From Mona monkeys to sky-high walkway, a nature reserve that gives a thrilling experience
by MUSA JIBRIL
I was at the Lekki Conservation Centre, in the information hall, when a Mona monkey, with long ropy tail, came into the hall, hopped on a table, closed a laptop, and foraged for food under the table. Unperturbed. Unafraid.
Unhurried. It then walked around dramatically with an exaggerated right-of-way air, hopped from bench to bench, then slinked away. Excited adults had wiped out their mobile phones and took pictures of the simian spectacle.
It was not my first sight of a monkey frisking around leisurely. It was my first of seeing one with such an inalienable freedom. The monkey moment was the prelude to my day at the Lekki Conservation Centre, (LCC), Lagos.
The visit was long in coming. Long ago, in the early 1990s, I was a starry-eyed teenager in Junior Secondary School who won a category award in a national fine art competition jointly sponsored by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) and Statoil. My prize, a picture book about African snakes, and my certificate, were sent from Lagos to me in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital. Down the years, I did not forget the NCF acronym.
These past few years, since I became a Lagosian, I’d often catch glimpses of the LCC anytime I travelled along the Lekki-Epe expressway. When on Sunday, March 18, I finally walked through its gate, it was a rite of connecting to the past. The 78-hectare LCC is a project of the NCF.
Established in 1990, the centre has grown into one of Africa’s prominent and most-diverse urban nature parks with a rich biodiversity divided into secondary forest, swamp forest and grassland.
This sun-drenched Sunday, people trooped into the reserve––Nigerians and expatriates of all races––and the guides had a very busy schedule.
We waited for the clock to chime before we embarked on our tour. Eventually, at 12, we were ready to go, a motley group of 18.
Our guide whose name was Chidi Emmanuel reeled out the dos and don’ts, his instructions, clear and crisp: “The monkeys are not friendly. Keep your food out of sight. They are hustlers.”
Then his voice tightened: “There are snakes, monitor lizards and crocodiles. Be mindful that this is not a zoo. The animals are in their natural habitat.”
On that note, we began our incursion into the swampy forest, hiking on a two-kilometre elevated wooden walkway that burrowed into the vegetation and kept us two feet above the waterlogged terrain. Ahead and above, monkeys’ choruses and birds’ acapella clashed in a loosely modulated cacophony. Occasionally, we heard the crashes as the primates broke through the overhead canopy and burst into our field of vision. At times, they just slinked into your face. The view, so Tarzanesque.
A few metres into the swamp and we came upon the first thriller. The canopy walkway. A 401-metre long suspended walkway traversing the reserve, reaching a height of 22.5 feet. At its peak, it gives a panoramic, bird’s-eye view of the forest.
The canopy walkway, reputed to be the longest in Africa, swings up, down and sideways. Its entry and exit portals are connected by six towers spread across the mosaic vegetation of the park in a manner that affords you a kaleidoscopic view of the habitat and its unique wildlife.
This scenic attraction comes with a caveat: it is not for the fainthearted. If you have the fear of height, or if you are vertigo-prone, do yourself a favour, continue along the walkway ahead of your party. For visitors that braved the height, it was an unforgettable treat, and by their rhapsodies, the highlight of the day.
“This should be an episode in the Fear Factor,” proclaimed an excited young woman who came down the canopy walkway breathless. Her friends agreed with the parallel she drew between their experience and the American stunt and dare game show aired on NBC from 2001 to 2006.
Down from the canopy walkway, we continued our two-kilometre nature walk which came to an abrupt end as we stepped off the planks to dry land and emerged out of the shadowy environment of the swamp vegetation into the harsh sunshine and an alluring vista of open-field grassland. Before us was a savanna countryside graced by gazebos, huts and pavilions.
Before us too were gigantic floor games––Ludo, Snake and Ladder, Draught and Chess––––as if out of the pages of Gulliver’s Travels storybook.
The savannah plain was made more inviting by the presence of volleyball courts, a football pitch and other games playable on terra firma.
The grassland attractions also included a fish spectacle––a huge tilapia pond richly populated by a shoal of fishes and a Koi pond sparsely filled with a handful of the exquisite ornamental specie.
Upon our reentry into the swamp, we encountered yet another thriller dubbed the Tree House––a sturdy ramrod-straight goliath-of-a-tree, over 18 feet tall with a ladder leading up its trunk to a miniature house at its zenith. We met a Portuguese family there chattering excitedly as they took turn up and down the tree. The thrill, again, was not for the lily-livered.
Lastly, we headed to the Swamp Lookout in hope that we might catch a glimpse of creepy crocs. On this day, the crocs decided to stay out of sight. It was a relief for a few who have a phobia for creepy reptiles.
As we trudged back, our guide informed, “the centre is closed to visitors by 5 pm and by 6 pm every human in the reserve comes out.” So, at night, the forest is abandoned to nocturnal animals.
Out of the swamp, we strolled back into safe zone and spent the next few minutes getting acquainted with the friendly domestic animals. Peacocks, tortoise and, of course, monkeys.
A peacock fanned out its impressively patterned plumage in a show-stopping display that spiralling into a photo-shoot.
“Where is the tortoise?” someone asked.
Lolling somewhere in the shade, suggested our guide.
The Kenyan in our midst, a frisky young woman with a viscous accent, was especially enamoured by the monkeys. She regaled her friends with the story of a park full of monkeys in Nairobi.
“Don’t give the monkey anything!”
A guide warned her.
Too late. The monkey decided to take something from her anyway. Her popcorn.
Of the 18 members of our tour group, only four of us were first-timers.
“I was here 10 years ago.”
“The last time I came was five years.”
The frequency of visits ranged from 10 years to a few weeks ago. It wasn’t too difficult to understand why anyone would visit again and again. Acclaimed as an icon of nature conservation and a gem of ecotourism, the Lekki Conservation Centre is a riveting urban park, a place to gratify your curiosity about nature.
This NCF flagship project has excelled in the preservation of the unique biodiversity of the natural environment. As a bulwark against the rapacious urbanity of Lagos, it is a welcome protection for the precious fauna and flora of the coastal ecosystem of southwest Nigeria.
It also ticks the box as a recreational centre. If you are thinking of a small party or a weekend getaway in a quiet grassland setting reminiscent of the safari parks of south or east Africa, Lekki Conservation Centre is a good offering. My visit to the centre was somewhat refreshing––a break from the monotony of everyday living.