Gembu is situated on the Mambilla Plateau, Taraba state. It is the highest point in Nigeria. I first heard of the town Gembu while traveling through Nasarawa state. After lodging for few days in Lafia, the state capital, I was about checking out when I got into a chitchat with the hotel manager regarding my northern Nigeria tour. I was leaving Nasarawa for Taraba and he thought I should visit Gembu when I arrived. Like every adventurous traveler, I became curious. What’s it with Gembu?
I looked at Mr. Sola, the hotel manager, mouth wide agape as he described his experience going up and down Nigeria’s highest altitude every other week for almost a year. This was during his heydays as a sales manager in Nigeria Breweries. He said the town sits on the Mambilla Plateau, the highest point in Nigeria. Now that caught my attention!
My mind raced back to my elementary geography years and I did some googling. To my amazement I discovered that Gembu actually sits 5,250ft above sea level. Wow. The man jejely told me to brace myself for an 8-hour journey that stretched into steep, edgy, undulating and rolling hills on the plateau. He told me that cars go slowly so they don’t collide on the narrow roads. That if a vehicle should fall off, that will be the end. It will fall so far down the rocky hills that no one will even know anything happened.
The hyperbolic descriptions scared me a great deal. I was like “what kind of place is that?” But I had to psyche myself up and convince myself it can’t be that bad. That I will give it a try. How can I come all the way from Lagos to now get frightened at this point? No way! For crying out loud, I have climbed the majestic Obudu mountain in Cross River, rode the cable car, yet nothing happened. I have even done the scarily dangerous bungee jump (in far away Uganda) from a whooping 122feet height, yet survived. These past events alone were morale boosters needed to refuel my low morale. I must conquer this mountain, I thought to myself. And conquer I will!
So I packed my bag the next day and headed to the bus park. I Was advised to leave very early because of the distance. You see, generally it is not advisable to travel late in the north, so whatever you do, plan your journey in the mornings, never in the afternoon or evening.
I set out the following day and by the time I got to the popular Kakara park in Jalingo by 7am, 4 buses were already full of people going to Gembu. I was like what? So this is not even a lonely route like I thought. You need to see the relief I felt as I walked into the park. I was so thankful I didn’t cancel the trip because of someone’s scary account. All this people wouldn’t be going to Gembu if they knew they were gonna die or fall of the edge of a cliff, I thought.
Anyways, we got into the 7seater space bus and took off by 9am. I sat with two other ladies at the back row. The young driver looked like one in his twenties. He sped with reckless abandon, greeting almost every tom, dick and harry on the way. Other times, he’d stopped the car to greet his friends. At some point we got angry and yelled at him. No one wanted to get to Gembu late. My voice was louder. The dude yelled back some Hausa words which I couldn’t decipher, stared at me briefly through his rear mirror and continued driving – which now metamorphosed into rough driving. The dude started speeding through dust so much that by the time we arrived Gembu I was practically bathed with red powder.
We encountered many roadblocks on the way, thanks to men of the Nigerian FRSC, Army, VIO, Immigration and Police. At some point, I lost count. And they all had something in common: cash. The drivers all had to part with something. It was a regular practice – even though some of the roadblocks had ragged old signs boldly displaying DO NOT GIVE MONEY AT THIS POINT. An irony of sorts!
Well, we got to Gembu around 3.20pm (since 9am) after passing through small and large settlements/villages such as Sunkani, Kankani, Sarkin Dawa, Mayokam, Pangri, Nahuta, Bali (home to the Federal Polytechnic Bali), Garbabi, Gashaka (home to the Gashaka National Park), Serti and Ngoruje (in Sardauna Local Government Area). Yes, I actually wrote all those names down as we drove along. At some point I was even tired. But I pressed on. And did I mention that we stopped for about 30minutes for lunch break at one of the villages? Yes, I ordered white rice and beef from that local restaurant while every other person ordering Tuwo Shinkafa – a local dish of mashed rice and soup. And guess what? The restaurant even had no variety like moimoi, dodo, eggs, etc. Just bland, boring rice and stew. Phew!
Fortunately, we got to Gembu in one piece and I called Ishaku Asongya, my host. I got Ishaku’s contact through the hotel manager in Nasarawa. He is from the Jukun tribe of Taraba state. See, in all my travels, one thing I have learnt is the skill to master the ability to make friends easily. If you’re friendly and likable, your journey in life will be easier. So this dude, who I was meeting for the very first time in my life, welcomed me like a brother, even carried my heavy backpack and treated me to a can of malt drink briefly at his bar before taking me to the hotel.
Now this is the most expensive hotel in Gembu. Rooms go for 5k and 10k, regular and VIP respectively. Ishaku told me there were other hotels where rooms go for as low as NGN500, NGN1500, etc. Wow! He even offered that I come stay with him just incase I wanted to save cash on hotel bills.
But I’m so glad I stayed at the hotel. Why? Because the hotel had virtually uninterrupted power supply. You see, the town is not connected to the national grid, so people don’t really stay out late because of darkness. So staying in a place where I’m guaranteed power supply is a big deal. As soon as the sun starts setting, people retire to their homes. Meanwhile, Gembu has only one major night club for fun seekers, coupled with several beer parlours. Everyone powers his house or business through generators. So my hotel is the only hotel that puts on light at night for guests. And they even have inverters as well. Interestingly, I asked for the manager and was able to negotiate a #500 discount. Their rooms were largely empty so they had nothing to lose. That was how I got to pay 9k instead of 10k for the 2 nights. I know you might think 1k savings is not much a big deal. Only folks travelling on a budget will really appreciate the beauty of saving every penny you have at any given opportunity. So you just need to try your luck sometimes.
Later at night, Ishaku took me to one of their local restaurants to experience their dishes. Now it’s usually cold all year round so I was advised to wear some warm clothing before stepping out. Up there in the shadows is Cindy, serving our meals. Their sitting room is the guests eating arena. Her mum is outside grilling the fish while contemporary Nigerian music videos play at high decibels from the teevee. The plate of food costs NGN700. Rice 200, Fish 500. Life is really easy and cheap on the Mambilla, you know.
So we settle down to eat and engage in small talk. I ask Ishaku why he isn’t married. He shrugs! For crying out loud, you are a staff of Nigerian Breweries – responsible for the delivery of all drinks supplied to Gembu! But Ishaku tells me things are not the way they seem. Life might be cheap on the Mambilla but money is scarce. And the irony of it all is that people ‘drink like fish’ in the town. Ishaku says he know folks that hustle for money just so they can splurge on drink in the evenings. He tells me that Gembu is perhaps the only town where you’ll find an entire family at a drinking joint – and that includes father, mother, children and even grandparents – all drinking and dancing their sorrows away. I opened my mouth in amazement! And yes sex is also cheap over here in Gembu, that even married women will not hesitate to follow the next man who has the cash to oil their wheels. Hmmm… life and its many ironies.
Gembu isn’t all tales of woes and poverty. There are folks who’re doing pretty well, hardworking farmers, bankers (there was only one bank, UBA, at the time of my visit in April 2017), teachers, and the likes. There are lots of churches and mosques. People are friendly, sane and contented. It’s a small town where everyone knows everybody.
So the next day, I took time to further explore the town. I had met a lovely youth corper at my hotel lobby while checking in. She answers Christy. She had come to sell her wares, as a side hustle. We got talking and she it was who advised that I set out early in the morning if I wanted to enjoy my Gembu sight seeing. Christy comes to charge her phone at the hotel, so everyone knows her. And she was a really pleasant and friendly lady – not just to me but to everyone. She even got the hotel folks to help me get a chartered motorcycle for NGN500. Now, the highest rate a commercial motorcycler can charge you is NGN50 – regardless of your destination – and unless you’re a first timer like me who paid NGN80 on my first day. I was later told I was cheated. Lol. So you can imagine how small a town it is where commute is as cheap as it comes. Anyway, Christy got Kelvin, the hotel janitor to hire a bike to take me round town the next day.
We climbed our way to the highest point in the town – called the TSBS (Taraba State Broadcasting Service) area which also hosts the NTA (Nigeria Television Authority). From there we went to see Obasanjo’s lodge. They actually built the place for President Obasanjo during his tenure when he came visiting. The place has been under lock and key since then. We also checked out the governor’s lodge as well.
Concluding Part Coming Soon…