An Enchanted Night In The Rainforest of Nigeria Changed our Life
On the 9th of October there were presidential elections scheduled in Cameroon, the next country we were heading into after Nigeria. The dictator Paul Biya, in power for over 20 yrs, was the expected front-runner for yet another 7 years term. On the 30th of September an opponent of the current regime fired a gun in Douala, and the police found an unexploded grenade in Limbe, at the Elecam hq. On the 13th of Octiber our Nigeria visa would expire, so on the 4th we were heading from Abuja to the Ikom border, with the intention to cross into Cameroon and avoid the capital during elections or to bushcamp next to the border.
At the time there were 3 ways out of Nigeria and into Cameroon: the good tar up in the north, through Maiduguri and the highly unstable Boko Haram territory, the terrorist group that Nigeria is so famous for… The middle exit was said to be an overlanders’ hell – the Ekok-Mamfe piste was unsealed and largely destroyed by lorries and loggers’ trucks. It was also said to be potentially hazardous during the last weeks of the rainy season. The third route out of Nigeria was the ferry from Calabar to Limbe, boasting at the time a ticket price that we could not afford.
The eastern states of Nigeria are visibly more lively and prosperous. Small, colorful villages, mud brick houses with zinc roofs, fresh food markets, streetside restaurants with delicious food, plantations. People are friendly, food is cheap and we zoom by police checkpoints without being stopped.
The roads in Nigeria are bad though, so after Obudu we decide to crash overnight at Afi Drill Ranch. Emi and Oli, the Brits overloading in a Landie who we’d met in Lome and who are ahead of us in Gabon, told us to stop in Afi, if we had the time.
The air is moist, the forest is soaking and we are rolling through dense high vegetation that hardly allow any sunlight in the undergrowth. The track is narrow and goes up and down for 15 km into the dark heart of the rainy forest. It rains every day, sometimes even more times a day. The tires slide easily or the sticky mushy clay, so a fall is imminent. We bite the mud two times, but we arrive in one piece, yet covered in dirt and with rivers of sweat flowing from the forehead to the boots.
We’re in the deep bush of Nigeria. There is no GSM network, no electricity and no running water. Afi Drill Ranch is the research camp of Pandrillus, a conservation project dedicated to saving the primates and the forest of Cross River state from extinction. The camp is bordering the wildlife sanctuary established together with the state government. The project receives short teem visitors who can witness the daily work and learn about primates conservation. We are welcomed by 2 American long term volunteers, Amanda and Jens, who show us around.
We are completely exhausted. Soon we lay down in our tent, pitched in the bamboo shed.
The night is magical. It was supposed to be our last one in Nigeria. The darkness burns the eyes and is hardly interrupted by myriad stars and immense fireflies. A choir of forrest sounds – amphibians, insects and nocturnal mammals – completely new to our ears. We let this new energy burn its imprint into our DNA.
We’re having a Scottish breakfast in the middle of the rainforest
Interview with The Boss in Calabar
The route to Calabar is long and hard: area boys, potholes and traffic jams all over. But the city of Calabar is pleasant and clean. A very un-Nigerian place, where people walk the streets, where there are no okadas, with good fresh produce markets and a suya arcade.
We are camping right by the main drill enclosure, next to the crocodiles and the duika, in the yard of Pandrillus HQ, which is also the home of Peter Jenkins, the founder of the project. Him and Lisa Gadsby arrive in Nigeria while overloading in Africa. They had a 10 days transit visa and a meeting with destiny. They discovered that the Cross River subspecies of drill monkey, assumed to be extinct, was still roaming the forests, and they embarked on a race to save them. More than 20 years later, Pandrillus has become one of the world’s most successful conservation & captivity breeding of an endangered species projects. It is amazing that such a project exists in the impoverished West Africa and in Nigeria, of all the places. To us it was logical to volunteer our time and effort, and a privilege to be accepted. We sorted out our papers (visa and laissez passer extension) and went shopping for working gear (trousers, long sleeve shirt, shoes) from the second hand shacks in the market. By the end of the week we were already back in the midst of primary rain forest. We were not to exit this unique but dwindling wildlife sanctuary for the next four weeks.
Volunteering for Pandrillus in Nigeria
Day 118. We reached the 30,000 km on the clock, but the next km will be only logged while moving to our working sites or going to the next village, Buanchor, where sometimes there is GSM signal.
In our camp working days start at 8 a.m. with a staff briefing, there is also a 12 am – 1 pm lunch break. Crew boys – supporting personnel who perform most endurance tasks – finish work at 4 pm, the rest of us at 5 pm. We cook our own fod, dinner being sometimes served in the secondary staff shed, where we cooked and socialized, learning words in local dialects, how to use wild vines for the traditional Nigerian food (like egusi) and abusing the local staple, garri – a casava flour that we used for pancakes, tortillas and deserts. We are deeply grateful to our colleagues, the management and in particular to Peter Jenkins, for the opportunity to work for one of the most successful and important conservation projects in Nigeria and the world.
Satellite 6 & 1 works
Cutting and pre-drilling the frame pieces
A quick run to Ikom, to sort out the Laissez-Passer extension for Nigeria
After work we would relax in the communal area, the main shed
The view from the main shed towards the Afi Mountain it’s never the same.
Satellite 6 – 2 days, individual work
We replaced rotten wood, fitted the panels with mesh, repaired broken frames, built new platforms for the quarantined drills and designed, built and fitted door stoppers for the sliding doors that connect the satellite to the enclosure and that separate the 2 compartments inside the satellite. After work we cleaned the site from debris and transported all scraps to the garbage pit and to the storage from where wood can be recovered for making fire.
On the Canopy Walkway, the only one in Nigeria, and the second largest in Africa, suspended at over 30 meters in the trees.
Lianas are parasite plants typically found in the tropical forests
A parasite tree is slowly murdering its host
At the magic tree in Buanchor: the village GSM antenna. Look at all this Nigeria charm.
We completed and assessment of the entire built base, highlighting: what needs to be fixed, replaced or improved in visitor and staff cabins, sheds and animal enclosures, we tagged with red tape the fence poles that are must be changed, suggestions for an improved layout of the vet shed, tool shed and fuel shed in relation to the main staff shed and the working area. We proposed 2 washing points (water birds) with easy access from the toilets and water source (stream). One important aspect is using as many materials from site as possible and keeping the budget to a minimum.
Our second survey work was assessing the new chimp extension which is a big operation: we proposed an improved working flow taking into account manpower and materials availability and sources (gravel and sand are difficult to bring to the site because the terrain is quite irregular and even marshy). We proposed a prototype for the 7 bridges that would ensure easy access around the enclosure for maintenance staff and an ATV. We proposed solutions for terrain works in particularly delicate areas (2 marshes and one area very difficult to cross). Bridge proposal follow a few main ideas: using materials already on site, using as little concrete as possible to keep pollution to a minimum, keeping the site clean for debris, building a cheap wood strecher-like container for concrete mixing (to avoid several pits difficult to clean afterwards) and following a simple but strict work flow.
Riding the truck to Buanchor
American pancakes with garri and bananas by Jens
Shaua-Shaua, the wild pineapple. In the background is CJ.
Changing the brake disc, thanks to our invaluable friend, Harry.
Selfie with the President of Nigeria
Former star president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo arrived at the ranch 10 years after his first visit. It was an intense team effort to prepare the camp for his visit and it was great fun to have him over and to get to know him. Years back in Galati or Bucharest we would have never thought that us, two ordinary Romanians, would get to know the president of Nigeria, and the most famous and powerful nevertheless.
President Olusegun Obasanjo posing with the ebony that he planted here 10 years ago. Ebony is one of the most precious essences in Africa, it’s very resistant to humidity and was traditionally used for bridges in Boki region, but is now under threat of being forested into extinction.
At the chimp platform where I had build 2 new visitor benches. CJ is the star of the day, making a brilliant presentation for Obasanjo and the entourage
Obasanjo signs the guest book, while Peter Jenkis acts as the man in the shadow.
Asuko (senior drill keeper in group 1 & 6) shows Poto, who is rather unhappy to be disturbed from his usual daytime sleep
The ex-President of Nigeria asked us to take a photo with him, and we happily obliged. Now we are waiting for Jonathan Goodluck to give us a call.
The ex-president of Nigeria meets permanent staff: Takam (crew boy), David (group 6 & 4) and Franca (animal food); the armed dude is from the escort. Next he meets more ranch staff: Tony (group 1 & 6), Gabriel (group 2, 3, 4), James (group 2 & 5), Rose (housekeeping), Thomas (group 5, fence maintenance)
Project for a Chimp Septic – 5 days, 4 crew boys
(1 day for digging, 2 for mixing and pouring concrete, 1 to wheelbarrow materials)
Building a septic tank in the heart of wilderness is not easy, even in a resource-rich country like Nigeria. Cleaning and maintenance of the two big and crowded chimp satellites was top priority. The faces, solids and liquids are difficult to collect and remove from site. Problems are: staff medical issues like frequent eye and skin infections, pools of dirty matter where mosquitoes quickly reproduce generating an unmanageable infested area and most of all, pollution of the nearby stream via a channel that carries all dirty waters. We proposed a septic pit: 95×155 cm, 1.60m deep, concrete walls, no bottom. We would lay gravel and then sand on the bottom of the septic, allowing the dirty matters to slowly be filtrated. The solids would by then be partially be consumed by insects and the surplus can be shoveled to the main garbage pit. The septic would be connected with a concrete gutter to the satellite, and would have a wooded pedestrian cover, making it easy to maintain and service. We would fit the septic wit an overflow: PVC slotted pipes that would direct only filtered liquids and meteoric water to the stream.
We eliminated the polluting drain system towards the stream, we closed the gutter in the satellite, we marked and dug the pit
We sent crew boys for sand and stones, which we then pounded to the desired granulation. We designed the concrete recipe.
We built and placed the forms. As we were using scraps, we struggled to level the faces.
Forms, reinforcing wire and overflow drain fitted. With my crew boys for the day: Mathew and Godwin. We prepared a semi-wet premix on the floor, then correct the consistency in the wheelbarrow, and poured with a metal bassinet. We vibrated with an old iron.
Walls and washing platform done.
We dismantle the forms. The walls are not perfectly plane, but the concrete is impeccable
Godwin covers the drain with soil
We poured the connection gutter to the satellite.
Typical staff & visitors photo. From felt to right: Jens (from Oregon, volunteers for 1 year), a German visitor, Asuko (Senior drill keeper, from Calabar), Mageed (vet and manager), Ana, visitor & driver
From left to right: me, Nasseru (welder), Ana, Asuko, Celestine (driver), CJ, Mageed
Rose, Ana, Franca
Final group photo in Nigeria, the departure morning with Peter, Godwin, Emmanuel 1, Amanda, Mathew, Takam, Tony, Thomas, James, Gabriel, Robert, Emma 2