At 6am, Tony kindly dropped me off at the nearby taxi rank and before too long, I was sitting under a flyover in a minibus with a guy named George because he thought it wasn’t too safe to have me mooching around Lagos in the dark under an overpass. Why one would locate a bus station under a flyover is quite beyond my programming, but this is Africa, so let’s roll with it.
There was a cluster of minibuses all geared up and ready to go to every corner of the land. The corner I wanted was in the bottom right and is called Calabar. Once the bus to Calabar had its full compliment of passengers, George let me go and I bagged the seat behind the driver (the safest one) and strapped myself in TIGHT. I had heard stories about these minibuses that would make your hair stand on end – they don’t call them ‘maulers’ for nothing.
From the outset, it was obvious that my driver was a maniac. It didn’t seem to register in his stupid thick head that he wasn’t driving a rally car, but was transporting 20 people – including women and children – who might take unction at having their brains smashed out all over the dashboard. His cavalier attitude, I assume, was spawned from the fact that someone had daubed some catchy logo about Jesus on his van. Therefore, logic runs, that he could drive as dangerously as he damn well liked and be safe because Jesus is looking after him.
I’m not too up on the whole metaphysical conundrum that is Jesus’s daily schedule, but I’m sure the son of the chap what invented every sub-atomic particle in the universe has better things to do with his Fridays than look after some suicidal maniac who is driving down the wrong side of a motorway at over 100mph.
You don’t meet too many drivers over the age of thirty round these parts. Funny that, eh?
So the rollercoaster began. Over 200 police checkpoints, over 100 smashed cars and trucks abandoned at the side of the road, 17 accidents that had just happened and had not yet been cleared off the road (including a petrol tanker that had crashed and blown up) and one accident I even caught on camera as an eighteen-wheeler slammed into the side of a minibus that was attempting to DO A U-TURN AT THE BOTTOM OF A HILL ON A MOTORWAY.
Do the police stop and fine people for speeding, driving erratically, overloading? No. They just tap them all for bribes – dash – and leave them to it. It’s like the diarrhoea, malaria and AIDS around here just aren’t killing enough people, so they invent a new ways to prematurely shuffle off this mortal coil.
Idiots! And for all my grumbles about the state of the roads in West Africa, if this is the way people carry on when they get a motorway to themselves, then they damn well don’t deserve them. At least the dirt tracks and potholes keep the speeds down. Nigeria however, has very good stretches of dual carriageway, but thanks to the monumental stupidity of the drivers (minibuses and trucks in particular) and the indifference of an underpaid and underfunded police force, they resemble little more than the epic truck and car chase at the end of Mad Max 2.
Except the hundreds of petrol tankers that ply the roads are not filled with sand, but something much more inflammable.
At one point, we were going at over 100 miles an hour on the wrong side of the motorway carriageway, overtaking somebody who was also driving on the wrong side and hurtling towards a blind corner on the crest of a hill. If ANYTHING had been coming the other way, we would have been toast.
I screamed at the driver to slow the hell down and to stop driving like a fool. The stupid fat women sitting next to me giggled. Shut up white man, I was told – this is a black man’s road.
I guess things in Nigeria are so bad that the people here welcome death as a nice alternative, like a holiday in the Algarve. I read that despite its overwhelming poverty, Nigeria was the happiest nation on Earth; no wonder – they are all 100% convinced that they will survive their own deaths. I’d be pretty happy if I had that kind of magic juju. But the practical upshot is that, as in pretty much all of West Africa, life is cheap. Which is possibly why people don’t take on their hilariously corrupt governments, bother to wear condoms, ensure their children are educated, inoculated or even taught basic hygiene and why so few people from anywhere else on the planet, choose to live here.
Well, I love life and I can safely say that I will never – never – take a ‘mauler’ down that road ever again. When I got out of the death machine, I seriously wanted to smash my drivers face in, and I’m a lover, not a fighter. But what would be the point? He was too dumb to see the bigger picture and he’d probably be smashed to death before his twenty-first birthday. I just felt sorry for the passengers he would no doubt take with him, the rotter.
His idiotic driving had not got us to our destination any quicker, and it was past 9pm before we alighted in Calabar. Our journey had taken us perilously close to the troubled Niger Delta region of the country, but in a bit of timing rather untypical of The Odyssey, an amnesty had come into effect yesterday and so there was a bit of a pause in the fighting – a pause just wide enough to squeeze a ginger scouser through without him getting kidnapped.
I was hoping to get the overnight ferry to Cameroon (the southern crossing is shot to bits in the rains so the only way in is via water), but it was not to be as the other passengers assured me that the boat had left, but that there would be another one at seven thirty in the morning. Looked like I’d be stuck here for the night.
The hotel listed in the Lonely Planet was being renovated, but the guy who was watching over the place, a pygmy named Roland, let me kip at his gaff. And who else do you know who can say they stayed at a Pygmy’s house? Let alone one called Ronald.
Roland lived in a simple one-room shack in the poorer side of town, but he was working nights so I had the place to myself, except when one of his young female (presumably single) neighbours who saw me arrive, started knocking on the door saying she needed to get in for some excuse or whatever. I was onto her game (whether it be ‘on the game’ or otherwise) so I just acted dumb and waited for her to leave. Sidewalk’s for walkin’, not fancy walkin’.