- October 27, 2006
(Jim Writes:) Up early, we got in a quick run before loading up the truck and leaving Chez Alice. Our destination for the day: Porto Novo, Benin, located a short drive from the Nigerian Border. After a quick trip into Lome to grab some cash, we headed for the border. Fortunately, Togo is a tiny country and we arrived in no time. Things went quite smoothly and, aside from an entrepreneurial lad who tried to convince us we needed to pay him a tax at the Togo control gate, we encountered no hassles and were in Benin well before noon.
From the border we headed to Grand Popo, a beautiful stretch of quiet beach in the southwestern corner of the country. After a bit of exploring we stopped off at L’Auberge de Grand Popo where we grabbed an outdoor table on the beach and relaxed while enjoying a cold beer. A brief break in our otherwise hectic race towards Cameroon.
Next it was off to Porto Novo. Getting there seemed simple enough. All we had to do was zip through Benin’s most populous city, Cotonou (which means ‘Mouth of the River of Death’). And to zip through Cotonou all we had to do was dodge and weave past a few thousand zemidjans (motorbike taxis), follow the faded ‘Porto Novo’ signs pointing us to a barricaded street, go around the barricade and Voila! We were squarely in the heart of Cotonou’s sprawling Grand Marche du Dantokpa. This would have been great news had we been in the market for bat wings, monkey testicles, or love fetishes. Unfortunately, the only thing we were in the market for was the road to Porto Novo and it didn’t seem to be on offer. Before even realizing the magnitude of our mistake, we’d been swallowed whole - caught inside a web of juju men, dried animal parts, food stalls, and chaos. Porto Novo was no longer our immediate concern. All we wanted was to get out. Preferably, without flattening a fetish priest and having a voodoo spell cast on us! So we patiently waited as Betty was bumped and jarred by the masses that surrounded us. Slowly, slowly, we inched forward. For a split second the sea of people, bikes, carts, animals, and debris would part and we’d advance. Then it would close up again and we’d sit, trying to tune out the chaos around us. Then we’d advance again carefully avoiding the cart full of dead animals and the crazy naked woman who’d decided to take a seat in the middle of the road just in front of us. Slowly, carefully, patiently, we advanced until finally we were out. Liberated from another African city and on our way to Porto Novo!
We arrived at Hotel Detente in Porto Novo shortly before sunset. A beautiful place located on the marshy banks of the lagoon, we setup camp just beside a picturesque stilt village where we watched the slow moving silhouettes of fishermen poling their narrow pirogues through the marsh against a fiery orange sky. A quick break to marvel at our surroundings and then it was back to the business at hand. We were now less than 12 hours away from departing for the Nigerian border. Less than 12 hours from entering a country that’s been ranked as one of the most corrupt nations on earth. Were we a little nervous? Sure. How could we not be. The only positive comments we’d ever heard about Nigeria came from other overland travelers reporting that they’d made it through unscathed with fewer hassles than expected. All other reports painted Nigeria as the bowels of hell. Lonely Planet’s West Africa guide states that “[Nigeria’s] sights are only accessible to the ascetic or the truly masochistic voyager” and it lists one of the five highlights of visiting Nigeria as “Living to tell about it.” It even has a special boxed text devoted to ‘Safety in Nigeria’ that discusses widespread problems with armed thieves, random violence, demonstrations, mishaps, military action and bribery. It also lists Lagos as one of West Africa’s most dangerous cities (noting “it’s not uncommon [for expats] to see bodies on the sides of the road on their morning commute to work.”).
The lengthy two-page Travel Warning issued by the US Department of State on August 24, 2006 reads heavier than most:
- “Violent crime committed by ordinary criminals, as well as by persons in police and military uniforms, can occur throughout the country”
- “Lack of law and order in Nigeria poses considerable risks to travelers”
- “Road travel is dangerous. Robberies by armed gangs have been reported on rural roads and within major cities”
- Four expats kidnapped (Jan, ‘06), nine expats kidnapped (Feb, ‘06), twelve expats kidnapped (Aug, ‘06)
- Robberies, home invasions, deadly clashes between police and residents, religious tension between Muslims and Christians resulting in violence, violent clashes between rival ethnic groups, al-Qaida interested in overthrowing government, and so the warning goes on and on…
Talking to Nigerian’s and expats alike isn’t any better. More than once we mentioned we were heading to Nigeria only to be asked “Why?” A Nigerian I met several years ago in St. Kitts pointed out that, unlike most other cities in the world, when you enter Lagos, the sign doesn’t read ‘Welcome to Lagos.’ Rather it simply reads ‘This is Lagos.’ From everything I’ve been told there’s nothing welcoming about it. One former missionary who’s spent considerable time in Nigeria told us about a friend who got caught in one of Lagos’ frequent traffic jams and when he stepped out of the car to see what was the matter he got a bullet in his head. He also told about another friend who made the mistake of driving at night only to be run off the road by armed bandits who robbed and beat him senseless. Miraculously, he managed to escape before they killed him.
All that being said, we usually put a pretty heavy filter on this type of information. Moreover, Jeff Watts (Gone Wandering) who convoyed through Nigeria in August, made an excellent point when he said that at least with all of the police and military road blocks there’s not much room for the bad guys. Nevertheless, at best, we knew it was going to be a huge hassle and since we’d decided to go it alone, we knew there wouldn’t be much of a safety net should we run into problems. For this reason, we were a bit more tense than normal and wanted to make sure we were well prepared for the long bumpy road ahead.
As I studied maps and double checked our route, Sheri re-organized the truck (relocating valuable items away from prying eyes) and reviewed waypoints and advice passed to us by other overland travelers. By 9:30pm our truck had been re-packed, our waypoints loaded, and our route finalized. Eager to get to bed we quickly reviewed our plan. We’d take every precaution. Leave at sunrise. Never drive at night. Carry enough fuel to get us all the way to Cameroon (since Nigeria frequently has gas shortages). Clear Lagos as early and as quickly as possible. Ask directions frequently to avoid delays due to navigational errors. Depart on a Saturday in hopes of avoiding some of Lagos’ notorious traffic jams. We’d follow the tried and true southern route. Day 1: Depart Porto Novo, Benin and cross the border just west of Lagos. From the border we’d head east to Lagos and then continue on to Benin City where we’d spend the night. Day 2: We’d depart Benin City for Onitsha, Aba and finally Calabar. Day 3: We’d stay in Calabar to get our Cameroon visas. Day 4: We’d depart for the Cameroon border at Ekok. Total distance 972 km.
Finally we were in bed. Exhausted from a long day on the road, we couldn’t sleep. Too wound up, thinking about the road ahead. For a while at least, the easy road had run out. Our real adventure was about to begin.