By Tona Bamidele
Every year, I look forward to my vacation period. Even though I prefer to just stay at home to sleep and read, one part of me always urges me to “move out” and see other cities. But the truth is that I have always been in love with tourism, sightseeing and travelling. I have made countless trips to many parts of Nigeria, most of these business driven; but those trips have given me the opportunity to also see the sights and sounds of the cities that I visited.
So on my recent vacation, I chose to travel with my family to Calabar. Why Calabar? Well, for me tourism is not just about travelling and visiting new places, it is also about adventure – doing things I have always desired to do. With all the visuals and sounds I have seen of the city, I believed I would find such adventures in Calabar. Below, I share highlights of our four-day stay in the Cross River capital.
Wednesday 26th January 2011
We are getting ready for the trip. I booked for the tickets 14 days earlier and that really helped reduce the cost of the Aero Contractors flight. Earlier, I told my kids why we picked Calabar as our travel destination. I told them that since the theme of our holiday is on water activities, Calabar, the land of rivers, will provide us the type of relaxation we sought. We got to the airport in good time to board the Aero Boeing Plane to Calabar. Flight was right on Schedule, and by 3.00pm, we were airborne.
An hour later, we were in the arrival lounge of the Margaret Ekpo Airport in Calabar. Prior to our departure, my brother had given me the name and phone number of David, a poet and Calabar-based tour guide, who he said would be at our service throughout our visit. I know the importance of tour guides, or tour operators, but I really was not keen on being taken around. I have always loved to find things out on my own – especially when I have checked the internet for possible tourist destinations in Calabar. I also had a copy of Pelu Awofeso’s Tour of Duty (available at www.guidegecko.com), which has two chapters on Cross River state. However, I looked forward to seeing David and sharing my plans with him.
David was delayed a bit and so we waited in the arrival section of the Margret Ekpo airport. After about an hour of waiting, we decided to move out of the arrivals to the parking lot. We were already getting bored and tired of waiting. As we walked along on the pavement, a young man approached us, smiling and waving at the kids.
“Are you are Tona?” he asked.
“Yes”, I replied. “And I presume you are David?” I followed up, shaking his hand.
“I recognised your family immediately I saw you from the car park because I learnt you’ll be coming with three beautiful ladies”, he said, referring to my wife and 2 daughters.
We drove through Marian Road, a major highway in Calabar, through to the RCC roundabout, where there is a beautiful mosaic of the word CALABAR erected in giant colourful alphabets. We made an exit on the third road of the roundabout, and drove into the hotel.
Green Valley Hotel was very ideal for us. With ample space and good rooms, I was sure we were at the right place. The first problem I had when doing research on Calabar was the lack of a comprehensive hotel directory on Calabar. I was offered a limited option of two hotels by my brother before we departed, and search on the internet showed two or three more – Amber TINAPA, and Channels hotel. I wanted more alternatives, and thanks to David, he showed us Green Valley.
Once the process was completed, we all retired to our room and rested. I asked David to come for us by 9 am the next day to begin our tour of the city. Later that evening the family relaxed at the “love Garden” of the hotel where we had dinner. The kids were fascinated about the bronze models of Pelican birds located in several parts of the love garden and they kept playing with them. Good sight indeed.
Thursday 27th January 2011
Well rested, we prepared for the day’s activities. It was half past 8 in the morning, and we still had 30 minutes to wait for David. I strolled into the bar right across my room and ordered for a bottle of Big Stout. I will normally not drink this early in the morning, but I was on holiday–I was relaxed!
While I depleted the drink, I reflected on my reasons for picking Calabar as my holiday destination. The objective was clear – Ecotourism! I wanted to see wildlife, go fishing, boat riding, swimming, and of course see places that shaped the history of the country. I wanted us to have a moment with nature, and immerse ourselves into the dailies lives of the locals.
“it’s 9.30, dear”, my wife interrupted my thoughts. “Have you called David?”
I had not realised that time was far spent. I quickly put a call to David. “I will join you shortly,” he promised. ‘Shortly’ meant two more hours of waiting, so by 11 am when David did not show up, my family and I hit the road, and got a taxi to the Marina Park.
The Marina resort is simply a beautiful scene to behold. A well kept resort, the place offered the most surreal environment. As we walked into the park, we could perceive the scent of the freshly cut trees, and the mowed lawns. We could see the River Calabar at the background, with its calm waves hitting the Jetty of the resort.
To the left of the entrance is a functional “merry -go-round”, with its Horse modelled seats beckoning on the Children. The kids were excited, and they rushed straight to the object of amusement.
“You are welcome Sir,” Tony, a staff of the resort, greeted as he approached us. “It is my duty to show you around this place.”
Immediately, the wanted to be on the merry-go-round. They had 30 minutes of cyclic fun on the horses. At a point, I joined them and felt the type of joy the kids were feeling. It was thrilling. Shortly after the jolly ride, we observed that a team of two young men were preparing to go on a boat ride. Tony told us that he would advice us to join the group . At this point David had joined us, so we all dressed in the safety floater and boarded the pleasure boat – a white cruiser completed with entertainment systems.
The captain of the cruiser revved up the outboard engine and sped off into the distance. The Captain of the boat also doubled as the guide, informing us of the importance of the river to the economy of the State.
“Those ships are passenger ships, taking people to Cameroun and Malabo”, he said. “It takes about 24 hours to get to the port of Malabo,” he said.
As I sat in the boat admiring the ships, I was already building a thought in my mind – How about a trip to Malabo on a ship! With the song of Duncan Mighty blasting from the speakers of the boat, the Captain handed over the steering of the cruiser to the kids, and supported them in piloting it to the next destination – “the evil forest of Calabar”, so named because it was once notorious for the killing of twins in the pre-colonial days.
According to the captain, the then uninhabited land was the dumping ground for twins who were left there to die, or consumed by animals. The story goes that when the queen of the town had twins, she wanted to protect them from certain death that awaited them. So she secretly sent a maid to the forest to keep watch over them. The twins grew up to be Duke and Henshaw, whose names are now synonymous with the two distinct areas of Calabar – Duke town to the West of Calabar and Henshaw town to the East of Calabar. We disembarked at the shores of the forest and met the folks who were there. After our tour around the place, I tipped one of the locals N1,000, and we sped off into the waters.
In a short while, we got to the resort Jetty. Tony then took us on a tour of the resort. The slave trade museum in the resort is very striking. With real life models of humans, you are sure to get shivers down your spines. My older daughter Fadekemi was so frightened that she closed her eyes throughout the tour of the museum, hiding behind me. The first gallery has huge model slave ship cut out to reveal how the slaves were arranged in the lower deck. The legs and the heads of the figurines were so real we thought the place was stuffed with human cadavers! I give it to the artists that modelled those things.
It was getting close to sun set, and we still had about two hours to spend before it was completely dark. Tony had already told me of a very interesting place in town when we could get on a boat, with hook and sinkers, get our own fish and roast it. Great! We left the resort with a better appreciation of the slave trade era and we moved on to Aqua Vista, a water-themed relaxation spot with lots of tree, caged wild animals and several ponds full of Tilapia. We were taken round the place, but we could not achieve our aim of fishing in those ponds because the fishes were still very young. We settled for a round of drinks, the disappointedly left for our hotel.
Friday 28th of January 2011
We had an early start today. May it was because we had a lot of places to visit. We planned to visit the Bakkassi area of Ikang and the Palm wine and Bush meat centre in Atimbo.
About 90km away from Calabar, Ikang is a quiet fishing town overlooking the Bakassi peninsula, along winding waterways stretching far into the Horizon.
We arrived early enough to see several fishing boats deep in the waters. Fishing is, it so happens, is the main preoccupation here; and the locals usually do this early in the morning. David had assumed that I was only interested in visiting and sightseeing.
“I normally bring tourists here, and we stay here to observe things”, David said, settling down on a bench under the huge tree.
“Well, David,” I cut in, “I am not here to observe. I want to go right into the river and catch the fish I will eat this afternoon.”
David was shocked. He was definitely not expecting this. No tourist has ever asked him for this. He was not expecting this level of adventure! David yielded to my request and approached the jetty where some boat owners and fishermen clustered around their boats. David started negotiating with them, and while he was on this, I asked Busayo (my wife) and the kids to wait for me under the tree, while I walked toward the end of the Jetty.
From that point, I could see the NNPC floating fuel station. It was a beautiful site. It was the second time I would be seeing a fuel station in the middle of a river – first being at the Marina Resort. I lifted my Camera ,and I clicked.
“May I know who you are?”, a deep voice rang out behind me. I turned around and faced a dark complexioned heavily built man. The tribal mark on his face indicated that he is from the Benue/Kogi axis. His stern looking eyes scanned my being, while I calmly told him that I was a tourist.
“A tourist?” he retorted, “from where?”
“From Lagos. I came here with my family to see things, to enjoy fresh breeze,” I said, pointing to Busayo and the kids. Satisfied, he told me that security alert is high around the area and new faces are scrutinised. Photographs are not allowed, and he told me that it was better I registered my presence at the Immigration office for security clearance.
The major concern in Bakassi still remains the unfortunate loss of that oil reach city to the Cameroonians and the attendant skirmishes that has trailed that acquisition. Even though it was peaceful, the Nigerian indigenes there are not happy about it. Also, there is fear around the oil installations around the areas, and the possibility of a militant attack on them. The fear of the security agents are well founded, but I was not going to allow that to scare me away.
I was not a militant—I just came here as a Nigerian to enjoy myself. I realised that the dust of suspicion raised by the Immigration officer upset the local boat owners and they became quite reluctant to release their boats, or offer any assistance. I assured them that I was a peace loving tourist who just wanted to catch a few kilos of fish for lunch!
The deal was agreed and I paid N4,000 for both the boat and the fisherman that would go with us. We were decked in the safety floaters (we were actually the only ones wearing these things so we were very conspicuous and out of place!) and boarded the boats. The children were bold and happy; they were apparently enjoying the whole drama. The operator kicked the engine and quickly sped off.
I suggested that we joined a group of other fisher men to increase our chances of getting a harvest of fish. So the boat moved close to another fishing boat which occupants were just pulling out their nets from the river. Lots of fish in the net! I made an attempt at throwing the net, but I was not very successful. Then our fisherman-escort did it professionally, and we got a handful of crabs, and other species of fishes. I settled for a big catfish (Obokun). Yes, I am happy that my children were seeing firsthand how the fish they eat at home in Lagos are caught, and the labour involved in bringing the fish to our tables.
“Oga, if you don’t mind I will take it to where you can see plenty periwinkles and fish,” the fisherman offered.
“Sure, I will like to see how the locals live their lives,” accepting the invitation. And then, the boat changed course, and moved further down the peninsula, until we got to a settlement called the Fishing Port (Ine Abassi – God’s fishing port).
An isolated village, Ine Abassi is a quiet, rural community of about 100-150 men, women and children. They live a very subsistence life, very satisfied with the fish they eat and sell. It is a place that has not seen government presence. As we approached the shores of the village, several men came out to see the strangers that have come to visit them. They were so happy to see us that they requested for more of such visits. Apart for the church and a improvised primary school, all the houses in the village are built with palm leaves. The thatched houses are well arranged.
“Do you know that since I have been involved in tourism, I have never see this place before,” David told me. He was astonished that a tourist from Lagos could be so daring to discover a potential haven for tourists. “I tell you, even the state government don’t know this place exit,” he said.
We moved round the village playing with children and chatting with the men. The women were shy and ran into their huts. As we left Ine Abassi, David had already started concocting an idea of setting up a tourist resort in the heart of Ine Abassi. I was happy that I discovered a place – I felt like Mungo Park!
We carried our catch of the day back to our vehicle, and en route Calabar, we stopped at Atimbo, a place known for its palm wine and bush meat (Antelope and Grasscutter) business. We all settled down to a meal of boiled plantain, antelope, grasscutter, scent leave, and several bottles of undiluted palm wine.
David offered to help us cook the fish. And by nightfall, David returned with the meal – deliciously prepared. We settled down to devour the fish. David has made my day.
Saturday 29th January 2011
We were very conscious of the fact that we had not visited the important and well know landmark in Calabar – the TUNAPA Resort, and we were determined to do that today. Being the last day of our stay in Calabar, we wanted to ensure that we touched as many places as was possible. So we set off early in the day, visiting the drill monkey ranch. The operators of the drill monkey ranch will tell you that the place is not a zoo, but a sanctuary for a rare species of monkeys which are threatened by excessive hunting, and loss of their natural habitat. The ranch is managed by a NGO set up by an American couple in 1989. It rescues monkeys from smugglers, and villages – most of them orphans whose parents have been killed in the forest. The ranch achieved national pre-eminence when the then president Chief Olusegun Obasanjo visited the place.
After the ranch, we drove down to the much talked about TINAPA Resort. TINAPA is a great place to relax. We spent quality time at the resort’s Water Park. Lots of water activities to meet my needs, and those of the children. TINAPA was the last place we visited in our four day vacation in Calabar, and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to end the holiday.