A tableau of subsistence plays out around us as we lurch along the dirt road: villages of round huts with plantings of maize and dryland rice. Bent-over women - some topless - tend cassava and yams while others dig for water in the dry river bottoms. Nomadic Fulani wander with their herds of white, hump-backed cattle. Coming from the western world, it is hard to believe people still live like this. Only the most romantic could see this as peaceful and pastoral - the obvious reality is one of hard work in harsh conditions.
We’re on the “road” from Jalingo to Lau, where we’ll catch a ferry to cross the Benue River - a big tributary of the mighty Niger. Lau is a river town. Like river towns everywhere, stuff moves through here. The landward approach is across a khaki, sandy plain. After a couple of hours on the road, the town seems to just appear out of the ground. The buildings are all mud or crumbly concrete, and the only things taller than a single story are a cell tower and a couple of water tanks on spindly legs. The dirt lanes are quiet, the ubiquitous yellow and green paint peels on the walls, and a layer of hot, sticky sand covers everything. Unlike the river towns that I’m used to - Dubuque, Omaha, St. Paul - there’s a torpor, rather than a bustle. I don’t mean that to sound critical because I’m feeling rather lethargic myself: thinking and moving in slow motion. The heat does that to you.
In the middle of town we turn right, bump down an embankment to the beach-proper, and then follow it a bit upstream to the ferry docks. While our drivers make arrangements to get us onto the boats, I take in the scene. Good God, it’s hot! The sun is lasering down onto the sand and I’m instantly coated in greasy sweat. The “docks” are conceptual, rather than actual - the boats just pull up to the beach. There are a couple of beat-up sheds where you can arrange your passage and buy a bottle of water, and, as always, there’s a bunch of extra guys just hanging out, waiting for something to happen. Some seem friendly, some seem curious about the two trucks full of foreigners, and some seem completely indifferent.
Riding the Lau ferry is one of those things that is just so … African. Or, at least it is not Western. Our ferries here in the US have rumbling diesel engines and fresh paint. They’re made of steel. They have radar and sonar. The pilot wears a clean white shirt with epaulets and is called “captain”. One boards and disembarks from a proper dock. There’s a certificate of inspection from the Coast Guard. There's a schedule.
This is entirely different. Long of keel and skinny of beam, the boats remind me of scrapwood rafts of the Huck Finn sort. The hulls are flexible and porous. The decks are only partially planked, with gaps where you can look down into the oily water sloshing around in the bilge. The pilot rides at the rear, on a seat above the outboard motor, which he steers with his dangling feet. These are rudimentary craft. You could build one with just two tools, a saw and a hammer. The decking is all unpainted, unsanded and raw. Schedule?
When acceptable payment has been offered and sufficient load accumulated, a boat is summoned to carry us. Its motor coughs up a blue fog as it noses into the beach. The ferry terminal is on the inside of a bend in the river, so the current is relatively calm and better for loading and unloading. It’s so calm the boat isn’t even tied up - there’s nothing to tie it to. Two planks of you-gotta-be-kidding-me sturdiness are dropped off the bow and one of our trucks is driven aboard. It’s so precarious I can hardly watch: the planks sag and make cracking noises. The boat - which is only about two feet wider than the truck - rocks alarmingly from side to side. But these guys do this all the time so I probably shouldn't worry. Probably. Once the truck is centered (more or less) we’re invited to board, as are a whole bunch of other people, a small load of rice, some motorbikes, chickens, a rifle, and some goats up front. I work my way aft to sit down, but there’s only one bench big enough for about four people, so I’ll just stand. That’s OK. It puts me in a better position to jump if I need to.
We back away from the bank and turn upstream, into the current. It’s obvious the little outboard is struggling to make headway, and as we round a point, we get a headwind, too. This isn’t a straight-across trip, the landing on the other side is a mile or more upstream. Now that we’re in motion, the breeze feels good. I lean on the truck and enjoy the ride. On the left, what I think is the far bank is actually an island, and as we pull clear of it, the river is suddenly twice as wide. On the right bank, some women are washing clothes and naked kids are swimming. It’s so hot I want to jump in with them. Further upstream is some sort of raft, maybe a fisherman. The sandy banks on both sides rise to a flat plain that stretches to the horizon, and it’s just quiet and empty. The sun is melting me into the deck. I feel remote, dreamy, relaxed and free - I could be perfectly content riding this boat all day.
And then an unholy jolt as the deck is pulled out from under me, other passengers stumble, motorbikes tumble and the truck I’m leaning on skids forward. The boat tips to my side and instinctively I shed my heavy backpack and I am this close to jumping overboard ...
We’ve run aground. Apparently, a piece has broken and jammed on the steering gear. With the sandbar holding us, the pilot has a chance to affect a temporary repair - it takes just a minute, but leaves him steering with his toes perilously close to the motor’s exposed flywheel. It’s dangerous as hell, but the pilot seems unfazed. He calls all passengers to the rear, and with the bow unweighted, we float free and resume our trip.
Landing on the far side of the river, we unload in reverse: last-on, first-off. As long as I’m safely aground before they drive the truck over those planks again, I’m happy. On this side of the river, there’s no real town, but a small market has sprung up with oranges, eggs, melons and a somewhat festive atmosphere where some of the hangers-around have to have their hands shaken and pictures taken with us. And in this way we were welcomed to the west side of the Benue, where we resume our travels overland.
Crossing rivers, crossing cultures, this short ride on a rickety boat is a highlight of my trip, an amazing novelty. But for the locals, it’s business as usual. Ultimately, that’s what I want out of travel - to see how other people live. I’m not that interested in museums or theaters or other “attractions” when there’s real life happening all around. There are about seven billion people on the planet right now and we’re all going about the basic, daily business of feeding, clothing and housing ourselves, and what makes us such a great spectacle to each other is how simultaneously similar and different we are. Localized solutions to universal challenges mean that the exotic is commonplace somewhere else, and how rich our lives become when we get to sample a bit of it.