By Ndama Abubakar
On the day of our visit to Gurara Waterfall, on Sunday March 20, 2016, there was just a handful of visitors to the site. The endemic fuel scarcity in Abuja and elsewhere in the country had taken its toll on the paradise resort. The manager of the resort and the official site tourist guide, Abdullahi Suleiman, informed us that the number of visitors had been steadily increasing lately, but rued the pestiferous energy crisis that has holed up many at home and dampened the spirit of adventure.
To undertake this tour, the General Manager, Niger State Tourism Corporation, Mohammed Sani Ahmed, had kindly volunteered to use his car for the trip and to be our guide. At the resort’s parking lot, there were nine Toyota Hiace buses, with their occupants now involved in various acts of outdoor fun on the rocky banks of the Gurara Waterfall. There were three clusters of foreign visitors that day, with the fourth group of visitors, the largest one of them all, consisting of school age children from the neighbouring villages who were splashing about in the waters with great insouciance and joy.
The foreign visitors included two groups of Indians, one group consisting of about 25 people drinking themselves to happy oblivion, as James Hadley Chase would have described them, and the other, a small knot of four Indians with a pregnant compatriot, detached from the larger group, obviously unrelated except for their nationality.
The third group was of European descent, just four men, who swam close to the cliff over which the waters tumbled, forming a massive pool about 50 metres below. The waters, running rapidly over rocks, appeared to be boiling underneath.
It was March, and the rains had come only once this year, increasing the volume of fall waters. The GM said until that rain, the waters barely coursed slowly over the rocks, but that the first gift from the heavens this year had given the waterfall some volume and strength. In July, he said, when the rainy reason would be in its full glory, it would be suicidal to go too close to the rocks where the Europeans currently swam with careless unconcern. He said the roaring sound of the waterfall alone, let alone the strong force of the running water over rocks, which resembled the motion of a diesel truck run amok, was enough to intimidate and scare even the daredevil adventurer.
Nevertheless, to warn reckless fun seekers, there are sign posts erected in the arrival area and in the waters forbidding tourists from venturing, exploring, or eking fun beyond the no-go-areas.
The group of 25 happy-go-lucky Indians, consisting of tourists from Abuja, Lapai, Minna, etc. formed a small village on the banks of the waterfall to relish Indian cuisine and relive home memories. From the assets and gadgets we saw, it was clear that they had fully thought out their expedition to the Gurara Waterfall.
They came with everything necessary for an Indian cookout and outdoor fun. They came with drinks: cooking utensils, foods, sauces and condiments, cigarettes, etc., including a detachment of policemen to ensure unfettered enjoyment, without any iota of security distraction. The members of this community, in various poses of relaxation, gathered round a standing brazier, over which goats and animals were grilled and eaten as they chatted animatedly in Hindu.
On the grounds were remains of onions, garlic, canned drinks and foods, which some maintenance staff, who also doubled as security guards at night, would later clean up. We met them in merriment, each of them munching or helping himself to barbecued meat, while at the background, in the waters, the children from the neighbouring villages splashed about in the waters, washed clothes, or cast fish nets, shouting on top of their voices in Gbagyi dialect. The water teemed with fishes – tilapia, electric fish, cat fish, ‘giwan ruwa, which, we were told, even at adult stage, rarely exceeded fingerling proportion.
A refreshing waterfall
We greeted the Indians, some of them in beach attires and others simply clad in outdoor gear. We asked them if they enjoyed the waterfall so far, and one of them, a lecturer with the Ibrahim Badamasi University, Lapai, Amit Mishra, said it was refreshing to be here anytime. He said he had been at the Gurara Waterfall for over 20 times, a claim which was confirmed by Mal Suleiman, the site official guide.
Mr. Mishra seems addicted to the waterfall as a favourite picnic destination. We asked him how his pleasure might be improved, and he said the Niger State Tourism Corporation should construct steps from the point where the descent of the land began in rough and rocky creases to the banks of the waterfall.
“If you just did that,” he said, “you will increase the number of visitors to this place more than 20 times.” The GM said there was a plan to do so to ease access to the river banks.
The Indians planned to spend a few more hours, then leave, although they wanted more than just a fleeting visit. “Actually,” the GM said, “many of the visitors to this place want to spend more than a day here. They want to spend an entire weekend here. But when they come and do not find chalets or recreational facilities, they cut short their visit. That is why in the first phase of our development plan for this place we want to build at least 20 chalets. In the second phase, we want to fence the waterfall’s land area to enhance security. Already, the Niger State Police Command has agreed to set up a police outpost at the waterfall. All these will boost tourism to the area. In fact, if we have a hotel in the place many conferences, instead of being held in Abuja, will be held in Gurara.”
However, even at its rudimentary stage, the Gurara Waterfall has magnetic pull for international visitors to Abuja, including Nigeria’s elite, who seek refreshment or recuperation after an exhausting intellectual expenditure in conferences. Indeed, to many first timers to Abuja, a visit to Nigeria’s new capital is incomplete without experiencing the sights and sounds of Gurara Waterfall.
In 2013, the Indonesian ambassador to Nigeria led a high profile team of 100 Indonesian businessmen and other elite of that country to the site. The Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), based in Abuja, also organized a packaged tour for foreign visitors to the Gurara Waterfall, and its directors too had refreshed there once after a top level retreat. Other visitors include a team from Botswana Defence College, National Defence College, and the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Jos. The list is long.
In late 80s, late Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, then Nigeria’s No 2 man in power ranking, attracted immense public attention to the site when, during his official visit to Niger State, he set his feet on Gurara Waterfall in what looked like a public relation stunt to boost tourism in the state.
Since then, the list of illustrious visitors to the destination has become uncountable. While the register of visitors included many high sounding names, many more have visited the waterfall nondescript, leaving only their footprints in the sands of time.
Barometer of health Gurara Waterfall has been described elsewhere as Nigeria’s premium waterfall. Located some 68 kilometres from Minna and about 110 kilometres from Abuja, Nigeria’s evolving capital, visitors often talk about its therapeutic or health benefits. From the arrival/departing area, where a shack had been erected to serve multiple functions, the land undulate for about 300 metres eastward, then fall gradually for another 200 metres or so to the rocky banks of the waterfall, where the Indians formed a temporary commune.
The environment is pristine, with lots of trees and shrubbery providing healing fresh oxygen, which animates the brain. Walking from point to point on the banks, doing detours to access the pool beneath the precipice, or skipping rock boulders to fish, bathe, swim, or dive challenges the muscles and sinews and improves cellular metabolism.
It is a fitness test, and one who is unable to execute these activities without complaints does not need witchcraft or medical examination to know that his health is in peril. Sani Ahmed, the GM, who himself visits the waterfall from time to time, not just for oversight purposes, but for picnic with his wife, equated a trip to the waterfall to a visit to the doctor for a medical check-up.
“It is a useful exercise to come here from time to time,” he said. “Even the exercise of climbing down to the waterside or walking up the slope to the departure point helps to burn cholesterol and improve heart functioning.”
He recalled that the last time he called at the resort and couldn’t execute any of these physical activities with ease, he knew he was coming down with fever. Such is the power of the waterfall to heal or to serve as a ‘barometer’ of health.
The waterfall has a vast land, about two kilometres deep from each point of the compass, open to tourist exploration, bird watching or other activities. However, only one side of the Gurara Waterfall is currently accessible and explorable, because there is no bridge to link the land bifurcated by the waters of the fall. In the reviewed blueprint for the waterfall, the government plans to link both ends of the resort with a cable car and provide some paraphernalia of amusement or recreation at the other side. It also plans to equip the resort with a wild life park, inhabited mostly by herbivorous animals for which the Savannah vegetation provides ample nourishment.
In the earlier strategic plan, crafted by the Babangida Aliyu Administration, the Gurara Waterfall looked like some zany idea coming off the mind of some queer screenwriter with inflated imagination. It all started with the climbing and demystification of the awe-inspiring Zuma Rock, the massive rock with human-like face on the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, which has remained constant since the dawn of creation.
Until 2008, the rock had been steeped in a lot of history and bloodcurdling superstition, but when one day, some Latvian mountaineers, at the behest of the state government, successfully climbed the rock and hoisted a Nigerian flag on it, the euphoria generated was not dissimilar to that of Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon.
And like Neil Armstrong’s famous words during the historic moon landing, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the Zuma Rock conquest stirred up a whole new wild possibilities for man. In one of the bold visions, the state government saw itself mining a rich tourism vein, starting from Abuja, at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, where picnickers would mount a cable car, stop over on top of Zuma Rock for snacks, en route to the Gurara playgrounds for a weekend game of golf. The Zuma Rock would be transformed into a fun city, with exotic gift shops, restaurants, and amusement/recreational facilities on top and on the ground. Well, this dream has not worked out at all; it ended in a scandalous fiasco, with both lands at the Zuma Rock and the Gurara Waterfall given out to powerful people. Now, the present Bello Administration wants the lands back, since according to the Niger State Commissioner for Information, Tourism and Culture, Jonathan Tsado Vatsa, the lands were acquired for reasons inconsistent with public interest.
The Gurara Waterfall has passed through several visions, scarcely changed. Initially, the state government wanted to develop the natural endowment all by itself, then thought it better to do so as a joint venture, but during the last administration, it did a horrific volte-face, choosing to place the future of the tourist hot spot in the hands of Urban Shelter Ltd, as sole owners, on terms that the GM decried as “practically giving the place away as a dash.”
In the MoU, which was yet to be signed with the estate development firm, Urban Shelter was to develop the place on a PPP model known as Build, Operate and Own (BOO), which the GM said was akin to “asking a man to come and stay in your house free-of-charge; you have no right to ask him for rent, because you have made him a bonafide owner of your house. This is contrary to the model used worldwide, which is Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT), which gives the government some stake in the tourist facility. This is what operates worldwide, because tourism is a PPP business. But this BOO is like dashing away the property which belongs to an entire state to an entity or individual, without expecting anything in return. BOO disinherits Nigerlites of their birthright, and the government is right to reclaim Gurara Waterfall for the people of Niger State.”
Now that the petrol dollars are gone, the Niger State government, piloted by Governor Abubakar Bello, is aggressively looking for a serious investor, on BOT model.
“Tourism is a money spinner,” the GM said. “And next after agriculture, it is our strongest forte. It can generate heavy revenue and massive employment opportunities.”
Ndama Abubakar is a Minna-based journalist. Email:email@example.com. Tel No: 08077215855