Updated On: November 3, 2006
Current Location: Calabar, Nigeria
View Route
Distance Since Last Update: 524 miles
Total Distance: 17,639 miles
Police/Military Roadblocks: 123
Bribe Requests: 78
Won't Soon Forget: Gearbox packing up at night 40km outside Benin City.

 
 

Benin City - October 28, 2006
(Jim Writes:) The alarm went off far too early. It was 5am and still dark outside when we rolled out of bed. After a quick trip to the toilet, we brushed our teeth and fumbled around in the dark to pack up the tent and change clothes. By 5:45am we were ready to go. We climbed into the truck. Cleared the GPS, logged our miles from the previous day, made sure our maps and other information were accessible and hit the road. On the way out of town we stopped at Porto Novo’s main fuel station to load up on gas. Only problem. the station wasn’t open yet. We’d planned to fuel up the night before however frankly we’d just forgotten to take care of it. We waited until 6am. We looked around for another option. Fortunately, there was a small station across the street. The lights were still off but I saw the silhouette of someone just outside the little building near the pump. We went across the street to check it out. We were in luck. It was the attendant and he told us we could fill up! After loading up the primary tank and three quarters of the second tank we were ready to go.

It was still pitch black outside as we crossed the causeway bridge heading south. About half way over the bridge we heard a loud thump under the car that sounded like we’d just run over something. What the hell was that?” we both shouted out at exactly the same moment. An animal? A person? No idea but it didn’t sound good. I pulled over to the side of the bridge and jumped out to have a look. It was still pitch dark out as I scanned the bullbar, undercarriage and surrounding area with my headlamp, looking for signs that we’d hit something. I couldn’t find anything. Nothing was on the road and I didn’t see anything stuck to the car either. No damage. No signs of anything. A quick sigh of relief and we were on our way again!

We continued towards the border. At the end of the road heading south there’s a large round about. At the round about you can head right, left, or back the way we came. There’s a big sign as you approach. Right is to Cotonou. Back the way we came is to Porto Novo. Left? Well, the sign doesn’t say anything about left so it must be to Nigeria. Our confirmation came when we started seeing child trafficking signs. A sobering reminder of Nigeria’s many problems.

We reached the border shortly after sunrise. It was the worst sort of border. A massive, sprawling place, busting with activity. As we slowly worked our way past a long row of overland trucks, we stopped briefly to exchange some cash. Less painful than expected, we quickly negotiated a good rate and continued on. First stop. Benin passport control. We slipped our passports through a glass window and the officer promptly demanded we pay him 2,000 CFA for the exit stamp. For the next couple of minutes we went back and forth before finally he gave us a scowl, stamped our passports with enough force to make a loud thud and begrudgingly handed them back to us.

Next we stopped in front of a man dressed in plain clothes who was seated at a table just beyond passport control. One of the hard things about African borders is that it’s often difficult to tell who’s an official and who’s not. Just because someone doesn’t look the part doesn’t mean they aren’t. It’s all part of the great African conundrum. Example:You go to a ferry. There are hundreds of people standing around. There’s no clear queue, no signs, no ticket office and no uniforms. You’re immediately surrounded by a hoard of people giving directions, demanding money for a ticket, and offering assistance. How do you know who to listen to and who to pay for a ticket? Moreover, how do you know how much to pay since there’s no receipts, no posted prices, etc. The same scenario plays itself out over and over again all across Africa. Road blocks, ferries, tolls, border crossings, you name it. Anyway, experience told us he was legit and we handed him our passports. As it turned out, he was legit. Problem was, he was Nigerian. No harm done. He returned our passports and we headed back to Benin in search of the customs building. We went inside the Benin immigrations building where we found an officer and asked for directions. Unfortunately, he had no idea. More unfortunate however was the fact that he led us straight back to the immigration officer that had demanded a bribe and begrudgingly stamped our passports just a few minutes earlier. Lucky for us, he seemed to have completely forgotten our previous conversation and directed us without any hassle across the street to the customs building where we got our Carnet stamped by a completely lethargic customs clerk.

On the Nigerian side we went back to the plain clothed guy behind the desk. He checked our passports, scribbled down a bunch of information, and let us go with no more hassle than a benign request for cadeaux. Next stop was another desk with a man and woman seated behind it. They asked us some questions, filled out more information, reviewed our passports, and asked more questions. Meanwhile we got our first taste of Nigeria as we watched a fight break out on the border. Next it was off to passport control to have our passports stamped. Then it was back to the same desk for more questions and to fill out some forms. Meanwhile another fight broke out on the border. This time a man was beating a woman. Nobody seemed to care.

Next it’s off to find customs. Inside the customs office we asked the first uniformed officer we came across for directions. With a smile he walked us down the hall and into a large office with a well-dressed woman and two equally well-dressed men seated behind three desks. In the corner was a TV playing 50 Cent music videos. We were met with more smiles and after one of the men stamped our carnet, they struck up quite the conversation with us. They explained that they don’t get many tourists and were very excited about our arrival. Didn’t hurt that we told them we had a Nigerian friend in the US who was always raving about Nigeria and we’d been looking forward to coming for years. In the end they were very friendly and offered up as much advice as possible including, most importantly, detailed directions through Lagos. They couldn’t have been better ambassadors for Nigeria.

Outside it was back to the real world. We’d cleared the border in excellent time and generally the officials had been friendly and polite and didn’t push for bribes. Back in the truck we fastened our seatbelts, gave each other a long stare, took a deep breath, started the truck, and slowly pulled away from the border. We were headed for Lagos. Well, we were until twenty seconds later a row of steel spikes was thrown in front of our truck and we were stopped by a handful of guys dressed in all black uniforms clutching AK47’s. We’d covered about 30 meters and we were already at our first police roadblock. A quick check of our passports followed by a few questions including “Where are you coming from?” ,”What is your mission in Nigeria?” and “What do you have for me from America?” and we were on our way. It was fairly painless and there was no hard push for cash. About thirty seconds later we hit the next roadblock - this time military. It was a similar routine. Just down the road we hit another, and another and another. There were police roadblocks, military roadblocks, and immigration roadblocks. By the 5th stop we were really starting to hit our stride. We greeted each with a warm welcome. This alone seemed to carry us a long way. Being American and a tourist seemed to help as well. If we needed a little something extra we’d throw in that we’d driven all the way from England and were headed for the catholic mission in Douala (Note that we didn’t say we were missionaries. Just that we were going to the catholic mission, which was true). And when they invariably asked us to dash them something we tried out a new tactic. Instead of fighting it, we offered to share the little bit we had with them. And the little bit we had happened to be a two-day-old half eaten loaf of bread we claimed was part of our breakfast (or later part of our lunch). Imagine a giant half dinner roll that looks like mice had gotten into it. We were amazed at how successful this little prop turned out to be. Three parts Ned Flanders, one part stale bread and we had police that seemed like they were going to put a cap in our ass when we first stopped, seemingly appreciative of our generosity and looking concerned with our diet. At a minimum it seemed to elicit a chuckle from most followed by that oh-so-wonderful hand wave indicating that we could go.

Fifteen or so stops later, we hit our first real roadblock. It was a pain-in-the-ass drug enforcement officer who threatened to dismantle our entire truck with a crowbar if we didn’t pay him 2,000 Naira. He went on to say that it’s usually friendly people like us that smuggle drugs and that there were some 250 places that we could have hidden them in our vehicle. I quickly replied that you’d have to be an idiot to smuggle drugs into a country with so many roadblocks. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but think that it’s probably the best place to smuggle drugs as it appears all you have to do is pay 2,000 Naira to avoid being searched. Anyway, he reiterated that the only way to keep from having our truck pulled apart was to pay the 2,000 Naira. So we called his bluff, told him we really didn’t want anything dismantled but unfortunately we didn’t have the money. With a grumble he folded and waived us through.

A few roadblocks later and we were on the outskirts of Lagos. There were only a few cars on the road and the place seemed like a ghost town. Very bizarre for a city of 13 million inhabitants that’s famous for its traffic jams. Ahead of us there were a handful of men in plain clothes standing in the middle of the road. Most were carrying clubs and we immediately had a bad feeling about it. There was a car in front of us and as it approached, the plain clothed men threw a row of spikes onto the road. The car stopped just ahead of us and we watched as three of the plain clothed men descended on the car, swung open the driver and passenger doors and grabbed the occupants, smacking them with clubs as they were dragged into the street. As we watched the scene unfold I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. We had no idea what was going on and were growing concerned we might be next. After what seemed like an eternity, one of the guys with a club waved us through. Huge sigh! Sheri and I looked at each other in complete disbelief. We had no idea what was going on and it definitely gave us cause for concern.

A short while later an almost identical scene played itself out. We arrived at a similar roadblock, also manned by men in plain clothes, who were pulling a driver out of his vehicle. This time I noticed that a short distance away there were black clothed police officers armed with AK’s watching everything that was going on.

Soon after we saw two men, one standing on each side of the road. They were dressed in black wearing baseball style caps that read “police” in white letters along the front. Both had clubs and were waving at us to stop. As we slowed down we noticed that there weren’t any barrels or boards strewn across the road like a typical police roadblock. Just as we were coming to a stop we got the sense that they weren’t police and sped up again as they stepped towards the truck. What we’d seen seemed almost surreal. Aside from the creepy club wielding thugs dragging people out of their cars, Lagos’ trash strewn streets seemed virtually deserted.

What we didn’t realize at the time was that it was the last Saturday of the month and, according to the US Department of State’s August 24, 2006 Travel Warning, road travel in Lagos is banned from 7-10am on the last Saturday of the month for municipal road cleanup. The Department of State goes on to say that this ban is enforced by police vigilantly. Not sure they’ve got the clean-up part under control however they sure seem to know how to deter motorists from driving.

One benefit of the driving ban was that the empty roads meant none of the usual gridlock in Lagos. A couple of quick stops for directions and we were past Mile 2 and onto the Apapa Oworonsoki Expressway. Soon after we were on the north side of the city and merging onto the Ibadan Expressway. We were making great time and as we climbed the onramp, I pressed down on the accelerator, ran hard through 1st and then shifted into 2nd. As I pressed down on the accelerator the engine roared sending the RPM gauge deep into the red. We immediately lost momentum. I hit the accelerator again. The engine revved but the transmission didn’t engage. I pulled the truck onto the shoulder and looked down at the shifter. Somehow the transfer box had shifted to neutral. With the truck stopped I shifted the transfer lever back into high range and we took off again. I wasn’t sure what had caused the problem but I was glad we were back on the road.

We were now racing down the Ibadan Expressway. The border was behind us! Lagos was behind us! Nearly two dozen roadblocks were behind us. We’d made excellent time and with 380 kms to go we had plenty of time. Sheri checked the Michelin Map. The road to Benin City was listed as a motorway - Michelin’s highest designation. It’s analogous to an interstate in the US. With the worst of it seemingly behind us, we slipped in a CD, turned up the stereo, and settled in for the long long drive to Benin City.

For the next 60 km we cruised up the Ibadan Expressway, stopping every few kilometers at roadblocks. We’d slipped into a routine with the roadblocks. I’d put on my hazards and start to slowdown while Sheri would kill the A/C and stereo. Often they’d waive us to the side of the road with a scowl on their faces. We’d go through the same song and dance every time and almost every time it seemed to work. When it didn’t, a more senior officer seemed to appear who would wave off whoever was hassling us. Occasionally, we’d have to dig a little deeper into our bag of tricks but eventually they’d always wave us through. Along the way we noticed that the Nigerian drivers would slow down as they approached the roadblocks and slip a few Naira to the officers as they passed. This seemed to be the choice of almost all taxis and minibus drivers.

From the Ibadan Expressway, we turned east towards Benin City. For a while things went smoothly however the closer we got to Benin City the worst the road became and what started as an expressway seemed to slowly erode into a patchwork of asphalt and dirt. Slowly but surely we were losing momentum, our speed zapped by deteriorating road conditions and frequent roadblocks. Eventually the road had deteriorated to such a point that large sections of asphalt were entirely gone - replaced by broad gaping craters. Any semblance of order was gone too. The once smooth four-lane highway had been reduced to chaos as cars and trucks alike took whichever side they felt had less damage – oncoming traffic be damned. We kept to the right side passing countless accidents along the way including an oil tanker that had just crashed and caught fire. It was a mess that only seemed to get worse with each passing kilometer.

Around 2:30pm we reached a police checkpoint just over 50 kilometers from Benin City. Ahead we noticed that traffic in the two right lanes (eastbound lanes) had stopped and a line of overland trucks seemed to stretch on for miles. We asked the officer what was going on and he said there was a delay and that we should continue east using the left lanes (westbound lanes). We followed his suggestion and 5 minutes later found ourselves dead stopped as well. As traffic began to back up we became hemmed in. It was complete gridlock and nothing was moving. And so we watched as the clock began to tick away and our margin of safety faded away with it. 2:30 became 2:45, 3:00, 3:20, 3:50, 4:00…As time slipped by, our stress level slowly climbed. We hadn’t moved at all. Not one kilometer. Nothing. Occasionally, the other side would move and occasionally traffic would come from the opposite direction. We however hardly moved at all.

With so much time having passed and virtually no progress having been made, we started to discuss our backup plan. We knew driving at night was a dangerous proposition and we wanted no part of it. Given our current lack of progress, I guessed we’d be sitting there well into the night. So we started to formulate a plan. Knowing it got dark around 6:30pm, we decided that if we got moving again by 5:30pm then we’d head for Benin City. If not, we’d head for the nearest police checkpoint. At least we figured we could buy them off in return for a relatively safe place to camp.

In the meantime, the clock kept ticking. 4:07, 4:18, 4:24, 4:36, 4:58, 5:11, 5:17… with our 5:30 deadline now closing in, we started to move. Slowly we moved forward until just before 5:30 we reached the cause of all the delay. Two giant lorries had both fallen over on their sides in a giant mud hole in the middle of the road. A large section of the expressway was blocked and there was only one sliver of the hole wide enough for vehicles to pass. Soon after we made it through.

We were exhausted from the stress of the past few hours. Now the race was on. It would be dark in less than an hour and we still had 50 kms to go. The road was horrible. Giant two lane potholes made the going very slow. When we weren’t dodging potholes we were struggling to get past huge trucks that managed to block the entire road. The myriad roadblocks didn’t help either. They now seemed to be coming one right after another. We just couldn’t seem to make any progress. And if things weren’t bad enough, we were climbing a hill when the transfer box slipped out of gear again. Shit! This can’t be happening, we thought. Talk about bad timing! I coasted to the side of the road and stopped. I pushed the lever back into gear and gently pressed down the pedal. As the gears engaged and the truck moved forward up the hill, we both let out a huge sigh of relief!

We were crawling up the hill. Afraid to press too hard on the gas for fear Betty would slip out of gear again. It was dusk and we still had nearly thirty-five kilometers to go. We didn’t make it far, ten kilometers at most, before the transfer case slipped once more. It was like being hit by a Mack truck (perhaps a fitting analogy as there were plenty of huge trucks on the road, many without headlights, and they all were driving like they were on a suicide run). I coasted to the side of the road again, shoved it back into gear, and hit the gas. The engine revved but the truck didn’t budge. Another deep sigh as my head dropped back against the headrest. I was now staring at the ceiling in disbelief. Sheri said, “Now what?” We were both completely exhausted. We’d already been through a stressful three hours in which we’d watched our margin of safety vanish. Now it was gone and we were in danger of being stranded at night in the middle of nowhere Nigeria. To say we were feeling the stress would be an understatement. After a long pause, I took a deep breath, shifted the lever back to neutral and then shoved it into high range again. I pressed the gas. Nothing! The engine just revved. The gears wouldn’t engage. “Come on Betty!!! This is really not the time! REALLY NOT THE TIME!” For the next few moments I sat quietly trying to sort out what to do. After another deep breath, I slipped it back into neutral and yanked the lever into low range and pressed the gas. Eureka! The gears engaged and she moved forward! “OK. Good. At least we’ve still got low. At least for the moment anyway.” I stopped the truck again, shoved it back into high and pressed the gas. This time the gearbox engaged and Betty crept forward.

We were moving again. Ever so gingerly we pressed forward, concerned that if the gearbox slipped again we might not be able to get it back into gear. I slowly accelerated, babying the gears as best I could. It was now almost dark and we still had nearly 20 km to go. At the rate we were progressing it might as well have been 10,000 kilometers. Another roadblock! Damn! It was as if everything and everyone was now conspiring against us. This time the police officers, clad in black metal military style helmets and clutching their machine guns, approached the truck from both sides and demanded our documents. We skipped the formalities and explained our situation. We were desperate to go and I’m sure they could hear it in our voices. Sadly, they didn’t seem to care. Safety was not their concern. They were too busy trolling for bribes. We pleaded, saying that our transmission was failing and we really needed to get to Benin City as soon as possible. Not there concern! While Sheri tried to appeal to the officer standing in her window, I was dealing with a true asshole that was now demanding our vehicle papers, passports, driving permits and everything else he could think of. It was ridiculous and underscored the fact that these guys weren’t public servants out to serve and protect. While I kept shoveling over documents, Sheri kept working the officer in her window. Finally, all of her pleading did the trick and he waived us through. We were in such a rush that I was still grabbing our documents out of the other officer’s hands as we rolled away.

It was now dark and I was leaning forward against the steering wheel, straining to see potholes and other vehicles (no small task when they don’t have any lights). Without the aid of our high beams and spots, which had blown in Ghana, the going was exceedingly difficult. I was also doing everything I could to baby our ailing transmission, which we hoped would stay in gear. It didn’t! On the next big hill, it slipped out again and we quickly came to rest on the shoulder. Another major blow, our bubble had been burst once more. A few slow deep breaths to calm our nerves and we began discussing what to do. With approximately fifteen kilometers to go we were growing increasingly concerned about the damage being done to the gearbox each time Betty slipped out of gear. Who knows when the gearbox would decide to pack-up all together. What we did know was that we didn’t want to find out. So when I shoved it into gear again, Sheri grabbed the lever and pushed hard to keep it engaged. I tapped the pedal and we moved forward. We were now limping along, slowly but steadily inching towards Benin City. All the while Sheri was leaning on the transfer lever trying to keep it in gear.

Just after 7pm we reached the outskirts of Benin City. It was pitch black and the road leading into town was complete shit. As we crept along, dodging giant potholes, pedestrians and oncoming traffic (no headlights), our next problem started to emerge. It was so black out you could hardly see a thing and we knew it would be virtually impossible to navigate, much less find our hotel. As we crept along, we discussed what to do and while we discussed what to do our answer miraculously emerged. On an otherwise dark street, we saw a large well-lit building. It was a shiny modern hotel and it was right in front of us. I immediately pulled into the driveway. It was the only break we’d had in the past five hours. We went inside to have a look. It was brand new and had hot water, A/C, TV, and even a little fast food restaurant. More importantly however they had availability and we booked a room without a second thought.

As soon as we entered our room we both collapsed on the bed. We were utterly spent. Mentally and physically drained to the point of total exhaustion. Our adrenaline had been pumping for hours. It had been a torturous day in which we’d taken every precaution only to have everything go wrong. It was too much for our tired minds to process. It would have to wait until tomorrow. In the meantime, we needed to rest and decompress.

 
 
     
 
 

Benin City - October 29, 2006
We woke up this morning to an overwhelming sense of dread. We were supposed to be on our way to Calabar, one step closer to Cameroon. Instead we were stuck in Benin City. Shackled by our ailing gearbox. It didn’t take long for the gravity of our situation to fully sink in. We were deep in the heart of southern Nigeria, some 675km from the Cameroon border. Yesterday, we’d struggled to make it the last fifty kilometers. The transfer box slipped out of gear three more times and we finally limped into Benin City on a song and a prayer.

Outside our tiny fourth floor window, Benin City’s 1 million inhabitants were already stirring to life. It was a noisy, bustling place, and like most Nigerian cities there were people, cars, and motorbikes everywhere. Inside the relative sanctity of our hotel room we sketched out a plan. Clearly we weren’t going anywhere until we sorted our gearbox so I immediately pulled out the sat phone and dialed up Matt Savage, our friend and mechanic back in England. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and his phone was off. After leaving a message I went downstairs to chat with the hotel’s friendly manager. I asked him if there was a Toyota dealership in Benin City and he said that there was. Initially, this seemed like great news. Later however, he informed us that there wasn’t a service department. While we waited for Matt to return our call we discussed other options. Clearly this was a serious problem and after our experience in Accra, we cringed at the thought of having a bush mechanic mess with it. We could just picture our gearbox pulled apart in a thousand pieces by some bush mechanic who couldn’t get it back together again. The mere thought of it made me feel weak at the knees. Patience seemed to be our best option and we decided to tackle our problem one step at a time. Before doing anything else we’d talk it over with Matt.

Waiting for Matt’s call was agonizing. Our minds were in overdrive and each minute seemed like an eternity. We tried to distract ourselves by taking a hot shower. The hot water heater didn’t work. We turned on the TV to watch BBC. Not long after we turned it on the cable went out. We tried to take a quick nap. The A/C broke and it became uncomfortably hot. It all made for a very long wait, which in truth was only a couple of hours.

Hearing Matt’s voice on the sat phone was comforting. Unfortunately, it was also nearly impossible. For starters the connection was terrible and we kept getting cut off. And the only way we could get a decent connection was to call him from the noisy street in front of the hotel. Each time I would try and explain our problem we’d either get cut off or he’d strain to hear me over the noise. Then he’d try and reply and the signal would cut out right up to the point where he’d say, “Did you get that?” Over the next couple of hours I must have called him over a dozen times. Each time piecing together another snippet of the conversation. It was painful but we were making progress. First we ruled out the manual transmission as part of the problem. Next we worked through a list of possible causes, checking for things like a bent or obstructed connector rod (connecting the shift lever to transfer box). As we worked through the list, using my workshop manual as a reference guide, we deduced that the problem was most likely internal. That left us with two options:

1.) Remove the box and diagnose the problem. Fix if possible.
2.) Force the transfer case to stay in gear until it’s possible to get it fixed.

Since we weren’t too keen on sorting the problem in Benin City (Let’s just say it’s not the type of place you’d go on vacation) and we were even less keen on having our transfer box pulled apart by a bush mechanic, Option 1 was definitely our second choice. I could picture the scenario perfectly. We’re sitting in the dirt on the side of the road at some bush mechanic’s shop. Our truck is in a thousand pieces. There’s no spare parts available and the mechanic can’t get the old box back together and working again (or alternatively, he gets the box apart, knows you are now stuck, and tries to extort tons of money from you to put it back together again). Meanwhile our visa runs out and we run into all kinds of bribery problems or worse still they kick us out of the country with our truck still sitting in Benin City. No thank you.

Our other option was to jerry rig the transfer case and try to get to Cameroon where we could get it properly fixed. The basic idea was that we’d manually push the lever in place and then force it to stay in gear using a block of wood, which would be wedged between the transfer lever and our steel security box. The benefit of this option was that it would, theoretically, get us out of Nigeria. The con was that there was no guarantee it would work and no guarantee it would keep working all the way to Cameroon. The thought of being stranded was still fresh in our heads from the previous day and we weren’t eager for a repeat performance.

There were however a couple of fallbacks in case of an emergency. The primary fallback being low range. Provided we could drive on a soft surface frequently enough to unwind the gearbox (since the center diff. is locked in low) low should be able to safely, albeit slowly (max. speed of about 30km/hr) get us to the next town. Also, Calabar’s considered one of the nicest cities in Nigeria and would be a much more desirable place to be stuck. In other words, if we could limp to Calabar, using low range in an emergency, then we’d be in much better shape than we were in Benin City.

So option two it was. Armed with Matt’s guidance we headed out to the truck to force it into gear. The goal was to ensure high range was fully engaged and then wedge a block of wood between the shift lever and security box to keep it from slipping out of gear. To engage the gear, I crawled under the truck and, by hand, forced the actual transfer lever (sticking out of the top of the transfer case) into gear while Sheri simultaneously pushed on the shift lever inside the cabin. Next we wedged the block of wood between the shift lever and security box and rapped a bungee cord around it to hold it in place.

With the truck now blocked and ready to go we decided to hit the little fast food restaurant just inside the hotel for a late lunch. As we’re standing at the counter talking about what to order, I turned around and noticed that Sheri was gone. When I glanced out the front window to see if she was outside, I saw Sheri chasing Betty down the street. The pads on our parking brake were shot and, as I later learned, she’d forgotten to put it in gear. Fortunately, she managed to chase it down before it hit anything. No harm done.

Matt also suggested I check the fluid level on the transfer box and transmission just to make sure the levels were within limits. It was now dark and raining outside and just as I was about to slide under the truck we heard a loud commotion. When I looked up, there were two men dragging another man out of his car and beating him in the street. Not a pleasant sight, I started to feel like we were trapped in hell. I slid under the car and started to loosen the plug on the back of the transmission so that I could stick my finger in and check the oil level. It was dark and, even with my headlamp, it was difficult to see. Distracted by the fight, rain, and all the chaos going on in the street around me, I made a big mistake. I’d only checked the transmission oil level once before back in England and, unlike other fluids, wasn’t that familiar with it’s location. Not concentrating enough on the task at hand, I inadvertently loosened the wrong plug. Without realizing my mistake I turned the socket, the plug popped out and gear oil started gushing everywhere. I quickly fumbled around trying to screw the plug back in. No luck. I couldn’t seem to get the threads to catch and for what seems like an eternity, oil was pouring out. Finally, I got the plug back in.

Shit! That didn’t go as planned. I couldn’t believe that in my haste, I’d loosened the wrong plug. It’s such a ridiculous mistake. Now what? I knew I had extra gear oil in our spares box and would clearly need to top it back off. It was still raining out and the street around us was a madhouse. I also knew I didn’t have enough spare oil for two mistakes so I decided the conservative approach would be to wait until tomorrow and call Matt, just to double check the plugs location (sounds crazy but we weren’t in a great position to be making mistakes). Calabar would have to wait.

Exhausted by another stressful day we retired to our room. As we sat trying to get the TV to work we reflected on our day. On the one hand it had been productive. Thanks to Matt, we’d worked through the problem and had a possible temporary solution. On the other hand, I’d just made a costly mistake that would delay us another day. All because I was distracted and didn’t focus on the task at hand. It was a great example of stress impeding common sense. Moreover, there was the stress of not knowing if our temporary fix would hold. We knew we had low range as a backup but it’s still a bit scary given the amount of ground we’d have to cover. If we had to use low, we’d never make it to Calabar in a day. In a nutshell, we were tired, frazzled, and couldn’t wait to get out of Benin City. The balance of the night was spent watching movies on our laptop and trying to focus on anything but our current predicament.

 
 
     
 
 

Benin City - October 30, 2006
(Jim Writes:) The alarm on my watch woke us at 5am. As I climbed out of bed we were hit with the same sense of dread we’d felt the previous morning. After giving it some more thought last night I decided to go out to the truck first thing in the morning and see if I could identify the filler plug. If it was possible to quickly identify the plug with absolute certainty then I’d top it off and we’d be on our way. If there was any question, I’d just wait to touch base with Matt. I slid under the truck to have a look. It was still dark and hard to see. I searched around and located what I thought was the right plug. In fact, I was almost 100% certain it was the right plug. It had to be the right plug. The only other plug was the drain plug and I knew that wasn’t it. Yet, there was a problem. I was confident I’d found it. Certain really. Only, the plug was only slightly higher up the box than the drain plug. With our margin for error nearly zero, I second guessed myself consulting my shop manual for backup. There was no diagram for my truck. Damn. I knew I was right but still couldn’t pull the trigger. Instead I thought, I’d have to take the conservative course and double check with Matt. Game over. We’d have to postpone Calabar until tomorrow.

A couple of hours later I spoke with Matt. Turns out he wasn’t positive either and had to run out to his truck and double check. When he returned he confirmed what I already thought. It was the plug on the left. At least I had confirmation and didn’t have to worry about another oil spill.

The rest of the day was spent held up in our room trying to relax. A couple of movies, a handful of sitcoms, and an afternoon nap helped to pass the time. Waiting was torture however and all we wanted to do was hit the road. Thinking about all the “what if’s” associated with our truck breaking down in the middle of Nigeria was constantly in the backs of our minds and the only remedy would be to get going.

 
 
     
 
  Calabar - October 31, 2006
(Jim Writes:) Another early start, it was still dark when we rolled out of bed and prepared to depart for Calabar. By 6:15am we were loaded and ready to go. Before setting off, Sheri logged our miles, reset the GPS, and loaded the waypoint Jeff Watts provided for a hotel in Calabar. Meanwhile, I was checking to make sure the block of wood was securely in position and ready to go. At first light I cautiously shifted into reverse and eased on the gas. Betty rolled backwards. Outside EFEX Hotel, Benin City’s streets were already bustling with activity. As eager as we were to make progress, the thought of tackling Nigeria’s gauntlet in our ailing truck was more than a bit stressful. Nevertheless, I backed onto the road, slipped into 1st, and eased on the gas again. Betty crept forward. A big sigh of relief! Hesitantly, I eased into second, careful not to give her too much gas, which might cause undo strain on the transfer box. Betty held in gear. We were on our way. The beginning of what promised to be a long, stressful day.

Once we were past Benin City’s early morning chaos, we reached the highway and headed east towards Onitsha. The first few kilometers you could almost cut the tension with a knife. It was so dead quiet in the truck. The only sound was the block of wood creaking each time I changed gears. There was so much strain being placed on it that I was waiting for it to split in half at any moment. I struggled to get Betty up to speed without putting too much stress on the transfer box. At the same time, Sheri held on to the block of wood to insure it didn’t get knocked out of place. Chugging laboriously towards Onitsha, we accelerated like a fully loaded freight train pulling out of the station and every time we’d reach something resembling highway speed, we’d hit another police roadblock or hill which would drain us of our hard fought momentum. It was a painstakingly slow process as we repeated the same routine over and over again: Take a couple of kilometers to carefully buildup up speed. Reach, say 80km/hr. Stop for police or military roadblock. Talk way out of incessant bribe requests using nearly week old half eaten hard as rock loaf of bread. Pull away from roadblock and begin building back speed. Repeat process all over again. It was stressful. It was painful. It was slow. But most importantly, it was progress. The road was good. The police checks were manageable, and, at least for the moment, Matt’s block of wood was working.

By mid-morning, we’d reached the outer skirts of Onitsha, a congested sprawling smog and garbage choked place that seemed bigger, dirtier, and more chaotic than Benin City. Getting to the other side however went as smoothly as one could hope. Quick stop for a police roadblock on the west side of the main bridge. Another stop for a police roadblock on the east side of the bridge. A stop for directions, which lead us onto an overpass ramp doubling as a crowded street market. Fifteen minute delay to navigate overpass ramp/market. And we were on our way south towards Aba.

Once out of Onitsha our smoothly paved highway deteriorated into another patchwork of tar and dirt, dotted with giant potholes that slowed our progress to a crawl. Frequent roadblocks only further delayed forward motion and added to the excitement as, at one such check, our crawl must have still been too fast for one of the officers who decided to raise his machine gun and train it directly at the front of our truck.

By mid-afternoon we arrived in Aba, a town of similar charm as Onitsha and Benin City, with piles of garbage separating opposing lanes of traffic. It was another sprawling mass of chaos and confusion made worse by a traffic accident that resulted in complete anarchy as cars and lorries alike fended for themselves, jumping straight into oncoming traffic. Total gridlock and mass chaos. All we could do was fight for a place amongst the rest and hope we didn’t get crunched in the process. Fortunately, we finally popped out on the other side unscathed and continued on, aided by a number of friendly traffic police who provided directions.

With Aba behind us we turned east for Calabar. All things considered, we’d made reasonable progress and, barring any unforeseen delays, had ample time to make it to Calabar before dark. The drive to Calabar was more of the same – crumbling roads and frequent roadblocks. A few kilometers outside of Aba we hit our first snag – a truck stuck in a large pothole in the middle of the road. Cars were already backing up, people were pouring out of buses and bush taxis and locals were offering to guide us to alternate routes. It was a bit too reminiscent of our experience 50k outside of Benin City. This time however, our luck proved better and the problem was sorted in short order as traffic was redirected in an orderly fashion through the other side of the pothole. A brief delay and we were moving again

A few kilometers later and we hit another snag. A roadblock, like the dozens and dozens before it. Only this time, the police were hell bent on getting a bribe and our passports were being held for ransom. Precious time was slipping away and our stale bread wasn’t working. With little time to spare we quickly evolved our story. We were now missionaries bound for the Catholic mission in Douala. Close but no cigar. We evolved our story further. We were missionaries who smoked Marlboro cigarettes. Ah ha! Now we were on to something! Our captors seemed to love missionaries who smoke. A donation of three cigarettes and we were on our way.

A handful of roadblocks later and yet another snag. This time the officer tried all the usual favorites: Fire extinguisher? Warning triangle? Two warning triangles? Headlights? Tail lights? Turn signals? When trolling for real infractions didn’t work, the officer resorted to another old favorite…“Your steering wheel is on the wrong side of the vehicle. That’s illegal in Nigeria. Your car will have to be impounded until the steering wheel is refitted on the other side” Or of course, we could pay him $100 and all would be forgiven. And so began the usual merry-go-round of discussions (the highlight of which was when he said “Don’t you have socialization’s (aka bribes) in the United States?” I so desperately wanted to say that you’d get thrown in jail for such requests in the US but decided this might not help my cause and instead simply replied that we didn’t. Finally the merry-go-round stopped when I agreed to help him get to America. Unfortunately, he was so excited that instead of returning our passports, he introduced me to his boss who decided that he wanted to get in the game as well. And so the merry-go-round started again. This time the music kept playing until I mentioned that I had a small stash of pens I’d brought for the orphans at the mission. The fact that the pens were for orphans seemed to do nothing to dissuade him, as he quickly requested three pens in exchange for our passports. With our passports back in hand, we wasted no time in driving off. As we pulled away we noticed the first officer yelling and waving his hands to get our attention. Seems he’d just realized that we’d failed to give him our contact information. We acted as if we didn’t see him and kept driving.

Back on the road we encountered no more snags. One final police check and we were in Calabar. We’d made it! Passing under the city’s entry archway, we could literally feel the stress slipping away. Thanks to Matt, our transfer box had held (you’re a genius Matt Savage). We’d traversed the entire length of the country and were now 217 kilometers form the Cameroon border. Entering Calabar was like entering another world. The main road leading into town was a broad avenue, free of the mountains of garbage, congestion, and chaos that characterized every other Nigerian city we’d been through. It was a small oasis in the middle of an unruly country. For the moment it was our paradise.

Following Jeff’s waypoint we ended up at the Mirage Hotel. When we pulled into the parking lot our mouths nearly dropped open. It was a large, shiny, western style expat hotel. Nothing like what we’ve come to expect in Africa and certainly not what we expected to find in Nigeria. Inside the lobby there was a piano playing and well dressed businessmen chatting over cocktails. Mentally and physically exhausted, it was exactly what we needed. Eager to check-in we headed for the front desk to book a room. The crisply dressed front desk clerk did a quick check in his computer and then turned to us and said he was sorry but they were full. What? Full? We should have known it was too good to be true. Standing there in disbelief, I could just picture what was about to happen. With images of cable TV and hot water still dancing in our heads we were headed for another room with a bucket bath, torn mosquito nets and bed bugs. Ugh! Completely dejected, we asked the desk clerk for the name of another hotel under the slim chance there was another decent place to stay in town. He recommended the Channel View Hotel located just next door.

Expecting the worst, we pulled out of the Mirage’s fancy parking lot and headed down the road to the Channel View Hotel. Much to our delight, we arrived to find a similar place to the Mirage – a large western expat convention hotel. Again we were shocked. Our spirits lifted a bit. Inside we inquired about a room. They had one room left and it was only available for one night (turns out Calabar is Nigeria’s convention center and there was a large stockbrokers meeting in town for the rest of the week). Without hesitation we booked it. It was heaven, if only for a night.

 
 
     
 
  Calabar - November 1-2, 2006
(Jim Writes:) The next two days were part admin, part rest and relaxation. Our first order of business was to milk our fancy hotel room for all it was worth. After staying up late watching a Land Rover rebuild on the Discovery Channel, we slept in. Once up, we took hot showers that drained the water heater dry and then parked ourselves in front of CNN with the A/C on high until they kicked us out at noon.

Next it was off to the Cameroon Consulate to get visas. This proved easy enough. When we arrived, the friendly consular official explained the process to us. In a nutshell, all we had to do was write a letter stating our desire to apply for visas (basically an application for our visa applications) and submit it along with a small fee of $200. Once submitted, it would be reviewed and we’d receive our applications, which needed to be filled out and submitted along with the application fee. This application would also be reviewed and, assuming it was approved, we’d receive our visas. Seemed simple enough.

So we sat down in the reception area and wrote out a letter stating that we wanted to apply for tourist visas. Included in the letter was all the relevant information including our names, desired length of stay, entry/exit dates, type of visa, and so on and so forth. We submitted the letter along with the fee and waited while our application for a visa application was reviewed. A short time later the consular officer returned to inform us that our application for a visa application had been rejected. Oh, good grief! It was beyond us how an application that served no other purpose than to state our desire for an application could be denied. As the consular officer carefully explained, we’d made the critical mistake of titling our application something like “Request for Visa” when he preferred we title it “Application Request for Tourist Visa.” As I’m sure you will agree, this was no trivial error and we felt fortunate that the Cameroon government was willing to overlook our mistake and allow us to write another letter from scratch.

Knowing we better get it right this time, I carefully crafted another letter, going so far as to underline the title so that it stood out and was easier to read. Once it was finished and had been proofed by Sheri for accuracy, we submitted our new application and hoped for the best. This time our clear attention to detail paid off and our application for an application was approved and the consular official handed us our applications, which we promptly filled out and submitted for approval. And believe it or not, not only was our application for visa applications approved, but so were our actual visa applications, which we received a couple of hours later.

With shiny new visas in hand, we returned to the Channel View Hotel hoping there’d been a cancellation. There hadn’t been. The place was still booked solid. Once again, our bubble had been burst and we were without a room. As we’d done the previous night at the Mirage, we asked the desk clerk if he had another recommendation. And just as the desk clerk the previous night had referred us next door to the Channel View, the desk clerk at the Channel View referred us next door to the Hotel Chateaux Relais. So off we went to check it out and much to our surprise it too was a nice western style (I say western style because we’re still in African and it still had some African issues like the power going off about two dozen times a day) hotel. Better still, they had availability. We were sold and again wasted no time in getting on with the business of doing nothing.

The next morning we woke up wonderfully rested and after draining the hot water tank again, got on with the business of lazing on the bed in front of the TV. Other than lazing about we only had one ‘to do’ for the day. We wanted to load up on cheap diesel. Checking this little action item off the list however proved to be no easy task. Nigeria may be one of the worlds top oil producers, but its pumps are frequently dry. As we drove around town searching for fuel, we came up empty again and again. One station was out of everything. Another had petrol but no diesel. Finally, we found a station with a line of cars that stretched down the street. After getting some assurance from the pump attendant that the station wasn’t going to run out of fuel before we reached the pump (which really did nothing more than confirm that at the very second I asked the question there was still diesel), we joined the queue and hunkered down anticipating a long wait. As car after car fueled ahead of us I couldn’t help but think we were going to make it all the way to the pump only to be told they’d just run out of gas. Finally however we reached the pump and except for the fact that the pump’s gauges were broken and I’m sure we were taken for a ride, all went smoothly and we were able to top up.

Back at the hotel we set about resting and relaxing until it was time for dinner. Hungry, we headed down the street to the Channel View Hotel’s restaurant (picture a tidy little place with colorful floral pattern table cloths, fake flowers, and an extensive western menu where many of the items are spelled incorrectly). After a quick scan of the menu, we both settled on an Asian noodle dish and a large chef’s salad complete with “One Thousand Islands Dressing.” On paper this seemed like a great choice. In practice, it was a bit of a train wreck, and several power outages later the waitress produced a salad that bared little resemblance to what we’d ordered. Lathered in mayonnaise and lacking many of the key items listed in the menu’s description, the salad did little to stimulate our appetites and we decided to point out the mistake to the waitress. Sheri started by pointing out that there seemed to have been a mistake as we’d ordered the Chef’s salad. “Yes” the waitress said, “this is the chef’s salad. “Actually, I don’t believe it is” she said. “The chef’s salad comes with “One Thousand Islands Dressing.” The waitress responded by saying “But we do not have one thousand islands dressing.” “Well” Sheri replied, “We ordered it because it comes with thousand island dressing, not mayonnaise, and if thousand island dressing isn’t available then we’d like to send it back.” The waitress looked perplexed. “But you ordered it.” She said. “No” I said, “We ordered the chef’s salad with thousand island dressing, not mayonnaise. We don’t like mayonnaise. And anyway, half the ingredients listed on the menu are missing. So please take it back.” The waitress now looked more confused than ever. “But you ordered it. You have to pay for it.” “Listen” Sheri said, “The reason we ordered it was because we like thousand island dressing, and tomatoes, and the other items that are missing.” We don’t like mayonnaise and this salad is dripping in it.” Like a deer in headlights the waitress stared at her for what seemed like an eternity and then said “Why didn’t you tell me that you don’t like mayonnaise when you ordered it?” We were clearly getting nowhere and I felt a wave of sarcasm come over me. “We didn’t tell you because mayonnaise wasn’t listed in the description of the salad. But listen, while we’re on the subject, please tell the chef that we don’t like mayonnaise, so please don’t put it on our Asian Noodles.” She failed to pickup on the sarcasm and started again about how we’d ordered it and therefore had to pay for it. Getting nowhere, I said again that we’d like to send it back and pushed it to the corner of the table and turned to Sheri to continue with our previous conversation as the waitress disappeared into the kitchen.

For the balance of the meal, the salad sat untouched on the corner. When the bill arrived I took a quick look and sure enough the salad was still listed. Frustrated, we called the waitress over to our table and the conversation picked back up where it had previously left off with the waitress going on about how we’d ordered it and would have to pay for it. “Listen” I said, “this is not the salad that we ordered.” as I pointed to the menu and underlined with my finger all of the missing ingredients. “It’s the same thing as if I’d ordered chicken and you brought me the river fish. They’re not the same thing so I shouldn’t have to pay for it.” This didn’t seem to get the point across either and finally the waitress agreed to get the chef. Several minutes later a woman arrives dressed in an all white uniform with matching hat and asked what was the matter. I explained the situation again hoping she’d see the logic so that we could get on our way. Unfortunately she didn’t. After listening to what I had to say, she replied “Sir, unfortunately, we do not have all of the ingredients for the Chef’s salad. That’s why it came this way.” I stated again, “ I understand however nobody made us aware of this and the reason we ordered the chef’s salad is because it came with thousand island dressing and other ingredients that it turns out you don’t have. Had we known it was going to come with mayonnaise and missing all the good stuff, we wouldn’t have ordered it.” The chef then responded by saying that “This is not the waitress’ fault because she did not know that we do not have all of the ingredients.” “Well, obviously it’s not our fault either and we’re not paying.” And with that, we plunked the money on the table for our noodles and drinks and walked out.