"You’ll die within five minutes." This was how one of the visa applicants who had been doing business there for years began to befriend us at the Nigerian embassy. To be sure, Nigeria was one of the most worrisome countries on our itinerary: kidnappings and suicide bombings by Boko Haram are commonplace in the northeast, while oil company staff are often abducted in the south. Clashes between different communities are regular, and drivers encounter frequent and notoriously corrupt checkpoints along the way.
Of course, we muddled through as best we could: we downloaded the excellent application called MySafeTravel as soon as we approached Nigeria – and checked it several times a day – by which we learned about religious or tribal conflicts, bombings, and bloody military action ending in beheading. (Within the country, of course, we found an even better way to cause ourselves anxiety: every morning we searched for the stretch of road in front of us, and Google always first showed photos of dozens of fatal bus accidents over the past few weeks or the story of how a local councilor had been abducted on that stretch of road in broad daylight.
However, it cannot be avoided: Niger, to the north, sees even more kidnappings and terrorism, and to the south of Nigeria is the ocean. So it is no coincidence that we had only one goal in Nigeria: to drive through it as fast as we could. Bottom line: we entered Nigeria in a heightened state of nerves due to a lot of negative news.
Then, five minutes after crossing the border, all our worst fears seemed to be confirmed. A spiked barrier was pushed across the road and a dozen young men without uniforms rushed towards us. One of them demanded money right away, and we didn’t know whether we were being robbed or if this is the usual way of collecting tolls here. We didn’t dare stop, we couldn’t go, just as the car slowly rolled towards it, the roadblock was pulled back and we were able to speed past. Two minutes later we came to a similar roadblock, with the same sort of young men without uniforms, but this time one of them had a machine gun on his back. At this point we were seriously scared that the prediction had been confirmed, they will be robbed and/or dismembered within five minutes. In comparison, we were moderately relieved when it turned out to be just a checkpoint for the police and national security, who feared we were there to spread corruption. At this point, anyone who wants to read another scary Nigerian story can stop reading here, because after we had survived those first five minutes, everything went well.
Don’t get me wrong, our personal experience didn’t completely contradict the picture outlined above. Nigeria really is a violent, corrupt country, but travel in Africa is unpredictable. We really did have to stop at countless checkpoints, and they certainly want bribes: during 5 days of driving and about 1200 km we were stopped by 30 police officers, 40 road safety checks, 20 military checkpoints, and 15 other unidentifiable officials. Basically, though, everyone was polite, and we could easily make them laugh. As expected, we were often asked what we had brought for them, and the standard answer was ‘nothing but a friendly smile’. Csaba once surprised a soldier by saying that we had a question for him, which of the two possible roads is better. Our other favorite response we’ve heard from others is that he, the Nigerian soldier, should give us something since we are the guests in his country. The vast majority of check-in points were thus a particularly fun experience in the end, and all in all, our most unpleasant experience was when an overzealous soldier asked us to unpack the trunk of the car, but luckily he was bored by Suzy’s clothes too (well, not like he could have got much for them!). Another guy went on for at least five minutes to give him something already. We had the feeling that he really just wanted a souvenir from the white tourists. Well, he didn't get one, we stick to our principles.
Then it turned out that we had such a good time in Nigeria that instead of the planned five days in the country we spent double that, ten days.
Our best experiences along the way were totally unexpected ones. At first, we just wanted to speed across Nigeria, but then we set off to see the sacred forest of Oshogbo, one of the two Nigerian World Heritage Sites. The forest was saved by the Austrian sculptor Susanne Wenger, who also packed it full of quite fantastic deity statues and smaller but equally engaging depictions of people/animals.
Anyway, during the four days we spent there, we went walking several times in the rainforest. From a so-called canopy walkway built at the crown level of the trees, which had been half-destroyed by a huge storm and landslide, we saw how swiftly growing umbrella trees prevail in place of the trees swept away, just as we had seen them do in other, less protected environments during our trip. We also went on a night hike in the woods and saw bushbabies – tiny, monkey-like rodent eyes sparkled everywhere in the trees. At first, we didn’t realize that we had stepped in the way of a team of ants for a moment, and then we painfully ripped the huge, chewing ants off our skin.
We also climbed a mountain where we tasted a fruit called simply ‘African candy ‘by our guide: around its black core is bright red jelly meat that melts in your mouth and is as sweet as any store candy. And at the top of the mountain, we found a Nigerian Ph.D. student camping there for weeks to study the habits, size, and feces of bats.” (2017)