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Nigeria - When and where to visit
Although Nigeria is wholly within the tropics, its climate varies from tropical at the coast, to sub-tropical further inland, to arid in the north. It experiences two distinct climates – dry and wet. The length of each season varies around the country depending on elevation and latitude but generally the dry season is November–March and the rainy season April to August, with shorter rains in September and October. However, on the coast the rainy season kicks in during February or March when a moist Atlantic air mass, known as the southwest monsoon, routinely batters the coast.
The coast, and predominantly the Niger Delta, receives more rain annually than the rest of the country – up to 4,000mm per year, approximately five times that of London. In contrast, the semi-arid Sahel in the northernmost part of the country receives the least rainfall – about 500mm annually. The peak of the rainy season here is in August, when air from the Atlantic covers the entire country.
However, Nigeria has suffered from a number of droughts over recent years, particularly in the Sahel, and the 20th century is considered among the driest periods of the last several centuries, with well-publicised droughts during the 1970s and 1980s. These drought periods indicate the great variability of climate across tropical Africa.
Nigeria’s temperature is high year-round, and is frequently accompanied by high humidity in low-lying and coastal areas where temperatures average around 32°C. In the north, temperatures generally average 37°C, with extreme northern desert regions averaging 45°C during the day and 6°C at night. Temperatures are highest from February to April in the south and from March to June in the north, and lowest from October to January over most of the country.
The dry season brings cooler temperatures and chaotic dry northeast winds, referred to locally as the harmattan, which carries fine sand from the Sahara across the country. The dust-filled air during this time can be irritating and uncomfortable and appears as a dense fog. The harmattan is more common in the north but affects the entire country except for a narrow strip along the southwest coast. However, an occasional strong harmattan can sweep as far south as Lagos, pushing clouds of dust out to sea and providing relief from high humidity in the capital.
Nigeria is consistently hot all year round with very little change in temperature, and in the south there is a constant uncomfortable humidity. Temperatures are highest from February to April in the south and from March to June in the north, and lowest from October to January over most of the country. This is the dry season, when there are cooler temperatures but a chaotic dry northeast wind, referred to locally as the harmattan, which carries fine sand across the country from the Sahara. The dust-filled air during this time can be irritating and uncomfortable and appears as a dense fog. The harmattan is more common in the north but affects the entire country except for a narrow strip along the southwest coast.
However, the dry season is still the best time to go, as heavy rains during the rainy season (April–August) severely hamper travel when roads are flooded, motor parks become quagmires, and streets in Lagos turn into rivers of rubbish. On the coast, the rainy season kicks in earlier than in the rest of the country and starts in February or March, continuing until August. It’s best to avoid travel in the south during this time – the sky is continually overcast, it’s hot, humid and wet and, if travelling by public transport, you’ll need gumboots to wade through the mud in the motor parks.
If the truth be known, there is very little in the way of conventional sightseeing in Nigeria and the real joy of travelling here is meeting its culturally diverse peoples. The historic sights that do exist are very dilapidated, badly maintained or ignored, and Nigerians generally have little interest in their historical heritage. (The Kano Wall is a fine example – a thousand-year-old wall is today a sorry mound of earth that is covered in rubbish. People routinely dig out chunks of it and cart them home in wheelbarrows to be used as house bricks.) Nigeria also has an awful attitude to its natural heritage, as the several pitiful zoos and eight largely empty national parks attest to (as do all the by-products made from dead animals found in the curio and juju markets). And there obviously has never been a tourism industry to support such things as old architecture or Nigerian animals.
Other ‘sights’ are perfectly accessible by public transport but are really not worth the effort of getting there – Zuma Rock near Abuja being our favourite ‘why did we bother?’ The real reason for going to Nigeria is to immerse yourself in the cultures of millions of people, and to see how they live in a place where hardly anything works; to talk to people who have so much personality and rhythm in their souls; and to enjoy and embrace the unexpected, the bizarre, the enchanting, the appalling, the funny and the downright obscure aspects of everyday life in Nigeria.
Lagos and Yorubaland
The Nigerian character can be enjoyed in all the main cities, and Lagos is without doubt west Africa’s wildest and most vibrant metropolis; despite the chaos it is the place where you can experience a few Western comforts. If Lagos becomes too overwhelming then leave the city and visit the other Yoruba towns in the cluttered southwest of the country. Abeokuta is famous for its sacred Olumo Rock, while Ife, as the centre of the Yoruba culture, has palaces and a museum, and Oshogbo has its eerie collection of weirdly shaped shrines in the sacred forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you are interested in Yoruba culture then the better museums in this region are the National Museum in Lagos and the Ibadan Museum. Further to the east is Benin City, once the capital of a powerful and wealthy kingdom, where you can see examples of the traditional art of bronze wax casting in the museum and in the workshops along Igun Street.
Calabar and the Cross River
The colonial town of Calabar is easily one of Nigeria’s most relaxed and even relatively clean cities, with an excellent museum and a couple of conservation projects for Nigeria’s endangered wildlife that are well worth a visit. To the north of Calabar are the dense tropical rainforests of Cross River State, some of which have been cordoned off into the Cross River National Park. There are no visitor facilities, but it is possible to appreciate the forests at the Afi Mountain Drill Ranch, a sanctuary for the endangered drill monkeys and chimpanzees, or the Rhoko Forest, another primate sanctuary. Then there are the serene, cool and tranquil hills of the Obudu Plateau with its former cattle ranch, cable car and hiking trails.
Central Nigeria has a higher terrain of grassy plains dotted with outcrops of giant rocks. To the east of Abuja is the pleasantly located city of Jos on a high plateau with nice countryside, which has an interesting line of museums. To the east of Jos is Nigeria’s best-known national park, Yankari National Park, which still contains some wildlife, including a fairly healthy population of elephant. Here are the Wikki Warm Springs, a stunning swathe of mildly warm crystal-clear water in a forested valley.
Ancient cities of the north
The north of the country is dominated by the Hausa-Fulani walled cities which, for over a thousand years, have been powerful centres founded on trade and Islam. In these you will meet the more interesting of Nigeria’s peoples, for whom traditional dress, language and deeply devout religion are an important part of everyday life. Some of the mosques here fill with thousands of worshippers for Friday prayers, and the durbar festivals at the end of Ramadan are among the most colourful and spectacular events in west Africa.
In Kano are the famous dye pits, which produce some of the traditional cloths of Nigeria, and the ancient and claustrophobic Kurmi Market, where for centuries trans-Sahara camel caravans exchanged a wealth of goods with the Hausa traders. In Zaria is a fine example of an emir’s palace. To the extreme northeast are the shrinking watery channels of Lake Chad, once one of Africa’s super-lakes that has now largely disappeared, but if you make it this far you will be rewarded with the sight of the ancient Kanuri people, who still trade with people in Chad by canoe, and who could plausibly be one of the least-visited peoples of the world. There are places in more remote spots of the extreme east of Nigeria along the border with Cameroon that few people have ever seen and, although these are not impossible to reach by public transport, they are best visited in your own self-sufficient 4x4 vehicle. These include some of the national parks such as the Gashaka-Gumpti National Park. The UNESCO World Heritage Site at Sukur is slightly more accessible.
No trip to Nigeria is complete without a few days absorbing the chaos of Lagos. Then, with a few days to spare there are options all over the country, but obviously with limited time to reach most parts, this involves flying. An overland option would be the southwest including Abeokuta, Ife and Oshogbo. Alternatively, by air you could spend a few days in and around the atmospheric northern city of Kano.
Again, Lagos and both the options mentioned above plus a trip to the scenic beauty of Jos, Plateau State and on to Yankari for a couple of nights viewing wildlife and relaxing in Wikki Warm Spring.
Travel down to Cross River State to Calabar. Relax here for a couple of days, and then set off up state, spending a night or two in Rhoko Forest and/or Afi Mountain Drill Ranch. Finally, take in some trails and breathtaking views at Obudu Cattle Ranch. Overlanders can make the trip in reverse, travelling from Yankari to Obudu or Rhoko Forest/Afi Mountain and finishing in Calabar.
There’s still more of the east to discover, including the mountain settlement of Sukur and then Chad Basin National Park up to the borders with Chad and Cameroon.