Crossing the Niger River, a very hard day, living the Nigerian experience!

"Into Africa" More than a Motorcycle Adventure
Howard Fairbank
Sat 29 Mar 2014 16:31
06:47.75N 004:52.39E

26th March 2014.

Well, after an interesting, but not very productive day in Calabar yesterday, I woke for an early start, of a lot of unknown ahead. I’d been told many different stories of what lay ahead, and how long it would take to Lagos. My information indicated I had just over 600 kilometres ahead, but nobody here speaks in kilometres, it’s just in hours. That itself is information, about the challenge ahead.

Some looked at me with shock, when I said I was going to Lagos by bike. I did conclude that it would take longer than the 6 hours I had estimated, and so I prepared for a ‘come what may;, day!

My goal was trying to be, ‘somewhere’, within ‘striking distance’ of Lagos, by the end of the day, and then take on the brunt of Lagos, with a fresh mind, the next day.

I headed back north, about 30 kilometres along the road I’d come in on, and then by shear chance found the insignificant, and unmarked, turn off to the west to head for the large town of Aba. Well the load was immediately a mixture of gravel and sand, but not too bad a surface. I’d been lead to believe it would be tar all the way, and this new information could maybe double my time to Lagos! Just having dealt with this news, the road surface suddenly deteriorated to having huge and extensive potholes at random, yet frequent intervals. It was at least easier on the bike, than being in a car or truck, to dodge the big one, but each time I was almost forced to a stop getting down and up the craters!
The other road users, always trying to force the pace, would often overtake at the most inappropriate time, forcing me to find a pothole free path nearly off the road as they snuck in front of me, just avoiding, loudly hooting, oncoming traffic. This was not, relaxed, peaceful riding!

Next to the road was almost a continuum of village sprawl, people all over the place, animals walking across the road, and then frequent police blocks every so often. I was never harassed, or even stopped, but their sand bag barriers forced one through a tight ‘S’ where heavily armed, ready to fire, bullet proof vested, policemen were positioned at entrance and exit of the ‘S’. A loud whistle and lifted rifle barrel, were their signal that you had been targeted for an interrogation. Many were stopped, but, thankfully, my, standout, tourist status, was seemingly of no interrogation interest to them.

So the slow journey continued, and when the village infrastructure cleared, there was low level, tropical bush on either side of the road, but nothing of any great natural inspiration. It was very hot and humid, and I felt I was continually cutting through a kind of dense, heat wave interface between me and the outside world.

After about 60 kilometres, the road surface suddenly improved remarkably, the new road tar works had obviously just got this far! This was great news, but how long would it last? It was great until about 5 kilometres from, Ekpene, the last big town before Aba, then to my absolute shock, I was suddenly dealing with a totally flooded road, that was clearly hugely cratered again, and the recent rains had more than filled up the craters. I was not dressed in my ‘mud ware’ and as I started negotiating these rather deep flooded areas, I was soon debating whether a switch to more appropriate riding gear was necessary. There were a few other local, 125cc motorbikes travelling my direction, and as each of us struggled through we sort of formed a team of leader and follower, me always aware that my much bigger and heavier bike wouldn’t always be able to go where they went! The spectacle of vehicles, and motorcycles struggling through the deep water and mud, seemed to provide many locals with their source of entertainment for the day, and so there were crowds around the big flooded areas, and when the ‘white man’ arrived on his big bike, it was like the main act had arrived. To my disappointment, almost immediately, on entering Nigeria, I had been confronted with often being addressed as “White man”, and I thought that before I reacted negatively, I need to spend some time understanding what was behind the seemingly racist, old school, terminology. This would take some days, but having left the East Africa irritation of being called ‘Mzungu’, I thought central / west Africa was free of this separatist terminology!

Having got my attention, the spectators, took liberty to yell encouragement and their route guidance, which added to my anxiety! The craters underneath the water were clearly, deep and sizeable making for lots of worrying surprises.

It was a slow crawl, into Ekpene, and on entering the town, and coming out the other side, thankfully it appeared it would be great tar road from thereon to Aba.
And so it was, making for good progress, in uninspiring flat, untidy, village sprawl, all the way to Aba. Interesting that in all the trip so far, road signs, and route directions were virtually non-existent. I relied totally on gut feel, and now and again, stopping and asking locals. It was interesting in that unlike most other African countries, the locals I asked always looked at me with a strange kind of suspicion, and even though I tried to open up with a friendly hello, it was as if they didn’t want the interaction, and would prefer to be just left alone. There was never any scope for a chat. Maybe this unsafe, and heavily policed environment has created a very untrusting society. Maybe it was me….!

Aba is a large bustling town, and as I got deeper into its maze, the traffic got more congested, and my gut’s guide light, started rapidly diming, leaving me on my GPS-less, own! The traffic ground to a standstill, and I was gridlocked to the point of regularly switching off the engine, and just waiting. Even with a motorcycle, I couldn’t weave between the vehicles. I was surrounded mainly by yellow, three wheeler, ‘tuk-tuk’, taxis, the driver in the front around his handlebar steering wheel, and passengers crammed in the back bench. The drivers always made eye contact, and I responded with a thumbs up, which invariably lead to a barrage of questions about where I was going etc…. I sensed they were all quite surprised, that I was ‘normal’, just stuck in the traffic like them, no special deals, and I was also trying to ‘just go somewhere’. We would crawl forward a bit, and then stop for minutes with no movement. I asked the one tuk-tuk driver what the problem was, and he replied: “There is a holdup”! Well, being in Nigeria, and having seen some much police evidence of ‘bad stuff’ around, I took that to mean a ‘real holdup’, but not sure that was the case! A guy walked by on the crowded pavement pushing a wheel barrow with two tied up goats lying on their backs, legs in the air. He hailed down a tuk-tuk next to me, piled the goats one by one onto the back seat then jumped in himself!

We were stuck on the main street, shopping area, both sides of the road just crammed full of informal stalls, people selling stuff on push trolleys, and then behind the frontline, shops with more sturdy and formal infrastructure. With time to take each stall in, and their overstocked, commoditised product ranges, many identical to the products in the next store. I wondered about the basis for winning the customer competition. The items were all low price goods, yet not primary need staples, so this was where the lowest income, with discretionary income, spend their money…. It all looked like junk to me, but I guess I wasn’t the target market.

As my eyes moved around the area, it struck me (again) at how a rare, and interesting visitor I was to this area. Everywhere I looked, I caught out someone just staring at me as if they had never seen someone like me, and yes, it was just that I was white, and they never see white people here. It took me at least an hour to get across this town, and thankfully the dim lead light was sufficient to ensure I didn’t make one wrong turn… The gridlock had helped though, I wasn’t alone in my navigation challenge. At each roundabout I was able to confirm with the closest tuk-tuk driver that I was on the right route. It was hot, sweaty and dusty work, and the bike’s radiator fan was often cutting in and out to help ‘us’ cope with the heat. I had to ask myself the rhetorical question: “What single thing is attractive about this town?” Too many people, and too little effectively working infrastructure. As I inched around the last roundabout the sign on the building to my right read: “Northern District Town Planning”, which triggered a whole bunch of cynical questions, at least putting a smile on my face, as the traffic eased into the wider open road outlet to enable me to escape the nearly unbearable, oppression.

Next town was Onitsha, and this had two points of significance: The first was that this is where my secondary road from Calabar joined the main East / West, across Nigeria road, so I could expect a better road and faster journey. The second point was that the town was on the grand Niger river, Africa’s third longest river, after Nile and Congo, so I was keen to ‘tick’ off its viewing.

Well, Onitsha was larger than Aba, and essentially I went through a scaled up version of the gridlock from Aba, except I missed the tuk-tuk guides, and got lost! A U-turn and then assistance from a petrol attendant, and I was eventually on the fly on to the bridge crossing the Niger. A long span bridge, two traffic lanes either side, and no stopping allowed, and I definitely wasn’t going to risk photos…! I was able to go over it slowly, and cast my eyes, first upstream noticing the multitude of traditional, net fishermen, in their long dugouts, many poling their craft using the firm river bottom to propel them upstream. The river appeared to be hardly flowing, and as I looked downstream, I tried to envisage the extensive river delta that starts just downstream of this bridge, extended for some 220 kilometres south where the dispersed waters flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the chocolate brown, rivers of Congo and Gabon, the rivers I have seen in Nigeria, are much lighter, reflecting the almost beach sand coloured earth that seems the predominate substrate here. For some reason, although I could see I was looking a huge river, this Niger didn’t strike the same feelings within the magical, Nile and Zambezi had done last year.

It had taken me six hours to do about 200 kilometres, this had been hard going! After a quick, late lunch and, on schedule, antibiotic, stop, I was back on a mission, and could feel this was the real road to Lagos! A double lane, each side, ‘highway’, with a serious concrete barrier separating the two opposing streams, and still more than 400 kilometres to Lagos. Nothing special about that highway description, but adding the lack of lane lines, the random potholes, and the huge amount of heavy trucks I now saw, I sensed I was in for another endurance test, but one of a totally different nature, to the past six hours.

Well, as I thought back to some bad experiences I had had last year, I can honestly say, I have never experience a horrendous highway one like this:

The trucks travel around 80-90 kilometres an hour, unless there is a steep hill, and then the sedan vehicles do whatever speed they care desire. I didn’t see one speed limit sign, and virtually no road markings, or other road signs. Most of the road users, use the middle of the two lanes, often weaving slightly from side to side, making it difficult to know which side to pass. I wasn’t sure if this centre driving strategy was to provide the most flexibility in navigating the pot holes, or rough sections that just suddenly appear. By taking up the whole road, the user has more choice, when these obstacles come up. The challenge for someone desiring to pass a 90 km/h centre road user, is that the passing gap is quite narrow, so one has to take the gap quickly, but then there is always the risk that as one comes up to pass, one is presented with a pothole right in the gap. Worse still is if the slower vehicle suddenly comes up to a pothole, and suddenly swerves to miss it, and squeezes out your passing lane, hopefully with you not half way through it!

For ‘centre user’ traffic passing me when I am correctly in the centre of the slow lane, they come past shaving the hair off my arms, normally hooting like hell, scaring the living daylights out of me……! I decided to keep one eye on the rear view mirror all the time.

This was not all: To my absolute amazement every now and then, and that means often, a truck would be seen coming towards me, in the fast lane, head lights on, doing 90 km/h as though he has presidential permission to exclusively use this opposite direction lane for himself. He clearly knows his status, as everyone seems to just move over and let the guy pass. There were many motorcycles doing the same thing, but at least keeping to the far right, and off the main lanes. This really is the wild west of Africa!

The scenes on either side of the road, confirm the wild west classification: Well, in the last two blog posts I have spoken about the worst carnage ever, well this road takes ‘the cup’ by a unanimous margin. I sense many were head on write offs from these illegal wrong way escapades, but many were in the most unlikely straight road. These are mainly horse and trailers, and the most amazing thing is how these rigs are just left to be scavenged as they rust away, someone clearly having lost a fair few bucks on the significant loss. The whole 400 kilometres was just full of these wreckages.

Police blocks were regular and severe. I saw at least two where the cops had just arrived, brakes screeching, bullet proof vested, AK47 wielding cops, springing off the vehicle and running towards a vehicle rifle ready in firing position. I had an opportunity where I thought I’d stop and chat to these guys. On stopping, they were very polite to me, I almost got the feeling that they wanted me to be safe, but there was no social chat with these guys, they were very serious, and even looked quite stressed, and with a high level of immediate environment, attentive focus. This is clearly a stressful job, and they have are involved in a lot of real live action.

I came across at least four accidents that had just happened, and the cops had been forced to close the one side of the road, with traffic then diverted to share the road with the unblocked side.

To bring some more anxiety to this already stressful road safety situation, my bike started signally to me that I had a chain drive, problem. A few days before, on trying to accelerate hard up a hill, I had the chain jump once or twice, but on checking the chain tension, I put this down to slightly slack chain. I’d adjusted the tension, and all seemed ok again. But now the chain jump was more serious. Provided I didn’t demand too much power too quickly, all was OK, so I adjusted my riding style to suit. The issue did start posing some questions within, and with some 30 000 kilometres on this chain drive set, it was probably due for a change. I wondered how the struggles in the mud had worsened the wear, but anyway, for now it was just about riding conservatively, staying out of the way of the other road users, and I’d look at the chain tension at the end of the day.

The other unique aspect of this amazing highway, is the graveyard of petrol stations along the way. I have mentioned this situation before, but here on this long highway, the situation was the worst I’d seen. Lots of pretty large service stations, clearly closed down years ago, and the owners just walked away, leaving the place to slowly rust away. Even the operational service stations, have not been economically positioned, and many of them are either closed not selling fuel today, or the forecourt is empty, the attendants all sitting on plastic chairs, next to the pumps, either fast asleep, or socialising in a circle. I concluded that their wages and the sites salary bills are so small that they can justify staying open on very small volumes, that have no hope of ever recouping the investment costs. All this is great for the motorist who almost as continual access to fuel. Petrol is pretty cheap at around USD0.80 / litre.

Around 4 30pm I was feeling tired, and decided it was time to look for a place to stay overnight. Well I rode and rode, and there was nothing even remotely inspiring, until 5 30pm, with 180 kilometres to go to Lagos, I saw a newish building, standing out as special from the surrounding ‘rubble’ and I knew that was my hotel for the night! It turned out to be the best place for 30 kilometres as quoted by the manager who befriended me.

As tired and hungry as I was, I set about checking my bike, and concluded that the drive was worn more than I’d thought but that more frequent chain adjustment will see me through to Ghana where I’d get new parts.

Interestingly, the hotel (a multi storey, 60 guest place) had no public electricity, all own generator based, so the lights only came on at 6 30pm, when it got dark. There was a swimming pool and outside bar / club area, but the pool was green, and the paving around it unfinished. Many guests enjoying a drink poolside, seemingly oblivious to the aesthetic disaster. All the mattered was that the music was good, and they could talk to their mates, check their phones, and watch either CNN or British football on large TV screens! I had a very interesting conversation with the manager, who came and sat with me, every chance he got to cut away from his, clearly full on job.

I was a real tired boy going to be that night…… I had hope to be closer to Lagos, so it was a crack of dawn start again tomorrow.