I’m on the Highway to Sahel

Last week, I visited floating villages and Lagosian art galleries, as well as having my nuts gnawed by some hungry simians. This week, I leave the Atlantic Coast for the first time as I venture north towards a vastly different climate, culture and cattle. Welcome to the Sahel.

Day 50 – Lagos, Nigeria

Right, as you probably know by now, there are three places I always try to visit when in a brand new country: the national museum, the grandest religious site, and the abandoned five-star hotel that used to entertain Idi Amin (where is yours, Lagos?). With Nigeria being the second richest country on the continent (behind only Egypt), and Lagos being the largest city, I was expecting a quite spectacular national museum – possibly the best yet. Alas poor Yorick, it was anything but.

A small room containing a bullet-ridden Mercedes (from a former leader’s assassination) and a handful of sculptures and traditional masks were all that existed. I am aware that the British probably plundered every single historical artefact and has them on display somewhere in Grimsby, but for god’s sake give them back so I have something to bloody see. What was worth seeing, however, was the record/book shop and café opposite, just across the eternally gridlocked main road. A cup of coffee and a chat about the origins of Nigerian jazz proved far more arresting.

Changing subject entirely – it’s been over five years since a group of two hundred and seventy-six Chibok girls from North-eastern Nigeria were abducted by Boko Haram militants. Whilst they have fallen from the front pages of most Western newspapers, they are still at the forefront of local minds. The main roundabout I pass every day has the names and pictures (where available) of all the girls who are still missing (well over a hundred), attached with a large banner reading, “Bring Back Our Girls”. The international community must not forget this outrageous crime and do far more than they are currently to assist the Nigerian government in their efforts. Unfortunately, this isn’t the last time this week that I’ll write about militant groups, as you will read later.

Day 51 – Lagos, Nigeria

In case you were unsure, Nigeria is a very large country. To say that I have seen 1% of it, from my visiting Lagos, would be a huge exaggeration. Whilst I haven’t been blessed with a large amount of time in the green and white nation (plus I can’t venture too far east of Benin for itinerary-reasons), there was a one day trip I had been saving since my arrival in the country just under a week ago.

The city of Abeokuta lies about two hours north of Lagos (as the ostrich flies) and is known as the birthplace of Afrobeats (legendary musician Fela Kuti grew up here) and Rock (no not that type). A big bloody rock. Olumo Rock. And that was my primary reason for braving the dreaded Mad Max minibuses out of Lagos to get there: to climb that rock.

And climb it I did. I should probably mention that Olumo Rock is a site of spiritual significance to many Nigerians, with shrines and sacred trees adorning the hike to its zenith. Whilst I found that all quite interesting, the view of Abeokuta from the top was even more stimulating. With West Africa being a relatively flat part of the world, I realised this was probably the highest I had been since uni. After another bus break-down in an extreme thunderstorm on the return journey, I wolfed down my bowl-of-goat before savouring one last night in luxury (at least for the next twenty years or so).

N.B. Climbing Olumo is encouraged and not seen as disrespectful in any way. Basically, the exact opposite of Uluru…

Day 52 – Lagos, Nigeria to Cotonou, Benin

My week’s stay at the opulent Westfoster Harbour Hotel has come to end (thanks Arin) meaning it’s all downhill from here folks. I took a final few photos of what a five-star bed looks like to remember for the next time I’m sleeping on a wooden crate next to two restless goats and a mound of questionable-animal faeces (hopefully not until I’m back in Wales).

My next destination is Niamey, the capital of Niger (yes that is a separate country). To get there overland one must go via Cotonou, meaning a trip back to my favourite border post to reacquaint myself with the most corrupt guards this side of Kyrgyzstan. Although, it would appear they are far less interrogative when you’re trying to leave the country than when you’re trying to get in the damn place. Despite the journey taking seven hours, this was three less than the reverse trip a week ago – marginal gains my friends. Bonsoir Benin.

I had nine hours to kill until my midnight coach left for Niamey, resulting in an afternoon/evening malingering around cafes and places with WIFI until it was time to pack my belongings onto a zem (the good old Beninese bike taxi) and head to the station. Whilst I was greeted by a hive of activity, with luggage and cargo being thrown in every direction, there was something lacking from the scene: a bus? I waited another hour until I was kindly informed that it was stuck in the middle of the Sahara (or somewhere of the sort). This did not go down well. With no accommodation booked and having pointlessly hung around for longer than the leader of the Labour Party, I went full British on him… and said absolutely nothing. For, in the words of the porter, “this is Africa”.

Day 53 – Cotonou, Benin to Parakou, Benin

Day fifty-three. I woke up on a wooden crate next to two goats and a mound of… Well, not quite. I did manage to find a shoddy bedsit to rest my weary vertebral for the night, before returning to the bus station and resuming the wait. Not all was doom and gloom, though, as I was highly entertained throughout the interval with travelling tales from healthily bearded Vancouverite Bobby. I could easily write a whole post on the stories he managed to squeeze into our brief encounter (ten days in a Congolese jail cell was certainly an eye-opening anecdote), but I’ll save those for when I have the stomach to write them.

So, at 3 pm sharp, a surprisingly comfortable-looking coach turned up at the gate and within literally hours we were off. I was ordained with the “VIP” seat right behind the driver’s screen (I later realised this was the best place to hide the white guy from view), which was pretty important on this particular bus ride.

If you’ve had your head in the Saharan sands for the last five years or so, you may not know that there have been growing tensions and instabilities across the Southern Saharan region known as the Sahel. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have borne the brunt of the crises, with attacks, bombings and kidnappings a regular occurrence. And by complete coincidence, those are exactly my three next glamourous destinations (forgot to pack my bullet-proof vest, darn). Now, I have no intention of taking ‘unnecessary’ risks, but what is life if not a series of decisions based on risk? I have long trusted what I hear from people on the ground, rather than the odd article online, which has resulted in my getting on this very bus to Niamey. But, I sure as hell won’t be doing the same to Burkina (more on that next week).

Day 54 – Parakou, Benin to Niamey, Niger

As we drove through the night, I drifted in and out of consciousness as my head slammed against the window with every rut and pothole. I’m reasonably sure all blood flow ceased to my lower extremities too. But on we drove and drove, on the thousand-kilometre bus ride deep into the Sahel. On the way, I encountered a new first for the trip, no not kidnapping, but having to don a hoodie to fend off the desert chill – we ain’t far from the Sahara my comrades.

We arrived at the border with Niger at about 4 am and as we got off the bus, we were greeted by total silence and total darkness. An almighty Milky Way spectacle, the likes of which I have not seen since Big Sur, provided the only light to guide us to the immigration office – where two men silently stamped us out of one nation and into the next – serene in their routine. By far the most tranquil crossing I have made on this journey (not that there was much competition).

We weren’t allowed to traverse the Niger River (which separates the two nations) for another two hours or so, but I was more than happy to sit back, look up, and wish I had a camera capable of taking a photo which didn’t look like the inside of a badger’s anus. With the sun starting to rise (and my hoodie safely stowed away for the ensuing fifty-four days) I started to grasp how utterly unique my surroundings were – this was nothing like anywhere else I had been before. The climate had completely changed overnight too, from suicidally humid to suicidally dry, with my skin instantly chapping at the mere sight of a sun producing a full ten degrees more heat than it was the day before. This is going to be fun.

Day 55 – Niamey, Niger

For my time in Niamey, I would be couchsurfing with Nessa, a half-German-half-Brit working for an NGO in the capital (as all foreigners in Niger appear to be doing). Upon my arrival yesterday evening, she provided me with an extensive list of the must-do’s in Niamey – which consisted of two things. The first of which I was going to embark on this very morn: hippo watching. As I arrived at the mighty Niger River’s edge, I didn’t exactly have to clamber over other tourists to book a pirogue. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the first booking in decades (as two boys hastily scooped out buckets of water from inside the rickety vessel). Needless to say, I had the craft to myself as we began our fascinating ‘hour-long’ expedition along the third longest river in Africa.

It was after two and a half hours that I began to doubt my chances of catching a glimpse of the great beasts when, to my absolute surprise, a small swell of graphite grey protruding just above the water was pointed out to me and my guides only word of English came into strong use, “’ippo”. My god, he was right! As we edged closer (still a safe distance away as not to disturb) we watched a group of five frolic (well as much as hippos frolic) and chat with each other. I racked my brain for the one time in my life I could use the collective noun for hippopotami appropriately, but to no avail – I’ll just use ‘a thump’. For that was what they were, bloody marvellous.

Nothing was quite going to compare with my morning’s entertainment, the national museum certainly did it’s best not to, as did the adjoining zoo. Now, I can’t actually remember the last time I was taken to a zoo (for I have never been to one of my own accord), and I certainly did not want this to be the first time. Although the guide who shepherded me around the museum was so eager to show me the faunae that I felt like he may have burst into tears had I turned him down and run off. I begrudgingly accepted. I quickly wish I hadn’t.

I have seen a lot of shit things over the last eight weeks or so, this was right up there. I understand Niger is one of the poorest nations on earth, but there is no excuse for having a zoo if you have absolutely no idea of how to look after wild animals. Miniscule cages, rubbish and litter everywhere, with nothing to stimulate the animals but rocks being fired at them by children with slingshots. This was the first time on the trip that I felt on a completely different planet to all of the locals, who were having a whale of a time. Lest I forget that this sort of environment would’ve been completely acceptable at home too, not that long ago. Thank god we don’t keep lions and giraffes for show in Wales… Wait, we do?? Oh, Jesus.

N.B. Various collective nouns can be used for hippopotami including a crash, bloat, herd, pod or dale (I wasn’t that far off).

N.B.B. Mulled over showing a picture inside the zoo or not. Decided to post it in the hope to deter others from making the same mistake I did, if you ever happen to be in Niamey.

Day 56 – Niamey, Niger

Yesterday’s action-packed day gave me little time to describe the evening’s entertainment, with Nessa (and housemate Aziz) inviting me to watch the national team play the beautiful game (and butcher it entirely). This was not something I ever thought I’d be doing in Niger, but what an occasion it was! Madagascar were the visitors, in a crucial African Cup of Nations qualifier. With tickets starting at about $1 (and parking for free anywhere you could fit a car), this was also an extremely cheap form of amusement too. Turns out, Niger’s football team is managed about as well as their zoo is, as they lost 2-6 to a team I didn’t even know played the game until this afternoon. Work to be done.

On to today, and the second activity on Nessa’s exhaustive list: watch the sunset at Cap Banga. Cap Banga is a restaurant/bar built right on the Niger river itself, requiring a boat to reach and a fat wallet to enter (in Nigerien terms). Incidentally, trying not to confuse Nigerians with Nigeriens (look closely) is an extremely difficult task. I digress. I had actually spotted the bar and its impressive tree-house-tables from my pirogue yesterday and was thinking what a lovely spot that would be for a beer. Fast-forward twenty-four hours and there I was doing exactly that. I also tried the skewered Capitaine, a fish found all along the River Niger and a staple of the local’s diet. It certainly had a murky-river-like tang to it. Well, what a surprisingly picturesque place to end the week. Who says the Sahel is a no-go?

J

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