One common staple with coastal cities is their waterways and Calabar is no exception. A thirty minute cruise from the Marina Road quay to Oron was no ordinary experience. From rough water currents to the calm and relatively swamp forests on either side of the water, travelling through the water ways by speed boat still holds its allure. A caveat though, life jacket is an absolute must. Omolola Itayemi writes
Sundays might not be one of the best days to travel on the waterways of Cross River State because rules are generally relaxed, often times at passengers’ peril. I however, didn’t get to realize this until I and other passengers (twenty four of us) were almost stranded mid-way in the middle of the ocean.
Marina Road Jetty is just like any old building in Calabar except for the human traffic spilling out of there (which was light that Sunday) and various sizes of speed boats, both in use and abandoned. Several locked-up lockers, a bread-seller kiosk, drums of diesel and lots of loitering youths. A little rough and dirty and like any other transport hub, it has its own fair share of noisy touts spoiling for a fight which happened when a quarrel ensured between an angry youth and a keke-NAPEP driver
As you drive in, you’re faced with the stature of a mermaid leaving no one in doubts that you’re in a riverine territory. A walk into the business office reveals a stark interior, except for two long wooden chairs and numerous lifejackets lying on the floor. At N800 a trip, I was disappointed to be the eleventh on a list I was informed would run up to twenty-five. I was however given a lifejacket as soon as money exchanged hands. I was itching to go but the passenger load was still low.
The lifejacket had seen better days but every other person waiting to catch a ride on the boat had one on and I strapped mine too. The wait was longer than I anticipated, at over one and half hours. The trickle of passengers didn’t gain momentum until thirty minutes to time of departure when people started streaming in, this the driver/money collector (Asuquo) explained was because church service was over. In a twinkle of an eye, he announced the boat was ready to depart.
Then the scrambling started. Passengers started running towards the boat, some jumping in from other boats moored close to it and others waiting to be helped in. I followed suit and almost fell trying to find my way in. We settled in, at four to a seat which turned out to be a piece of plank wood that made up seats in the speed boat. Other drivers helped push the boat out in the rear-direction. Afterwards, Asuquo asked the passengers on the seat closest to him to bend their heads while he pulled the string that propelled the engine and viola, we were on our way.
Right after the jetty was an NNPC fuel-station or barge right in the middle of the water. A sight to behold, I must have caused a stir as I brought out my camera to take pictures. We started sailing, a very calm journey and the scenery was breathtaking. It was my own personal time to commune with my maker and I took advantage of it. Two things run through your mind on a journey such as this, fear of the boat upturning and appreciation of God’s work. On either side of the ocean, were swampy mangroves or rainforests as some people will choose to describe them. One of the passengers told me a yawning through that mangrove will take me to Rivers State.
Asuquo, the driver also doubles as a clerical staff says he’s been on this job for the past twelve years. He says the jetty runs from 6am to 6pm and the boats run a total of thirty trips a day. At home in this environment, he stood throughout the journey and even talking on the phone.
If the trip to Oron was without any incident, the return was full of drama. At Oron, dry fish was in abundant supply and I bought some. I was constantly approached if I wanted to join a boat to Cameroun which I refused. Oron isn’t far from Cameroun. By the time I was done buying fish, I joined the next boat to Oron which had waiting passengers, so there was no long wait. However the driver had the boat overloaded with more passengers than allowed (it was Sunday and the officials were not on duty), some without lifejackets.
The journey started on a slower tempo than when we left Calabar and came to a grinding halt some miles away from the jetty. A woman two seats away from mine started cursing and accused the driver of taking more passengers, reminding him of the tragic accident that happened a week ago (a boat taking more than the required load of passengers had capsized and all those without lifejackets passed away). With other aggrieved passengers adding to her cry, he had no option than to turn back and we dropped a passenger.
That was no relief and my tummy was still in knots when we started back. The boat was on a faster speed now but the lady was still worried. I couldn’t enjoy nature at close range anymore as I was praying to make it back to Calabar in one piece. Some minutes later, an empty boat with three passengers drove towards us shouting orders in Calabar language. I didn’t understand a thing but I was scared, I thought they were pirates or kidnappers. A young man stood up to join them and he was asked to sit back.
At this point time, I was visibly shaken. Until the lady seating next to me noticed my displeasure and said there was no trouble. They were only helping out; apparently we still had more passengers on board than allowed.
They helped with three more passengers. The boat did feel lighter and we sped off, occasionally hitting water currents that seem like rocks. As I sighted the NNPC oil barge, I heaved a sigh of relief knowing Calabar was just a heartbeat away. We got to Calabar jetty, disembarked and returned the life jackets. Another driver was writing names and collecting money, another trip to Oron by boat. Despite some discomfort and occasional fear, it was still a very exciting journey on water.