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January 26, 2013 / samwilson60

Highlights and lowlifes en route to Abuja

After all the warnings we’d had and doomsayers we’d met, we were really rather anxious during the build-up to Nigeria and quickly decided to take the most out-of-town, direct route we could through the middle of the country. Our on-going visa issues did nothing to ease the tension, although our Christmas visitors did, so can’t really complain there J

What’s more, when we finally did cross the border, we couldn’t have wished for a smoother start – in the figurative sense at least. The border was a dream, almost. The formalities started just a 100 yards or so from the Beninese police hut, at immigration. We were greeted with big smiles and lots of small talk. We inevitably had to explain why we each had two Nigerian visas, but this went down surprisingly well. The kicker was that despite making a big song and dance of wanting a full month in the country (which we didn’t really, but we’d paid a lot for the privilege), the immigration officer in his wisdom, and behind our backs, stamped our passports for just two weeks. In reality this was plenty but the principle of the matter left us livid, briefly. We were blissfully unaware at this stage though and just grateful to have been sent on our way so charmingly. The next stop, unexpectedly, was a young guy with no ID or uniform who wanted to know if we had any agricultural products in the car. We both thought of the cockerel, which we’d briefly considered re-gifting to the Nigerian officials to smooth our passage, but assured our new friend that we had nothing of interest to him. After a detailed inspection of our vaccination records, which he clearly didn’t understand, we were free to continue to customs, who were almost as pleasant as all the rest. The one in charge of writing our details in the records book made a real meal of the task, but the simultaneous vehicle inspection was a dream – every time he saw something potentially suspicious (unlabelled Tupperware of powdered milk, for example), it sufficed to direct his attention to something else (“That’s just milk. What you want to see is these stoves.”).

Stunned by the simplicity of the border (it wasn’t just better than expected, it was better than most others we’ve had lately), we tentatively but excitedly set off into the country proper. The GPS was unsettlingly inaccurate when it came to turning off the tarmac but we found our piste and a cash point, too (an unexpected bonus). And once on the piste, our already sunny disposition sky-rocketed. This was the best off-roading we’d had since the Plage Blanche. Anything but smooth, we shuddered at the thought of doing it during the rains, but clearly people did or it wouldn’t end up in this state and, dry, we loved every minute of it. It was magical to be entering a new country in such beautiful surrounds, with such fun driving and with all the time in the world to take it all in.

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Before long we had our first checkpoints, of sorts. We’d seen lots of inventive ways of blocking the road to force anything on four wheels to stop but these were the first to use nail boards. We’d been warned but were still a little taken aback, especially as there wasn’t a uniform in sight, but what choice do you have? We were treated pleasantly enough by the first but hadn’t realised he was the first of three. Next up, immigration. Then some guy who wanted to inspect our vaccination records. By this point we were losing patience a little and kicked up a bit of a fuss but soon remembered that it’s easier to just show them what they want to see and be on our way. Incidentally, the one ‘official’ on the piste we did challenge about his lack of uniform merrily hoped on his moped and was back within minutes brandishing photocard ID (civil security or something equally ominous).

Before reaching another round of checkpoints, we started looking out for somewhere to camp. It seemed inevitable we’d have to sleep somewhere along the piste and after such an amusing wild camp the previous night in Benin, we were all too keen to try again – on condition that there be no livestock this time. We should have said no animals, full stop. We found a clearing that looked perfect – nice and discreet, space for the tent, twigs for the kettle in the morning, what more could you want? Not an overly vocal puppy, that’s for sure. Before sunset we’d been adopted and despite one local’s attempts at rather violently shooing him away (or perhaps because we thwarted them), we were apparently friends for life. Throughout the night, if he wasn’t advertising our whereabouts to everyone in the state, he was trying to break into the tent. His only saving grace was that he was too cute to get angry with and too slow to keep up with the truck when we drove off the next morning.

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Once on our way again it wasn’t long before we rejoined the tarmac and our part-time travel buddy, Richard. As we were discussing how awesome the piste had been and how friendly the people seemed, a local teacher and her friend came dashing over to give us a bear hug – disarmingly friendly, literally. The only place we’ve been more energetically embraced was just the other side of the border in Benin, where some local ladies smothered us in sloppy kisses as we were quietly having a cuppa by the side of the road – also rather disarming.

Anyway, after prising ourselves away we set off along the tarmac to Wawa – a place we knew nothing about but had been keen to pass through at least ever since our uncle had told us a story about the tradition of “being wawa-ed” in Nigeria (‘West Africa Wins Again’). Thankfully this place was no more out to get us than the last, although Richard apparently did get fined for driving off before belting up and then ‘arrested’ for trying to visit the dam across the Niger just outside the next town along. Even from the road, the New Bussa dam was impressive (a dam across the Niger, could it be anything but?!) and it was a shame there was nowhere legal to stop to admire it, but we were obviously relieved we’d accepted that and moved on.

Far from the checkpoints, which were no worse than we were used to at this stage, the tarmac was our biggest enemy. We spent the rest of the day, and the following morning, inching along the worst surface we’ve seen since Guinea (where the holes were perhaps as big and plentiful but they covered only half the distance at most). There’s no easy way to explain it but mangled piste is awesome, mangled road is not.

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Just as we were in danger of missing the funny side, some armed men in uniform appeared on the horizon, signalling us to stop. When we asked them who they were and didn’t understand the response, the three of them – with the faces of smiling schoolboys, and innocent ones at that – proudly showed us their badges. “Oh, so you’re vigilantes. Lovely,” we said, and while our automatic reflex was to ask what they wanted, we somehow managed to extract ourselves before having that conversation and set about finding somewhere to camp before meeting any of their colleagues. Soon after finding a passable spot, Richard caught up with us and joined us in a clearing with no other company, human or otherwise. We had a restful night, thankfully, before doing battle with the so-called tarmac again the following day.

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The only consolation once back on the road was that we made it to within 100km of Abuja before anyone tried to arrest us for being in a right-hand drive (the standard horror story shared by other overlanders we’d met). Although it took a good half hour to politely but forcefully convince them we didn’t need to accompany anyone to head office, we did eventually get away without having to give them anything more than our phone number (because by that point we were apparently not criminals but best friends).

Things deteriorated further as we neared the city. In one of the suburbs we had to cross on market day the officials were thankfully too busy trying, in vain, to keep the traffic flowing to cause any trouble, but the ‘stick men’, as we’ve come to know them, were out in force. It’s often hard to tell initially whether they’re genuine checkpoints you’d be wise to stop at (there are so many and very few are any better signalled), or whether they’re outlaws you’d be crazy to even slow down for. The one on a moped, beer in one hand, big stick in the other, was clearly one of the latter, and the scariest we encountered. The real worry here was that despite the commotion around we could make out some of the threats hurled in our direction and he was much more mobile in the crowds than us.

Eyes on stalks and hearts in mouths, we barely spoke the rest of the way into Abuja but made it to the Sheraton of all places, in one piece but worse for wear. On getting out of the car, we both felt physically and emotionally drained and literally weak in the knees, but part of that must have been our longstanding fears about driving in Nigeria – the last stretch had been truly horrific but on the whole the driving etiquette and roadside police had been much worse in Ghana, for example.

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