I want to cross 3 more countries off my list.
December 11, 2007 1:09 AM   Subscribe

Driving from Accra, Ghana to Lagos, Nigeria, and back...bad idea?

I'll be working in Ghana for a week in late January of next year. I am interested in stuff to see, but more interested in seeing a few of the neighboring countries.

My current plan is to head east - hit Lome, Togo, then on to Porto-Novo, Benin, and from there to Lagos, Nigeria. Right now I’m thinking drive Saturday morning / early afternoon, taking some time to see Togo / Benin, stay in Lagos Saturday night, drive back Sunday (have to fly out Sunday night).

Questions so far:
- It looks to be a little under 300 miles. Are the roads good enough to assume a 50mph average (i.e. 6 hours drive time)?
- Is it a relatively safe route? I'm particularly concerned about Nigeria - will I run into bribing, etc.? Tips? Places to stay in Lagos?
- Anything of particular interest I shouldn't miss along my planned route?
- Visas / fees to be aware of? (Work will be covering the Ghana one, so I need to handle the other 3)
- Anything else?

posted by allkindsoftime to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For reference.
posted by disarray at 1:25 AM on December 11, 2007

I'm no expert, but Lagos seems to be a very dangerous city. I urge you to be cautious.
posted by sharkfu at 2:03 AM on December 11, 2007

Best answer: I traveled between Accra and Lomé on public transport in August 2003. I can tell you that back then, a trip in a shared van-taxi between Accra and Aflao, the border town with Lomé, took about 4 hours, some of it over a bone-shaking dirt road that seemed to have been part of the roadbed for a motorway (see satellite map link below). In Aflao, I alighted, walked to the border, politely refused any assistance or money-changing (from cedis to CFA francs) with a smile and a firm "no, thanks" or "non, merci" (as I only had a small backpack and was using ATMs, I didn't actually require any help, so I wasn't being too disingenuous, I think), filled out a little form at the border post, took a photo of the gate, got a passport stamp once I crossed into Togo (if you're American, you'll need a tourist visa for Togo, which is probably most conveniently available at the Togolese embassy in Ghana and costs about $20, I believe) and proceeded to keep walking to my hotel in Lomé, which was adjacent to the ECOWAS building and may have been a brothel in retrospect (thanks, Lonely Planet!), but had fans and mosquito nets and was only another 30 minutes into the city on foot.

There was a Shell station right at the border, and the ATMs in the Grand Marché/downtown area were happy to take my Bank of America card and provide me with CFA francs in English, and the central area had plenty of food stalls and little restaurants. The next day I grabbed a cab and headed to the airport.

As far as bribes are concerned, as a pedestrian, again, I just smiled, refused to pay them and moved on. When pressed for a reason, which almost never happened, I told people I was a student, which was not only true, but which seemed to lead to more questions, like "what are you doing here?" If you had a car and were waiting in a queue to cross, or if you had a huge amount of stuff, or if you weren't able to speak at least a little French, I think you might feel a little more intimidated by the process - it is a bit of a gauntlet!

I did see numerous cars with Lagos license plates all over southern Ghana, though, so the trip must be doable - though I think taking your time is a much better idea, as is using public transit: the less stuff you have to deal with, the less hassle you'll encounter. Ghana was a fantastically fun place; I was only in Lomé for a night to get to Senegal (which, I found, to be much better in the road-maintenance department than Ghana, at least for the journey between St. Louis and Dakar: they had bornes!). I can't find any info online about making this trip via car, but Google Maps shows, in satellite view, that the Accra-Lagos motorway - if such a concept actually exists - peters out about 25 miles east of Accra right about here, and picks up again in metro Lagos.

Have a great time!
posted by mdonley at 2:17 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

The State Department says it is risky. Keep in mind that some insurance will not cover you if you travel against State Department advice.
posted by grouse at 2:19 AM on December 11, 2007

I don't know if this is a serious question? Nigeria is an incredible country with some great people. I travel there for work and have had some experiences that I would not want to have passed up. But it is not a place for sight-seeing, and there is a right way and a wrong way to visit there. When we go for business trips, we move in groups, always accompanied by at least one local (and high-ranking) Nigerian who is capable of helping us navigate police stops, robberies, and any other unexpected events, as well as a local driver. Road conditions are horrific. The accident rate is very high (we routinely pass burned out cars on the highway), and there are plenty of robberies on the highways. The city itself is a non-stop traffic jam, so you can not count on out-driving anyone who wants to do you harm. (Whatever your skin color, you'll be immediately pegged as a foreigner.)

That New Yorker article referenced above is a good read, and an accurate depiction of Lagos.

There are a lot of places in Africa that would be potential candidates for the trip you are describing. But you should do your research (check the State Department site). Even the most cursory research will tell you that there are certain places (Nairobi, Nigeria, etc.) that a foreigner should not be traveling solo! Do you work with Africans now? Ask their opinion in helping you plan a safe(r) trip.
posted by bchaplin at 3:00 AM on December 11, 2007

A few years back I drove basically the opposite way from Cotonou to Accra so I can give some dated advice.

- The road from Accra to Aflao (on the Ghanian side of the Togolese border) was not very good. It was your typical, unfortunate African two lane road with massive potholes. We drove it at night (which is never a great idea in Africa) and it took about 4 hours, if memory serves, to get from Aflao to Tema (just outside Accra).

- The border between Ghana and Togo is a madhouse on the Togolese side. Plan on quite a bit of time on each side -- couple hours probably. Welcome to French West Africa -- it ain't Ghana. The road through Lome to the border with Benin was surprisingly very good even by by Western standards.

- The border between Togo and Benin isn't that bad but still plan on a good amount of time on each side. If you have the time, stop in Grand Popo in Benin. Awesome place and the Auberge de Grand Popo is a great find. Cheap rooms right on the ocean, cheap Castel beer. Mmmm. Spent a few days there after driving for a week straight from Timbuktu.

After that can't really help you . . . I've been to Lagos subsequently and well, it's not a great place but if you keep your wits about you and take normal precautions you'll be just fine. I'd pony up a bit extra money and find a good hotel with secure parking.

To answer your specific questions -- this drive will take much more than 6 hours, especially figuring in border crossings. Reasonably safe route -- and yes you will have to give cadeaux to various people in order to "ease your passge". You'll need to sort out ECOWAS insurance for your car for Togo and Benin (not sure about Nigeria). Is this your own car? If so, you'll need to make sure that your carnet de passage is ready to go. If the car doesn't belong to you, you might have problems getting the yellow cards (temporary import / export docs for Togo and Benin).

Reading back over your question...I'm very skeptical that your plan will work given your timeframe. You might be able to do Togo and Benin but no way you can do all three in two days and catch your flight back. Hell, if you just go to Lome you'd see some cool stuff -- the "voodoo market" there alone is worth the trip.

Good luck!
posted by lazywhinerkid at 3:48 AM on December 11, 2007

So for your August 2007 reference point:

1. First, where in Accra will you be? Because driving in Accra is mostly slow and irritating, and just crossing the city can take an hour or two, and you can very rarely do 50, either because of shit roads or shit traffic.
2. Accra to Aflao takes 2.5 hours by tro-tro (minivan). You can probably do 40-50 mph the whole way there even in a beater, since the tro-tro can do 60 (they know the road well, avoid the police barriers, and drive like hell).
3. Even the Coastal Highway in Togo is pretty crap. Expect to do more like 30-40.
4. In Benin, the road's better, but hey, it's only 25 km wide! So that doesn't buy you much time.
5. Nigeria itself I can't speak to, but I've heard awful things about driving in Lagos itself and wouldn't want to do it.
Also, remember that you are taking this car across four borders. Four slow borders. In places that require visas for almost everyone. With a car.

If you really want to do this trip all the way to Lagos, do it by coach bus (comfortable, more expensive, direct - iirc 5 hours) or by public transport (not comfortable, more "authentic," but cheap enough you won't feel annoyed to get out before your stop if you want to do something). Private car just seems like all kinds of pain in the ass, and as an obvious foreigner, much riskier.

VISA/FEES: A single-entry visa to Togo from Ghana is about $25USD. You can get it at the border, but remember if you leave to Benin you'll have to buy another visa to come back through Togo. Benin, you have to pay again, I think $15. Nigeria (I've read) is pickier about issuing in your country of residence, but no first-hand experience. Also no knowledge about the cars.

SEEING STUFF: You can enjoy the beach at Ada Foah (Ghana) or Aneho (Togo). Lome itself is an eye-opener to the coexistence of natural beauty amid the problems of government, private companies, and NGOS (and all in a city of less than 1 million people!). If you go inland even one hour by car, you'll be going to small local markets where no one speaks French or English and many people have never seen a foreigner.

If you want to connect with some people either in Accra or in Togo, feel free to email me. This summer I learned an amazing amount from a Togolese in just one weekend, and I'm sure he'd be happy to do the same for you if you focus your time. (Actually you can see a lot of Togo and bits of Ghana on flickr).
posted by whatzit at 5:12 AM on December 11, 2007

Oh, since it seems you were also interested in things to see in Ghana:

You really have to appreciate that Ghana is a place not to see like a Tourist but rather by soaking up the atmosphere and really getting to know the way the country feels and the way things move locally, especially their contradictions.

The black star at independence square (Arc-de-Triomphe it's not quite!)
Cape Coast
Kakum National Park (rope bridges!!)
National Art Center (mostly souvenirs)
"Oxford Street" in Osu (shopping central; good restaurants)

-"Mountain" towns in Eastern Region (1 hr NE of Accra; really just big hills). Akropong very nice, also see Aburi.
-Further towards/in Volta Region: Ada Foah, as above, or Akosombo

-Church!! Ghana life revolves around church. You should go to one, even if you wouldn't normally. They're mostly not boring churches either; charismatic religion is super-popular. Also notice that many churches have mosques as near-neighbors.
-Akosombo Dam: Ghana has a huge dam at Lake Volta that provides most of Ghana's power and also power to Togo, Benin, maybe even BF (I don't remember for sure). Marvel at how low the water level is! And then remember that you have lights-off for 12 hours of every 60. and that the industrial demand and population are growing. And that the power contracted to other countries sometimes takes priorities to domestic needs. And that your "hardships" are in the capital, and the lights-off outside Accra are much worse. And that nothing gets done during lights-off at all.
-University of Ghana at Legon - where all the international students go, and the best of Ghana's students (who aren't good/rich enough to study in the UK/DE/US/etc). Beautiful campus.
-Tema: not a tourist destination, this is now Ghana's biggest port. Very working class, very industrial, very daily life. Now Ghana's 2nd biggest city.
-GAME: The South African chain recently opened in Airport area. Interesting mix of wealthy Ghana and expats.

-Eat the oranges. they cut the tops off and you just squeeze the juice from the orange into your mouth. The best!
-Look every direction before turning the corner in your car or crossing the street. Road rules are not the same here, this is more bumper car style. You may think this is a right-hand-drive country, but inevitably there will be a cab driver going on the left side or some other nonsense. I know cause one of them taught me to drive !!
-Listen to high-life music. Kind of poppy-jazzy-nice sounds.
-Drink the water from the plastic bags - it costs about 1% what a bottled water does, is always cold, and probably won't make you ill (yi*mv *-intestines, but I never had a problem).
-Eat a metric assload of FanYogo, FanChoco, and FanIce, the cheap and delicious frozen yogurt snacks sold everywhere by the roadside.
-Try Goldentree Chocolates, and then pray to the Lindt gods that Ghana only grows cocoa for worldwide distribution, leaving the chocolate-making to other people. (Okay, so some people like its unsweetened, hard, unmelting mouthfeel, but it isn't for me!)

I think I'm done now, but will answer anything else that comes up.
posted by whatzit at 5:32 AM on December 11, 2007

Hah. On re-read, that 5 hr coach is Accra-Lome. My bad. The central bus stop in Accra is in the heart of the city. Trying to remember how far Lagos was, but 5 hr + Togo + Benin + part of Lagos must make it around 8.
posted by whatzit at 5:37 AM on December 11, 2007

Hey, I'm Ghanaian - and i've done that trip several times. Plan on at least 11 hours at the barest minimum - note, depending on which part of Accra you're in, it could take close to two hours just to get OUT of Accra.
If you want more information, please send me an email (it's in the profile).
posted by ramix at 11:10 AM on December 11, 2007

More on Lagos, via BoingBoing.
posted by sharkfu at 12:15 AM on December 12, 2007

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