The last entry left me in Limbe, Cameroun, waiting for a boat ride to Calabar in Nigeria. Well, it didn't happen. The service was delayed in Calabar for unspecified reasons, which didn't really sound very positive, and might not be back in Cameroun for another five days. For which you could probably read at least a week..... Then someone at the hotel dangled the carrot of a European style high speed catermaran that plied the same route but did it in three hours rather than overnight. I went to the company's office and found out that the service was temporarily suspended. There had been something romantic sounding about arriving to Calabar by boat, pulling in to a steamy hot tropical harbour....
With the only options left of taking a 'stick boat' (narrow and small motorised craft with a dubious reputation for safety even amongst locals) or riding I chose to ride. The road between Mamfe, near the border with Nigeria, and the Nigerian border town of Ekok has a reputation as being one of the roughest on the West Coast route. What no-one said is that the road from Limbe to Mamfe is in fact equally bad in sections. With the back wheel still decidedly oval I tried to arrange to take a dugout canoe down the Cross River, parallel to the road. That also sounded like a nice way to enter Nigeria, in a dugout along a river through the jungle. The previous evening I had been told that there were two boats leaving in the morning, both at ten. I rode down to the riverbank and found out that one had left at nine and the other had decided not to bother after all. Fate was really stacked against me on the boat into Nigeria front so I set off down the road.
It being the dry season the road was a breeze, in fact good fun. The 80 odd km took just over three hours with plenty of photo stops. I got stuck once but only because I took the wrong route - when a track gets too bad people just forge through the jungle and create a better parallel one until they have got past the difficult section. The road is famous for deep potholes and with just cause, there are some that would literally swallow a lorry. They are created each rainy season: a lorry gets stuck, spins its wheels and creates a hole, the crew dig it out and leave the hole behind. The next lorry gets stuck. Repeat the process and before too long the hole can be a couple of meters deep and the length of the lorry. Going down the road in rainy season must be carnage.
Arriving in Nigeria and all was mellow at the border. It had been my intention to spend a while site-seeing in Nigeria to find out what it is all about but the egg shaped wheel put paid to that and I ended up passing through the country in four days. Despite the reputation of Nigeria it was a really easy and friendly place to be. I didn't get stopped at any police checkpoints, asked for any bribes or get any hassle of any sort. What was actually refreshing about Nigeria was how people were very low key about my presence, there was very very little staring and shouting out at me as in most places I've been in the last month or so, but if I went up and asked someone something or greeted them they were warm and helpful.
Despite Nigeria being a pleasant and easy going place I had a fairly unenjoyable time there on account of bike-related woes. At the first hotel I stopped at I found the night watchman, who was to be fair a friendly and well meaning fellow, giving the dirty Enfield a good wash with a hose. When I had loaded the bike up, it wouldn't start and I realised he had given the magneto a thorough dousing resulting in a severe shortage of sparks. A two hour magneto strip later and I was on my way only to have the bike intermitently cut out and refuse to start for most of the rest of the day until I fitted a new HT lead.
Having fixed the sparking problem the next day I had a rear wheel puncture on the motorway. I fixed it and carried on but the rear tyre had now matched the eggy profile of the rim and forward progress was very bumpy. This caused the tyre to overheat and another puncture shortly after was the result. An advantage of Nigeria being so heavily populated and the road filled with unroadworthy vehicles is that you are never far from a puncture repair guy. Repairing punctures is easy but never fun so I utilised the services of these professionals whenever I could. It was clear that I would now have to replace the rear wheel but rather than go to Lagos, the closet large city, I decided to push on to Porto Novo in Benin. Thus began my three day punture-a-thon. For the next 600 km I averaged somewhere around 80 to 100km between puntures and rode along at 50kmh to avoid more.
Being away from home on such a big extended holiday you can't expect that every day will be a bed of roses but these three days were truly miserable and morale sapping.
The day I crossed the border into Benin I thought I could make the 60km on to Porto Novo. I was proved wrong as another puncture drew me to a halt in the dark just outside a small mud-brick residence. Throughout the trip I had assured myself that the hospiality of simple village folk would be forthcoming if ever I needed to stop and couldn't find a hotel. So I explained to the man of the house that I had had a very long day, was exhausted, it was dark and I could repair the bike tomorrow. I had a tent and would not trouble them for anything save a little water to cook with. I was totally wrong, he didn' say no but made it very clear that I could repair the bike and continue to the next town. Which with no choice but to do so I did and found a room at the local bar.
Benin has been somewhere that has held a facination since having a job ten odd years ago in Saville Row and regularly visiting the now disappeared Museum of Mankind at the end of the road. They had an exhibition on of the Dahomey Kingdom and their achievements and riches. At the time it was such an eye opener that there were kingdoms of that wealth and power in West Africa that I had been curious to visit since.
Indeed Benin has many fantastic sights to see and a rich culture. Voudoo is one of the main religions, there are a wealth of artistic treasures to be seen, ancient palaces and African and European slaving relics. But.... a lot of the time the country is just a pain in the arse to be in as the level of attention is pretty relentless. Walking down the street there are endless cries of 'yevo! yevo!' (white man, white man) and request for 'presents'. You have to tell yourself that it is still a minority and the vast majority, even those who shout out to you, are well meaning. It wasn't that long ago that a black man wouldn't have been able to walk the streets of an English town without having paople shout out 'darkie' and worse at him, and like here the majority not really realising how very wearing they are being.
It's been a mystery of the trip how some countries are so relaxed and welcoming and some so much more hard work. I mean, how come I didn't see another white man in the whole of Nigeria but no-one stared at me but come to Benin where folk of my skin tone are a regular sight and there is hassle aplenty. Maybe it is the result of tourism? But then how come Egypt gets a lot of tourists and was a real chore in many places but Jordan also gets a lot of visitors but was friendly all the way. The only theory I have been able to come up with so far is that the hasslesome places are all ex-French colonies but that might not be a popular or provable theory!
So, here I am in Porto Novo waiting for a new rim, hub and spokes to arrive for me to lace together. I had hoped to get in a lot of site-seeing whilst waiting but the place I checked into and committed to with my immobile bike is refusing to offer left luggage so I've been on day trips with just one night spent away from Porto Novo. But an excellent night away- to the stilt village of Ganvie. Most of the coastline of Benin is flanked by an inland lagoon. The lagoon is seldom deeper than six foot deep. When the European slave traders put pressure on local slave trading kingdoms to supply ever greater quantities those fleeing persecution took to a life on the lagoon. The African slave traders had a taboo against entering water so to live in the middle of the lagoon offered sanctuary. As time has gone on the aquatic life has flourished and in Ganvie alone there are more than 30,000 living on the water. I stayed the night in a stilt hotel in Ganvie and then the next day chartered a boat across the lagoon to get back to Porto Novo some 45km away. An exellent adventure.
So, crossed fingers and I'll be mobile again in a couple of days and then heading up to Burkina Faso and Mali. Hopefully with the bike roadworthy once more things will look up and Burkina and Mali will offer more laid back experiences.
Posted by Richard Miller at February 27, 2008 12:31 PM GMT
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