Monday 29th April, 2013
Wild Camp, Niamtougou, Togo to Eco Lodge, Tanguieta, Benin
Awake very early (before 6am) this morning to a totally clear day – very warm and humid. We cooked breakfast this morning and then left camp. The camp site was quite peaceful and away from the road – ideal for a bush camp. Some people had to change money – we had to get ice and also bread for lunch. We stopped at an artisan market where disabled people from the local community made all sorts of clothes, jewellery and the like for sale. After some time, whilst driving through a town we saw a sign for ice and so stopped but it was actually a bar and they had no ice. So Lynn asked a policeman where we might get ice (note how our French has improved) and after thinking a moment he called over a young man and told us to go with him. We followed the man off the road, down an alley and into a family compound. These countries sell water in small plastic bags and the mother had a quantity of bags frozen in her freezer which she was willing to sell to us. Mission accomplished! Finally after a number of hours on very bad roads (suffered one puncture which was changed while we had lunch) we reached the Togo/Benin border. All our passports were stamped out of Togo and then into Benin and we proceeded to our eco lodge along fairly bad roads but through spectacular mountain scenery. By about 5pm (the clocks went forward 1 hour to Benin) we were settled in our lodge, a very pretty traditional (for Benin) looking building after which we had a bucket shower, had an aperitif and then later we had dinner out the front of the building al fresco. To bed around 11pm.
Tuesday 30th April, 2013
Eco Lodge, Tanguieta, Benin
We had breakfast out the front of the lodge this morning, just coffee and tiny slices of bread, hardly enough for the morning’s activities. After breakfast we went for a walk to see the Somba houses, built like fortresses, each one with a family in residence. The houses were built that way as protection from the colonists (Germans) and previously from the slave traders – usually tribal enemies. The front door is surrounded by various fetishes (these people are catholic or muslim plus animists. The fetishes consist of various skulls like monkey or antelope and lumps of dark things – goodness knows what they are! Chickens and other animals (sheep, goats, pigs) live in the house downstairs at night. Downstairs is where the cooking is done as well during the wet season. Any old people in the family also live in these rooms. Upstairs on the second floor, on the roof, are the bedrooms, one for the husband, another for the wife and small children and more for the older children plus two for the granary and other food stores. The bedrooms are round and quite small – accessed via a small hole. Lynn entered the wife’s room and it had a thin rug on the floor, a twig brush on a shelf, and a few baskets hanging in the roof. It was only tall enough to sit. There was also a ‘pee’ hole near the door to be used by the small children during the night. It was like a small basin cut into the floor and would be emptied each morning. The houses seem very efficient, made of mud with a light coating of (nowadays) cement on the top to stop the rains from totally dissolving the house when the rainy season is on. The walls are decorated with patterns, mostly lines and cross hatching. Interestingly, the people’s faces also have these line markings which are done at age 3. Constant repairs are required with this type of construction but the houses are very attractive set in the landscape with the fields of crops all around. This is a green and fertile land high in the hills, very beautiful, although still hot and humid. After we had visited the houses, we walked across to the panoramic view, escarpments creeping off into the blue distance covered in green forests with a cool breeze drifting across the valleys in front of us. The landscape was a little like the western side of the Blue Mountains and reminded us of home. So peaceful that people in the group were silent for about ten minutes while we pondered the serenity. We then walked back to the lodge and had lunch, a great improvement on breakfast, choice of boiled eggs, rice, sauce, fish etc. This is a beautiful place, very peaceful. We spent the afternoon relaxing in our room reading and having a chill out. Tonight is dinner with local food.
Wednesday 1st May, 2013
Eco Lodge to Pendjari National Park, Benin
It was raining when we woke up this morning and the breakfast (same as yesterday supposedly) was non-existent as the lodge had “run out of gas”. So we bypassed breakfast and ate about half a packet of ginger nut biscuits and a drink of flavoured water. At least we didn’t have to pay for it….After breakfast we headed off towards the nearest town and upon arrival, immediately had a baguette each. We strolled around and discovered that the banks and Post Office were shut due to the May Day holiday; two of the cook groups shopped for dinner tonight and tomorrow night as well as for breakfasts and lunches. We had a bit of a look around the market but there wasn’t much to see here. We then spent the next few hours driving through the countryside to the Pendjari National Park in the far north of Benin, passing through many small villages on the way. We had lunch by the side of the road and continued on. Once inside the park, we saw some antelopes and kudu. There is reputed to be lions, hippos, elephants and leopards here. We didn’t see these today however. We decided to upgrade to a room here for the next two nights (with a fan in the room). Dinner tonight outside at the National Park near the truck. Some of the group are camping; some including us are staying in rooms. We were glad that we weren’t camping as the camp staff had decided to empty septic tanks in the area today…. Today was wet to start but cleared up and was fine in the afternoon, not quite as hot as the past few days.
Thursday 2nd May, 2013
Pendjari National Park, Benin
Today we left on a game drive in the Pendjari National Park at about 6.30am, just before sunrise. During the drive, we saw antelopes, hippos, baboons, warthogs, elephants and birds. The drive continued until about 10am, after which we came back to the hotel and our room. We then relaxed until lunch time and after lunch had a swim in the pool. It’s quite a surreal place, so far from everywhere, and it has two eucalyptus trees next to the pool and no fences to the park. Anyway after our swim, it was off on our second game drive for the day (starting at 4pm). We drove the same route as this morning because our truck was too heavy to use the minor roads in the park (the park is 2,755sq.kms so it is huge and it was not unexpected that we didn’t see lions and leopards, even if they were there) and some people were a bit disappointed about that. The total other worldliness of this place really hits you. It is very quiet and pitch black at night with millions of stars. Dinner again near the truck and to bed around 10pm. It was very hot and a cloudless sky today – up to about 36C and humid.
Friday 3rd May, 2013
Pendjari National Park to “Bush Camp” near Bassila, Benin
Left the National Park at about 8am this morning after breakfast and headed south via the park exit gates – it was 74km to the exit then after that we drove to the next large town of Natitingou, where the cook group shopped for dinner and we changed money and went along to the post office to post some postcards. Just our luck – the post office had closed for lunch and wouldn’t be open until 3pm. Whilst we were being told this by a passing man the doors opened and a man told us we had to come back at 3pm. However we managed to persuade him to take our money and cards and he said he would stick the stamps on when he was back at work. We had lunch and continued south on good roads. It rained heavily for a short time in the afternoon then cleared. After Bassila, we stopped at a primary school to camp after the leaders contacted the head teacher and he told them that it would be fine and that the people would not bother us. There were shelters under which we cooked and a number of classrooms to camp in. There were hundreds of children, all excited, and many parents gathered round watching us cook, drink and eat. It was huge fun as they were very interested in everything we did. There were many handshakes, photo shots and friendly discussions with all of the people there, only a few of whom spoke any English. After dinner and another heavy shower, most of the children drifted off home (encouraged by the head teacher), no doubt discussing their encounter with the truck and us. It was a very satisfying afternoon, even though the rain pelted down for a while. As we sit in our classroom with the tent set up writing this and reading, and listening to the rain and storm, we think it is better than camping outside on a muddy piece of ground. To bed early tonight around 9.45pm.
Saturday 4th May, 2013
Bassila to Abomey, Benin
Woke up in our classroom this morning; it’s very quiet. Once we had packed up our clothes and our tent and carried them over to the truck, there were many children present for breakfast, watching us with great interest, chattering. There was also a baby antelope there that had been “rescued” – not sure from what….anyway, after we had breakfast, we said our goodbyes and set off to head further south in Benin. Today was fine after the rain of last night. There didn’t appear to be any rain looming. We drove through towns and villages on a mostly very good road through green forests and fields that were ready for sowing with this season’s crops – they are waiting for the rainy season to plant. There were mountains in the distance and the road was undulating. As usual, it was hot and humid. We stopped for lunch near a large market town and then at about 3.30pm arrived at Abomey, a historic town where kings of the Dahomey kingdom ruled up until the end of the 19th century. They were a ruthless lot, trading in slaves and generally being very warlike. Benin has a history of bloodshed and apparently was under a dictator’s rule in the 70s and 80s. He even changed the name of the country from Dahomey to Benin and had a communist experiment for a number of years (this failed even though all property was nationalised and the people driven into poverty). It seems peaceful enough now though. Because we were on cook group today, we spent the late afternoon getting dinner ready for the group. We had dinner around 7.15pm and had to hurry because we were promised an outing to see a voodoo ceremony. When the guide finally arrived, he said that we couldn’t go because of a death in the family (!).
Sunday 5th May 2013
Abomey to Porto Novo, Benin
Today after breakfast, we set off on a walking tour around Abomey to see palaces and the museum. The guide showed us where the kings of the kingdom of Dahomey had constructed walls and moats and he explained the history of the kingdoms. We then went through the museum with the guide and again, he explained the significance of all the items on display. It is a very hot and humid day today and we had walked about 2 km in the heat to the museum, so afterwards the truck came around to the museum to pick us up and take us back to the campsite. On the way, we bought some bread for lunch as well as tomatoes and avocadoes. As it was Sunday, there weren’t many market stalls open as many people go to church here and we had a job to find anything. We also asked for eggs without success until a young boy tapped Lynn on the arm and showed her an egg – he took us to where there were some small, but OK, eggs. After lunch, we set off towards Ganvie, a village in the south of the country where we were to go on a pirogue trip to a hotel on stilts out in the lake near the city of Cotonou. The roads were atrocious (again) and the going was slow. We took about 4 hours to go about 80km and after we had driven through the city and out to Porto Novo (the capital city of Benin), the leader discovered that we were on the wrong side of the lake and that there had been a communication mix up about where we should be getting on the boat to go out to this hotel. By this time it was about 7.30pm and dark, so it was decided that we should stay at a hotel nearby and discuss whether to go to the stilt hotel or not after we had dinner. So we checked in to the city hotel and then had dinner (not nearly enough food even though we ordered fish and chips). By the time we finished dinner it was after 10.30pm so after a shower and a bit of clothes washing, it was a late night, after 12.30am, by the time we got to bed.
Monday 6th May, 2013
Porto Novo to Ouidah, Benin
This morning we had breakfast in the hotel and then travelled down to the port to go on a boat trip to a village of stilt houses situated in the lagoon adjacent to Porto Novo/Cotonou. When we all boarded the pirogue, it would not move as it was stuck on the bottom (the water was very shallow) so most people had to get out of the boat so that the driver could get the boat afloat. They boarded from a jetty nearby once we were able to move. We proceeded to head out through the water hyacinths towards the channel and motored towards an island in the extremely large lagoon. On the island there were many stilt houses built by people, originally to escape from the Dahomey kings in the slaving days. They built these houses in the lagoon because it was against the religion of the soldiers in the king’s army to travel on or cross water, and now hundreds of years later they still live there. Now there are over 25,000 people live in this village and now there are many concrete structures as well as the traditional wooden houses, including schools on the island. We walked around the village and some of the men played instruments (drums and metal instruments) and sang songs for us. After the performance and our walk, we walked back to our pirogue and headed back to Porto Novo. On the way back, it rained heavily for about ten minutes and we had to pull down the plastic at the side of the pirogue so we didn’t get wet. Once back at the dock, we walked back to the truck and drove towards the city of Cotonou about 10km away. We had lunch in a restaurant in the city by the side of the main road – it took over an hour to get our lunch even though we were the only customers as the lady was cooking on one little hotplate. We then drove east and reached Ouidah, the centre of voodoo in Benin, shortly after 4pm, then put up our tent on the beach about 100 metres back from the surf. We were staying at a small auberge (hotel) and most people stayed in rooms but we camped under the palm trees. We went for a walk along the beach. Nearby there were two memorials, one commemorating the “door of no return” of the slaves and the other celebrating the anniversary of three Roman Catholic nuns arriving at this town. We had a drink in the bar (we were the only customers) and then we had dinner in the campsite and sat around chatting into the pleasant balmy evening before going to bed to the sound of the sea crashing nearby. Unfortunately everyone also got attacked by mosquitos which wasn’t so pleasant. It was 29C and humid in the tent tonight. We went over and had a shower (only a door and walls – no roof) then carefully walked back across the sand so as to not get sand on our feet that would transfer into the tent. Opened up the computer to write the blog and discovered there was Wi-Fi in our tent on the beach – amazing – so we checked a few emails and were astonished that we could be in touch from such a remote place. To bed about midnight, weather very balmy.
Tuesday 7th May, 2013
Ouidah to Grand Popo, Benin
Today is Lynn’s birthday and after we had packed up our tent on the beach, we walked over to the truck for breakfast and the others had decorated the truck with a “Happy Birthday” streamer and there were gifts and a card for Lynn. The others on the trip had bought two old voodoo dolls and a small wooden antelope and wrapped them in a piece of cloth and everyone had written on a birthday card. They were very kind and it was a very pleasant surprise. After breakfast we walked along to the stalls where we had been last evening and negotiated to buy a couple of other items – then we drove into the town (Ouidah – 4 km away – this distance was the “Route d’Esclaves” (Slave Walk) where the slaves walked from the town to the ships waiting to take them away to Brazil or the Caribbean all those years ago). There was a museum that we visited (the old Portuguese fort) that illustrated the slave trade and also the fact that three generations ago, many of the slaves were repatriated back to Benin. The guide was a grandson of one of these repatriated slaves. We then walked around the town and visited the Temple of Pythons. Lynn had a photo taken with two pythons draped around her neck. There were quite a few pythons lying around, most looking very sleepy. In the grounds of the temple, there was a 500 year old tree against which the local people conducted sacrifices. There were also two other places in the grounds where sacrifices were conducted. We then walked around a bit longer but it was so hot that we then went back to the truck before the designated time, ate our previously prepared (by us) sandwiches and then headed off east the short distance (about 50-60km) to Grand Popo. The day was lot and sunny and we soon arrived at our auberge (hotel) on the beach. Unlike most of our previous accommodation, this place was right next to the beach and had camping as well as three different types of rooms. We had decided to upgrade here so it was just a matter of which room. After some discussions, we obtained a room in a building that looked a bit like an old grand planation house (where were the slaves now we had the right place?). We sat out the front on the chairs and read and relaxed for a couple of hours. We then had a shower and headed over for dinner. Lynn’s birthday continued with a birthday cake for entrée, balloons at the table and after our really nice meal, someone had arranged for two bottles of bubbly. It was a very enjoyable evening for everyone and then it was back to our room with mosquito netted bed and ceiling fan. A totally perfect day.
Wednesday 8th May, 2013
Grand Popo, Benin
Woke up in our hotel at the beach this morning. The weather was not so good today, very overcast and threatening rain. After breakfast, a huge storm and squall blew in and it rained very heavily for about an hour and a half. Most of the group (not us) were going on a boat ride to a village so they postponed leaving from 9am till 10am, by which time the rain had eased. We sat around for the rest of the morning after doing some washing and then had lunch (half a baguette each and peanut butter from the truck). We walked along the edge of the beach to a little village about 300m away. We strolled through the sandy streets; there were no shops, just one person selling mangoes. We were with Steve and then walked back to our hotel, had a beer then strolled back to our room for some more relaxation (so little time to relax on this trip) until we went out at 4pm to a voodoo ceremony back near the town about ten minutes’ drive away. When we arrived we found a large sandy field – almost like a football field – with drums and percussion instruments already being played with a very fast rhythm by a group of men. During the ceremony the music never ceased but we noticed the players changed frequently so they could rest. We sat to the side on a low wall and a couple of benches. As the ceremony proceeded, more and more local people arrived until there were more than 100 all watching too. Directly in front of us was a small table containing a ‘jug’ around which many flies swarmed – the ‘jug’ was adorned with some suspicious looking items. Near us was seated an old man – he was the voodoo priest. The ceremony started with the ‘voodoo’ being brought out by 4 men. The ‘voodoo’ was like a large grass hummock, only red. It ‘ran’ around the field being chased by the 4 men – it span continually (must have been dizzy) in time to the music. Then went back behind a building. Then out came a similar voodoo, only pale yellow and the same thing happened. Then a green voodoo came out – same thing. This went on for at least 2 hours. Sometimes (in between voodoos) the women danced, and we also had to get up and dance a couple of times. Sometimes 2 or 3 of the voodoos raced around together. There was also a man dressed as a woman who sometimes danced and sometimes rolled across the ground. Who knows what it all meant but the locals certainly loved it and we enjoyed it of course. Halfway through the time, the ‘jug’ was passed around and we all had to drink a shot of the strong alcoholic drink it contained. Eventually it started to get dark and the event suddenly came to an end. Back after that at around 7pm to set up for dinner off the truck. Had dinner and in bed by around 10.30pm.