By Pelu Awofeso
Ogbonnaya Kanu is a biker who also happens to have a drive for adventure travel. He started in Nigeria a couple of years back, riding for a week through the southern Nigerian cities of Port Harcourt, Uyo, Calabar and then pushing farther north to Maiduguri, Kano, Sokoto, Minna and Ilorin, with other stops in-between.
Then, sometime in 2012, he took his quest beyond Nigeria with a 36-day trip to and from Europe, crossing the western fringes of Sahara belt and eventually biking through Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy.
Two years later, at the height of the Ebola scare, he set his sights on Africa, riding out from South Africa up through Namibia, Congo, Angola, Gabon and Cameroon. On his way to Europe, he’d also crossed African countries in the ECOWAS region (Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal), connecting thereafter to the northern tip of the continent (Morocco) Mauritania and Western Sahara.
Fear as a driving force
“Seeing the world on a bike is completely different from seeing it in a car,” he says at the PAGE Book Connoisseurs in Lagos, where he’s come to have a reading and talk about his trips. “You are so exposed to the world when you’re on a bike: you can feel the wind, the raindrops, you can perceive every smell; you have a better view of everything around you.”
So far, he’s crisscrossed 30 countries and recorded his experiences in two books: “FD Breaking Limits: Road to Europe” and “FD Breaking Limits: Road Home from the South”.
“What the books do, I hope, is inspire the reader to move to the next level. I want other people to break through what’s holding them back from achieving whatever it is they want to achieve.”
He credits his achievements on the various journeys to both determination and fear. As a matter of fact his first words to me when we met were: “You need to feel fear to be brave…If I don’t know where I’m going, I can always go back.”
Finding his bearing
Getting from one part of a country to another can be a task, not to mention doing same for multiple countries. How does Kanu plot his journey? “Generally the goal is to go from one place to the other and you want to go in the fastest way possible; and generally speaking towns are linked by one major road. If there are other roads, they are minor roads. With Google maps and paper maps and talking with people on the ground, it is not such a difficult thing really.”
In the familiar tradition of travel storytellers, Kanu pegs some of his observations to Nigeria. “Luanda is just like Lagos,” he says at some point during the Q & A. “If you’re in downtown Luanda you might as well be on the streets of Lagos.
“If you’re looking to appreciate Nigeria, then you must go to Congo. When Congo is done with you that spirit of patriotism will be so strong in you.”
Gabon, he says, is a very wet country. “I was in the middle of the rain forest. So much humidity and I found out that the speed limit is 80km/h. I kept wondering why that was the case, then it struck me: the roads are winding. I don’t think there is any road that is more than 500m straight. And I noticed they were doing a lot of road repairs.”
Namibia is a really beautiful country, he says. “It is one country I wish I had spent more time in. It’s English-speaking, well developed and you also have wildlife. And there is the African thing going on there.”
“Usually when I get to my destination is look for where to sleep and where to eat. I remember that In Bamenda, I asked the petrol attendant: “Where is the best hotel here? And when I found it, the first thing I did when I walked in is to order the food, because I know it usually takes some time to prepare. In some places there are no attractions to visit. If I do have a rest day, then I use the day to walk around the place.
“I try to travel as light as possible. You’re riding all day long so you don’t need anything fancy. I generally pack three shirts like the footballers’ jerseys and long johns which I wear under my trousers, toiletries and basic tools to repair my bike, like a pump to inflate the tyres, to repair punctures. On off-days, I sometimes also have one or two t-shirts to wear in hotels.”
As any average traveller can guess, travelling to that many countries means crossing several transnational boundaries, almost all of which have entry requirements unique to them. “I don’t make these trips without a lot of planning and a lot of saving,” he says in response to a question about how he manages to get through them all. “You need to do your due diligence. I always had to have the right documents at these places. You’re not going to get to the border and think you can get away with some nice fancy words.”
His prep routine includes hours scouring the internet for entry guidelines and updates. Namibia and Angola, he found out, both have very strict visa requirements, requiring – among other things—a letter of invitation. Going through Mauritania/ Western Sahara border, a traveller is required to carry what is called “micro-fish” (a document that is basically a summary of the individual and bike details), a copy of which must be presented at every check point, sometimes every 20km-30km.
The Nigeria/ Cameroon border presents a challenge of a different nature. In the recent past, according to Kanu, it used to be that travellers spent two or three days on the 50km-60km stretch of road that connects both countries, because the road was in terrible shape. “The bridge linking both countries is just one-car width wide,” he says, while talking the audience through a slideshow. “There is a gate there. If you’re coming from the Nigerian side and the gate is not open, you can’t get into Cameroon—same from the Nigerian side.”
He recounts a tense encounter with a stern, gun-wielding official. “At this particular checkpoint, I rode straight to the front of a queue, bypassing a long line of cars. The guy I met there told me to go back. I didn’t argue Oh! When eventually I got back to him, he was so polite and so nice.”
From that encounter he learnt a lesson: “People don’t really mean you harm; maybe some, but majority of people don’t wake up thinking how they’re going to raid you. Generally speaking, I try to be conscious of my environment, I try to be polite, I try to be courteous and ask questions (I don’t take it for granted). That’s basically how I handle situations like that. But really at no point did I feel my safety was threatened. I was more scared of being attacked by wildlife than by humans.”
He now plans to travel to Australia next (2018), and biking around that country.