The End Of The Road
Walking the train line from the Mexican/US border at 4am, sleeping in the property section of a Californian broadsheet.
An overnight stay in a post-Soviet council estate in Sarajevo, an old drunk stumbling into furniture upstairs.
Driving through Canvey Island in Essex on a Sunday afternoon, the disgruntled proletariat leering from behind closed-down storefronts.
I’ve been to some scary places. But this is the first time I'm actively dreading somewhere.
Nigeria has a fearsome reputation among travellers in West Africa -notorious for Boko Haram kidnappings, police corruption, and eye-wateringly expensive visas.
Our guidebook (last updated - 2012) uses ALL CAPS warnings, which is a first.
Even Lukas, the fearless African nut retriever, had refused to leave the safety of his biketank.
We were shit-scared, as our barely-read Bradt guide likes to remind us from the bottom of my pannier. But we have to get home somehow.
We arrive at the Seme border crossing early (check out its terrifying wiki here), bracing ourselves for an all-day long wait, and multiple shakedowns.
The border town is a series of long, labyrinthine sandy tracks. We steer our bikes between potholes, blown-out tyres and litter piles. Taking shade, we attempt repairs when a plain-clothes huckster demands our passports.
Brushing off his unconvincing chicanery, we continue to the border proper:
Shack 1 - Exiting Benin. Everyone is handing money over, but I play dumb. The surly official delays a few awkward minutes, then waves me on.
Shack 2 - Entering Nigeria. Badge holders, so they’re legit. And friendly. They seem incredibly relaxed, and there’s no real queues, and certainly no tourists.
Shack 3,4,5 & 6 (sigh) - The officials are fascinated by our trip. Are you tired, did you train, where do you sleep? Conversation turns to the African Cup, and I draw on my extensive football knowledge.
The whole process is done under an hour. Not once are we asked for anything other than information.
We remount and get back on the road to Badagry, the nearest town to the border. Our guidebook refers to the road as “prone to kidnappings, carjackings and armed robberies”, but that’s not the case today. A few cars trundle past, but the roads are almost empty of the blaring smoke-filled chaos we’ve become used to.
We’re stopped every few kilometres by police roadblocks, the majority wanting a chat or a selfie. Only a few ask for gifts, but are easily dissuaded by “next time, my friend". One policeman asks for food, and his fellow officer looks visibly embarrassed. Shushing him, he gestures us on our way. They seem keen to play it off as a joke, presumably to avoid being reported. As a country starts to appeal more to foreign guests (and their foreign money), the government starts to crack down on police bribery - on tourists anyway. Nigeria's police force isn't there quite yet, but you can always count on a great selfie.
Lacking any money (a common theme of our African border crossings), we’re told the next ATM is in Badagry. It’s 30km away, and we’re out of water at the hottest time of the day. At a nearby garage, the owner takes pity on us and gives us free water sachets. I crack open my eagerly awaited apple crumble isotonic gel. It tastes like burning garden furniture, and forcing it down takes more energy than cycling. Our lunch is the last coconut flapjack, split down the sweaty, crumbly middle.
Arriving in Badagry, we get our first taste of Nigerian town life, offered a teenage bride by an cackling grandmother. We visit the only hostel in town: a post-apocalyptic Butlins with no electricity, internet, or food. The town is calm and quiet, and people seem friendly. Eventually we find a hotel, a shabby complex on the edge of town. Religious ceremonies play on the reception TV. A crowd of men lounge in the restaurant, supping Foreign Extra under the Millwall/Bradford game.
We have one last journey to do, the remaining 70km to Lagos. So naturally, we decide to split up. I've had my fill of smoky cities, and fending off Area Boys (knife-wielding underpass gangs) feels like too much of a risk.
So I trade my bike in for a congested taxi ride, and Will goes it alone.
Arriving by car, the city resembles a smoggy, low-rise New York, with no discernible landmarks.
It stretches out over 3 islands and a crowded, dangerous mainland. (Lots of CAPS here, with little to see).
The giant, ominous sea port surrounds us, coastline disappearing into the grey distance.
The sun insulates the car fumes and raises the temperature to a humid 34° .
I compose Will’s eulogy to the sound of Michael Bublé oozing from the front seat.
I arrive at midday in Victoria Island, an affluent suburb in the city home to the city's middle class. Megan, a US couchsurfer, is our host for our last two days in Africa. Will lets me in, smug that he’s arrived before me, and (relatively) unscathed. We explore the island, middle-class Nigerians cruising past us in air-conned beamers. The divide between rich and poor is highly pronounced in Lagos, and we dare not venture away from the safety of the island.
We pass the last two days in Lagos:
Driven to the bar. A brightly lit air-conned room where elderly men check their watches, waiting for the prostitutes to start their shift.
Driven to the Nike gallery (no relation). Four floors of disorganised modern art hidden away in corners, an Aladdin's cave of obscure and imaginative creations.
Driven to a tourist market, where Will buys a ludicrously oversized African mask, and a self-appointed wise old man gives us his opinions on Brexit.
The last few days of any trip are a strange mix of nostalgia, homesickness, and the desire to keep travelling. At this stage, the adventure part is essentially over, and you're in winding-down mode. I spend more time looking into the middle distance than normal.
It would be great to stay, for sure, especially in some small towns away from the big cities. But even if we had more time, we'd always need a local to point us in the right direction. And several more to be our bodyguards. And that feels too much like a guided tour.
There's much to see and do in Nigeria. The people are open and curious, and the sheer scale of the country contains a myriad of cultural differences to explore. However, turn down the wrong street or talk to the wrong person, and there's the fear that things could go very wrong. Even foolhardy (or just foolish) travellers like us, don't feel safe just yet. There are limits to our stupidity, apparently.
Arriving at the airport, and the long journey home. A woman sitting under a giant anti-corruption sign asks me to buy her breakfast. The security guards almost have a fist-fight over Will's mask. Everyone's wrapping their luggage in cling film.
An overcrowded plane, separated by seating plan, and we're left to ponder the end of the trip alone.
The realisation that it’s actually finished.
The not-total surprise - and gratitude - that we made it.
Planning the next African trip.
All of the memories condensing and congealing, time stretching out and snapping back to protect itself. The past 20 days squeeze themselves into a small chunk, begging not be let go.
I write frantically on the plane home, trying to get everything down.
And like that, it’s filed away and I’m back in London, freezing in my t-shirt on a train platform. Cursing the two minute train delays, Africa retreats on the 2.15 to Gatwick.