The network of VSO volunteers in Nigeria has covered the country like a spy ring, minus the nifty gadgets and femmes fatales. Few groups have travelled as extensively as this hardy group of expats, and the information they have gathered could fill a guidebook. And has, in fact. The most recent version of the Bradt guide contains extensive submissions from Kevin O’Rourke, a volunteer stationed in Kaduna for two years. His output was legendary, extending even to the design of a transit map for the local buses. Of course, the amount of exploration undertaken by the VSO gang does lend itself to a kind of healthy competition. Mention a weekend outing to a fellow volunteer and one is likely to receive a slight smile in return, followed by a long-winded tale that begins “You should have been there with me in ’06 when I was robbed by a cross-eyed pirate with a wooden nose. Now, that was interesting.” Travel to such famous locations as the Wikki Warm Springs is usually only mentioned in passing to avoid the embarrassment of being outed as some kind of tourist virgin. So, discovering an area as yet unexplored by fellow VSO’ers is a bit like finding the Fountain of Youth in the middle of the Lost City of Gold. And that’s just what Kristel and I did on the last leg of our visit to Cross River State.
The discovery almost didn’t happen, thanks to my rapid transformation into a crotchety old man. As I’ve said before, travel in this country is not for the faint of heart or the prone of bitchiness. A week on the road here is the equivalent of 87 years in Canada. So, on what I thought was our final stop on our tour through the state, I was less than enthusiastic when our nature reserve guide leaned in and, in a low voice that could easily have been mistaken for a conspiratorial whisper, told us of a place that was relatively unknown and difficult to find. I acknowledged his directions with a quick nod of the head and a “Uh huh. Yup. Got it”, only to look over and see Kristel carefully writing down every last dirt road and police station. Fuckaduck, I thought. But at this point, our choices were to head back a day early to face a premature return to our respective offices or to press on into the unknown, so I gave my head a shake and opted for a new adventure.
It didn’t begin well. The rainy season was on full display as our car splashed its way down the road. Public transport is always a novel experience, and this time was no exception, as there were actually two people sitting in the driver’s seat. Not sure whose foot was on the gas pedal, but my money was on the guy who had more interest in the radio than the road. As we reached our destination, Kristel asked that we be dropped at the police station. “What? Back there?” one of our drivers said, as we sailed on down the highway. “No, this is just as good”, he said, stopping the car by a lonely lean-to that was currently sheltering a dozen people from the monsoon. Dragging our sodden bags under cover, we joined the others and listened to their discussion that likely centred on building an ark. When the rain finally eased to a downpour, Kristel began the negotiations for our bike ride to the village. Told by our guide a day earlier that the cost should be no more than 500 naira each, we were less than impressed by the opening demand of four times that much. This was soon halved by Kristel’s persistence and my supportive frowning. The deal hit a stalemate at this point and we considered abandoning the whole trip, going so far as to stand by the side of the road to try to flag down another overcrowded vehicle.
But Kristel refused to quit, so while I stood by the road, she continued to talk to the drivers. At one point, one of the villagers came out to join me by the roadside. Expecting some camaraderie, I instead found him staring at me. “You have something here”, he said, pointing at my face. “Where?” I said, imagining some bug about to suck my brains out through my nose. Apparently, my question was taken as an invitation, because before I could stop him, he jammed his finger in the corner of my eye. “Still there” he said, coming in for another try. “No, I’ve got it, thanks”, I said, waving him off, my watering eye surely drowning anything that posed a threat. Our intimate encounter did not go unnoticed by the rest of the villagers, who now formed an appreciative audience by the roadside. Wading through them, Kristel gave me a smile that showed she had enjoyed the performance as well.
Getting down to business, she said the drivers wouldn’t accept our final offer of 700 naira, so we were finished with them. We had resigned ourselves to a long ride home when a miracle happened. Breaking solidarity with his biker brethren, one of the drivers drove up to us and said he would take us for 700 naira. With the wall now torn down, the others jumped to get a piece of the action and we soon had a half-dozen bikes circling around us like raspy vultures. My bag bounced from one bike to the next before I finally yelled, “SOMEBODY TAKE US!” I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at a group of complete strangers before, and as a first effort, it came across a bit more needy than I would have liked. But it was effective, and two drivers finally broke from the pack and asserted their right to take us. With my backpack nestled between the handlebars, my driver and I took the lead on the dirt road, with Kristel and her man in close pursuit.
And what a road it was. If our previous ride to Afi Mountain was risky, this one was downright dangerous. The rains had turned the road into a treacherous slick, with huge ruts in the road giving way to mounds of mud topped by a track no wider than the tires on the bikes. Zooming along these precipices with the precision of a tightrope walker, the drivers hit them as fast as they could, fearing a stall that would surrender their bikes to a boggy end. The stretches of road that were relatively solid were seen as a way to make up for lost time, so we took them at top speed. I began to pray that the next corner would reveal another wallow, so we could at least stop breaking the sound barrier, Along the way, we passed through villages whose inhabitants clearly weren’t expecting white people to be making an appearance that morning. “Oyibo!” yelled the children as we flew past. “Help meeeeee!” I tried to yell in return. At the forty-five minute mark, we reached a river that I thought signaled the end of the road, but our drivers refused to give in, and we forded it like pioneers on a cattle drive. Finally, we reached the village of Bashu and I clambered off the bike on very shaky legs. Pulling up behind me, Kristel jumped off her bike, showing no signs of our near-death experience. “Maybe we should give them 1000 naira,” she whispered to me and I nodded my wholehearted agreement, recognizing that a small bonus payment might be the only way to ensure that the drivers would return to take us back to the outside world.
Will Kristel and Glenn make it back to the outside world? Will they still be talking to each other by the end of this trip? And where's the penguin? For answers to these questions and more, tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of “The Only Penguin in Nigeria”.