Crossing big rivers in boats with holes in never feels very reassuring. As the water seeps through the wooden hull and runs to the stern of the overloaded vessel you look for signs of alarm from your fellow passengers. There is none. They sit motionless whilst one boy frantically bails out bucketfuls of brown water from Africa’s third largest river.

The first time I saw the Niger River was in Guinea, a short distance from its origin in the Fouta Djjalon mountains. Here the channel was less than 20 metres wide. Fast forward several thousand kilometres and now it was over 1km in breadth, a silent expanse of dormant energy making its way to troubled regions further south.

All aboard

Small roads had brought me to the town of Pategi, which sits on the southern bank of the Niger River and probably sees few visitors. It is on the road to nowhere important, although apparently hosts an annual regatta. I had been told there was a government-run ferry on the river, but like many state-controlled businesses it was not in operation. Unless I headed 100km upstream and took the bridge, a leaky motorised canoe was the only way to reach the northern shore.

When we arrived at the other side some twenty minutes later the water-baler looked exhausted. ‘Good job‘, I felt like saying, or ‘you really tried’, as Nigerians like to exclaim. There was no road, so I followed the other passengers, many of which had loaded their motorbikes onto the canoe. A narrow track cut through lush green rice fields and there was not a sign of concrete in sight.

Bike boys

I was now in Niger state, Nigeria’s largest, which feels a long way from the Yoruba dominated south. Keeping track of changes in ethnicity and language in Nigeria is not easy. There are something like 400. What is obvious is the stronger Islamic influence as you head north; more mosques, more women in headscarves, and lots of goats and sheep at the roadside awaiting slaughter for the forthcoming Muslim holiday. Towns also seem more relaxed. Less of the aggressive calls for attention or the dizzying density of traffic. Savannah grasses start to replace the thick bush of the coastal belt and the temperature  climbs.

Why was I heading north in Nigeria when I’m riding my bicycle to South Africa? Other than wanting to avoid the environs of Lagos and the busy coastal states, I needed to visit Abuja, which for those who don’t know (I didn’t until several months ago) is Nigeria’s capital. It’s also a capital city like no other I’ve visited in Africa.

Zuma rock and road to Abuja