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Adventures with the Popo in Nigeria

It wasn't the first time the police had moved us on. If you've been with me all trip you might remember a late night visit to the Rabat Zoo car park. It was definitely the first time that we'd been pounced on by the army and accused of being spies though.

Most of our bush camps are chosen on a wish and a prayer. More often than not we get visits from locals, occasionally with guns strapped to their back, occasionally wanting food or money to let us stay, or if we're lucky just being curious and friendly.

On this particular occasion Steve had taken a side road on dusk and pulled up to a beautiful spot. We set up our tents in a meadow tucked away behind the bushes and got to work making dinner. It didn't take long before we realised we weren't in such a secluded area. Car after car, motorbike after motorbike of army men drove past, slowed down, and sometimes even chucked a u-turn to drive past once more. So much for discreet!

Pretty soon one of them, the self declared boss-man, showed up and told us we were camped in a restricted military zone, about 20 metres from a crude oil line that they were protecting. Boss Man had one too many brewskies under his belt though and grew increasingly suspicious and aggressive with each passing moment. What were we doing there? Who did we work for? How did we talk to our bosses? It wasn't until later that we realised tourist and terrorist sound awfully similar. By the end of our conversation Boss Man had established 3 facts:

  1. We were spies.
  2. We worked for a spy organisation called DHL.
  3. We were communicating with our homeland via the truck.

Boss Man decided he was left with one choice: to call the Big Boss Man.

Big Boss Man arrived, slightly more sober, and declared his subordinate an idiot. Unfortunately by that time such a fuss had been made over our presence that the Big Boss Man was forced to call the police. The police came and made the executive decision that we were neither terrorists nor spies, but they did decide that a truckload of westerners was a potential kidnapping threat and we should spend the night in their police compound rather than in our beautiful meadow.

And so another midnight pack-up ensued.

The next morning we were told that in light of the kidnap risk the police would be providing an escort across state lines. Our new Nigerian police friends wouldn't take no for an answer, and so off we went on what had somehow turned into a mammoth security operation.

All day long we drove, sandwiched in between a three car police convoy, sirens blazing and with 5 AK47 clad men in the back of each vehicle. At the border of each new territory, our escort would hand us over to a new convoy. Some would say it was a bit of an overkill. If the aim was to make it through Nigeria as quickly and discreetly as possible, we failed. They took their job insanely seriously, jumping off the back of the car at every intersection to stop traffic and wave us through, and reprimanding anyone who came too close. I couldn't help but feel they made us look a lot more valuable to any potential kidnappers than we actually are.

By the end of the day we'd had it with our slightly overbearing new friends. They were cramping our style somewhat. When we woke up the next morning it was clear that our escorts had had enough of their babysitting job also and trusted us to make it through the rest of the country without them. We said goodbye and sped off into the distance before they could change their minds.

A day that couldn't have ended quickly enough, but a day we'll never forget.

 

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Nigeria: land of many, many police checkpoints

It became a common theme pretty early on in the trip, any time we mentioned that we were going to Nigeria we were met with, “Are you crazy?” Apparently the place is full of gangsters and we would either be kidnapped, mugged, or shot. With that kind of reaction we had no idea what to expect.

Nigerians have an insane confidence about them. They’re loud, and bold, and they aren’t shy to talk to us. Everywhere we go the men look up at the truck, throw their hands up in the air and exclaim, “Hello. How are you? Where are you going?”

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Our first night in Nigeria was spent camped behind the first police checkpoint after the border. It was getting late and were were tired, so Steve just pulled up and asked if we could stay there. Bush camp sorted. There’s something a little unnerving about a couple of guys with AK47s hanging around your tent at night, but given all the warnings about gangsters and kidnappings I was actually kind of grateful.

I was a little less grateful for Nigerian police the next day however, when we had 23 police checkpoints in just one morning.

No no. You read correctly. 23!

I’m not entirely sure what any of it achieved, but we got a good workout piling up and down the truck steps all day long.

Good thing we managed to secure full month-long tourist visas instead of transit ones, because at this rate it was going to take the whole month just to get through all the checkpoints.

In between police checkpoints we managed to get a substantial bit of touristing done in Nigeria. We stopped in Abeokuta for a walk up a hill with somewhat questionable safety standards.

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We tackled the manic marketplace in Benin City where we somehow ended up in a local bar watching The Lion King 2 with Nigerian mafia types.

We had sunset drinks by the waterfront in Kalabar, and we even managed to eat our weight in local fast food chains. I’m still recovering from the fried chicken overload.

No kidnappings. No muggings. Just the crazy, hectic, fast-paced side of Africa that I’m quickly falling in love with.

 

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Ganvie Stilt Village

Most of West Africa feels worlds away from the Australian homes and neighbourhoods that I grew up in, but Ganvie Stilt Village really is one of a kind.

Ganvie was built in the middle of Lake Nokoue in Benin centuries ago to keep the Tofinu people safe from the slave trade. Each home sits just above the water on stilts and the locals canoe everywhere, to school, to the market, to visit friends. They even have a stretch of water called Lovers’ Lane!

Each family owns plots of water on the Lake that they are allowed to fish. The women will take their fish back to the mainland to exchange for fruit and veg, which they then take back to Ganvie to sell. It must be a hard life, but it’s pretty unique.

We took a boat out to Ganvie along with a local guide who grew up in the village. The people who live in Ganvie are notoriously unwelcoming of tourists and go to extreme lengths to avoid having their photos taken. The locals will cover their faces with hats as they pass tourist boats, some will even splash water at cameras. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy having boat loads of tourists with cameras driving past my house every day, peering in my front door, but after the insane levels of hospitality we’ve encountered everywhere it’s quite confronting to feel so unwelcome in a place.

I think the key is to try and resist the urge to see Ganvie through a camera lense and just enjoy the ride.