• Baboons at breakfast December 5th, 2010

    Three men in black pin-striped suits delayed my departure from Jos, claiming to be from the ‘State Security Service’ . ID was shown at my request and in hindsight I think they were genuine. At first you can never be sure in Nigeria, particularly when those concerned have just stepped out of a bakery. They laughed and agreed I was right to be suspicious.

    ‘Are you aware of the situation in Jos?’ was the question put to me. I’d just spent five nights cocooned in the secure and peaceful compound of a missionary-run Guest House. Jos and its ethnic/religious tensions seemed a World away, but it’s an issue that simmers close to the surface here, and one unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

    Heading east to Yankari

    Quiet road to Bauchi

    Pause for a paw paw

    The situation partly explains the decline in visitor numbers to Yankari National Park. The traffic had eased and almost ceased as Hiromu and I moved east and descended from plateau state to arrive at the park gates. It was relative bliss by Nigerian standards. Then came the news that cycling into the National Park was forbidden. Most people would regard this as a sensible guideline. Hiromu and I were gutted. West Africa’s oldest National Park might have elephants and possibly the odd lion roaming about, but the chances of encountering one on the 40km road leading into the main camp are probably rare. The Park manager confirmed this when we unloaded the bicycles from a taxi at the main camp, having been driven at a speed that rendered any potential wildlife viewing impossible.

    During the dry season most of the large animals congregate at the Gaji River, so unless we were willing to pay $40 to chart a vehicle, which doesn’t guarantee one will see anything, our wildlife viewing would be restricted to whatever came into the main camp. The answer to which was a lot of baboons and warthogs. The latter are harmless, although I wouldn’t choose to pat one, and mostly concerned with grazing on grass and searching for a muddy patch to wallow in. Baboons on the other hand are a damn right nuisance. Leave anything unattended outside your tent and the chances are it will be snatched and torn apart with the expectation of its contents providing a quick and easy feed. Half a dozen eggs and a litre of honey disappeared in this manner sometime around dawn. It is at this time that the baboons are most active. Once my camping bag containing unused flysheet had been snatched a mere few inches from my head I decided that one night camping in the park was enough. I gave chase with a stick, thankfully retrieving the bag and contents before they’d been torn to shreds.

    Hiromu and I were the only visitors inside the park, which the baboons appeared to be doing a better job of managing, or rather mis-managing, than the staff. Wildlife conservation is not something most Nigerians place a high concern over. Only four years ago a number of new buildings were constructed at the main camp, but they are already showing signs of neglect. The half-finished quarters of one of the ‘conference suites’ has a swimming pool, around which a family of baboons have taken up residence. You can guess the appearance of the water now. The problem with the park appears to be one of good sustainable management. Judging by the scale of new development it’s clear that plenty of money has been invested, but that has now ceased. The Manager printed off and handed me a 10-page document charting the history of the park. It makes for a sad read. Much of Yankari’s large game has fallen victim to poaching over the last several decades – a situation true of many National Parks on the continent, particularly in West Africa.

    The highlight of a visit to Yankari National park are the warm springs, a crystal clear channel of turquoise water flowing from beneath an escarpment of rock. Apart from an ugly man-made concrete platform it feels as close to an image of paradise in the jungle as one could imagine.

    Despite cycling being forbidden in the park we went ahead and pedalled back out the following day. Was there any wildlife to be seen on the way? No. Do I partially regret cycling? Yes. Shortly after I recorded this video a number of Tsetse flies started to give chase and feast on my legs.

    Cycling Yankari National Park: Nigeria from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

  • Cheer for Nigeria November 26th, 2010

    Thanks to Hiromu  I was able to get some photos and video clips of a talk I gave at Hillcrest International School here in Jos yesterday. I began the talk receiving a ‘boo’ for saying I felt like I’d been transported out of Africa with my microphone headset plugged in. Fortunately my positive comments about Nigeria won a few cheers back later on.

    Speaking at Hillcrest School, Jos

    Question session

    Speaking in Nigeria from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

    Tomorrow the two of us leave Jos and the cool temperate plateau destined for Yankari National Park. Photos of elephants in the next post perhaps?

  • Journey to Jos November 25th, 2010

    On a quiet road the journey from Abuja to Jos would be pleasant. Once the urban concrete thins out a boulder-strewn landscape takes over as the altitude steadily rises to above 1000m. The problem is the condition of the road; it’s too well-paved. This means traffic, of which there is too much for a 2-lane road, goes as fast as humanely possible. Little wonder the roadside is littered with the remains of car wrecks.

    Leaving Abuja

    Speed victim

    Hiromu called me to stop a short distance out of  the city. His speedometer was reading 25,000km. “I want to make a photo. It is special moment”. I fully agreed. My computer was just approaching 16,000km, which is roughly 10,000 miles.

    Milestones from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

    After meeting for the first time in Morocco at the beginning of this year we were back on the road together and sharing similar views about our route through central Africa. Hiromu’s journey started from Istanbul in May 2009 and he too plans to cycle to South Africa.

    Milestones

    The highlight of the traffic-filled 300km journey was watching several hundred cattle drink from a river. It doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but was quite a spectacle. We looked down from a bridge as the bony long-horned beasts moved to the water’s edge, their Fulani herdsmen eyeing us cautiously as we snapped away.

    Thirsty cattle

    Accommodation on the road was back to normal after the comforts of Abuja. Camping next to a Police Station one night and a Church the next. As for the food, Hiromu and I seem well-matched in being as adventurous in trying whatever the locals are dining on.

    Lunch

    Village camping

    For the first time in many months I’m wearing a fleece pullover here in Jos. At 1200m above sea-level it’s as high as I’ve been since the Atlas mountains of Morocco. In fact it was when I was in Morocco that I first heard about Jos. Over three hundred people were massacred here earlier this year. The city has long had a history of  ethnic and religious tension between Christians and Muslims. It’s a pity the climate can’t cool tempers. I wish I could take the weather with me.

    Up to Plateau state

  • Out of Africa: Two weeks in Abuja November 24th, 2010

    Abuja is not a typical African city. To start with I’m not sure there are any poor people living here. The makeshift market stalls, tin-roofed shacks, bare-footed children and street hawkers so characteristic of urban Africa are noticeably absent here. As are the piles of rubbish and other man-made detritus. It is certainly the cleanest city I’ve visited on the continent and the only one that doesn’t feel overpopulated. The fact that living here is so expensive partly takes care of that.

    Any Nigerian living within Abuja is comparatively rich. One only has to observe the kinds of cars being driven along the newly paved roads to get a feel for the city’s wealth, or see the size of the houses. Step into one of the popular western-style supermarkets and take note of the price of foodstuffs: 250g box of Cornflakes (£4), 1 litre tub of ice-cream (£5). This is not Nigerian food, but Nigerians, at least some of the wealthy who reside in Abuja, quite comfortably exchange large sums of money for such items before climbing back into their Mercedes or SUV. For those who can’t afford the western lifestyle, it is something many aspire to.

    Nigeria’s capital city is less than 20 years old and is growing rapidly. Maybe it will become like other African cities in another 20 years time. For now it has an incongruously tranquil, affluent and dare I say safe atmosphere about it. If only all African cities were so easy to navigate and enter into. The roads are so wide here that if the city authorities really wanted to they could put in bike lanes. There would be little point of course; no Nigerian is interested in riding a bicycle. They are much better at getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and driving quickly and badly.

    I never planned to stay two weeks, and had it not been for the kindness and company of strangers hosting me again I would have grabbed my Cameroon visa (24-hr service available – cost $100 for a 30-day stay) given the School talk I’d pre-arranged to and sped on out.

    I cycled into the city looking for the Sheraton hotel. No I wasn’t planning to take a $200+ room for the night, but pitch my tent out the back for free. How this arrangement between the hotel’s management and the small contingent of comparatively impoverished travellers overlanding through Africa came about I have no idea. Someone obviously felt pity for us. Abuja is anything but a budget place to reside.

    As it was I never joined the ‘traveller’s camp’ out the back, but spent a week with a British army officer and his wife in a compound complete with swimming pool and squash court. A true oasis of luxury, particularly the Cropwell Bishop Stilton. My host ran a weekly camera club and decided a trans-African cyclist would make for an interesting photo-shoot. Later in the week he lent me a tuxedo for a charity dinner-party. Did I foresee any of this when I was camping in a Nigerian village the night before arriving in Abuja?

    Ex-pat scene

    There are a number of International Schools in the city, which provide a western education to Nigeria’s elite and the growing number of expatriates who live here. I’m not sure many of these children have experienced much life outside the air-conditioned and high-gated environs of their home and school. As far as I can tell most Nigerians and some expats choose to ignore life as it’s lived by the masses in this country. The inequality in wealth is noticeably greater in Nigeria than the rest of west Africa.

    I visited four of these schools, gave a number of talks and was well-received by the teachers and students. To what extent they thought I was crazy I don’t know. People are sometimes too afraid or polite to say. Well I suppose riding a bicycle through Africa is crazy, if only because most Africans don’t know how to drive properly.

    School talk

    Hiromu would agree with me. I rescued him from the Sheraton when he rolled into the city at the end of my first week there. The management had banned him from taking a shower in the squash courts and he looked like he needed a decent feed, as well as a trip to a clothes shop. There I was thinking that my clothes were becoming a little threadbare and old. Hiromu had gone one stage further and taken on the appearance of a tramp. From experience I believe this is in an effort to appear poor in the minds of Africans and well-travelled amongst foreigners. Anyone who can afford to travel overland through Africa with a $1000 camera and laptop can afford to buy a t-shirt for a few dollars. Unfortunately Abuja is not a place where wearing hole-ridden clothes fits in well.

    Hiromu Jimbo

    From the John Lewis furnished interior of my British hosts’ house I moved camp and stayed with a missionary couple for the second week. Mike and Meghan had first come from the states to Nigeria ten years ago, where they were dormitory parents to students from a missionary school in the northern city of Jos, my next destination. Now they were back with 3 young children and responsible for running a centre to provide religious guidance and education. The overwhelming hospitality and generosity continued and by the end of the week I was starting to forget what it was like to take a cold bucket shower and eat with my hand. Once Hiromu had received his Cameroon visa and I’d given my final school talk it was back on the road together. The break and company in Abuja had been a welcome one, but I was looking forward to re-immersing myself into the ‘real’ Nigeria.