Nearly two months into the solo motorcycle trip to Cape Town, and things had gone fairly smoothly in north and west Africa. There had been a few little adventures, some adversity, but in the back of my mind I knew riding conditions were going to get more challenging as the journey progressed. My introductory day in Nigeria was, in retrospect, my most satisfying yet. As with these things, the greater the difficulties, the greater the satisfaction. One thing I was still getting used to, was the idea that distance was relative. Looking at the map and planning ahead, I would estimate what was possible that day. Invariably this was misguided. For example, in nearby Burkina riding most of the day I could cover maybe 350 to 400 kms. Here in Nigeria, the previous day it had taken me four hours to cover 80 kms in Kwara province, a region that is still quite traditional and poor. Pehl women in their traditional dress and headgear were walking to a market. Children screamed and ran away at my approach. I was a major novelty.

The great Niger river rises just two hundred miles from the sea in the mountains of Sierra Leone then, confounding European geographers for centuries, heads inland towards the Sahara. Skirting the edge of the Sahara at Timbuktu heading east, the Niger curves back again south into Nigeria, where it eventually reaches the Atlantic, the delta spreading over 200 miles of coastline. I crossed it for the final time at the massive Kainji dam, built a few miles downriver from the rapids where Scottish explorer Mungo Park met his death. That night I reached Bida, a few hours from Abuja, hoping to be in striking distance to make it to the Angolan embassy in the morning without having to spend money on notoriously expensive accommodation in the capital.

My hotel room in the very Muslim city of Bida had a TV, my first on the trip - but there was an electricity cut! I would become used to that in Nigeria. Later that night when the power was restored I had a choice of two stations – a religious one, or BBC World. Not believing my luck, I saw brief highlights of Ireland’s last minute loss to France at rugby earlier that day in Croke Park! “Many see it as the crux game of the championship,” introduced the BBC presenter, “though some in England would disagree”, he added with a touch of that renowned smugness we love them for. (A pleasant birthday present a few weeks later was the news of their humiliatingly huge loss to us at the same venue.) So that was our chance gone for the Grand Slam. It left me with a bit of a low feeling going to sleep.

Intending to get off early the next morning, I was detained chatting to the hotel manager and another guest, a government employee, filling me in on the “dreadful state of things in this country”. I learned that though one of the world’s major crude oil producers, Nigeria has to import 70% of its petrol. They can’t run the refineries here, either through inefficiency, or more usually sabotage of lines. The civil service is corrupt, in fact the whole culture runs on bribes, backhanders and favours. “Bring in ex-pats to manage the place”, favoured the hotel manager. “We have the resources”, reasoned the civil servant, “we have the training and expertise, and we have the labour. Why can’t we manage it all? Leadership!” he exclaimed. “We need leadership.” In the upcoming elections he forecast there would be a change of government.

Heading off through the by now morning rush hour I realised riding conditions were to be a little different here. ‘Defensive driving’ was to be the modus operandi, anticipating any possible moves of the other drivers – all the time. The roads were seriously potholed, sandy bits indicating sudden holes in the tarmac, most of them deep enough to damage a car’s suspension. This meant a constant weaving across the road, little respect given of course to a mere two wheeled vehicle. Not only did I have to anticipate the oncoming vehicles path, but also overtaking was a hazard as the car I was overtaking could unexpectedly veer across my path. I began to understand the hierarchy of the road a bit better when behind a large articulated truck going uphill. He slowly began overtaking the truck in front of him. Two cars approached coming in the opposite direction. This would be interesting I thought, staying well out the way. The truck just continued his manouevre, ignoring the oncoming cars. Both cars had to pull off into a ditch to avoid a collision. I was nearly driven off the road a few times, one car in particular zipping past me to a non existent gap ahead, cutting me up, to where I just avoided hitting his front fender! Though my practice is usually to avoid getting wound up at traffic behavior – this was their country, I had to readjust - I screamed obscenities into my helmet at this driver. I felt powerless, what could I do? As Darwin might have said - Adapt or die!

The nation’s capital, Abuja is only a recently built city. It’s attractively located in an area with large smooth rock features, and has an easily navigable approach road. Which still didn’t help me get to the embassy on time, arriving at an old address. They had moved. But, as I was learning, my plans having been thrown awry wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I actually ended up being given accommodation gratis by the lovely nuns running the hostel I found, when they heard I was doing the trip for a charity. Instead of an anticipated few hours in the city, I spent a few days there waiting on the visa, also managing to get a Congo visa while there.

Being told by the friendly guard at the Angolan embassy – all discussion and transactions were performed over the wall – of the Irish embassy not far away, I decided to visit, introduce myself and see what they were up to. And got a warm welcome and cup of tea from Marisa Mercado secretary to the ambassador. Marisa and Linda Jaber, from the Lebanon, seemed to run the day to day business in there, dealing in what seemed like a very efficient manner with the constant queue of visa applicants. Marisa, who had come to Nigeria with her engineer husband from the Phillipines years ago, had now made the country her home and brought up her family here. She seemed to take me under her wing, getting me a favourable exchange rate for changing my euro, phoning embassies to facilitate me getting visas, and writing embassy letters to help me further down the road. I was very grateful for her help over the few days. As I was finally leaving I asked on the off chance if there were any back issues of The Irish Times. I not only went away with a few Saturdays publications, but also was able to read my debut report in the previous Wednesday’s paper! For the record, I was disappointed how it had been edited and read a little disjointed.

One visitor to the embassy while I was having one of my cups of tea was a senior figure in Nigerian Immigration. Peter was in his mid thirties, had an open friendly face, and was looking forward to an upcoming visit to Ireland. He was interested in hearing about my motorbike trip, and intrigued to hear I’d made it across the route to Kaiama. When asked about dangers in the south, he reckoned I’d be fine in the area of Calabar where I was heading. The trouble was mainly in the delta region, where the oil drilling was going on. That’s where the risk was high of kidnapping. From two South African security consultants I’d met also waiting at the Angolan embassy, I’d heard over two thousand had been kidnapped. Mostly Philippine – anyone foreign was a target in the area as the probability was they worked for an oil company. “And I don’t care what they say. They pay the ransoms. It’s better than the bad publicity if an employee is killed,” claimed the South African. “I’m not saying the people in the area don’t have a gripe, not seeing any of the rewards from the oil, but it’s just bandits doing the kidnapping.” Peter from Immigration played down the dangers. “I shouldn’t say this as I’m in uniform, but there’s little danger of the kidnappers harming their victims.” As one of the South African’s had pointed out, a live captive is worth more than a dead one. I believe only one had died, a Philippina, the only woman captive, who had jumped overboard while being taken through the warren of channels in the delta region, and drowned. I didn’t get a chance to quiz the South Africans, I presume ex military, on sympathies or antipathies towards them in Angola. South Africa was the main supporter of Jonas Savimbi’s Unita during the lengthy and destructive Angolan civil war.

I also met Bob Patterson, the assistant Ambassador, and learned the Abuja embassy had responsibility right across West Africa including Sierra Leone and Liberia. Of course, I remembered Irish troops had been responsible for airlifting the reputed despot Charles Taylor out to face trial in the Hague. So what was the situation like there? Bob visited regularly “I feel very safe in the hands of the Irish battalion. They’ve been there four years and developed a lot of respect from both the locals and other UN Forces. They have a really professional reputation. There were other nationalities there but in a stationary position, guarding installations and such like. Our lads were an active unit – ‘peace enforcement’ which does allow them be more effective and react to situations.” We referred to examples of UN troops passively deployed and ineffective, such as the infamous Dutch unit blamed for standing by at Srbenica, or the Belgians in Rwanda. “Of course it’s been a really useful experience for the Irish Army. They will be pulling out next July, to be replaced by Nigerian troops.” Coincidentally, while working on my bike in Calabar a week later, I was being watched and entertained by a corporal in the Nigerian Army on his day off, who announced proudly he was off to Liberia in July.

Bob reckoned Liberia is improving. “It hit rock bottom, but with the elections and success of this female president, things are looking up.” I had heard it’s a country rich in resources. “It’s a wealthy country, yes. But you look at any country that is rich in natural resources, and it has ended up in trouble. Nigeria was an agricultural country until oil was discovered in 1956. Now there is no agriculture to speak of. Look at Angola. The D.R.C. is huge and has incredible resources…” I had heard similar sentiments since from some Red Cross workers, pointing out Botswana as an example of a country that is managing its wealth well.

From here it was down south to the coastal city of Calabar. Through Makurdi and Ogoja, I wanted to take a diversion west across to the town of Abakaliki. A Cistercian monastery had been started there twenty years ago, the ‘mother’ house, or founders, Glencairn Abbey near Lismore in Co Waterford, where I had visited not long before leaving on the trip, and remember being enthusiastically filled in by Mother Marie on the founding of St Justina’s. In the sixties, while studying in Cork, Sister Justina from Nigeria would come up to Mount Melleray for visits and became interested in the Cistercian contemplative way of life. She subsequently joined the community in nearby Glencairn. For twenty years she was there, increasingly hoping for an opportunity to return to her native country to continue her practice. Various proposals were put to the powers that be to consider starting a community in Nigeria, the water was tested by inviting those interested to a number of retreats. Enough interest was registered to bring it another step on, enrolling a number of novitiates in a monastery in neighboring Cameroon for training. After years of toing and froing, eventually the go ahead was given for Glencairn to start a community in Abakaliki, with Sr Justina in charge. Two months later at the age of 38 she died suddenly of cancer.


Sr Margaret, in Glencairn, was asked to take up the reins. And it was to her I was introduced arriving one morning on the bike, finding the monastery with some difficulty in a very rural and remote area, crawling in first gear over a very poor dirt track. An energetic and able Canadian, Sr Margaret was getting on in years at this stage, and after establishing and developing the thriving community now about thirty in number, had handed over the leadership of the place to Mother Chinwe, one of the original postulants who went to Cameroon! They farm rice, cassava, yams, palm oil and ‘oboni’ nuts – a new one on me – also know as wild mango. Apparently the large stone is ground and used as a protein and flavouring in soups.

I was given a very warm welcome, and though anxious to press on, was persuaded to stay the night. It was a relaxing twenty four hours, allowing me time to get over a bit of a lingering fluie virus. The heavy humidity was now very apparent, as we were now only a few hundred miles from the coast, well and truly in the tropics. Mass the next morning was a clammy, uncomfortable hour in length – and it was midweek! (Even my mother, a daily communicant would find that excessive I’m sure.) A number of the nuns – among them Sisters Ife Cristi, Martina, and Maureen– as well as Margaret had been in Glencairn and knew my auntie, an occasional visitor there, and were asking for her. It felt great to learn of this connection so far away from home. When I was leaving, they all turned out to say farewell, two of the nuns trying to hand me letters written overnight for my aunt. I felt awkward explaining it would be better to post them rather than have me carry them around Africa on the bike the next few months. I thought afterwards I should have just taken them and posted them myself.


Anything was preferable to the thought of returning to the main Calabar road the way I’d come. The previous day, heading west on what was supposed to be a major road –red on the Michelin map –it had deteriorated into an incredibly dilapidated dirt track, a series of ruts, mounds and potholes which reduced me down to first and second gear. At one stage taking things up to an ambitiously fast third gear I saw a pothole too late and hit it badly, the back wheel springing up pitching the bike on to the front. Not a great idea on a fully loaded bike! I slowed down after that. Darkness was enveloping me and I gave up on the idea of reaching my target of Abakaliki that night, and stopped in the village of Yahe, luckily finding the Honesty Guesthouse. Very basic, it was shelter, had a bucket of water to wash, and most importantly, the friendly proprietor ran his ancient though sturdy generator through the night which allowed me keep the fan running in the oppressive humidity. That evening, sitting on a wooden bench next to the road eating rice and beans, the whole village out in the sultry evening air chatting, shouting, strolling and shopping in the atmospheric yellow glow from lanterns, I was told how this part of Nigeria was particularly neglected.

Nigeria is made up of three distinct racial and cultural groups – the Yoruba in the south west, the Islamic Hausa in the north and the Igbo here in the south east. One interpretation is that because of difficulty in communication due to the rainforest, a less hierachical or centralised society evolved – unlike for example the Muslim Hausas in the more desert-like north. Consequently, with not very strong social and cultural barriers, they adopted quite easily the values of Europeans they’d traded with over the centuries on the slave coast – including Christianity, an emphasis on self advancement and business enterprise seen as a virtue. The Igbo region in the twentieth century became very industrialised, and of course oil was discovered here as well. Formerly declaring itself the Republic of Biafra, then losing the resultant war in the late sixties, the area was decimated, millions killed in battle and through starvation. Those of my generation remember this as the first time public opinion in the West was mobilised against Third World poverty.

It is said that since then, Igboland has been neglected in a country with a poor record anyway of public works. My two dinner companions complained that this very road we were sitting next to, is the trans West African highway from Ghana across to Cameroon! Since it’s been let deteriorate to such an undrivable state, their town, now just a backwater, had lost a lot of business.

It was the day after St Valentine’s Day, and I got a sweet Valentines wish from three delightful sisters that morning outside the guesthouse as I was preparing to leave.

So onwards to Calabar cross country by the more direct route, though I was warned of the track being a bit slow for about 30 km. Which turned out to be accurate enough, but I was getting more used to bad tracks by now and could handle that. The directions were south west out of Abakaliki towards Afikpo on a sealed road, then left after about thirty kms to the village of Itigidi on the Cross River.


There is a new bridge being constructed but I had to get the ferry across, getting to the main Ikom to Ogoja road shortly after. Cruising on a good road the hour or so on to Calabar, it was exciting to feel the tropical air, smell the thickness of it and see the rainforest each side of the road. Palm trees, cultivated for the palm oil, stretched over the hills for miles. Calabar itself is a fairly relaxed city, overlooking the Calabar river. Apparently the rulers of the city states around this part of the coast, becoming wealthy dealing with the various European traders, took to adopting foreign names. I found a quiet place to stay in Henshawtown. Once again the regular power cuts meant no fans at night, and no water pumped up. A major memory from Calabar is of getting little sleep - lying awake bathed in sweat, bedroom door open and head by the window straining to feel the slightest movement of the heavy humid air.

The Drill Monkey Ranch on the outskirts of town, was started by Peter Jenkins and Liza Gadsby. Peter is a laconic, argumentative and strongly opinionated building contractor (and spitting image of Steve McQueen) who at 37 had wanted to “get off the treadmill”. With his partner (I presumed they were partners but didn’t ask) Liza, a Zoology graduate, they were travelling West Africa in their Land Rover, and only by chance hopped into Nigeria to get spare parts for the vehicle. Nearly twenty years later they are still here. “How to start a nightmare”, in Peter’s memorable phrase. Learning there were possibly only 3,000 Drill monkeys left in the world, in the small rainforest area around the Nigeria and Cameroon border, they took on the project of trying to protect them, and of course are in too deep to get out! In the short time I spent in their company, in Calabar or up at the Afi Mountain Widlife Sanctuary in the rainforest, I took a backseat as either, or both, filled me in on the project, Nigeria, cultural characteristics, local politics, and the social organisation of Drills.

I had been given the tour of the enclosures earlier in the afternoon by Liza, who seemed to be the one more suited to dealing with the sensitive public. The Drills are brought usually as orphans, their mothers shot by hunters and sold as bushmeat. The idea is to raise them in natural sized social groups for captive breeding, bring them out to the much larger enclosures up in the rainforest sanctuary to acclimatise, before the ultimate goal of eventually releasing them. Drill Ranch has one of the world’s most successful captive breeding programs for any endangered species.

Liza had some fascinating observations on the social behaviors of the monkeys. There was one male leader of the group, the ‘Alpha male’, who had his coterie of females. Other males in the group were either young adults and not a threat, or accepted the Alpha male as leader and didn’t challenge him. He would have demonstrated his superiority to other challengers to get to his position, and occasionally then would have to use it to reinforce his position – a lonely one, according to Liza. “It’s interesting to see when one gets older, if he relinqueshes his position to another willingly, he will become a lot gentler and friendlier, playing with the younger ones. That would never happen when he was leader.”

She had some intriguing ideas on who actually was in charge. “Females choose the male leader. If he doesn’t have their support, he’s out.” The obvious question then is – what are they looking for in the male? “That’s a question I don’t know the answer to”, she replied after musing briefly. “They respond to attention being paid to them. All of them. It’s not the biggest necessarily, or the strongest.” There was a sudden kerfuffle behind us which died down as quickly. Liza laughed. “That’s an interesting illustration. There was some dispute among the females, and the leader leaped in quickly to sort it out. All, or 90% anyway of quarrells are manufactured by the females for that reason!”

Interestingly, they got a lot of assistance from oil companies, Mobil in particular. I was surprised when I heard it wasn’t sanctioned official policy, and wasn’t used for publicity purposes, just individuals in Mobil who had the seniority to be able to make those decisions. As I learn with experience, it boils down to individuals. “Actually a lot of the time it is the wives, or sometimes even the children. They will have visited the reserve, appreciated the importance of what we’re doing, and began to work on the husband.” This went against the popular conception of the way these companies work. That there is a PR spin to everything. The assistance - money and materials - was unacknowledged, on their request. “These new poles for the enclosure are old oil drilling tubes,” she explained, pointing at long lengths of tubing stacked on the ground for the new fence.

My impression was that both Peter and Liza, along with their commitment and zeal for the project, knew the importance of playing the establishment game well. Which seemed a vital part of their success here. The international recognition of their success reflected well on the local Governor. “The Chinese have been trying to get contracts to log areas up there in the rainforest, and for a period of about six years tried to have us thrown out of the country, offering large sums of money to the Governor. We know because he told us, we know him well! We’ve had death threats.” There was a pause. “That was a difficult time.” Peter said reflectively.

Despite Peter’s combative manner, constantly railing against whatever subject was at hand, and being a politically correct person’s anathema, I liked him. He had a sense of humour underlying his cynicism. The two of them have an impressive record at this stage and are a strong example of people who have made a difference. I was fascinated by the whole experience, and made up my mind to make the diversion and visit the rainforest, about four hours away. It promised to be a rewarding experience.

DRILL’S BEHIND. Next update we’ll see if we can get a look at the front of him.