The visas where given to us in the morning as promised and we got ready to head to Kpalimine. The Finns went on ahead. Being backpackers, they had little luggage to pack and needed to take the bus. Loading up the bike in the humidity of Lome was a complete pain. I hadn’t even put my riding jacket on and sweat was dripping off my nose. Two English guys who work in Lagos saw me loading up the bike and came over for a chat. We discussed the situation in Nigeria and they kindly gave me their numbers in case I needed any help over there. When I eventually hit the road the sweat was pouring off me and I started to get worried about riding in the heat further towards the equator. I don’t want to ride unprotected but it may be my only choice. I had left my ‘hot weather jacket’ in Bobo cos it wasn’t that much cooler.
I wanted to get some cash and fuel before leaving Lome. There are petrol stations everywhere in Lome but most of them had no petrol. It wasn’t until the fifth station that I could fill up. It may have something to do with the Nigerian fuel strike, although it isn’t uncommon to find empty stations in Africa.
The weekends partying had taken its toll on me and I was coming down with something. I had a sore throat and was sneezing all over the inside of my helmet on the way to Kpalime. By the time I got there it had spread to my chest and I was coughing and spluttering. I had arranged to meet the Finns at an auberge in the mountains that I had heard about on the net. I arrived at Kpalime then followed a moto taxi who initially led me to a completely different place (probably his mate’s auberge) until I protested and found the real place. I was worried that the Finns wouldn’t find it if they took dishonest moto taxis too, but they arrived about an hour after I did along with a guy from Chile who they met on the bus. The auberge was run by a local man called Prosper who offered guided walks of the forest and wildlife. I got the impression from the net that his tours were very popular with tourists and while I was there a lot of tourists came by the auberge to look at his gallery of paintings for sale. Although, as is the nature with touristy areas and guides, touts etc, it is also possible that they had no interest in buying any paintings at all and had just been brought there in the hope that they would buy stuff. I wouldn’t have minded going on a tour or a trek but I couldn’t be arsed doing anything until my chest got better. The auberge itself was very basic. The rooms had no electricity and the showers were of the bucket type, but once I had unloaded the bike I couldn’t be bothered to go anywhere else and I sat around for a few days.
On one day I went into town with Linda on my bike while the rest of the group followed us on moto taxis. I had to break off and go my own when we got to town as it was never going to work with 3 people on foot and me with my bike.
The cooler air in Kpalime was making me feel a lot better and I didn’t really want to go back to the humidity of the coast until I was better. The Finns made plans to leave early one day to find another auberge closer to the centre ville, then to climb a mountain. They offered for me to come too but I decided to stay in bed instead. Later I too moved to another auberge, one even higher up the mountain with better facilities. I went to have a look at the view and started talking to a group of Lebanese guys who work in Lome and they invited me to join them in a fantastic bbq picnic before they went back to Lome.
There isn’t much internet connection in Kpalime and the only internet cafe I found keeps having power cuts, so I’ve been following the situation in Nigeria on the radio. The general strike lasted 5 days, then stopped for the weekend. It will start again on Monday. I’m not completely happy about having to kill time, you may remember my rant a couple of posts ago about wanting to make progress, but there isn’t anything I can do about it. On the plus side, Laas will be arriving in Togo in a few days so I can meet up with him. I spent the rest of the time in Kpalime listening to the situation in Nigeria on the BBC world service and killing time by playing guitar and doing some sewing repairs to my luggage.
After a week and a bit, I heard on the radio that the strike had ended. Emmy also emailed me the developments and Simon, one of the English guys I had met in Lome, confirmed that everyone was going back to work, so I got ready to go back to Lome. I delayed leaving for a day so that I could meet up with Laas. I rode back to Le Galion where all the usual ex pats where there, with everybody asking me where had the Finns gone. Laas arrived a day late, but he had kindly found me a new back tyre which Didier at Toni Togo fitted for me in no time.
I wanted to leave the next day for Cotonou, the financial capitol of Benin so that I could start the application of the Nigerian Visa before the weekend, but I ended up getting drunk with Laas, Uve (one the Galion regulars) and Gunter, a German traveler who had cycled to Lome. I was in no state to be going anywhere the next day, and realised that I wouldn’t be able to get any visa applications done so I headed to Grand Popo, a beach resort just inside of the Togo-Benin border, to stay at an auberge that had been recommended to me by some people in Banfora. Togo and Benin are such narrow countries that I had crossed the border, including purchasing a visa and a Laissez Passer and arrived at Grand Popo before lunchtime. I found a sign for the auberge, Lion Bar pointing down a sandy alley to the beach. The sand looked really deep, like over a foot in places. I looked around for another route but since I didn’t really know where it was, I gave it a go anyway. I couldn’t really get a run-up on the road as I had to do a sharp 90 degree turn into the alley. I made it over the first 5 meters or so when the bike suddenly lurched to the left. I only just managed to stop it hitting the wall, then was heading on a collision course for the other wall. I stopped to try and take it slower but I couldn’t get moving again from the lack of momentum and through revving and pushing the bike I ended up with the bike buried past the rear axle in sand. I left it there (it stood up on its own!) and got some help from the auberge to dig it out.
The auberge was all in a Rasta style. And with the proprietors being African, it seemed a bit more authentic than the many other Rasta-type tourist bars I’ve seen around the globe. The other tourists were all French and I recognised Jean-Pierre and Laeticia from Le Galion. Although the auberge was nice, I didn’t want to spend much time there cos I’m not a massive fan of beaches and this one particularly had nothing to do.
I left on Sunday to go to Cotonou and after a couple of hours, I arrived at a Beach Club that had been recommended by other overlanders on the net. The El Dorado beach club, has a pool and a gym, and although the rooms were outside of my budget, they let me put up my tent for under 4 euro a night. It was great sleeping with the sound of crashing waves, and the sea breeze keeping me cool.
All the workers there were very friendly and helped me find my way around. On the first night I went into the centre ville to meet Lucile, one of the French Girls from Grand Popo, we went for dinner at a Thai restaurant (my taste of home!) and she offered to help me write my ‘invitation letter’ for my Nigerian visa, but first I had to get my Beninois visa extended. The visa system in Benin is similar to that of Togo, except they only give you two days at the border and the immigration officials are hugely corrupt. I handed my passport to a woman at the immigration office, who couldn’t understand why I didn’t have a room number (Je n’ai pas une chambre, Je reste camping!). I was handed over to another guy who spoke English and said to me that it would cost 20,000 CFA to get the extension done in one day. I asked what the normal service was and he said two days, which was okay for me, but he still had his hand out and was saying ‘give me the money’. ‘Money for what?, two days is okay for me. He sent me back to the women who demanded 12,000 CFA. I protested but paid in the end. Later Lucile told me that this is usual (indeed it says 12,000 CFA on my visa). I was told to come back in two days.
At the Nigerian Embassy I found out that they only issue visas on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There was a huge list of all the details they required, which unfortunately included a photocopy of my Beninois visa, which I hadn’t got yet (I was planning on using my ‘spare’ passport to save time). Amongst other things, they wanted copies of:
Yellow Fever vaccination certificate
Internation drivers licence
Bike registration and Carnet
I hung out at the club for a day and then went back to immigration the next day to get my extension. Honestly, they are such a bunch of inept money grabbing idiots over there. People were asking me for a receipt, but I had never been given one, then I had this conversation about 3 or 4 times.
“Vous ette Americain?”
“Avez-vous une passeport Americain?”
“No, Je suis Anglais, J’ai une passport de Angleterre”
Then the angry guy who spoke English was shouting at me saying that I didn’t bring in the receipt to prove that I was staying at El Dorado so the Visa wasn’t ready. Nobody had asked me for this but luckily I had it in my bag. I asked him if there was any chance of it being done today, and he said that it would be Friday, but if I gave him some money he could try to speed things up. I tried to offer him 2000 CFA, when an African customer came out of the office saying “you can’t give him that its too small, didn’t you just see me give him 10,000?”. I lied saying I didn’t have ten, and the official said that I could give him 2000 now and 3000 later when I come back for the passport. I though this was a good result if it was half of what everyone else was paying. I got the visa later but they going out of their way to be complete bastards to me. I’m pretty sure they were taking the piss out of me in French as all the other customers were smirking in my direction and the attitude of the last guy made me want to put his head through the cubicle wall. “you don’t even know your phone number?” (thrusts passport into my hand) “go!” Wanker!
Meanwhile back at the Nigerian Embassy they have a different way of doing things. I was waiting on a leather sofa in an air conditioned room, when I got called to have an interview. The guy explained to me that it was not the normal procedure to issue Nigerian visas outside of my country of origin. He wanted to verify who Emmy was and had me call him to try to get him to scan and send his passport details. I couldn’t contact him, but I had his passport number and he called some one to check it out. Looking back, I reckon this was all just preparation for the next bit, when he said “okay here is what we are going to do, you give me 200 dollars and we can make the visa this time, once we have confirmed your contact. If you prefer, you can wait until we have confirmed his identity, so that you don’t lose the money”. I was panicking a little because he said that the number Emmy had given me didn’t look like a real passport number, but I guess this was all part of the play. I said I didn’t have 200 dollars and would have to return. The guy gave me back my passport and told me to return with the money. Now, 200 dollars is a lot of money, many times bigger than any bung I’ve had to pay so far, but it is about the same price the visa would cost in the UK if you use a visa agent to help you get it, so I decided to take the chance and as long as I go the visa I would be happy. If you’ve been following the blog, you will know that I’ve had to deal with similar situations at borders on this trip, but it definitely feels different to be dealing with people in suits inside an Embassy. For one, I can’t just camp out in the embassy until they give me a visa! Nigerian visas are notoriously hard to get, and Laas had to book a hotel room in Lagos and did a lot of arguing to get his visa. I went back later to drop off the money. I decided to give him it in CFA, cos I had seen others do the same and I couldn’t be bothered going to get dollars and I didn’t want to use any of my euros. A different official came to take the money off me. We shook hands and then he just put his hand out looking for the cash. He was disappointed when I gave him CFA instead of dollars and went off to make a call, then came back, counted it and said I’d get the visa at 9:30 the next day.
Laas had arrived in Cotonou the day before and was waiting for me outside the Embassy. I took him to the Benin immigration so that he could go through the same visa extension bullshit. While we were waiting for them to open, I realised that I still had my passport. Laas said that the Nigerian visa is a sticker and they probably just put it in my passport in the morning. I was feeling a bit ill at this point so I left Laas at immigration and headed back to the beach club to rest. I had a bit of a temperature, a sore neck and my guts were not doing well. I slept for a few hours, then got up when Laas returned. I had just made myself a packet of instant noodles when one of the guys from the beach club comes over and tells me that there is someone here to see me from the Nigerian Embassy. At the gate there was a smartly dressed man of about 50 holding a briefcase, who introduced himself as Edward. He called they first guy I had spoken with in the Embassy (turns out he is the consul!) and has me speak to him. He is angry, “where do you expect me to put this visa? I have been trying to call you on the number you gave me all afternoon. Come back to the Embassy with your passport NOW!”. Edward says we should go on my bike, and we rally it out of the sandy beach club. I asked him if he was okay, but he was telling me to go faster! We smashed it to the embassy, where he got off the bike and immediately asked me to take him home too. I dropped off my passport and was told to come back in the morning. On the way back Edward asked me if I would like to meet his family. I said yes but it was dark now and I had seen the area of his house before (very deep sand) I was apprehensive about riding with a pillion passenger (a smartly dressed civil servant!) in the dark in deep sand. We went anyway, and were sliding around in the dark till we got to Edward’s very modest shanty. Being a Nigerian family, they were the first all-English speaking African family I’ve met on this trip so far and they were a joy to chat with. Edward reassured me about the situation in Nigeria and told me that my journey would be fine. The consul called him to see how we were and to ask about my travel plans. I guess this is what the UK immigration would refer to as the platinum service! Turns out that Edward and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and apparently so is the Consul! so next time a Jovo knocks on your door, just think that their mission is partly funded by bribes paid by motor bikers in Africa!
The visa was ready the next day as promised, and after I collected it, I went to say thank you to Lucile for helping me get it. As I was leaving her office, a guy pulled up on a bike and was asking if I remembered him from the Benin immigration. I didn’t, but this could be useful for Laas, who needed his extension speeding up. I started to explain this to him, and he was like “no problem, take my number I can help you”. Then he tells me that his wife is having an operation and he needs money, could I give him 20,000 CFA. Now I already had my extension, so I thought that I’d leave it to Laas to decide, so I said I’d call him later. “10,000, can you give me 10,000?” then “5000?” Watching the amount tumble, I released it was more bullshit. He continued, “2000, 1000”. I kept telling him I had no money, then “Une Coca Cola?”. What a joker!
Laas is more intimidated by Nigeria than I am (some may say more realistic!), he was advised by the ex-pats in Lome to ride through with a minimum 4 car convoy with a local guide who can spot any trouble. Sounds a bit like Ewan and Charlie to me!. Still Laas had a fantastic idea to ride through in convoy with a large bus of tourists, that we have been seeing traveling through west Africa. He last saw them by Grand Popo and they will passing through Nigeria about the same time as us. I shall be riding to Lagos alone as I want to meet Emmy, thank him for all his help and see the sights of Lagos.
While all these shenanigans have been going on we have been hanging out at the beach club, and have become friends with the workers there. I’ve been hanging out at the house of one guy a couple of times. Valery works as a painter at the hotel and he invited me and Laas to have dinner at his place with his family. Everyone was really friendly and his mother, Pauline, is a real character. An evangelical christian who is very concerned that I don’t have any desire to have a family anytime soon!
Riding round Cotonou, I’ve realised that I’m becoming comfortable with the African road system. I generally overtake everything as car drivers really don’t care much for bikes around here and will sit on your blind spot beeping the horn even if there is nowhere in front of you for them to go. Riding the sandy back streets is a challenge, but I’ve noticed that I now do it much better in the dark! Perhaps its something to do with being more relaxed cos I cannot see the terrain, or maybe its just that the ruts created by the wind get flattened out by cars throughout the day. I’ve gotten to know the layout of the city quite well through running around sorting visas and stuff
I was still feeling ill on Saturday morning but I wanted to make a move. My arrival into Nigeria had already been delayed much longer than I wanted and besides I had heard that it was an easy ride as Lagos is only 120 km east of Cotonou. I had been woken up at 6 am by something I hadn’t seen for months, rain! I was lying in my tent thinking ‘no it can’t be’ as I had seen what I thought were rain clouds in Cotonou before but the locals told me that it wasn’t the season for it. I beg to differ, and me and Laas had to put the rain sheets onto the tents. It was kind of soothing to hear the rain splash off the tent. I hadn’t seen any since Northern Morocco. I had tried to stay in bed for another hour or so but Valery’s mother came to see me at 7 am to see how I was feeling and say goodbye.
It was 10 o’clock by the time I had finally packed, loaded the bike, fueled up and rocked out and within twenty minutes I was at the border. The border was incredibly busy, which you would expect being between two major cities, especially with Lagos having a population of 18 million. I had considered crossing at a quieter border 200 km to the north, but in the end I couldn’t be arsed with the detour, which made less sense since I was actually going to Lagos (I think a lot of overlanders avoid it). I was pleasantly surprised to see that the border wasn’t as heavily armed as people have made it out to be, sure the police were all carrying Kalashnikovs or shotguns, but so do the police in Cotonou. The Benin side was super easy. Stamped passport and that was it. They asked about my Carnet de passage but since I had opted for the trouble-free Laissez Passer there was nothing else to do. A tout attached himself to me on the Nigerian side. I don’t mind this so much at borders any more. If they are friendly, not pushy and generally useful then I give them a euro or two for their help. The Nigerian immigration and customs officials were absolutely charming. I think it took me so long to pass through the border because I was having so much fun chatting to them in ENGLISH! (although the customs guy didn’t know how to fill out the carnet – strange since they actually require them, I enquired about a Laissez Passer but it fell on deaf ears). Not all of the officials were that nice though. I got stopped by several people who were dressed in civilian clothes, and asked my about various documents. Its possible that they were police and just very lazy, but I merely flashed the relevant documents at them and was waved on. One guy wanted to know how much currency I was carrying. Now this I really didn’t want to answer and I actually asked him for some ID. I didn’t get to see any, but he didn’t get to look in my wallet either as zip on my riding trousers had caught. Kinda convenient at the time but I would need to get my wallet sooner or later. I rode out of the border and was stopped at two checkpoints. At each one the police were incredibly bemused when I told them that I had ridden from Britain and they waved me through with disbelief. I was stopped at an immigration checkpoint and while being questioned by the officials, one of them noticed that there was a problem with my bike. My dad had fitted two metal bars under neath the plastic fairings at the back of the bike to stop the bags from touching the exhaust. One of these had fallen off and the fairing was melting against the exhaust, although luckily the bag was undamaged. Any talk of immigration matters was immediately dropped as everyone rallied together to help me fix it. I had a spare soldering mat in my bag, left over from last minute preparations in the UK. I wrapped this around the exhaust but needed some wire to hold it in place. Being Africa, a quick rummage at the side of the road produced all the wire I could ever want. I vowed to get a more permanent solution once I could find a mechanic.
The roads from the border into Lagos were pretty good. I rode for an hour or so without seeing any of the famous Lagos traffic jams (called ‘go-slows’ locally) and I was wandering when should I stop and check my location, but pretty soon the traffic ground to a halt and a had to pick my way through it the best I could. I stopped to ask a guy were the Lagos State University was and he pointed that I was very close. I rode off in the direction he indicated and noticed that he had crossed the road to guide me all the way there. I pulled up outside what I thought was the main university entrance and asked a woman selling mobile phone credit if I could make a call. Initially she said no, but then returned and let me use her phone to call Emmy, the contact I’d met on couch surfing. He was waiting for me at another entrance and in ten minutes he arrived. It was good to finally meet him. We had been conversating for at least a month. I tried to pay for my phone call but it turned out that the Naira (Nigerian currency) I had been given by Christine in Bobo was in fact old money that wasn’t in circulation anymore. Everyone thought I’d been scammed at the border until I pointed out that it had been a gift. I had directed Emmy to check out the blog, which I think he did, but he was surprised to see that there was no room on my bike for a passenger. He had to take a motorbike taxi back to his place with me following. I pointed out to the taxi rider that my bike was wide and I wouldn’t be able to navigate the go-slows quite as well. We headed off for Emmy’s place, which was quite far from the university. The rain started again and at one point it was coming down pretty hard, but the roads were good condition and we weren’t going that fast anyway. It was a complete pain in the arse passing through the traffic jam with the loaded bike. All the locals were zipping past me through the narrowest of gaps on their little Chinese 125 cc bikes. I shall have to leave Lagos early in the morning to avoid this on the way out.
We got back to Emmy’s place and I got to met the whole family. Everyone was very friendly, it was great speaking English again after 3 months of Francophone Africa. The family all live in a big house that Emmy’s father had built with most of the rooms are rented out to tenants. I hadn’t been there long when I had my first Nigerian meal of fish and spicy sauce served with a starchy pounded casova, kinda like the fufu I’d been eating in Togo and Benin. After I had recovered from the journey, me and Emmy went out for a few beers. I was on the back of Emmy’s bike as we rode through the dirt streets of Aboru. The dirt roads were like I have seen elsewhere, but less sandy and more bumpy, definitely not flat at all. The whole experience was like a roller coaster ride. I consider myself to be quite a good rider, but there is no way I could have kept up with the constant manoeuvres that Emmy was doing to avoid pot holes cars and other riders. My bike is too heavy and doesn’t have the same tight turning circle as the little 100-125cc Chinese bikes. It was constant. My arms were getting tired from keeping me on the seat as we bounced around and we were inches away from collision so many times. We approached a police checkpoint and Emmy said it was just so that the police could collect money. The officer stopped the bike but on seeing me on the back he just smiled and let us go. We arrived at one bar were I started to sample to local brews. It wasn’t a big bar but there was some people dancing in the middle. Me and Emmy chatted and I was about to order more beers when Emmy told me its best we go somewhere else because this is Nigeria and you don’t know who is watching you. Emmy has hosted several people through couch surfing and he has been unfortunate to have had the experience of being robbed at gun-point on the beach. He says since then he always keeps moving and changes direction so that we don’t get noticed and followed. I knew that Nigeria can be like that, and it was reassuring to know that Emmy was thinking about it too. We went to another bar and had another beer. I would have stayed for more, but Emmy pointed out that the local government has banned riding bikes after 9:30 pm in an attempt to reduce the amount of crime, of course this is a real pain to all the law-abiding Lagosians as bikes are the major form of transport. We went for food further into the residential area where there aren’t any police so you can ride as late as you like. Then we headed back to the house where we chatted to the family for a bit then went to bed.
The next day, we went to see the city centre and Lagos Island. The first motorbike taxi we took had to stop at the same place where we had been stopped by the police the previous night. During the daytime, the local gangsters run the taxis and the rider didn’t want to have to pay them by going past, so we got off and found another. After two taxis and a long bus ride along the lagoon we were on Lagos island, which looks like a fairly typical business district with tall financial buildings and hotels. We got a boat out across from Victoria island to the beach at Tarkwa bay. Lagos is a pretty big port and you see loads of ships traveling what looks like almost bumper to bumper across the Atlantic. We sat down for a drink at some shaded seats, and we were not there for long when Emmy said we have to return to beat the traffic, which is always a problem in Lagos. As we left the guy running the seats tried to hit me for 500 Naira for using his seats. I told him that he had invited us to sit down and he didn’t mention anything about a price so I wasn’t paying him anything. He backed down and Emmy said he liked how I handled it. They say Lagos is not for first timers to Africa, but although it is still my first time, after 3 months I kinda feel at least a bit experienced. Getting back by taxi was a pain as everyone wanted to charge silly amounts once they saw that I was there. Emmy suggested we act like we don’t know each other and it was very funny seeing the look on the riders faces when they saw the missed opportunity climb onto the back of their bike! We got back to Emmy’s, ate and then I passed out for a couple of hours. My dodgy guts were still leaving me feeling pretty queasy after eating, definitely not good for partying, but I didn’t want to waste any time. I wanted to go to the New Africa Shrine, the club of Femi Kuti, son of the father of Afro Beat, Fela Kuti. I had read in the lonely planet that on Sundays that Femi even plays there himself, but it also said that clubs don’t really get going till after 11 in Lagos. Due to my extended after meal snooze, we had missed the 9:30 motorbike curfew so couldn’t get a bike taxi into town. After trying in vain for ten minutes to find one we decided that I should take my bike instead as the police would probably not care. We rode out and got stopped at the same check point as the first night. The policeman was saying to me ‘Where is your timepiece?’ to which I replied ‘I don’t have one’, ‘why not?’, I don’t like wearing them’. He let us go and never once explained the curfew to me! We got to the Shrine at about 10:40 pm and Femi Kuit was already playing. We sat down to watch him when after ten minutes he finished. So much for the lonely planets advice! Still I was happy to have seen him, no matter how short the time. I was getting into the way of moving about. It was pretty high profile outside the club and I suggested to Emmy that we should make a quick getaway. He agreed and we were speeding away on one of the dual carriageways. With no bikes around, the roads are pretty much deserted, but I managed to take a wrong turn because I hadn’t heard what Emmy had told me. We took another turn onto an unlit dual carriageway. There was a bike approaching on the same side of the road as me. I was confused and started to slow down, was I on the wrong side or him?. Emmy was telling me to keep going, but we slowly passed the bike, when we saw that it was a police bike and he started to turn around and follow us. Emmy was shouting at me to go, so we booted it up the road, revving through all the gears until he was gone, then Emmy told me to turn off the road to that we definitely wouldn’t be followed by him. I turned the bike into another dark road coming off the carriageway, when suddenly there was a shout of ‘STOP’ accompanied by torches and the unmistakeable clack-clack sound of several weapons being cocked to fire. I slammed on the brakes, Emmy was shouting at them slowly ‘It – is – okay, we – are – stopping!’ and I looked around to see three policemen with rifles pointed at us. One of them came over and got us to move to the side of the road. They lowered their guns, and once they had established that I was a foreigner, the policeman was being really friendly with us. I showed him my license and pleaded ignorance about the curfew. He said not to worry and told me that his son is very good at football and wants to go to football school in the UK, could I help him get a visa? He wrote his details down for me and told me to phone him if I have any more trouble with the police. Me and Emmy now consider this to be our Laissez passer for after hours riding in Lagos! Emmy told me that the police will commonly cock and point their weapons to scare you but they have no intention of firing. You still need to be careful though, because some police will turn up drunk to night shifts.
Some of you may be thinking that this does not sound like a sensible way to ride across a continent. I’d agree that it definitely doesn’t fit in with my policy of no riding at night and generally taking it steady. I’m not going out of my way to get up to these shenanigans, but its bound to happen that I sometimes get caught up in the local way of doing things. I guess I can only offer the excuse of this is Africa!
I needed a quiet day after the previous nights excitement and I had made arrangements to get some work done on my bike by a local mechanic who is a friend of Emmy’s. I spent the majority of the afternoon watching James, the mechanic and his welder friend manufacture me some racks to keep my bags off the exhaust. James cannibalised the luggage rack off a knackered Chinese bike to make the racks. They were a little rough around the edges (literally) because they had a power cut after he had finished the welding so he just took the sharp bits off by hand. I was very happy with the work and I got racks, some other adjustments and the bike cleaned for 12 euro.
(Child welders are a big problem in Africa)
Me and Emmy went to the market to get some ingredients for dinner. I wanted to cook something for the family and I did them a Thai ginger rice to accompany the evenings spicy vegetable stew. It went down pretty well, although maybe they were just being polite.
I needed to think about my next move. I’m going to pass into Cameroon in the east but I need to get a visa first. I’d heard that I can get the visa at the embassies in the capital, Abuja and at a port in the south east, Calabar that has a ferry service twice a week to Cameroon and is also not far from the land border. There is also a consulate in Lagos though and I thought if I had the visa in hand then I wouldn’t have to worry about getting to Embassies before the weekend, therefore giving me more time to hang out in Lagos (who would have thought I’d have wanted to!). Laas was still in Cotonou as he has come down with a fever and it sounded like the bent Beninois immigration were giving him the run around too, but he wanted to come meet in Lagos so more time here the better. Riding into the city centre on my unloaded bike, I got practice riding in the go slows. Emmy kept shouting at me to through the very temporary gaps between traffic and other useful stuff like ‘why are you slowing down?’ and ‘why don’t you like using your horn?’. The breeze riding along the Mainland bridge was a welcome reprieve from the humidity.
We found the embassy really easily and the pleasant staff did the visa for me while I waited (Where are you from? England? how is the Queen?). It also rained again in Lagos. I really hope that this doesn’t mean that the wet season is upon us. Everyone says its not, but as you can see in this video. It was chucking down!
It is not advisable to travel in the evening in Nigeria as it is common for ambushes to occur on the main roads, where armed robbers will relieve motorists of their money, mobile phones and vehicle and leave them at the side of the road. However this almost always happens later in the day and I plan to be setting out early and off the road by 2pm. I shall not be stopping for anything other than fuel stops and police checkpoints! Laas never found the big truck of tourists again. Something to do with not having their phone numbers, and having no idea when they would be going, so he is coming to Lagos to ride through with me. Many people have said don’t ride alone, but I reckon its just as easy to rob two people on bikes as it is to rob one. Still, Laas prefers not to ride alone so I have waited a day for him to catch me up.
I have hardly seen any foreigners at all in Lagos. Which the exception of the beach, where half of the people there were either white or middle eastern, and a few at the Shrine, I’ve been the only one about. This has made me a huge novelty to the locals, much more than elsewhere. Its usual for kids to shout stuff at you (usually ‘Touba’ in West Africa), or even demand presents, but In Lagos everyone from children to police will smile at you and either shout ‘white man’ or ‘Oyinbo’. For some kids, I’m sure that I’m the first white person they have seen. Their bewildered stares certainly give that impression! Of course its all good-natured and mostly down to curiosity. I’ve been replying to their shouts of ‘white man’ by saying ‘eyan dudu bawo ni’ basically meaning ‘whats up black people!’ in Yoruba. It goes down pretty well.
I have to say that I’m very happy with how the whole couch surfing experience has been. Emmy has been an excellent guide of Lagos and his family have all been very welcoming. I’ve eaten Nigerian food with the family everyday and been treated like an honored guest. On the practical side, having somewhere safe to park my bike has allowed my to see Lagos out fear of it getting nicked. I shall be using Couch surfing from now on whenever I have to go to a big city. I may not always opt to stay with a family, but its always good to meet locals who want to share there culture with travelers.
Me and Laas set off from Lagos early Saturday morning. I had hoped to be on the road for 7 am but the whole neighborhood came out to see us off and there were many photographs to be taken before leaving. Emmy and his friend were super-helpful and guided us out of the city and on to one of the main roads out of Lagos. I’m glad that I wont be riding in any more Lagos ‘go-slows’ for a long while! The route to Cameroon took us north for a bit then turned east towards Benin City, a road well-known for its robberies. I had thought that we could make it to Asaba, which is about 100 km past Benin City and at the junction where we would start to head south again to go to Calabar. The road out was in pretty good condition, but there were constant police checkpoints. There were so many that I lost count, if you told me that there were 50, I’d believe you! At times they were under 1 km apart! Most of them just waved us through, and a few wanted us to stop, but I rode through anyway! The traffic was pretty bad for large sections of the way. Partly due to the checkpoints but also due to road works that would have traffic traveling in a contra-flow system, although without any warning. Its quite unnerving to see cars and trucks approaching when you don’t expect to see them. There was also a new road hazard that I hadn’t seen before – random tarmacing! There were a few areas on the road were everyone had to slow down because someone had dumped a load of tarmac in the middle of the road and hadn’t smoothed it out at all.
Here is a video of us taking a little off road short-cut to shave half an hour off a traffic jam.
When we refueled outside of Benin City, I decided that we should stay there as we would be riding much later than is safe if we continued to Asaba. We rode into Benin city, which, thank god, was nothing like riding in Lagos and we found a really nice cheap hotel to stay in. Walking around the city, everyone was really friendly. A 4×4 full of police stopped to introduce themselves to us and told us to come and visit them while they guarded the local government buildings. We found some food and had a few beers at a little bar near the hotel, where loads of other people came over to say hello to us. We went back to the hotel pretty early to make another early start in the morning, although Laas had one to many Nigerian ‘Gangsta’ Guinness’ and wanted to go and find a club (it is 7.5 %!). The next day we were able to be on the road by 7 am sharp. There was no big farewell and Benin city is really easy to navigate. The roads were some of the best I’ve seen in Nigeria and there was nowhere near as many checkpoints as the day before. I wqs convinced that we would make it to Asaba for before 9 am when we got stopped by police at one checkpoint and they wanted to search our bags. They went through everything. I protested about it, asking if it was really necessary and they said that it was their orders. I was convinced that it was just part of a shakedown but after they had been through everything, they apologised for the inconvenience and let us go without asking for anything. As we got closer to Calabar this happened another 3 or 4 times, but the other police would ask for something. One cheeky sod wanted to look in my bags just he could see things he might want. He asked for my winter gloves, followed by my sunglasses. I never gave him anything. The police in Nigeria are just trying it on, but they don’t get nasty when you refuse them. Annoying as it is having a curious idiot with an AK-47 rummage through your bags saying, ‘whats this?’ every 30 seconds, its better to just play along like its a game than get shitty with them. By the end I wasn’t even opening my bags, just had a bit of a laugh with them, then riding off in the middle of the conversation!
After passing through the cities of Onitsha, Owerri and Aba we finally got to Calabar. We arrived a little later than planned at 4 pm but still in broad daylight with loads of people about. Calabar is nothing like the other Nigerian cities I’d seen. It was an important port for exporting slaves back in the day and then switched to palm oil after slavery was outlawed. Its very clean and ordered with nice building and you could be forgiven for thinking you are in a different country for a while, that is until people start shouting ‘Oyinbo’ and ‘whats up white man at you.
Laas has got his visa for Cameroon, I’ve changed the oil on my bike and I’m currently sat in a posh hotel making use of the free wifi. Its been the first time I’ve found any since Lome, so stop harassing my dad for the next update will be! Tomorrow morning we are heading to the Cameroon border. I’ve heard that the roads there and away on the other side are some of the worst roads in Africa and are are in-passable during the rainy season. We shall see. failing that there is always the ferry from Calabar to Limbe in Cameroon, but that would be cheating wouldn’t it?