Benin

BENIN  2011

PENDARI NATIONAL PARK to NORTH TOGO BORDER

Guess what, we woke up to turn off the fans because it was cool! A perfect breeze and for the first time since North East Mauritania we felt cool air. As we are now are only 700km from the coast, the weather should turn more tropical with more humidity and a lower temperature. Hopefully we will be lucky with the rain as the wet season has now started. But before we hit the coast, we will first have to visit a few places in the North of Benin and Togo.

We left early to explore Pendari National Park. Not before we were charged 23000 CFA for the two of us and the truck. However, the roads were well maintained so no complaints. Having said this, locals only pay 5000CFA. As the day wore on we became frustrated because we did not see any wildlife. Like last night, we did see two other tourists with guides, but they did not see any wildlife either. Lucky at around 1pm we did see two lions. After this we decided to try the hotel for Lunch. A nice surprise was the pool in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, the pool was for guests only but there were no guests! Even so, we could only have something to eat. The menu consisted of just one choice. Because we were not guests we got the feeling that we were not welcome. Hence, we left, but not before asking the question. “Where do we find some wild life?” No-one knew, so we assumed there was none around. We decided to have lunch at the truck and basically decided to drive back to our campsite. For us, Pendjari National Park was a disappointment. But it could be the time of the year? Or spoiled by the wild life sightings in East Africa? Coming into the small village of Tanguieta, we were stopped by locals advising us of a French concert in town tonight! As it worked out it was right behind our campsite. Opera is not really my style and with only 18 people attending (including 4 relatives of the 3 singers) I don’t think we were the only ones not so interested. (Rather give me the African music any day). I am not sure who paid for this (charity) but with 18 guests it must have been an expensive exercise. Maybe foreign aid money but who knows? The following week we explored Northern Togo.

NORTHERN TOGO BORDER to CENTRAL BENIN

Back to Benin. After 20km on a road to hell, we reached the small border post with Benin. We hadn’t seen a single car until we reached the border where there was a convoy of around 20 vehicles, plus about 60 donkey carts and 100 people on foot. No one had a passport or a carnet for the car! So, every officer was being paid a few hundred CFA and the deal was done. Benin side was no different. No pay no passage. We thought we were used to seeing bribing in Africa after nearly 2 years on the road, but this is done so openly and ruthless and we had never experienced anything like it in Africa. I stayed with the truck and Clary went over to speak to the female police officer, but she would not sign before I came to see her too. So, I went and then we needed the carnet signed by the customs man. He asked me in front of at least 15 locals, “So how much are you paying me to get the carnet stamped?” “Well”, I said, “Nothing!” “Well”, he replied, “This means a long wait.” “No worries mate, we are in no hurry. I will come back in an hour or so.” He did not realize at the time that I had blocked the driveway, and this means no-one could get through. Then he smiled and said, “No food no water.” “No mate, nothing, we pay enough foreign aid as it is!” He smiled, stamped our carnet and wished me Bon Voyage. Only one hour later and after around four or five police road blocks and a large army convoy travelling north, we found ourselves another arse-hole of a corrupt police officer. He first wanted to check our whole truck, then our paperwork (not sure if he could read) then he took me aside and wanted money. “No money no passage!” Then I replied, “No worries mate, we will wait here.” Same trick on the middle of the road. He then asked me to move the truck to the side. I refused he got upset and I told him to call boss. With no transport and no phone and only an AK 47, I offered him to call on my satellite phone. With another truck waiting I think he didn’t like the idea of a phone call and told us we were okay to go! No wonder countries don’t get anywhere, when they have so many corrupt officials. In the meantime, we were also witness to a pretty severe beating by two police officers who used sticks on a youth (not sure what it was about). What a day! Our destination today is Abomey. Once we arrived we had one more obstacle to beat and that was a 2.5m high beam over the total width of the road. (Our truck is 3.25m high). This resulted in a 15km detour, but unfortunately, they forgot to put the signs up. Anyway 45 minutes later and a grand tour of Abomey’s narrow streets we found Chez Monique. As we drove into the gate we must have had 50 kids hanging on the truck and walking beside it. We set up camp and had a few light refreshments. 9am and the first port of call was the tourist centre. They supplied very little info and all in French. After we explained that we could not find any signage to the different palaces and the tourist centre had no more maps, a German lady turned up (NGO). She explained that no money was left in the budget for signage. However, everything should be easy to find! We asked her what she did. She said she oversaw promoting Abomey’s tourism. She explained that very little money was available in the budget for things like signage.

With half the village asleep under a tree you would think they could make all the signs they required in one day! Not sure what she earned but she drove a new Land cruiser, had a house and upkeep all paid for. Outside the tourist office, a few would- be guides were happy to show us around for 2 hours and charge 10,000CFA (average monthly income is 30,000CFA). “Mate, why don’t you start making some signs?” I asked a young fellow who was pestering us. We arrived at the museum to be confronted by a large open tourist market with no tourists. No photos could be taken. In all, a disappointing experience for us. The annoying factor is that here they have a tremendous history and what remains of some once great buildings, all falling apart!

CENTRAL BENIN to GANVIE

Next stop was Ganvie, the little stilt village we visited 35 years ago. After we paid our toll, we were confronted with 100km of potholes which would swallow a small car. We entered the car park of Ganvie boat terminal and we were told it was 2000CFA for parking.

We checked, and it was only 500CFA (saving 1500CFA). We then organized a boat. The price came down to 10000CFA (motor) from 13500CFA. (saving 3500CFA), then after we paid the boat owner, a guide turned up and he wanted 10000CFA. We told him to go away, but in usual African style he never left and even got onto the boat with us. He kept coming back to me wanting to explain why he needed 10000CFA. Slowly this came down to a cadeaux and in the end his services were included in the boat trip! We then invited both driver and would be tour-guide for a drink in the stilt village. Four drinks 4000CFA! This was also incorrect and had to come down to 3000CFA; another 1000CFA saved.

Our saving for the afternoon was $36.00 AUD just from looking at the prices. And I am sure we still paid too much. With the corrupt police, customs and government people you probably can’t blame the locals, but it didn’t give us a very nice feeling about Benin. And again, we wonder what has happened to all the foreign aid as nothing has changed in the 30 years since we were here last.

GANVIE to SOUTHERN BENIN

From Ganvie to our beach camp south of Ouidah, we followed the road (sandy track) of no return, also called Route Des Esclaves. Once we reached the beach we were confronted with this beautiful memorial called Point of No Return. While standing here at this perfect location it is hard to believe that 12 million people were deported from this beach as slaves to the Americas. From here it was another 1km to our camp spot under the coconut trees.

To make a long story short, we got ourselves bogged on the beach in soft sand. I know, we should have let our tyres down. Clary was very impressed I must say! But with 20 locals pushing and digging and one hour later we arrived at our camp spot. Just south of the Voodoo capital of the world, Ouidah. A perfect warm breeze and lightening in the distance were a sign of things to come. After a swim and dinner, it started to rain. This quickly became a downpour with a huge thunder storm. But it brought with it nice cool air, perfect for sleeping under the coconut palms. After we visited the Historical Museum in Ouidah, we drove 45km to the next deserted beach at Grand Popo. We found a beautiful spot next door to the Auberge Grand Popo and the local fishing village right on the beach. For the rest of the afternoon, we relaxed and went for a few swims. Obviously being parked right on the beach, we attracted the local population who all came past trying to sell us something. So, we organized some coconuts and Clary found someone for the washing. I think we are due for some relaxation at the beach after all the heat in Mali and the 12 days on the road to get here. We woke up to a cloudy day with some rain, but it was very humid. Around 10.30am the sun came out and by 2pm it started raining again. We had a very lazy day with lots of reading and some excitement on the beach in front of us, when around 100 people pulled in a huge net full of fish.

The whole village came out and the fish were sold on the beach.

VOODOO

It was raining so we decided in the afternoon to visit a few local villages and we arrived in the middle of a VOODOO ceremony. We were first introduced to the chief of the village and then after we gave some cadeaus (money), we could stay and take photos. The good thing was that we were the only tourists present so the whole thing was real without any of the usual tourist gimmicks. We were also greeted as royalty and we were even given a chair to sit on. The bad thing was that after a few hours of Palm Wine drinking at least half of the locals were drunk. As time moved on, the ceremony became more aggressive. A chicken was killed, another man covered himself in cactus and wanted us to push the cactus deeper into his body, women became in trans, young men started to become Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and did somersaults forward, backwards and off the roofs of the huts! It was time for us to say thank you and leave. By this time, it had just become dark and we can only imagine what happens after dark. The voodoo ceremony made an impression on us and despite the large amounts of alcohol (palm wine) being consumed we were privileged to have seen this in a non- commercial way. Benin is the number one voodoo nation in West Africa, Vodun or Vudun also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Voudou, and Voodoo etc. is a traditionally organized religion of coastal West Africa from Nigeria to Ghana. Vodun is practiced by the Ewe, Kabye, Mina and Fon people of south east Ghana, southern and central Togo, southern and central Benin and the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria. All these are synchronized with Christianity and the traditional religions of the Kongo people of Congo and Angola. We have no idea if it had anything to do with the ceremony, but we had a terrible thunderstorm last night that kept us awake for over 3 hours.

One last thing, we would like to share with you and that is the Fetish markets (we saw the one in Ouidah). This is where animals are sold as medicines. For example, bats as Viagra, crushed monkey head for a good memory, crushed parrot for a good voice and crushed turtle for asthma. Clary was not impressed to see all the animals in the markets. Most are supposed to be protected (and you really wonder what we Westerners have achieved here with all our foreign ideas and foreign aid because even today, 150 out of 1000 babies die before their fifth birthday.