In our earliest border crossing ever, we entered into Nigeria at 5:30am, just as the first colours of the sunrise began to break through the foggy sky. Our plan was to cross as early as possible and drive all day, hoping to reach Calabar that night. Crossing at the main border, Seme, was a little bit of a risk as we knew that it was usually very busy and we didn’t really have a lot of time to waste. However, arriving there in the dark definitely worked in our favour. The landy wasn’t as easy to see, so nobody bothered searching her, plus most of the customs and immigration officers were still asleep! We were out of Benin and into Nigeria in about half an hour, and after dodging the first few sleepy ‘tax collectors’ along the first part of the road we were well on our way to Lagos. The road was good and the traffic was scarce right up until Lagos, where we hopped on the outer ring road and headed up towards Sagamu. After hearing so many horror stories about people spending hours stuck in Lagos traffic, we were very fortunate to pass through Lagos in about 40mins, including a breakfast and ATM stop… piece of cake! Our thinking was that everyone was either sleeping in or getting ready for church!
The one thing Nigeria is notorious for is a lot of police checks along the roads, usually within 100 metres of each other. We came across so many different types of police, immigration officers, traffic police, tax collectors, military… the list goes on and on. The first one would stop us and have a chat, ask us for a gift or some water or anything we were willing to hand out. Unlucky for them, we’ve become so accustomed to changing the subject, asking them for directions, or just plainly saying no, that nobody was lucky enough to benefit from us the whole way through Nigeria. Halfway between Ore and Benin City, we were pulled over by two police who flagged us down in their car. Knowing that we hadn’t done anything wrong, we were happily surprised when they just wanted to have a chat and a stickybeak in the car. Quite possibly two of the friendliest officers we’ve met so far. But then, after spending a good 10 minutes with them, explaining our trip and them wishing us well, we noticed two other officers running across 6 lanes of traffic to come over to us. They’d noticed us from the other side of the highway and obviously thought we were an easy target. At that stage, because we knew that we had a tight schedule and still a long way to drive to Calabar, it was annoying to have to spend another 15 minutes telling them that no, we hadn’t given their mates any money (which they couldn’t believe), and no, we didn’t want to give them any money either. All in all, the majority of the officials we came across in Nigeria were perfectly harmless and were just trying their luck. If we hadn’t been in such a hurry to drive across the country, we might have even enjoyed some longer conversations.
The tar roads were amazing all the way to Onitsha, and then also good onto Owerri, where we started to hit some traffic. The drivers on the other hand were not so good, particularly the trucks and the taxis! We were kept entertained by the slogans printed on the back of the taxis… “money can buy bed but not sleep” and “blessed are the patient,” while this taxi driver was on his horn trying to overtake us in a single lane construction zone. Brilliant!
Although it had been a long day so far, we were still keen to push onto Calabar so that we could apply for our Cameroon visas the next day. Our biggest mistake was taking the road from Aba to Calabar – the last 100kms of the whole day was the worst road of our whole journey so far! The sun was slowly setting and we were starting to run low on diesel. As we turned onto this stretch of road it seemed strange that there were no other cars around, considering we’d just been in some heavy traffic. Just lots and lots of motorbikes. A few kilometres down the road this all made sense, when the road suddenly turned to mud. There was no road left. Just pools of thick mud, and the only way was to drive through it. Slowly, as we edged our way through the first part, it became very clear that this ‘mud’ was actually raw sewage… the landy was literally covered in shit!! Nooooo! Luckily we didn’t get stuck and we’d had the sense to wind the windows up, or it could’ve turned into a very bad night. At least it acted as a good deterrent at the next police checkpoint. They didn’t keep us for very long considering the entire car stank. As it became darker and darker, our next challenge was finding some diesel to ensure we made it to Calabar. Driving through an oil rich country, we assumed that diesel would be pretty easy to find. Obviously it’s always readily available on the black market, but it was surprising how few petrol stations were actually open throughout the country. Fortunately, the last part of the road down to Calabar was downhill, so we were able to cruise to the nearest hotel without filling up, where we crashed out for the night. 16 hours of driving and it was definitely the most exhausting day so far.
The next day was pure admin. After having the worst taxi driver in Nigeria, we finally found the Cameroon Consulate and were able to get our visas issued within half an hour. The staff were so kind and welcoming, and we learnt a lot about the reasons for the border closures between Nigeria and Cameroon. Initially with the Ebola outbreak, Cameroon implemented strict border entry controls across all land, sea and air passengers. This was slightly relaxed when Nigeria became Ebola free, however the continual threat of Boko Haram has kept all land borders closed until further notice. They wished us good luck and told us to contact our embassies ahead of time to ensure that we would be allowed to cross.
The rest of the afternoon was then spent trying to get a sim card and internet so that we could get in touch with the UK and Australian Embassies. This was partly successful, with a contact in the UK Embassy in Yaoundé offering us some assistance, although she did tell us that it might take up to 6 days. We then waited for about 40 minutes at the petrol station to fill up with diesel. At about 48pence per litre, it was definitely worth the wait! I have to say that the Nigerians we met in Calabar were all extremely friendly and welcoming, and obviously not used to seeing many tourists. Walking through the streets and at the shops and petrol station most of them wanted to say hello, welcome us to Nigeria and were very inquisitive about the landy and what we were doing. The only ones who seemed hell bent on ripping us off were the taxi drivers – but that seems to be an Africa wide phenomenon, so nothing really new there.
The next morning we awoke to stormy weather and headed off for the border. The road from Calabar to Ikom was absolutely terrible. 250kms of potholed tar and dirt road that was slowly turning into muddy tracks as the rain continued to fall. Dodging the trucks, taxis and police checks proved to be even more frustrating in the rain. Arriving at Ikom around 1pm, we stocked up on some food for the next few days in case we were stuck at the border. We were more than willing to camp at the border in no mans land if that’s what it took until we could cross over into Cameroon. The fact that our Nigerian visa was expiring at the end of the day was always in the back of our minds and we knew that we would soon be running out of time. After topping up the sim card with a ridiculous amount of money so that we could keep in contact with the embassy, it was beyond frustrating to arrive at the border and have no phone reception. Being such a remote location, there was phone reception from the Cameroon phone providers, but not the Nigerians. Fantastic.
At all the road blocks leading up to the border the Nigerian police told us that the border was closed. They told us we probably wouldn’t be able to cross and one even gave us a heads up that there were a few other of our friends ‘ie white men’ sitting at the border who had been waiting to cross for 4 days. Yippee, we thought, we might have some company! When we pulled up to the border, it was beyond quiet and it wasn’t hard to find the other whities, who turned out to be missionaries. Their story was different to ours as they had permission to enter Cameroon but were waiting on their trucks and all the goods to be cleared. They had a pretty sweet setup about a kilometre away from the border and we had a bit of a chat before we tried to talk to the officials. It actually would’ve been nice to camp with them for a few days, but unfortunately we didn’t have the time.
So down to the border we went and spoke to the first police checkpoint. After a quick scan of our passports, we explained our situation to him and he was very sympathetic, not understanding how we could only have a 3 day visa to cross the whole of Nigeria. We then discovered that there was actually no ‘no mans land’ between the two countries, only a tiny one lane bridge that we would not be allowed onto unless we had permission to enter Cameroon. Bugger!! So then after a bit of a panic about what the hell we were going to do, we decided that we had to drive back towards Ikom to get some phone reception and try the embassies again.
Luckily this stretch of road between Ikom and the border at Ekok was beautifully tarred, so back we went past the three police checkpoints until we hit reception. I tried the Australian and Canadian embassies again with no response (it’s great when the phone numbers to your embassy decide not to connect when you really need them!) Paul then called the UK embassy again to let them know that 6 days wasn’t going to cut it and we really needed to cross today. After leaving a message we tried our last option, which was a contact at the Dutch embassy we had been given by fellow overlanders Jaz & Bart (http://bobotie.weebly.com). He was an insanely friendly and helpful man, who offered to try and get us across if everything else failed, even though neither of us are Dutch citizens! But first he advised us to walk across the border and talk to the Cameroon commissioner and plead our case. So, feeling slightly better about the situation, but still as stressed as we were before, we drove back to the border. After another chat with the Nigerian officials, they let us walk across the bridge and we casually entered Cameroon.
After being grilled by the first two officers about why we wanted to enter Cameroon, they relaxed and drove us up the hill to speak with the commissioner. After waiting a few minutes, we were invited into his office and started to explain our situation and plead our case. He was quite possibly the loveliest border official we have come across to date. After having a great chat about our lives and our trip, he seemed to relax and sympathise with us, explaining that he had to call his two big bosses and if they both agreed with him to allow us across the border then we would be able to enter Cameroon in a few hours. So we sat and waited for another hour, chatting and joking around with him, but still pretty stressed out. It seemed to help that relations between Cameroon and Nigeria were obviously quite sour, and have been for the past 10 months while the land borders have been closed. The Commissioner described the Cameroon-Nigerian relationship as brotherly love… They get along when things are good, but always seem to be fighting.
After conferring with the bosses, he told us that we would be allowed to cross the same day! Woohoo!! We might have to wait a few more hours, but that didn’t bother us at all… Anything was better than having to go back to the Nigerians with them knowing our visa was expiring that day. Sure enough, when we crossed back over the bridge, they were waiting for our outcome (and I think, secretly hoping that we had been rejected so they could exert some power over us). Luckily for us, we came back with smiles on our faces and then went through the exit procedures. The whole border crossing actually went very smoothly in the end, and the Nigerian police were very relaxed and started joking that we should stay for a while so they could help us celebrate the fact that we were allowed to enter Cameroon. Funny buggers, always trying for something.
So around 5pm we were finally stamped into Cameroon. Just as we had crossed the border, Paul had a call from our contact at the UK embassy, who wanted to see how we were and whether we had managed to cross successfully. Feeling grateful that they had actually (and finally) made an effort to help us, we thanked her and then made our way down the road towards Mamfe.
The 80kms stretch of road between the border and Mamfe has a reputation among overlanders as being the worst road in Africa, so we had prepared ourselves to drive as far as we could until it got dark, and then find a wild camp for the night. Low and behold, we turned the corner and hit a brand new tarred road!! It seems that the border being closed for almost a year had given the Cameroon government the perfect opportunity to upgrade this road. They are actually still working on it, but for the most part, the old windy, hilly, muddy, potholey road is gone and has now been replaced by a flat and relatively straight road directly to Mamfe.
Even after all our adventures of the day, Paul was annoyed that he didn’t get to experience one of the most notorious roads in Africa. The landy didn’t feel the same way though and she cruised along, delivering us to Mamfe just as the sun was setting. We pulled up at the Data Hotel and after having a quick chat with the owner, he let us camp next to the river in a beautifully quiet spot. We treated ourselves to a braai and a couple of drinks and fell asleep to the sounds of the river insects. What an amazing 3 days!