Monday, 2 August 2010

First Nigerian road trip

In July I was invited to a VSO market development workshop in Calabar. I was quite interested in the workshop, but even more curious about Calabar, the capital city of Cross River state in the far south of Nigeria, which is close to the border with Cameroon. How naive of me to think that the most exciting part of the week would be the city itself, I'd forgotten the excitement of getting there! 

My adventure began on the journey to Calabar from Kaduna which I undertook with my colleague Mercy. We had been assured that one of the best bus companies in Nigeria, Cross Country, ran a service from Kaduna to Calabar, which left at 7am on Sunday morning. We arrived at the motor park at 6.30am and purchasing our tickets we waited for a while for the bus to fill up... before at 7.45 being told that we were the only two going to Calabar, so they’d take us to their ‘other park’ across town where we could get a bus to Calabar. On arriving at Akwa Ibon Transport Company (not another park, a completely different company), we discovered the bus was 500N cheaper, and about ten times less comfortable than the Cross Country bus. Still reassured we were on the only bus leaving Kaduna for Calabar that day we hopped aboard and tried to find the most comfortable way to sit for the next 12 hours.

Driving across Nigeria is a hair raising experience at the best of times, and this was my first journey south of Abuja, where there is a remarkable difference in the quality of the roads compared to the north. At some points the main road turns into a mud track, more designed for a Land Rover than a minibus, and at others it is so full of potholes that drivers drive on the wrong sides of the road to avoid them, swerving only at the last minute. Our speed of travel averaged around 140 km per hour, and involved plenty of overtaking lorries on hills whilst being on the wrong side of the road to avoid pot holes. As a result of being unable to tear my eyes away from the road in case it caused us to crash (no logic, just fear) I didn’t get much sleep. This wasn’t too bad as the scenery was spectacular, the south is much wetter than the north, with dense forests, and the landscape is much more rolling which gives spectacular views.

 We passed through Lokoja and where the road crosses over the confluence of the rivers Niger and Benue, which is the widest river I’ve ever seen, and an impressive sight. This photo shows the river Benue at another point, imagine about triple this size for the confluence of both rivers, it can’t be captured on camera from a moving vehicle which is my excuse for not trying...

As we got further south, Mercy told me we might be going to Uyo - the capital of Akwa Ibom state – and not Calabar. This was confusing, as we’d been clearly told the bus was going to Calabar, and also slightly worrying, as VSO’s are warned on a weekly basis not to visit any Niger Delta states, due to their well known reputation as locations for kidnappings. At this stage I wasn’t really sure if Akwa Ibom was considered officially in the Niger Delta, or just next to it, and we couldn’t get another bus anyway so I just continued to follow our journey on my map with rising concern. We were passing through a police or army checkpoint roughly every 15 minutes, and it was when the second soldier asked our driver (jokingly) if he had kidnapped me with the memorable phrase “You no go say you done kidnap dis oyibo” that I was pretty sure we were in the Delta. It seemed only me who actually laughed at the joke, and whilst tempted to say yes, I thought Mercy might get angry with me, and so I refrained.

After a ten hour journey, we ended up in Uyo in the gathering dusk, still two hours from Calabar, and in the Niger Delta. Although at this point I was still blissfully ignorant (if vaguely suspicious) of my newly found VSO rule breaking status, even I realised that travelling in the dark is not very safe, so I was glad when Mercy was able to persuade our driver to take us on to Calabar. After another two hours of overtaking at breakneck speeds, in the dark on single carriageway roads, we made it to Calabar at 9pm, 13 hours after we set out. The hotel was worth the wait, there were huge rooms, hot showers, CNN and good food. Here's Mercy enjoying her hard earned garri and stew. 

My learning from this journey... don’t try and travel from Kaduna to Calabar in one day, and I've since learned all the Niger Delta states off by heart, just in case. 

I’ll add another post on the beauty of Calabar and what market development actually means soon.


  1. I know I am planning to visit a "land" that is not entirely foreign, only foreign to me. As an adventurer, I am on a journey that I believe will last me my whole life. A new relationship, discovery, or awareness excites me.

  2. Even though I'm commenting "anonymously" and this article may or may not be over 2 years old, I can say that you chose a very vibrant city! I've been there myself a few times and despite being accustomed to some aspects of Calabar you may have found slightly foreign, I can say it will have definitely changed you!

    I hope you enjoy more endeavours that your life brings you!