Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Treking Mt. Cameroon

View photos of Cameroon

Meeting up with my group in Ikom, near the border of Nigeria and Cameroon, our trip continued into the lush rain forests of Cameroon. The roads from Ekok, to Kumba are considered some of worst roads in the world, but adds to the adventure of over landing. Patience is needed to drive along this stretch, which depending on the condition of the roads can take a full week, as large trucks dig up the road till ruts deeper than the vehicle driving through them, are created.

The scenery is beautiful and traveling through the lush rain forest is a great change from the mostly dry Savannah that we have traveled through most of the trip.

I've been in Cameroon for a week now and I already like the place. The population of all of Cameroon is about the same as the largest city in Nigeria, Lagos. So you leave the over crowded conditions behind. The more I experience here, the more I am determined to want to come back to explore other parts of it. There are beautiful beaches along the coast, some rumors of amazing natural parks, and friendly passive people. Complete opposite of their crazy neighbors that we just drove through.

Near the town of Limbe, Cameroon lies the biggest mountain in western Africa, Mt. Cameroon at 4,040 meters(13,255 ft).  The locals call it "mountain of thunder," since it's still an active volcano. The last eruptions occurring in 1999 and 2000.

 While considerably shorter than Mt. Kilimanjaro,(5,895m 19,341 ft) the highest peak in Africa and largest free standing volcano in the world, Mt. Cameroon is in my option more interesting to hike.   I spent three days trekking the volcano, and loved the terrain. There are lots of craters to explore, lava flows to cross, the bottom is a thick blanket of rain forest to hike through.   If get lucky you may even come across forest elephants which live around the base.

I recommend doing the three day hike, total of 52 Km. It will take you up the steep eastern slope, over the summit, then down the more photogenic western side, littered with recent craters, that you can walk to the edge of and look down into.  You can still smell sulfur while you look into the 2000 craters.

My guide told me that in the old days, when ever there was an eruption, the locals fearing that the mountain was angry with them, would hike up to the crater and sacrifice an albino.   Today the tradition continues but instead of using people, they use white geese.

If you are a serious runner, you can run the yearly race to the top and bottom.  It's called the Mt. Cameroon Race for Hope.

Currently in the town of Limbe on the coast of Cameroon, our trip is on hold for a few days till we see what happens with some anti-government protesting that is scheduled for the next few days around Cameroon.  Traveling through Africa you expect unrest.

Like I predicted in a past blog, after seeing protesters in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt, I said that other countries would soon follow. Libya is on the verge of conflict, as internet access, has been cut off in the entire country and a no fly zone is soon to go into effect, Morocco has crowds gathering in Rabat,and Cameroon is rumbling. Who's next?

But in the mean time we are camped in a beautiful location of Limbe, called Botanical Gardens. At the moment, it's clear enough here to seeMalabo, Equatorial Guinea.  It's a large volcanic Island off the coast, that is usually hidden behind clouds.

View photos of Cameroon

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Close Call Gorilla Treking in Nigeria.

Without a machete it would have been hard getting through this mess.
Most of the time you were under the trees, but a few cliffs allowed you a little view of the surrounding area

From Drill Ranch the Ali mountains rose up like some granite cathedral, blanketed with mist, covered with rain forest, and stood as one of the most rugged landscapes I have ever seen. I was warned about the dangers that hide in the jungle, the famous Gabon viper with the longest fangs of any snake in Africa, puff adders and rhino vipers, that hide under the leaves and won't try to move out of your way, the green mamba which is very aggressive and blends right into the green leaves, spitting cobras, army ants that march like soldiers through the jungle, and attack everything in their path.

The ranger that was taking back into the mountains was named Peter, and was recommended by one of the biologists working at drill ranch, who swore by his integrity and said that he was the best they had and most experienced ranger in the sanctuary. He had hiked with him before and was amazing how much he knew about the area.

Peter has been working in the sanctuary for 16 years, and knows how to track the animals. If I was going to be lucky enough to see the gorillas, chimpanzees, or drill monkeys in the wild, he was the best bet. He told me that people had spend years in the park, and only twice have the rare gorillas been photographed.It didn't matter I was just excited for the adventure.

Peter had just spent the last three days alone, on patrol, along the border of the sanctuary. His backpack, was full of snares, shot gun shells, and the head of a dikar,that he found along the way. He was on mission trying to stop poaching in the park.

Because of the poaching problem the manager at Drill Ranch was happy to have Peter and I head back into the sanctuary, because we would be heading three mountains back from the border, an area that hasn't been visited in a long time and the biologists were glad that there would be some eyes watching the area.

Peter agreed to take me back into the park, but also warned me that this wasn't going to be a normal gorilla trek, that if we came across poachers he would arrest them, and that if I was scared that we should not go. I was a bit nervous about this, but realizing this was the experience I was looking for, I said I understood the dangers. The biologist laughed and said you will be one of only a few people who can say they have gone on a fucking gorilla trek in Nigeria. I said good bye to my truck and arranged to meet them at the Cameroon border three days later. And so began one of the most epic experiences of my life.

As he headed back into the mountains, Peter caught me up on the problems he was facing as a ranger in Ali Mountains Sanctuary. That the villages around the place aren't realizing the damage they are doing with poaching and illegal timber cutting. That he took it as his responsibility to try and stop it, even if it kills him.

He told me about a guy in a village up north, that had bragged about killing some chimps in the park, so he went to investigate and found out that he had really killed four drill monkeys. So he confiscated the guys rifle, took the meat, as evidence, and arrested the guy, but then the village chased him out of the village trying to kill him. Because of that, it started a huge war between the his village and that village, that ended in a huge battle where Peter's village, even though smaller massacred the other village, killings hundreds.

It didn't take long to find out just how serious Peter was, how tough he was, and find out first hand, just how dangerous Peters job is guarding the sanctuary.

Just hours into our trek, we came across the sound of two chain saws cutting up a falling tree. Peter went to investigate. I kept my distance at first and let him confront the three guys, walking right up to them like he was ten feet tall. They were caught off guard, the nervousness on their face, expressed their guilt, they knew they were breaking the law. One tried to hide his chain saw. Peter waved me over and I started taking photographs as evidence.

Nothing crazy happened for about 15 minutes, while Peter talked calmly and professionally with the three guys, about why it was illegal to cut wood. The three guys only listened, everything seemed normal. But nothing is normal about logging, it's big business. A hard wood tree the size they had cut down, can earn a logger 1,000,000 Nira. Since the wood is rare and resists rotting.

So it wasn't a shocker that out of the bush appeared the head boss, with a machete in his hand. There was so listening from this guy, or carrying who we were, he just walked up and started threatening that he would kill us if we didn't leave.

The ranger tried to calm him down, but he only got more heated. I really thought I was about to watch someone get killed in front of me. It didn't matter that Peter was a government employee, that he had the power to arrest this guy, he just threatened Peter over and over about cutting his head off. At one point he bluffed Peter by hitting him with the side of his machete. Peter didn't even flinch.

He then took his anger out on me, not carrying who I was, he raised his machete on me, a crazy look in his eye, expressed he wasn't fucking around. Since we were now out numbered 4 to 2 and getting out numbered faster and faster, as more of his posse came walking through the woods. I realized we were in deep shit.

I started backing away, and would have just left the scene, but because they had the upper hand, they saw an opportunity to get more from us. Peter never moved, even when the the guy with the machete raised his hand like he was going to cut Peter. Stealing Peter's GPS, he walked up to me and demanded my camera, raising his machete and threatening to cut my hands off if I didn't let go. It was the first time I had ever been robbed.

I stood there for a split second shocked at the shit we were stuck in, and the idea that I was losing my expensive camera. I've never been the type to panic, but I was damn nervous.

At first I tried to reason with the guy, "I'm sorry,but I need my camera for my work, that I was a stupid tourist.blah blah blah" I looked over at Peter who gave me this look, and without saying anything, I knew that the passive approach wouldn't work with this guy. Nigerians only feel more empowered if you beg.

Knowing he wasn't going to get rid of Peter easily, he would start to threaten him even more. That he would kill us if we, didn't leave the area. But Peter promised me that things would be OK, that he would get back my camera, there was no fear in his eyes. Peter backed me up, informing the group what big trouble they were making if by robbing us, that I was a tourist and he was a government ranger, that they were illegally logging, and that we would inform the police and they would come arrest him.

This really pissed him off, and he ran at us yelling that he should just kill us where we stood. Peter then stood up to him and said you can kill me if you want, but that will only makes things worse for yourself. I started feeding off of Peters invincibility, my courage began to grow, even though we had no weapons, we had only one advantage, and that was not to fear them.

There was no way I was losing my camera, I had too much of my trip left to just give up, As much as he threatened me, the more I kept on him. I kept my distance, so he couldn't hit me. I started working on his friends telling them how much trouble they would all be in if they didn't talk this guy into giving back our stuff. The other members of the group, I think understood the boundary this guy just crossed robbing a tourist and government employee and then threatening to kill us. So they actually started talking the guy into going to the chief of the village and working this all out. So we all started heading to the next village.

After an hour of this guy threatening us, arguing with the group, finally the guy started coming to his senses, even though we were out numbered 15 -2 and surrounded, Peter's courage made me stronger. With them now listening, we saw our chance to go on the offensive, telling them that if anything happened to me that my government would come looking for them. I used the threat that the United States would send the special forces to track them down.

I had my audience, so I gave the best convincing speech I had ever given in my life. I talked about how most tourists are scared to come to Nigeria, because they think Nigerians are crazy, but that I loved Nigeria and liked the people. That I wasn't scared to travel on my own, that I wanted to experience more of the country. But that this would change my opinion about Nigerians, that they were just thieves and killers. And I would go home and tell everyone not to come here.

I could tell they were very patriotic about their country because most of the guys started agreeing with me and feeling bad. So some tried to convince me that if I just gave them 10,000 Nira for the trouble we created, they would give back my camera. Which we argued was just robbing us again, because Peter was only doing his job and I was just along with him and didn't have anything to do with it.

The guy with our stuff started to calm down and listen and talk with us. I told him I understood him, that I knew he was trying to make money himself,that Nigeria is a hard place to make a living, but Peter was only trying to stop them because he was looking out for the future of Nigeria. I told him I wanted to photograph the mountains and maybe if i got lucky even the gorillas, and that I would go home and show everyone what beautiful place it was, which would hopefully attract more people to come visit.

It must have worked, because we then all shook hands, we were handed back our stuff without having to pay anything. I forced Peter to get the hell out of there, he wanted to still try and arrest the guys.

It was one hell of a way to start a three day trip. I really didn't want to come across someone like that again. I was just relieved that I had my camera back.

The hike up the mountains was steep and hot. I have never sweat more in my life. The thorny vines ripped my clothing to shreds. The three days we spent hiking, we crossed over three mountains, hiked 12 hours a day, and tried to catch up to the gorillas that we had no clue where they were. The signs took us up step cliffs, down step gorges, across rivers with boulders the size of houses. We slept where ever we found water, the second night sleeping on a huge flat boulder the size of a house,wild chimps, called in the trees above us, as they laid down for the night.

We saw lots of amazing things along our trek. Came a across the largest snake I have ever seen, a spitting cobra. It was at least 7-8 feet long, had a metallic black body. He reared up and showed his hood, before disappearing off into the jungle, faster than any snake I had ever seen move. It looked as if he was running through the jungle because he was raised two feet up in the air, with his hood out. Never seen a snake move like that.

After miles of trekking through the dense jungle we finally started seeing signs of recent gorilla activity. We counted their beds where they slept, checked dropping to see how old they were, so we knew they were in the area. Just as the sun was setting on the second night, we sat on a ridge to listen.

It was getting dark, but just before we were going to give up we heard cracking in the jungle. My heart rate began to increase. Even though it was almost dark I got my camera ready to just get proof that we saw them. But just as fast as the sound came it disappeared, leaving me disappointed but energized.

The most annoying thing sleeping in the jungle isn't the bugs that bite or crawl over you, it's every morning the bees came in big swarms to lick the sweat off your body. It took all your focus to sit their eating breakfast with bees covering your body, and not freak out. You could feel them crawling everywhere. I was still stung over 20 times, because I would squash one with my armpit or they would fly under my shirt or up my leg and I would sit on them.

Overall it was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. Just experiencing the serenity of being way back in the mountains was a cool thing to experience. The short time I spent with Peter formed an everlasting friendship. He was one of the most interesting people I have ever met in Africa. I learned more about Nigeria in the three days I spent with him then three weeks that we spent traveling through it. He taught me all about the life of the jungle, what to eat, what to look for. He stopped me from grabbing on to the wrong trees, kept me from being stung by some nasty ants, even stopped me from stepping on a green mamba in the trail.
Nest made by gorillas.
We didn't see any gorillas along our trek. But saw evidence that they still live back there. Though he estimates that only 40-50 live in the mountains rather than the few hundred that people think. While I was disappointed not to see them I was at least happy to know that even though we trekked over a large percentage of the place, trying to find them, they could still hide from us somewhere, meaning they can hide from poachers as well. Every animals and monkey we did see back there took off like a rocket when ever they spotted us, so there much be a lot of poaching still going on.

Ali Mountain Sanctuary has everything a place needs to be an amazing Eco-adventure destination. Maybe someday it will become as popular as trekking for the mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda. Since the chance of seeing the "Big Three" in one location, makes it so unique.

I've photographed the gorillas in Uganda a few years back and for 525 dollars, I was lead by a guide with eight other people, for two hours up the side of a volcano, and was given a limit of one hour to view the family.

In Ali Mountain Sanctuary, it would only have cost me only 20 dollars to hire the ranger for three days, of gorillas treking though a landscape that was full of water falls, canyons, and beautiful mountains. Peter kept apologizing for not finding the gorillas for me. He was more disappointed than I was, not seeing them. But then I handed him a big tip, smiled and told him that it was one of the best times of my life hiking with him. That I wanted him to go buy something nice for his wife and family for Valentines, and he perked right up.

The Last of the Drill Monkeys

One of the bright spots in conservation, in Nigeria and all of western Africa, is Drill Ranch, located near Calibar, in southern Nigeria, bordering the Ali Mountains Sanctuary and close to Cross River National Park.

It is run by two Americans and supported by the Nigerian government and Pandrillus Foundation. It houses the most endangered primate in Africa, the drill monkey and some orphaned chimpanzees, in large natural enclosures. They have been successfully breeding drill monkeys, to continue on the gene pool, since drills are rapidly headed for extinction in the wild. Their goal is to release them back into the wild.

The reason they are breeding the drill monkey, and the reason that it's future is so important, is the drill, is part of the lesser known, Big Three of Africa, the three largest primates in Africa, the gorilla, chimpanzee, and drill. The drill only lives in Nigeria and Cameroon. It would be like standing back and watching, one of the "Big Five" of Africa, (elephant, leopard, rhino, lion, and cape buffalo) become extinct with out doing anything. The gorillas had Diane Fossey, the Chimps had Jane Goodall, and now the drills have the two Americans who run Drill Ranch, Elizabeth and Peter Gadsby.

The male drill stands like a gorilla, but looks nothing like them. It's about the size of a chimpanzee, has one of the most colorful rear ends in the animal kingdom, small hands, and a unique looking face. The females are much smaller than the males and can easily be mistaken for other monkeys. The drill is often shot by hunters, since they return every night to sleep in the highest trees, and their meat sold under the name of other monkeys, so no one catches them.

Drill ranch is the largest employer around Ali Mountain Sanctuary, since they hire locals from surrounding villages to help with the primates. They also buy all their food for the animals from the villages, to help build a partnership that includes, educating the locals in the importance of preserving the diversity and conserving the land for future generations. If it wasn't for this sanctuary the rangers believe that all gorillas would have been killed by now.

What is special about the Ali Mountain Sanctuary in Southern Nigeria, is it is one of only three places left that have The Big Three, living together in the wild. The gorillas that live in the Ali Mountains Sanctuary are the rarest subspecies of lowland gorilla in Africa, there numbers are estimated at around 200. They are built more like the more famous mountain gorillas of Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC, which only an estimated 700 live in the wild. The drill monkey and Chimps are even more rare to see.

While I was camping there, I heard one to two gun shots every night, as poachers hunted for bush meat. The three biologists studying there, one from Kenya, and two from he US, were getting increasingly frustrated, so much so, that they would put their own lives on the line, by heading out in the bush at night to try and catch the poachers.

The more I talked with the workers and biologists at the ranch, the more motivated I became with spending some time hiking in the Ali Mountain Sanctuary. I came to Africa to experience places like this, and the chance to photograph the Big Three in one location, had me convinced to leave my truck and trek back in the mountains on my own.

I didn't want to miss the opportunity of seeing drill monkey's, chimps, and gorillas in the wild. I have photographed the mountain gorillas in Uganda, but it's such a popular place to visit, and costs you up to 725 dollars to spend one hour with the gorillas. Thousands of visitors view them every year, so I wanted to experience a place where the gorillas have only been photographed twice ever, and only a hand full of white tourist have ever seen them, so this was the adventure I was looking for.

So I negotiated being taken back into the mountains with the best and most passionate ranger, the biologist recommended. While the truck and group I was traveling with, left for Calibar, I stayed back for three more days and was taken on one of the most epic experiences of my life, and which would change both our lives and bring two complete strangers together and will no doubt stay life long friends.

Gunfire In Nigeria

After spending a week in Abuja, I was itching, like my mosquito bitten legs, to get back on the road. Boredom was starting to set in, since there isn't much to do in the capital of Nigeria, except burn through your money on expensive beers and watching movies, in empty theaters, in the only mall in the city. I was looking forward to the next section of our trip.

Killing time just before we left, I found myself in the hotel lobby, watching the conflict going on it Cairo, and footage of Egyptians riding down the streets on camels and horses trying to hit people, and then being ripped down and beaten, police cars running over and killing pedestrians, and people throwing rocks at each other. Up till Abuja our trans Africa trip had been pretty normal compared to what was going on in other countries around us. But that was all about to change. Traveling through Nigeria is like traveling across a mine field. It's just a matter of time till you drive somewhere that explodes in your face.Our mine was the town of Lafia.

The further in the city we drove, I noticed dark black smoke starting to rise into the sky, ahead. At first I thought it was a car accident, since it was so thick and black, like burning oil. I kept thinking about all the wrecked cars and trucks, I photographed driving the roads, so I figured we were finally coming up on another wrecked and burning. But the closer we got, I could see that the smoke was rising from different locations in the road ahead, and being lit by a crowd running around, and I knew at that moment this wasn't a car accident, that our trip finally would experience what has been going on around Africa.

I grabbed my camera, sensing something more dangerous was about to happen. The flow of traffic started to change, as the unrest grew. People started moving back towards us, instead of continuing up the street. Motorbikes started throwing U turns over the median, heading back the other way, I yelled back to the passengers that shit was about to happen.

Cars started honking to get traffic moving, since the traffic ahead refused to budge, like a dog on a leash refusing to be walked up the road, because it sensed danger. We had no choice but to sit in traffic and watch the conflict ahead unfold, up the next block. The situation, went from unstable to chaotic in a split second. And I had a front row seat.

Gun fire erupted in the middle of the crowd, people ducked and ran for their lives. The people in the street scattered like cockroaches, when you turned on the light. Our driver hearing this, knew things were about to get ugly and sensed the urgency to get his passengers out of danger, so he threw a U turn,in the middle of the street, cutting of traffic fleeing in the opposite lane, not caring if he rammed into any vehicles. I got a few pictures of gunmen running down the street with AK-47's in the air, others ducking and trying to escape gunfire, the road on fire, and smoke engulfing the city. Like rats on a sinking ship, everyone in town not involved in the uprising, was now running the same way down the road. Shop owners scrambled to close up their stores. Street vender's collected everything laying out, as fast as they could, and our heart rate began to rise.

We have seen some crazy things along our trip, but haven't come across any violence, but have been expecting it. So we drove away with a reality check of what can happen at any minute traveling trough any African country. I've gotten caught in the middle of a few riots in my life and the mob like mentality can snowball quickly, like a spark landing on a dry patch of grass. People feeding off the emotions of each other, boiling over till everyone loses their fear of the law and things just fall apart from their. When this happens in Africa, it sadly means that their will be a large loss of life.

As we sped off down the opposite way, not sure of where we could run too, since it was the only road we could take towards southern Nigeria. No one knew what was happening down the road, but no one wanted to wait and find out. We just expected it to be another religious battle that has been going on in the country since Christmas, and which has been really bloody. In the town of Jos, just north of Abuja, hundreds of people were killed in the streets, which ironically was the town we would have to pass through if we were forced to head back to Abuja, because of this unrest.

Since we had nowhere to really run to, our driver turned off into the police station. The police offers all drew their guns, as we pulled in, not knowing who we were, but making sure we weren't part of the conflict. But once they saw we were "whites", they relaxed. A group of police officers carrying AK-47's were already getting ready to take off, to help with the unrest.

Since our route was now cut off, we had no choice but to wait. The police told us they would return if things were OK to continue. So we hung out and chatted with the remaining officers, had lunch, and our driver warned other over landers that we met in Abuja, and departed after us, about what was going on here.
Later in the day, we were given the green light, so we continued back down the road where the gun fire was coming from. We passed burned debris, and a block that looked as if their was a lot of rioting, the police lined the street like riot police, wearing bullet proof vests, some holding guns, others only clubs. But we didn't see any dead bodies in the road. Not sure if anyone was injured or killed in the short outburst, we didn't stop to ask questions just drove through as fast as we could. Never heard what it was about, but political parties from both sides running for president were going to be traveling through the town in the next few days, so it could have been sparked because of that.

The conflict summed up Nigeria for me. A country full of some of the nicest people I have met, but stuck in a blender with a bunch of pitfalls,holding the country back, the both being grind ed up, till all the outside world sees of Nigeria is a milkshake of crazy people, that drives away tourism. Not the Nigeria that I have experienced, or the amazing rain forests that are in the southern apart. Nigeria has a lot of natural resources, a lot of oil, a lot of beautiful landscapes, and has the chance of becoming a world famous destination. Nigeria with all it's problems is still my favorite country in western Africa, and would recommend people to visit. It could be a richer, more beautiful, more peaceful, more of a place where tourists flock to every year to relax on the beaches, trek in the mountains, and view the remaining wildlife, but because it's not tamed I find it to be an amazing place to experience real Africa.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Time off the Truck

At the moment, I'm sitting poolside charging my computer at the Sheraton Hotel. I would usually be in the pool on a hot day like today, but if you're not staying in a room at the Sheraton, they charge 15 dollars a day to swim, along with 18 dollars an hour for Internet, so if I did both it would cost the same as an Alaskan king crab dinner back home.(Which sounds so good right now) If I wanted to spend money like that I wouldn't be camping behind the hotel's guard dog kennels,next to the sewer treatment plant, and would be staying in a room.

From poolside I'm looking out at the attractive women wearing bikini's and I'm sure their bare skin is sexually frustrating the predominately wealthy Islamic men, who aren't accustomed to seeing so much skin, staying in the Hotel. Heck they are sexually frustrating me, right now since I've been traveling for 4 months now.

Tourism doesn't exist in Nigeria, so most of the foreigners that are here are flight attendants and captains, or people doing business in Abuja, and probably don't experience Africa beyond hotels like this.

It's exactly what I expect a rich hotel to be like in a place like Nigeria, where everything costs a fortune so that only the wealthy can afford to come here. There is security everywhere, cars are examined for bombs before driving through the gate, the bar at night is swarming with Nigerian ladies of the night, buzzing around looking for a rich guy to sting with their looks and then go with him to his room.

I was going to splurge today for lunch and finally get away from the truck meals and upgrade to one of the expensive hotel restaurants. Three months sleeping in a tent, eating the same things over and over, and driving through towns that only offered cooked grass cutters, large ass rats,to eat. I have really been craving a big steak or Cheeseburger. So I walked into this restaurant with the finest clothing I have, my safari pants that you can zip off into shorts, and a blue American Eagle collared shirt, that I didn't even know I packed, but glad I had.

When I walked in, everyone stopped eating and looked at me, like some hillbilly walking into a black tie party. The restaurant was being rented out by an Islamic business, everyone was in expensive traditional clothing. My hopes died, and I turn around, and walked dejected, back to the truck like a little boy who saved up money for two scoops of chocolate ice cream, only to find the ice cream store was closed.

I've been relaxing in Abuja, Nigeria for a week now, waiting on two visas. Nothing too crazy has gone on in town. Though towns around Abuja are out of control at the moment. A guard dog, did get loose while we were back behind the hotel in our camp spot, which made things interesting as it started running around hyper on it's new freedom, not sure what to attack. The kennels, that we stay behind are used to train stray dogs into becoming guard dogs, to attack intruders. Last year, one got loose and attacked someone camping, so when a dog starts running around it grabs your attention.

The situation reminded me of camping in game parks in eastern Africa and how nervous men got when a honey badger would come into camp. Pound for pound honey badgers are the most aggressive animal in the world. Short legged, they have a Napoleon complex, the temper of a street fighter, and the reputation for going straight for the male genitals, like a girlfriend who just caught her boyfriend cheating. They have been known to take down full grown Kudu, and even make male lions run nervously out of the way when they jog by. So whenever one walks into camp, every male pays attention, sits up straight, and nervously crosses their legs.

We haven't seen a drop of rain since, the first weeks of our trans Africa trip, in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. So we have been accustomed to dry weather, sleeping only in mosquito nets, to escape the malaria carrying mosquito's at night, but at the same time trying to stay cool in the hellishly hot and humid conditions.

A few nights ago, our group was in the Elephant Bar, in the Sheraton, taking advantage of happy hour, when beers are half off and actually affordable. One attractive Nigerian lady of the night, came up to a few guys I was with and said, "hey handsome you are hot, you want some of this," A few of us played around with her for a few seconds, enjoying the attention. She then responded, "if we wanted to get out of here and go back to my place." I joked again, "sure we are staying in the tents behind the dog kennels, besides that sewer treatment plant," which she laughed and walked away unimpressed, knowing there were bigger wallets in the bar to search for, and a more comfortable night in the nice beds of the hotel.

Our laughter was soon, interrupted by the manager of the hotel, coming up to us and telling us campers, "that once every decade it rains in Abuja, they call it the "mango rains," and not to interrupt your beer fun, but it's happening right now outside the hotel, so you might want to get back to your tents."

I'm sure the ladies all got a kick from it, as we ran outside, to a full blown storm ripping our camp apart, blowing over our tents and drenching our laundry hanging up. It took awhile to gather everything up and cover the remaining tents with tarps, and pound the remaining tents down with spikes, but after we accomplished that we ran around in the monsoon rains,like school kids, who had just been set free for recess and enjoying rain after two months of dry hot Sahara Desert heat.

It was like the scene from my favorite movie, "Shawshank Redemption." Where after spending years digging his way out of prison and finally escaping through the open sewer pipe , and into a rain storm, Andy rips off his prison clothes, and takes a moment to stand in the rain, his eyes closed, his hands reaching into the sky, flashes of lighting illuminating the darkness, and soaking in his freedom.

As darkness falls around Abuja, the Sky's come alive with tens of thousands of fruit bats, the size of ducks, that look like foxes with wings, with at least a 3 foot wingspans. Like World War Two bombers, heading off to drop their bombs, every sunset they show up in increasing numbers. Every night I am amazed at how many there are and how big they are. For an hour they just keep coming, all heading in the same direction towards the setting sun, like migrating Canadian geese back home, but not in a V formation, but almost evenly spaced. they don't dart around like normal bats.

We have a few more days here till we leave, making our way to Cameroon, to start the slide south down the African continent to Cape Town. Like astronauts that lose communication with NASA, while they travel around the dark side of the moon, I will be away from contact with the outside world for a long period of time as we spend the next two months traveling down roads that are the worst in the world. At times they warn us it could take all day to travel 100 feet. We are racing the the clock, to get through the area before the rainy seasons begin again, some time around the end of February and beginning of March. Which makes travel almost impossible. "Houston we have a problem."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Since the day I received the, 419 Nigerian email scam, where they promised you millions of dollars, if you just willingly hand over your bank account information to help them smuggle money out of the country, I have always been curious what Nigeria was like and who these Nigerians were.

Reading up on Nigeria I was expecting that as soon as I crossed the border, the world would turn into one of chaos and corruption. On our drive to Nigeria we were constantly getting reports of conflict and cities that were too dangerous to travel through, because of recent fighting between Muslims and Christians that, have killed hundreds.

Like most African countries, during colonial rule the country was fragmented and divided, creating tension between the different tribes, religions, and political parties, that boils over into blood shed even today. Nigeria moved it's capital from Lagos on the southern coast, to Abuja, a more central location in the 1980's, after a bloody civil war that cost the lives of around a million people, and was fought between the less developed north wanting more representation and influence in the country, from the developed oil rich south.

Over 140 million people call Nigeria home, which makes it the most populated country in Africa. One of every 5 Africans are Nigerian. If you want to know what it feels like to be in the minority, as a white person or foreigner, walk the streets of any large town.

During the oil boom of the 60's and 70's, the veins of the economy ran black with the wealth of oil that it exported from the southern, Niger River Delta. Like crack the new wealth sent the country into a state of addiction. The leaders seeing money they had never seen before, became extremely corrupt and stole billions of dollars, putting little of it back into the economy, leaving the country with a failing infrastructure. The people were left to fight over the little scraps of wealth that seeped through the cracks, creating the current situation in Nigeria today, that scares away tourism.

Traveling through Nigeria for 6 days now and currently in the Capital Abuja, Nigeria has told me more than you could learn from just reading about it. Mostly that you can never judge a book by it's cover. Nigeria is like a book where the cover gets you prepared for war scenes, corruption, poverty, and environmental disaster, only to find that after reading a few chapters you start to realize there is more to this book than you thought.

For the first two days, driving through the country, I thought Nigeria was going to be just like what it's cover advertises. We were stopped at 15 check points in the first 50 Km, from the border of Benin. At times they were so close together, you could wave to the police at the next check point. (As a joke we kept a tally on the dry erase board) Each time we were stopped, police carrying AK-47's boarded our truck and checked our passports, went through our documents, and tried to find some reason to get money from us.

The first few towns we came across, Abeokuta and Ibadan, were overflowing with people in the streets, making it seem like we were driving through a crowd of thousands of hyper soccer fans, our truck having to slowly push through it. The traffic was terrible . At one point we got stuck behind a truck, we couldn't pass and after a few honks, the drivers angrily jumped out and started yelling at us, pulling into more locals, till a crowd surrounded our truck and started yelling at us, some picking up rocks and threatening to throw them at us, some demanding money, others just being crazy.

There was nothing we could have done if they decided to storm our truck, a mob like mentality can snowball very quickly, as the tension builds. Our driver held a pipe in his hand, as people jumped up on the side of our trucks, I sat on the top of the truck as a deterrent from people trying to climb up the sides. Luckily 3 mouths of traveling through crazy large cities has somewhat gotten us used to threats from people and the situation cooled to where we could continue.

The infrastructure in parts of Nigeria are terrible, the roads are in poor condition, and lined with vehicles that are broken down, burned up, or parked. Driving the roads in places look like some scene from the movie Mad Max, or what I would picture the war torn roads to be like leading to Bagdad, Iraq. Turned over tractor trailers, car wrecks, burned up tanker trucks that looked as if it must have exploded into a huge ball of flame, line the roads. I've never seen so many crunched vehicles.

You come across a semi truck wrecked almost every mile. I've started to photograph every one I see. Some are just flipped over, some have driven over the side of the road, some plowed over the sides of bridges, some still leaking fuel which the locals try to capture in buckets. A story starts to unfold of the dangerous lifestyle of truck drivers, who risk their lives daily, transporting their heavy cargo over pot holed and bumpy roads. You see even more trucks broken down in the middle of the road, as they just fall apart. You get the sense that life is cheap here.

I would love to see the suburban soccer mom, try to drive the streets of Nigeria. It's more than just a white knuckle experience. When I travel the roads, I sit a top the truck with my camera, photographing things that pass by. In Nigeria that means coming face to face with two, three, four semi trucks all heading right towards you. There are no lanes, trucks and cars pass on either side at the same time, vehicles are forced to snake their way side to side, trying to travel the path of least resistance. It's like a the most dangerous tango you will ever do, as far as you can see down the road, truckers are avoiding each other. There is no such thing as close calls, every time you pass a vehicle it's a close call.

But like I said, you can't always judge a book by it's cover, and the further we drove into the heart of Nigeria, and the more I experienced, the more I began to love it, and like Osmosis, the more I soaked up a side of Nigeria not many know about.

The people in the country side, are some of the most happy and kind people we have come across. The small villages are a treat to stop in. Because English is spoken, it makes communication much easier. It didn't take long to warm up to Nigerians, hearing stories, making relationships, and learning the warmer side to the country. The outfits that people wear are so bright and beautiful, their smiles so big and happy. Crowds of people would greet us when we stopped to buy food from the local markets, but no one begged for money, they all waved as we drove away. Because their isn't much tourism, the people haven't been influenced by handouts and less interested in wearing western outfits. So it feels as if you are experiencing real Africa.

At one pee stop, a guy with a gun came walking out of the woods, and walked up to us, at first I was nervous of what his intention was, but then a big smile and wave greeted us, with a heart warming shake of his hand, which erased any tension and I spent a few minutes, photographing and talking with him. His face showed so much wear and tear of a hard life, but his smile and kindness showed the warmth he still had in his heart.

Traveling the roads in Africa make you feel like a celebrity has kids come running to greet you and wave. In Nigeria, everyone waves and greets you as you pass by. Even when you pass big, strong, mean looking construction workers, they all turn and wave with both hands like little school girls. It always makes me laugh.

Besides oil, Nigeria has a huge film industry, nicknamed, Nollywood. It ranks just behind USA's Hollywood, and India's Bollywood. The movies after hitting the main screen only have a few days to earn money before copies are sold over the black market. But just like the celebrities back home, the actors and actresses become idolized.

We have a few days in Abuja, waiting for our Congo and Angola Visa's. It's starting to get harder to find Internet. I checked at the nicest hotel in town, the Sheraton hotel and Internet was 18 dollars and hour. So I had to walk around town trying to find somewhere cheaper. Which I currently am on.

Getting a chance to check up on the world I see that Egypt is now in a state of conflict. I sense this is just the beginning, since like a domino effect more and more Muslim countries are starting to stand up to the government. Not sure if this will trickle down to northern Nigeria, but if it does we are smack in the middle of the country now.

Yesterday a riot broke on in Abuja, so police have kept an eye on us as we walk around the city, we are staying in. The cities just north of us, have curfews at night time. So I have been told I can't travel up to a national park I wanted to visit on my own. So for now I spend my days, within the protected walls of the Sheraton Hotel, which is more like a 5 star resort, drinking expensive beers. We have another week in Abuja before we take off so I'm sure I'll see some interesting things while I'm here.

The Venice of Benin

Leaving Lome,Togo we headed East along the coast into Benin. Benin is a small country like Togo, but shaped more like a club, probably to fend off it's crazy neighbors.

We didn't see much of Benin because we were given a 48 hour visa. But I saw enough to know it was a country I would like to go back to and see more of. It's very lush, has beautiful scenery, has stilt villages, and a voodoo culture that is alwasy fun to learn more about.

The first night we camped on the beach in Ouidah, next to a memorial for all the slaves who came from Benin. Traveling down a 4km strech of road called the "Route des Esclaves," route of the slaves, took you past some statues and ended at the beach with a large arch on the spot the slaves last touched before, they left africa by boat. It was a giant memorial with carvings of slaves in chains being led to a boat, besides it had large letters saying "Point of No Return."

The coast of Benin seems like one continous beach, with barely anyone on it, and noone swimming. I guess the rip tide can be quite bad in this area, because locals came running and screaming down the beach, trying to get us out of the water, when I started body surfing the waves. At first I thought it was a shark in the water, but then I found out they were warning us about the current, which kills alot of people.
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Wanting to photograph the stilt village, a group of us jumped in a boat and was transported to a stilt village called Ganvie. It was like the Venice of Benin. With the entire town living on top of the water, with boats being the mode of transportation. The village was built on stilts, to escape slavery. The people of Ganvie, used the water to their advantage, fleeing from the rival Dahomey slaver hunters who's religion forbid them from crossing water to capture slaves, so they built a city over the water, to stay safe.

Today, 30,000 people live in the stilt village, living almost entirely on a fishing lifestyle. The town is very active, paddling their boats, fishing, it's a very unique lifestyle and great for photography, but not every local likes their picture taken.

While Benin was no more than a transit on the way to Nigeria, I would love to go back an visit the north, and experience more voodoo villages, since voodoo originated in Benin. I would also love to visit, Parc de la Pendjari in the north Bordering Burkina Faso. It's one of the best parks in western Africa, to see wildlife.