A natural monument that gave a city its name was once the inhabitants’ rock of salvation
Sometimes you travel to a city or a town just for a glimpse of a monument; other times, you optimise the opportunity to visit a city to see its tourism offerings. The two apply in the case of Abeokuta. You may choose to visit Abeokuta exclusively because of Olumo Rock, or you visit the rock because you are in Abeokuta. Either way, Olumo Rock is a must-see, and anybody in the city must seize the opportunity to see the ‘much vaunted’ rock.
Climb the rock. Take in the energizing and soul-reviving fresh air. View the city below. Catch a glimpse of the breath-taking scenery as nature and technology meet at the foot of the rock. The experience is exhilarating.
Olumo Rock, a popular tourist destination sits in the ancient city centre of Abeokuta––a name, which means “Under the rock.” The city of Abeokuta, capital of Ogun State, itself is a hilly town full of rocks. You see houses built on hilltops. Some buildings seemed sculpted out of rocks. Others are crammed right under giant boulders. Olumo Rock is a monument in its natural location. Nature’s hand-made obelisks, giant boulders piled atop one another, slanting skyward, in a way that at first awes, then bewitches you.
A massive makeover over the years turned the monument into a scintillating spectacle that is a marriage of nature and technology. Three panoramic towers of elevator coupled to the stony behemoth offer a scenic view of the city as you ascend the rock. Stairways wrap itself around the rock right to its upper level, the trail stalks by lamp posts. Connecting passages linking one giant boulder to another and a covered verandah at the summit makes it eye-catching and tourist-friendly.
Beyond the tourism angle, the rock is of great significance to the people of Egbaland. Olumo Rock is where the story of Abeokuta began.
Olumo translated is ‘What God Made.’ The name is also an abridgement of ‘Olufimo,’ meaning where God ends it in reference to the inter-tribal war of 1830 to 1833.
The Egba people, originally inhabitants of Abeokuta, took refuge under the rock during the inter-tribal wars of the 18th century. The rock, providing sanctuary to the people as well as a vantage point to monitor the enemy’s advance, was instrumental to their eventual triumph in the war between them and the people of Dahomey (now in the Republic of Benin). Egba is derived from an expression that either means “help us” or “accepted.” After the war, Dahomeans, wondering why it was difficult to defeat the Egbas, asked them where they hid during the conflict. When they were shown the Olumo rock, they exclaimed: “But why did you people call yourself Egba when you are from Abeokuta (under the rock)?” That is the root of the word ‘Abeokuta,’ a word first coined by Dahomeans, it marked the origin of the city’s name.
Olumo Rock wears its historic points round itself like Sekere, the bead-embellished gourd that serves as a musical instrument. You discover the stations by using the stairs rather than the elevators. As you move round its circumference, you stumble into one historic point after another, the most important being the Olumo Shrine.
There it is, right after climbing the first level: a cave with a wooden door that is under lock and key. The door is opened once a year, on the occasion of the festival held in veneration of the stone god that saved the lives of the Egbas. Held on every August 5th, the festive occasion attracts several dignitaries from far and near.
Only two persons enter the cave: the ruler of Egbaland, the Alake of Egba and the chief priest. On the occasion, a big black cow and other terrestrial animals are offered as a sacrifice.
Another interesting point is the Egba War Time Hideout that turns out to be tiny natural caves.
History records that Egba warriors hid their wives and children in these caves while they engaged their enemies during the Yoruba civil war. Six holes visible on the floor were said to have served as useful kitchen devices, used for pounding yams, grinding pepper, tomatoes, onions and other ingredients during the war. The hideout used to be five bedrooms and one big common room. Now interconnected, it is one big hollow chamber that can hold 20 people. At its entrance, a tomb stands guard bearing the epitaph: Sonni Ajimatokunje, the Osi of Itoko, who died in 1956. The first priest of the Olumo Rock.
Olumo Rock is a living museum of a mystic past. A 500-year old Akoko tree, which stands at a diminutive height of five feet, wears the ash complexion of the rock instead of the normal brown colour typical of its kind.
The rock is still home to deities such as Orisa Igun (god of longevity) and Orisa Obaluaye or Sopona (god of Karma). Aged priestess that live on the rock remind you of the priestesses at the temple of Athena in the Greek mythology. These aged women are said to be “seventh generation” priestess.
Still, on your way, you encounter heroes of Egba folklore in relief sculpture. The legend of Lisabi Agbongbo Akala is relived. The lore of Shodeke, (first king of the Egba), Adagba (the hunter who discovered the rock) and the first Iyalode also await you. Close by is the Ancient Route to the top of the mountain.
Your arrival at the peak will be capped by another yarn. During the reign of Okukenu I in the 18th century––goes the narrative––Europeans hoping to find gold invaded the rock and struck at the middle of the rock––where an indentation is visible––and the spot, rather than yielding precious stone, wept pus and blood. For their impiety, the transgressors were struck blind and the oracle decreed that they are sacrificed, thus, making them the first white man sacrifice.
At a height of 137m above sea level, the summit of Olumo Rock is like a watchman’s post with an omni-directional view. From ground level to its peak, the rock’s height is equivalent to a 17-storey building, or a total of 412 steps. The calculation is arrived at according to the calibration of the three towers––the first two are six storeys high, while the third out-of-view tower is five-storey tall. The first tower’s peak is the foot of the second and the third starts where the second end. Imagine looking down at a map of Abeokuta spread on a table. That is the impression you get from the peak of the Olumo Rock.
From the peak of Olumo, the city’s edifices are easily identifiable: St Peters Anglican Church, Ake, the first church in Nigeria, founded by Henry Townsend in 1844; the transmitter mast of NTA 12 Abeokuta which rose into the sky imperially; the Old Baptist Boys High School––famous for its elite alumnus including the late businessman-politician Bashorun MKO Abiola, former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, human right activist Chief Gani Fawenhimi, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka; a plethora of other iconic buildings, such as MKO Abiola’s house, the Central Mosque, The palace of Alake of Egbaland, and the famous Adire market. The Ogun River from which the state itself derives its name can also be sighted. The vista from the hilltop, in a single panoramic view, is “Abeokuta in a nutshell.”
Olumo Rock offers a variety of activities, from rock climbing to the anthropology of the culture and belief system of the rock’s primaeval settlers to the natural attractions such as tunnels, unusual trees and the natural gardens on the rock.
The second facet to a visit to the Olumo Rock is a stroll through the museum-cum-gallery at the foot of the hills. In the gallery, a visitor can do the touristy thing of purchasing souvenirs, namely art items with strong cultural and traditional ties to Abeokuta and at the same time, feed their eyes with historic artefacts in the museum. Guides, eager to narrate the details of each attraction, are at your beck and call.
Talking of good tourism, Olumo Rock ticks all the boxes.