Around 10 years ago, I attended an Iboga retreat in the Netherlands. It was one of the toughest and most incredible experiences of my life. This is my story.
What is Iboga?
Iboga is a plant found only in jungles of Gabon and less so Cameroon. It is considered sacred by the Babongo people who practice an animist religion known as Bwiti. The Babongo consume it during religious and coming of age ceremonies.
Only the root bark contains the psychoactive alkaloid, Ibogaine. Local legend has it, that a woman was wondering around in the jungle one day and accidentally injested some of the root bark to discover its psychoactive properties. This seems a much more plausible explanation than how Ayahuasca was discovered in South America – i.e. that the spirits told the locals how to find and prepare it.
Why take Iboga?
Iboga is considering a healing plant medicine in the same vein as Ayahuasca (although the experiences are quite distinct). Users report experiences such as having conversations with dead relatives and being able to resolve unfinished business. Others report seeing everything bad thing they ever did to anyone, seen from the point of view of the victim. Another common occurance is to have revelations about one’s current life and situation and make drastic changes, like quitting one’s job, taking an overseas trip, or pursuing one’s dream project (writing a book, or making a movie). Sometimes these revelations allegedly occur weeks after the Iboga experience itself.
Apart from spiritual reasons, self-discovery or simply to experience an altered state of consciousness by ingesting a novel psychoactive drug, many people take Iboga to cure themselves of drug addiction. Especially opioide addiction. You can be treated with Ibogaine (the alkaloid extracted chemically from the Iboga root bark) in clinics in Mexico and Costa Rica. These have sprung up to treat addicts from the USA, where Iboga is illegal. Anecdotal evidence of miracle cures – decades of addiction cured in one treatment with no withdrawal symptoms abound. However long term efficacy has been called into question and much more research is needed.
If you are interested in finding out more about Iboga, I recommend this resource.
How to take Iboga?
As Iboga is only found in one remote part of Africa, most opt to try it in a retreat or in a clinical setting (in the form of Ibogaine) in Mexico or Costa Rica.
If you really want to do it in Gabon, there are plenty of churches in the capital Libreville who will perform it for you. However, to get the true experience, you must go deep into the jungle and participate in a traditional ceremony with the Babongo. This can be quite a challenge, as the roads are bad and you must live with the tribe for a given number of weeks before they trust you. In addition, it can cost $US1000s, as the whole tribe joins in just for you. This is unlike an Ayahuasca ceremony in Peru, where a bunch of tourists participate with a shaman guiding. There are many stories of rip-offs by middle men – i.e. you pay up front, but then when you arrive, the tribe asks for further payment and denies any relationship with a middle man.
For a really authentic experience, I recommend checking out an episode of the BBC documentary series Tribe, which aired on UK TV in the 2000s. It follows the adventures of ex-army man Bruce Parry as he seeks out and interacts with remote tribes all around the world, including participating in all their ceremonies. In this episode, he travels deep into the jungle in Gabon to live with the Babongo. There, he participates in an Iboga ceremony. He vomits profusely and hallucinates all night in a wooden hut. The next morning it continues and he is fed more and more Iboga. He is taken to a river, where he is “reborn” in a kind of baptism-like ritual signifying a rite of passage. Finally, he is taken on the shoulders of the villages, as they dance all night round a fire. After the ceremony is over, he describes seeing how he badly treated a former girlfriend without realising it. He saw this from her point of view.
I opted to attend a retreat in the Netherlands, where it is legal. In contrast to the many Ayahuasca and Psilocybin (magic mushroom) retreats in the Netherlands, there were only 3 offering Iboga at the time. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it is not so well known, it is really hard to find a reliable source in Gabon and the experience last much longer – 3 days and longer. It can be dangerous to take Iboga (see below).
What are the risks?
Iboga is a very strong stimulant and there have been recorded deaths from cardiac arrest. Iboga can also cause liver problems, so it is very important to be in a good state of health prior to taking it.
There was a case in the Netherlands in 2014 when a man attending an Iboga ceremony died. He left the ceremony early and wandered off. He was later hit by a car and killed. The court ruled he had been undergoing therapy and the Iboga practitioner was negligent by letting him leave still under the influence of the drug. Later, that same practitioner was sentenced to 10 years in prison for an incident in 2017 when a woman died during a ceremony.
This is why the addiction treatment centers in Mexico and Costa Rica are so expensive. The provide hospital-level medical care and treatment in case something goes wrong. It is also very unwise to be mixing other substances with Iboga, so in case of addiction, you have to do your cold turkey first. This means, the more severe your addiction, the longer you have to stay and the more expensive it gets.
My Iboga experience
To prepare for the ceremony, I had a night in an airbnb in the countryside and spent the previous day in a large sauna. We were meant to follow a strict diet beforehand, but at the sauna, there was this delicious buffet meal and I couldn’t resist gorging myself.
I travelled on to a small village in the north of the Netherlands outside of Groningen, the location of the retreat. There were 8 of us participating and 2 facilitators, a husband and wife couple. The ceremony started on Fri afternoon and finished with an integration circle on Sunday. I stayed an extra day in Groningen to recover before driving back to Germany.
We were told before we started that on average half of the participants would have nausea and half would have visions. This turned out to be true – half of us were vomiting with diarrhea and half of us hallunicated, but not the same half. One woman just had nausea the whole night!
They started by giving us a dose of ground up iboga bark. This tasted disgusting, so they brought out subsequent doses in capsules. We were taking the so-called “flood” dose, the maximum dose determined by body weight.
We all lay down on a bed with a bucket to the side in case of vomiting. The first symptoms I started to notice were confused thoughts. Strange thoughts came into my mind, then suddenly disappeared again after only a few seconds, which lead to confusion. I lay there, but could not remember where to put my arms – by my sides, behind my head – nothing felt natural. A couple of the others started to vomit. I chuckled to myself as I felt no nausea. Too soon – suddenly I had diahorrea and had to be helped to the bathroom as I could not walk by myself. Iboga causes Ataxia, the inability to control one’s limbs and movements. I had to be helped 6 times and was suddenly regretting that feast the day before in the sauna!
With closed eyes, I started to see visuals. At first, it was just standard geometrical patterns and was more like watching a movie than being immersed in the visuals, like with ayahuasca. Like my confusing thoughts, each vision lasted only 2 seconds and then was replaced by or morphed into the next. Two seconds later, I could not remember what I had just seen. With eyes open, there were no hallunications, or open-eye visuals at all.
Then, the nausea kicked in. I didn’t vomit, but experienced the most intense nausea of my life, which lasted for the whole trip (12 hours, in my case). Just a slight movement of my head from right to left would result in an intense rush of nausea. To say that it was an ordeal was an understatement. I just closed my eyes and tried to enjoy the visuals.
I started to have the most incredible hallucinations I have every experienced. I saw things that simply did not exist on earth. Gorgeous, lush green meadows and incredible mountain ranges. All kinds of 3D machines and sculptures with incredible symetrical patterns and colours. Some visions started to repeat themselves – a common theme was art of indigenous peoples, like the Mayan or Native American.
Another common visual I kept having was of looking down a long tunnel, like a long dark country road or in space on the death star. I would shoot down this tunnel astral travelling at light speed. Suddenly, I would halt in front of a wall. This wall would be decorated with some amazing intricate mandala like art. Suddenly, the angle would change and I would be looking down on the wall, then shoot up into space looking down on the earth! Then, after 2 seconds had passed, the earth would disappear and the next hallucination would appear.
I thought I would see scenes of my childhood trauma – when I was bullied some time at school or some such. But this never happened. Instead, I saw scenes of happy moments from adult life – parties, fun times with friends. I then started to see all this sexual imagery – seas of hot naked women all sweaty and oily. Incredibly 3D imagery of phallic symbols and vaginas. I saw myself having the most amazing sex with all my previous girlfriends – like the hightlights package. I got the feeling the plant was trying to teach me the meaning to life – to procreate and pass my genes on.
Finally, after around 12 hours, the intense nausea started to fade and the hallucinations stopped. In the end, I had only taken a 3/4 of the so-called “flood” (high) dose. I just couldn’t bear to take more of this stuff which had made me so sick. I was still awake late into the afternoon, as I still couldn’t sleep for another 6 hours or so. It was super stimulating, but not in a “forced” way like other stimulants. I just didn’t feel sleepy for hours and hours. Finally, I got some sleep and woke up the next day for food and integration.
One very strange after effect was this bizarre visual distortion I got the next day. It was like my vision had been filtered by dozens of small white rectanges in my peripheral vision. When I moved my head from side to side, they would rush all over my visual field. Then suddenly stop again when I stopped my head.
Finally, we sat down with the others in the group for an “integration” circle. I don’t usually dig these things, especially when people who know nothing about you or have no integration experience try to “analyse” you. So, we started going round in a circle telling about our experience. Another woman had visuals of going on a roller coaster ride, but with lots of blood and scenes from horror films. Another woman was just sick all night and had no visuals at all. When it came my turn, I mentioned about the sexual imagery, but without being too graphic. The facilitators replied: “We’ve been doing this for 7 years and you’re the first person to ever tell of such an experience!”
I later recounted this story to a group of lads on a beach in Mexico. One of them said, maybe it was because I was just really horny. To be fair, I hadn’t jerked off for 2 weeks before the ceremony. Maybe this is why in the Amazon, there is a strict diet and behavioural protocol before taking ayahuasca. Including abstaining from all sexual activity, so as not to upset the spirits. Or maybe those clever Shaman knew a thing or two about how to spice up psychedelic journey!
Taking Iboga was one of the most intense experiences of my life, mainly due to the physical side-effects. I decided to stay a night in a hotel in Groningen to recover before the drive back to Germany. When in Rome, as they say, I happened to pass by a coffee shop and ordered a pre-rolled joint. Bizarrely, I could not get stoned and had no urge to consume it! It was if my cannabanoid receptors in my brain had been reset and the drug no longer had any effect!
Disclaimer: The Earlybird does not endorse the use of any mind-altering substance, legal or otherwise. This post is for entertainment and harm-reduction purposes only.