Just after entering Nigeria we come to a police stop. A tall, well-built policeman jumps onto our truck and starts chatting away – a really friendly man, full of smiles and laughs.
Suddenly, he smacks his left forearm with his right fist really hard, repeatedly.
“I’m really strong,” he tells us.
He turns to Martin. “Hit me,” he says. Not one to disobey the law, Martin gets stuck in – walloping him as hard as he can on the arm, as instructed.
The cop sucks it up. He stands stock still, breathes in deeply, puffing his chest out – rock hard and mean-looking, showing his strength. He then breaks into a broad smile and, chuckling, he disembarks and waves us on our way. Point proved.
I’m going to enjoy this place, I thought.
We travel on, through the north of the country, towards the Yankari National Park. On arrival, after several days on the road, we are grateful to park up. We head straight down to some natural hot springs, watching out for a family of baboons that patrol the pathway.
Hidden in the forest, a picturesque, welcoming blue expanse of water perfectly heated at a constant 31°C awaits us. We dive straight in.
It is blissful, just floating around, cleansing the grime out of my skin, while watching monkeys swing around the trees.
Suitably refreshed, we return to the campsite and set up camp for the night. There are baboons everywhere, wreaking havoc.
Very early the next morning, I’m rudely awoken by a noise directly above my head.
Baboons are raiding the truck.
Attacking in droves, they break out from the cover of the forest, scampering up to the truck, jumping up the side and snatching what food they can find – bread and bananas that have been left out ready for breakfast – then just as quickly stealing away to the safety of the trees to devour their spoils.
Now it takes a while to take in the fact that there is a baboon no more than six feet from my face, eating bread, when you’ve just woken up. Still in a semi-coma, I watch from my sleeping bag, where I’m laid out on the seats in the back of the truck, as one clambers up the back steps, lifts up Simon’s sleeping bag, with him still in it, takes some bread that, for some reason, is lurking underneath, and ambles off again. His pink bottom sticking up in the air, seemingly aimed at me, as if to add insult to injury, or rather burglary.
Them’s the brakes
The early morning drama over, we head out for a game drive – my first ever. It’s an indescribable feeling to be driving through the bush on the look out for game for the first time. I have a real sense of nervous excitement as I eagerly scan the undergrowth, hoping to catch sight of a wild animal for the first time.
Our guide spots a couple of crocodiles lounging by a waterhole. An excited murmur spreads through our group. This is no safari park. This is the real deal.
We spy a Saddle-billed stork, with its striking red bill, strolling at the water’s edge, in a manner that is straight out of the Ministry of Silly Walks; then we sight a troop of patas monkeys in the forest canopy above us.
We drive on, passing within a few feet of a herd of waterbuck. It doesn’t seem like the driver is going to stop. We shout for him to do so, but the truck just sails past – the brakes have failed.
Thankfully, we are not travelling very fast and we quickly come to a standstill, but by the time we turn around the buck have gone. We limp back to base, the drive tragically cut short.
We try again in the afternoon, on what we are assured is a fixed vehicle. Early on, we come across some waterbuck, making up for the morning’s disappointment, but this soon becomes an ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ moment – even though it took place before – as our guide spots a herd of elephants, tramping their way through the bush.
Watching these majestic beasts from just a few metres away, chomping their way through the forest, is just magical.
I am still in a surreal daze, when the brakes go again.
Elephant, dead ahead
The following morning five of us go for a self-guided bush walk – except we can’t find the track that is supposed to take us on a 5km circuit around the perimeter of the camping area. Still, we press on regardless, not really knowing where we are going.
This possibly wasn’t the wisest decision I’ve ever made. And I’m sure it’s an activity you can no longer undertake unaccompanied. Nor would I recommend it. But this was Nigeria 25 years ago, a place that to me had a wondrous innocence – both their’s and mine. And what an adrenalin-pumping adventure it turned out to be.
I’ll admit to being absolutely terrified for the three hours we are out there. Every sound causes me to panic. There are lion (we think) and elephant tracks along the path as well as massive heaps of dung – some quite fresh-looking.
Suddenly, an antelope breaks cover and leaps across the path about 20m behind us, causing my heart to jump out of my mouth and run away.
We soldier on hoping we are now on the right path. We pass a group of guys hacking back the bush that is encroaching on the ‘road’ with machetes. They greet us, as if it is the most natural thing in the world to see five Westerners wandering around, alone, in a game park.
A bit further on we hear a loud grunting sound. We stop dead, and into sight – about 20 metres from us, but still in the bush close to the path – are two rather large elephants.
We creep forward for a better view. One flaps its ears, then raises its trunk, sniffing the air. They could sense our presence. They disappear behind a large tree, so we creep along the path a bit further to try and find them, then turn to see one of them barely five metres away, staring straight at us. It flaps its ears again and starts to move towards us. We beat a very hasty retreat back up the path to a safe distance. A very safe distance.
Against my better judgment, we watch them for another half-hour, continually on high alert. But with our path forwards blocked by their presence we sensibly turn back and return to camp.
Later, a guide tells us that the elephant’s mock charge was just a warning for us to back off. It’s when they come at you with their ears flat that you need to worry, he says.
I still wish I’d worn my brown trousers, though.
Authors note: no humans or animals were hurt during this reckless adventure, but please don’t try this yourselves, anywhere in Africa.
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