickly wooded mountainous region. The road was sealed but full of gargantuan potholes. Most of the traffic was over-crowded van-taxis with kamikaze drivers who were overtaking as needed, with no regard what-so-ever to whether or not they could see the oncoming traffic.
It made travel extremely dangerous for us with van-taxis constantly coming straight at us at high speed on our side of the road while others passed us willy nilly at the same time. Several times, there were four vans, ours included, driving four abreast on a two lane highway, two going one way and two the other. As one van-taxi raced towards us, it hit a pothole which bounced it right into our path, missing us by inches as the driver fought to regain control.
This all happened at high speed. We drove at 50 mph but we were the slow ones and were constantly being overtaken. In this heat, our van would travel no faster without overheating, and with the potholes and oncoming traffic to avoid, we felt this was quite fast enough.
The results of all this recklessness could be seen along the side of the road which was littered with totally wrecked van-taxis and trucks. One truck we saw had had the top of its cab neatly sliced off just below the steering wheel and a body lay headless beside it. Since life is cheap in Africa, bodies are not always taken away in the first week or so after an accident but can be found nonchalantly thrown in the bushes beside the road.
The villages were crowded with people walking on the roads. The ladies all wore long sari-like skirts with matching turbans in gay floral prints. We saw large numbers of children walking to school dressed in their emerald green and white school uniforms. The people lived in little round hat-box shaped huts with pointed thatched roofs. They kept goats and long-horned cattle and harvested cassava, carrots, millet and bananas.
Traveling was difficult for us in this area, and we did not like it. We could not find a place to camp at night because the countryside was so densely populated. Also we had been warned not to camp alone because there were bandits about. We discovered that even a large town like Jos did not have a camping ground. It was after dark when we decided to park for the night in the grounds of the Jos Hotel without consulting the management.
The next morning, we were still traveling in the mountains with the vegetation now definitely tropical jungle. Since there were no signposts, we had to stop at every major intersection to ask for directions. This was certainly made easier for us because all the young people spoke good English. Although we found them very friendly and obliging, we discovered that, in their eagerness to please, they would answer “yes” to all our questions about the correct direction.
If we asked, “Is this the road to Makurdi?”
“Yes, yes!” they would assure us. And many miles later, we would find ourselves back-tracking to find the correct road.
Instead, we learnt to phrase our question in such a way that they would have to admit that they did not know the correct road, if that were the case. We would ask,
“Which is the road to Makurdi, please?”
“Where?” he replies
“Ah, Makurdi! Makurdi is far from here. Too far for you to go there.”
In fact it was 150 km, a couple of hours away on our scale, half a world away on his.
The road deteriorated as we drove on that day, and we were stopped every 50 km by police road-blocks. They were interested mainly in where we were going and where we had come from. Had we replied that we had come from London and were going to Capetown, we would have been immediately arrested for having such a ludicrous plan. Instead, we told them that we had come from Makurdi and were going to Calabar. Some of the police were aggressive, some friendly and welcoming, some drunk and some just plain stupid but all had their fingers on the trigger. We were asked for cigarettes and food, sometimes politely while others made it plain that a bribe payment of some sort was expected before we would be permitted to proceed.
“What have you got that you’re proud of?”
“What have you got that I can remember you by?”
These were the opening gambits for the more polite ones. We were seldom asked to produce papers to establish our identity as always happened in Niger. Some wanted to see our carnet to check that it had a Nigerian stamp in it. As we handed the carnet or our passports over to them, it was always with some anxiety since we knew we would not get far if they did not give them back.
Some of the more rascally villagers had caught on to the brilliant idea of operating checkpoints of their own. They had guns but no uniforms and forced the traffic to stop by putting boards filled with nails across the road. We were all too aware that this was an extremely dangerous situation for us, being unarmed and fairly vulnerable. We could now see why we had been warned not to travel after dark in Nigeria. As frightening as these checkpoints were during the day, they would be lethal at night.
We had a very large bag of simply delicious French bonbons (hard boiled wrapped candy) which we handed out in twos and threes to all the men who brandished their guns at us. The more they snarled or the closer they poked their gun at us, the more they got. In this way, we somehow managed to get safely from one end of Nigeria to the other without once handing over any cash for bribes. We were sure that that was what they really wanted but, while savouring our fruity bonbons, they did not have the heart to detain us further and good-naturedly handed us back our papers and waved us on.
We spent a whole day negotiating a section of roadworks because they had ripped up the entire road for hundreds of kilometres at a stretch. The motorists were left to pick their way over rough tracks, up and down banks and across newly ploughed dirt. Then we came up behind some trucks stopped in the centre of the road where the work-gangs had dumped truckloads of dirt in piles for several miles along the road. The result was that a long section of the road had been narrowed down to a single lane. The northbound traffic had come face to face with the southbound, and apart from honking their horns, there was little anybody could do but sit in the hot sun and wait.
Over the next few hours, a monumental row developed where the two opposing sides faced each other, with neither side being willing to back up and let the other side through. In the meantime, the traffic was building up behind us until it would have been impossible to back up, no matter which side finally won the argument.
Eventually, some Europeans arrived on the scene. They were the Italians who were supposedly in charge of rebuilding the road, and they quickly organised a bulldozer to make us a bypass track. This newly bulldozed track went down the centre of a large ditch running along beside the road. The soft brown soil was difficult to negotiate but at least we were progressing away from the bottleneck where we had sat for hours in the broiling hot sun.
The old potholed surface alternated with sections of this road-working chaos for the next two days as we struggled towards Calabar. Finding a safe place to spend the night was irksome, and we usually ended up camping in the grounds of a hotel. This meant however that we could not empty all our surplus equipment out onto the ground for cooking and sleeping, and we spent several uncomfortable nights jammed in with it. With all the petrol in jerry cans inside the van, we dared not light the gas to cook out meals and ate raw fruit and biscuits. The evenings were cold, and we would have been pleased to have a hot drink or vegetable soup.
We finally reached Calabar in the late afternoon about a week after leaving Kano, and found the streets were just as clamorous as in Kano. We fought our way through the traffic to the Cameroon Consulate which was marked on a small sketch map we had. The friendly policeman on guard-duty there offered to go with us to lead us to the visa office on the other side of town. Because the van had seating for only two, and there was no room in the back, I stayed behind. As they left, the policeman shouted that I should make use of his chair, and since it was likely to be a long wait, I gladly took up his offer.
No one seemed surprised to find a white woman sitting in the policeman’s box, least of all the Chief Inspector when he arrived to mark the roll. Since I was able to vouch for him, our policeman guide was marked present and correct. The thought did occur to me that should the embassy come under siege, I would be completely in charge of mounting the defence. When people arrived at the gate expecting their papers to be checked for security purposes, I just blithely waved them through.
When they finally returned, Evan was still very confused about just where he had been through the maze of little streets. With night now falling, we would have to begin searching for somewhere to camp. There was no camping ground, and we had already been warned that it was not safe to be on Calabar streets at night. Even if we could afford to stay in a hotel, we dared not leave the van unattended in the carpark all night. In the end, we parked in the grounds of a large hotel where we were undisturbed.
The next morning, we waited outside the Consulate visa office for it to open. Other tourists began arriving but five hours later it was still closed. Eventually someone telephoned the Consulate Residence where we had been the previous day, to be told that today was the Cameroon “Fete Nationale,” so we should come back tomorrow.
“Maybe it would open tomorrow, maybe it would not.”
Rather despondently, we drove to the shade of a nearby tree. Calabar was hot, dusty, crowded, dirty and very sultry. It was not a place where we would wish to stay, especially since there was nowhere to camp. However stay we must because we needed that visa for Cameroon if we wanted to continue on through Africa. At this stage, we were at the point of no return. We were so far from Europe now, and the desert winds in the Sahara would be starting in earnest soon. We already knew how these could obliterate the track and had no wish to face that again.
While we sat in the van wondering what to do, a cheerful young Nigerian lad on a motorcycle drew up and asked if he could help. We must have looked conspicuous, being the only Europeans parked in the crowded street. We thanked him and explained our difficulties with the Consulate at the end of the street. He immediately invited us to his house.
“Follow me,” he called, “it’s not far.”
It was a bit risky to trust a complete stranger like this but we were pretty desperate by then. The alternative of staying there on the crowded street was probably just as risky. Indeed his house was just around the corner, and we parked the van beside his room, one of many in a single-story complex of ramshackle flats. There was only a tiny space to park the van but we had a tree to shade us from the blazing equatorial sun and privacy from the teeming, dusty streets. The greatest luxury of all was a shower, the first we had seen since Mohamed’s in Guardaia all those weeks before.
Our kind benefactor’s name was Sunday, and he was very insistent that we should make ourselves at home or “feel free” as he put it. We quite fell under the spell of his simple, kindly nature. He explained to us that he was a Christian and, we soon realised, a very devote one. We shared our meal with him, talking on into the night with the sounds of frogs croaking in unison in the next-door pond.
We were woken at dawn as each of the flats turned their radios up to full volume. The Consulate proved to be in a working mood, saying our passports would be ready that afternoon. We spent the day washing our clothes and relaxing after the long and arduous journey from Kano.
The small piece of land on this suburban street had about twenty crudely-built wooden flats squeezed onto it, with each two-roomed flat being home for a family of five or six or more. They were served by one outside tap, one shower and a toilet for the entire complex. This was considered to be a luxury since most of the dwellings in Calabar had no water, and it had to be carried from the public tap, often several blocks away.
All wastes from these communal facilities at the flats ran in an open drain along the length of the section and dropped into a large open ditch in the street. The drain had been dammed up beside Sunday’s room where it was filled with festering sewage. There were millions of mosquito larvae floating on the surface. This pond was also the home of the frogs whose deafening chorus blared on through the night.
The women were fastidious with their housekeeping however. Babies and children were always being dunked in buckets of cold water in the communal courtyard where the tap was located. Clothes hung everywhere drying, and the well-used bathroom and toilet was always very clean. They invariably welcomed us with smiles when we came into the courtyard with our bucket to fill with water or to use the bathroom.
Later that day, we met Sunday’s sister who was a nurse-in-training at the local hospital. She told us that malaria was their greatest problem. Although the adults eventually build up an immunity to this debilitating disease, thousands of babies and young children were dying from it. Adults suffered periodic attacks of fever which weaken them and prevented them from carrying out their normal work.
Open drains, such as the one we were sitting beside and could smell constantly, allow the mosquitoes to breed. The community is well aware of this but unfortunately the massive sewerage and drainage works the city requires is quite beyond the limits of the available finances, while corruption in high places will ensure that this situation continues. It is a never-ending cycle because the constant malaria attacks debilitate the people and prevent them from making the all-out effort required to carry out these mammoth tasks.
I asked her about the masked men I had seen in the country-side one afternoon a few days before. Three girls had been carrying water containers on their heads and walking along the edge of the road. When they had seen these masked monsters coming towards them, they had flung off their burdens and run screaming into the jungle, with the boys in hot pursuit. She said this was a masquerade and was a frequent ritual, performed also in Calabar. She told me that the boys would beat the girls and worse when they caught them. She seemed most surprised when I explained that boys who beat and rape girls in the West would be put in prison.
“You mean it’s a kind of law?” she asked. “Oh I wish we had such a law here.” During the masquerade season, she never leaves her home to go to work.
While I spoke to his sister, Sunday was introducing Evan to his cousin who was trying to start a business repairing radios and other electronic gadgetry. Evan tried to help him and explained the basics of Ohm’s law to him. Much later, he mailed him a bundle of basic books on electrical theory and a multi-meter. Evan never received a reply, and it is likely the parcel never reached its destination.
We had our passports with the Cameroon visa that afternoon, as promised, and then spent a long time explaining to Sunday that we could not stay for the weekend as he wanted us to. He was very concerned about our plans to cross Africa and could not see how such a journey could be possible. It was now only six weeks until the rains were due in Central Africa, and we wanted to keep ahead of them if we could. In fact, if the rains came before we had crossed the African continent, then Sunday’s predictions about our eventual fate may well come true.
We were terribly grateful to him and his family for their welcoming hospitality but we had to leave. I found a small gaily painted tablecloth amongst our belongings and gave it to Sunday as a departing present. I had brought it along for just such an occasion. He was delighted and immediately put it on the tiny wooden table in his front room. Early the next morning, he stood waving forlornly as we backed the van out of the yard and set off down the street.
We then had to travel back up the 100 km of eternal Italian roadworks to reach the Cameroon border crossing. Travel was just as hot, dusty and slow as before, and it was not long before we were as dusty and dirty as we had been when we had arrived at Sunday’s place earlier in the week. A fine hot mist enveloped the jungle around us, and the heat and humidity was oppressive. It was a huge contrast to the cool dry winds we had experienced in the Sahara.
After turning off the main road to go towards Ikom and the border, we passed through a village which was in the midst of festivities, and there were processions of gaily dressed singers on the road. I suspected this was one of the masquerades that Sunday’s sister had spoken about although saw no further evidence of masked men chasing terrified girls that day.
Some of the men were uniformed in military style complete with brass miner’s lamps on their foreheads. Many of them had old blunderbusses which gave off a cloud of smoke as they fired at the trees to test their aim. Others were armed with agricultural implements such as rakes and hoes to brandish menacingly. It was all in good fun. They were extremely proud of themselves and lined up with broad toothy grins for Evan to take a photo.
The younger girls were dressed in red bikini tops and short skirts, with calf-length socks made up of a densely-packed array of shiny brass rings. Their frizzy hair was expertly twisted into a beautiful arrangement of curls. Red was definitely the theme of the day, throughout the procession.
The older ladies looked more refined in white blouses, red beads, brightly printed long skirts (known as a wrapper) with blue and white head ties and usually carrying a clutch purse. Some of the fabrics were hand-printed batik. There were about six groups of women, each singing a different haunting melody while stepping along the road in time to the beat.
Suddenly, a masked man with two assistants stepped out of the crowd and began chasing the laughing spectators. When we asked the purpose of the festivities, we were told that they were honouring the visit to the village of the Minister of Communications. They pointed him out to us, and there he was resplendent in a white jumpsuit covered with multi-coloured pompoms. He had a matching white feather in his black bowler hat.
We reached Ikon just before dark and bought a very juicy pineapple in the market-place. After presenting a large chunk to the night-watchman of the best hotel in town, he gave us permission to camp in the grounds.
Early next morning, we were serenely breakfasting beside the van, seated as usual outside the sliding door of the van on our folding chairs. We were enjoying the cool morning air that we knew would not last much longer as the relentless tropical sun crept higher in the sky. Before we were finished our breakfast however, we were horrified to discover that the staff of the hotel were intending to slaughter a goat right in front of us. It gasped its last with a blood-curdling scream and a gurgle just as I bit into my toast and marmalade. Within seconds, they had it strung over a fire to burn off the hair. By the time we had finished our coffee, the chops, steaks and entrails were spread out for sale on a nearby table. The mother of the young goat continued to wail for her lost youngster right up until we had packed up and left the scene of the carnage.
We filled up all our jerry cans again because we had been told that petrol was more expensive in Cameroon than in oil-rich Nigeria. While we were at the petrol station, we met two boys from Finland who were driving a large truck. They had already tried to get into Cameroon but had been sent back to obtain a visa and some vehicle insurance. They were now waiting until the end of the weekend to buy the insurance.
Fore-warned is fore-armed but we decided to risk crossing the border with the papers we had. Our international vehicle insurance policy did not give third-party coverage but it was an impressive certificate nonetheless, and the fine print was very small indeed. We also knew that the third party insurance bought on the borders offered no cover either. They collect your premiums but simply refuse to pay out on all claims. We felt that bluff would probably be our best weapon.
We reached the Nigerian border-post to begin the exit formalities. This was very time-consuming as the border-guard looked for something wrong on every paper. He indicated that he was willing to accept a bribe, and that this would certainly speed things along a little. We had to produce all our money, most of which we kept hidden away in the woodwork of the van. We had done the same when we had entered into Nigeria, so as far as they were concerned, we were a lot poorer on their records than we actually were. We then had to account for the difference between the money we had had when we entered Nigeria and what we had left now, with certificates given to us by the banks when we had exchanged our money.
We presented the border-guard with the required amount of unspent money still in French francs, and he spread it all over his table, as though he was playing monopoly. He then discovered that we were short by 17 cents on what we should have had. When we refused to hand over any bribes to mollify him, we were simply ignored while he passed on to the others. We sat patiently with the other stoic travelers on the wooden seats in the open-sided hut surrounded by the thick jungle that encroached on all sides. The hut was perched high on the bank of a deep river gorge which the road to Cameroon crossed by a large bridge.
We noticed that each traveler was handing over his passport with a bank-note between the pages and realized that our failure to do so was the reason that we were sitting on the bench in the hut instead of being on our way. It soon became obvious that the criteria for obtaining an exit or entrance stamp in the passport was not the validity or otherwise of the document but the value of the bank-note inside it. If it was not sufficient, the passport was snapped closed and handed back with a loud protest from the border-guard:
“What are you wasting my time for?”
Two Swedish boys on motorbikes were having the same problems as us. The guard had stamped one of their carnets but maintained that the other identical carnet was not valid. The boys had been there all morning refusing to bribe the guard.
We sat on the benches in the open-sided office, talking with the Swedish boys who had just traveled through Zaire (Congo). They had gone most of the way through the country on a ferry that runs between Kinshasa and Kisangani. They had enjoyed the trip so much that we began to think that perhaps we would also travel this way. It would certainly save us weeks of rough driving. However, they had heard some horror stories about the time that the ferry had broken down indefinitely somewhere up river. Tourists with vehicles had been forced to land on the river-bank and drive off into the trackless jungle. They had eventually found a mission station where they had been given enough petrol to complete their journey. On the strength of that, we decided not to commit ourselves to going this way in the meantime.
We and the Swedish boys were finally dealt with by the surly border-guard. The boys lent us 17 cents for a few minutes, and he grudgingly stamped all our papers. And while he was in a stamping mood, he also stamped the boy’s carnet. The border-guard had been sure that he would receive a large bribe from these Europeans who are usually in such a hurry. However, in our case, he had failed to reckon with our patience. Besides we had enjoyed the conversation with our fellow travelers who had gained as much from hearing about our recent experiences in the Sahara as we had gained from hearing about their time in Zaire. We climbed back into the van and started toward the high bridge that spanned the jungle-clad banks of the Cross River. This large deeply canyoned river formed the border between Nigeria and Cameroon.
A letter written by Evan on 12 February 1982 to his father in New Zealand gives more details, especially of the repairs needed for the van:
50 Mayne Road
I have not had a moment to write since we were in Tamanrasset, and there is so much I should have told you about. Actually it has been more like a motor rally and an exercise in bureaucratic gymnastics than a leisurely tourist route. We were three weeks ahead of schedule at Kano, and consequently, Kae did not get any mail from her mother. However there were two cards from you for our birthdays. Thanks for getting them away so early. Actually they arrived while we were there. It is certainly a highlight and a moment to look forward to, to get news from home. Sometimes we wish we were in New Zealand too!
The Saharan crossing itself was not as difficult as we had expected and was really quite a lot of fun. I think I told you about the ethnologist we met at Assamakka (the Algeria – Niger border post) in the short note I scribbled at Arlit. Later we discovered that we had a book in our ‘Library cupboard’ in the van, written by the same ethnologist – Dr Mark Milburn – called “Secrets of the South Sahara” about his work there over the last ten years. It is a pity we did not discover it earlier and ask him to sign it for us. We spent two days with him, and he invited us to join him on one of his expeditions.
From Arlit (where there is a big uranium mine), the French had built a good road south. Not like the Algerian Army’s attempts at building roads across the Sahara, that fall apart with heavy lorry traffic within months of completion. These deeply pot-holed tarsealed roads are more lethal than good unsealed roads.
It was several day’s drive on this good road through Agadez to the Niger/Nigeria border. In the camping ground at Agadez and at the Police checkpoint, we met many other tourists, including a couple in an English-registered Landrover. Alison was English and Roberto an Italian doctor working in England. She was brought up in Kenya and lived there for nine years. We spent one night with them, and we were all very keen to travel together through Zaire to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya but unfortunately they did not have a visa for Nigeria and we did. They had to go in the opposite direction to Naimey and then to Upper Volta to find a Nigerian Embassy. We have left messages for them by Poste Restante and were a full week in Kano but have not heard from them again.
We also met a German group who were all chemical engineers working for Fresenius on artificial kidneys. They asked us to join them but we had to travel south from Kano to Calabar to get visas for Cameroon. Germans do not need visas for Cameroon so once again we split up but arranged to leave messages for each other.
Coming south from Arlit, the change from absolutely barren desert though sparse to dense tussock and thistles to occasional trees and eventually thick rain forest with bananas, palms, cocoa, coconuts etc is very gradual. In Niger and all over Nigeria, there are police or army road-blocks every 50 – 100 kms. They stop you and demand to see the myriads of documents we have to carry. They look through all 40 or so visas in our passports, pass the time of day and ask for or demand gifts or bribes. Some are roaring drunk with pistols in their hands or perhaps high on drugs. We have got away with paying no bribes and cheekily palming them off with a handful of bonbons. They are generally just trying you on to see what they can get. We had heard stories of police raiding vans at night on road blocks and confiscating everything, so we did not travel after dark. We tried to park in safe spots in towns rather than in isolated countryside in Nigeria which seemed especially dangerous to us. We often parked in hotel carparks or beside banks which had security guards.
Although we did not have to do any major emergency repairs in the Sahara, we had troubles with the front suspension. We discovered too late that the VW’s front suspension can only take the punishment of these bad roads if it is left completely unladen. Eventually I moved all five spare wheels on to our bed at the back of the van, along with 50 kg of water. This left 160 liters of petrol in 20 liter canisters on the floor amidships.
When we got to Kano, Nigeria, I saw a burned out brand new VW on the side of the road with a good front axle. Unfortunately I could not trace the owners (it was a the Federal Government of Nigeria vehicle) and had to leave it. Our front axle had several serious cracks in the torsion bar tubes where they are welded onto mounting brackets. These are caused by the drop-arms hitting rubber stoppers and pivoting on them, causing a reaction force on the torsion tube. Exactly the same cracks occurred in the original axle on our last trip, and I replaced the whole axle, together with springs, before leaving Germany. However a new axle would have cost 500 Deutsch Marks (DM) plus extras so I bought a complete second hand axle including spare hubs etc for 250 DM. That was a mistake because I ended up having to pay 1200 DM for a very old second hand axle in Kano!
When I took the two axles apart, I found all four springs were broken or cracked. So I bought ‘new’ springs from the same man. Actually the first axle he delivered to the camping place for me had worn out drop-arm bearings so he replaced it with another which he insisted had done only 2000 km. I suspect it was more like 200,000 km because the steering bearings were worn out. They sure know how to rip off tourists. They were charging other tourists 16 Nigerian Dinars for filling camping gaz bottles until we found that the correct price was 4 Dinars if you take it to the filling station just down the road!
The new springs I paid new price for turned out to be reconditioned ones. I had to pay the full price for the axle even though the springs turned out to be broken. Anyway now I have 3 spare springs and some spare rubber mounts which also collapse under the load. This process took a whole week. During this time I also made a makeshift sump-guard out of the old torsion-bar leaf springs, as well as a special spanner for removing the primus jet when it has sand in it.
Kano – and all of Nigeria for that matter – is an incredibly filthy place. They say Lagos is 100% worse. Streets here are lined with ramshackle junk stalls and everyone throws their rubbish onto the streets which are never cleaned. They are literally shoulder-high in stinking rubbish. Open sewers with inadequate flow run down each side of the street and breed mosquitoes which no doubt inject all sorts of bugs into your bloodstream. There are the most incredibly huge rats. It is no exaggeration to say that the rats are as big as cats, over one foot long not including the tail, and very fat.
Less gruesome are the lizards which frequent every nook and cranny and scuttle over your toes when you disturb them. The larger ones are nearly a foot long with yellow head and tail, brilliant blue body with a lime green stripe down the back. Although they make you jump sometimes, they are quite harmless. We have only seen one snake in the wild in Africa, and that was dead on the road.
After leaving Kano we spent nearly half a week driving the length of Nigeria. The police got worse the further south we went. Then the day we arrived in Calabar on the southern coast of Nigeria, we went straight to the Cameroon embassy to get our visas for Cameroon. This turned out to be a Cameroon holiday so we had to wait another day to make our application.
Meanwhile a Nigerian chap in his early 20s saw us parked on the roadside and invited us to park in the compound beside his house and use his shower, toilet and water supply. This was a great relief as we were worried about free camping (There are virtually no campsites in this part of Africa) and it was very hot. Maximum temperature was 37 degrees C and so humid that the washing would not dry. The temperature drops to 25 or 30 degrees in the evening and is about 20 degrees in the morning. There is generally a thick haze of steam over everything from the surrounding jungle so you do not get sunburnt but it spoils the photographs.
“Sunday,” the chap we stayed with, is a devout Christian (Assembly of God) and was sure we would fund the founding of a new church in his suburb. He said they needed it although there was a church literally on nearly every street corner. He was also sure that we would arrange for him to emigrate to New Zealand to train as an engineer although he has a limited high school education. None-the-less, he was very kind to us, and we appreciated it. We gave him a New Zealand souvenir table-cloth before we left. His sister seemed much more intelligent and was in her final year of training as a nurse. Everyone speaks English in Nigeria which is a nice change although it is often difficult to understand.
After three nights in Calabar (quite enough), we retraced our route north along the terrible road-works and then turned east to Ikom on the Cameroon border. In a village on the road between Calabar and Ikom, we came across a traditional African procession. The road was full of people and dancers in fancy costumes. We pulled over and parked in the village to watch the fun. Many of the men were carrying very ancient loaded blunderbusses and were shooting the branches off the trees. I was hesitant to get my camera out but then I saw a press photographer. I joined him and the people crowded around wanting their photos taken. As usual, they were all very friendly and congenial. I went through about one and a half rolls of film in a matter of minutes. I am supposed to be conserving film, not being sure when I will be able to replenish supplies along the way.
We were told that the procession was in honour of the Minister of Communications who was visiting the village. We saw him and he was wearing a white jumpsuit covered in multi-coloured pompoms. The music and chants were fantastic but our tape recorder has died. The radio also has a broken switch, and the winder on my camera has been jamming periodically since the Sahara, all probably caused by the sand and dust that has permeated everything. Everything grinds and scrapes as a result.
But at least the van is still chugging along. The fiberglass roof is gradually unzipping itself from the body of the van. The cabinets inside are getting scratched with jerry cans (I now have 11), plastic water jugs and 5 tyres (3 on rims), all inside on the bed. You can imagine the amount of packing and unpacking we have to do four times per day for cooking and sleeping.
We spent the last night in Nigeria in a hotel carpark and witnessed the slaughter of a goat during our breakfast. The hotel gave us water, and we filled up 11 20L jerrycans with very cheap Nigerian petrol at 20c/liter before heading to the border.
I must close now.
© Copyright Kae & Evan Lewis 2020. All rights reserved.
Categories: Africa, Overland Travel
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