As we crossed the bridge border the road immediately turned to piste and we were greeted by soggy pot holes and officious police who put on their most stern faces whilst dealing with our paperwork - at African speed. The gendarme quickly inspected the car before sending us on our way, grumpy because he had failed to extract a cadeau out of us. The douane (customs) were no where to be seen.
The north of Benin at this time of year is very wet. There is marsh everywhere and trying to find a place to camp was difficult. We continued driving. Fortunately with changing a time zone we gained an extra hour of light but it was still dark by the time we found somewhere to sleep in the Atakora mountains. The Penjari National Park is closed at this time of year and the only other attraction in the north is this mountain range. Having been through the Fouta Djalon in Guinee this range is nothing special. The local people are the Somba who live in fortress type houses and don't like tourists. The best place to go and see examples of the houses are along a particular route marked "green" (beautiful) and "dangerous" on the Michelin map. We decided not to bother to take the detour as we had seen lots of pretty houses before so we continued south. The Somba houses known as "tatas somba" are apparently spaced at spear throwing distance away from each other.
At Natitingou we were met by the worst customs officials ever - worse than those in Guinee. After finding nothing wrong with our paper work they asked "where is your warning triangle?" We showed it to them. Then they said "where is your second warning triangle?" Ha, ha, we had read about this and were ready. The £3 boot sale bargain had just paid for itself. "Oh, where is your fire extinguisher?" We showed them both extinguishers. "Where is your first aid kit?" We got out the first aid kit. "Is that it, you are a nurse, you have more than that". Gulp - if I showed them any more then we would certainly lose half of the supply so I said "that is it" whilst hoping they weren't going to do a thorough car search. "Where is the alcohol?" We showed them our wine store and antiseptic wipes but neither was good enough. Even some French people who had just turned up failed to convince these guys that antiseptic wipes were as effective as alcohol. Then, "where's your sunburn cream?" It was getting worse. After-sun lotion was not good enough. Then they started mumbling about £10 but soon realised they wern't getting a "dash" out of us. Then they refused to stamp the carnet (said they had no stamp) and said that we had to go to another customs point on the Togo border. This was 40 km away down the "dangerous" road that we had chosen to avoid. It turned out to be to our advantage. The road had just been improved and was tip top. The customs at the other end were great and we got to see the tatas sombas and the round faced Somba people. Within two hours we were back in Natitingou where we shoved the alcohol substitute (don't sell alcohol any more), the sunburn cream [both bought from the local pharmacy] and the carnet stamp under the noses of the customs officers before waving goodbye to them. Just about managed to wave with all fingers.
A quick onward journey to the Cascade de la Kota followed. The waterfall was reasonable and after a couple of kola nuts the delighted guardien said it was ok to camp for the night for free. Once he'd buzzed off home we had the place to ourselves including the use of their facilities. In the morning we were back on the "terre rouge" (red earth road) towards Cotonou passing numerous villages that all looked the same, people that looked the same and short legged sheep and goats that looked the same. The only excitement was that of a motorbike, two up, doing a ditch diversion to avoid the car and awarding Andrew two points in the "Off Yer Bike" game. The manoeuvre was entirely unnecessary but very funny. A bit of maintenance on the car was followed by a night of frog burps and incredibly loud bird noises.
In the morning we visited Abomey which is home of the Dan Homey people and the site of Abomey king palaces. Two palaces have been renovated and are now used as museums which house various artefacts from the days of the Dan Homey empire. The kings benefited greatly from business involving the West African slave trade. The kings would sell off their enemies and pick slaves from tribes he didn't like. Fortunately our guide spoke English so we were able to discover the gruesome but fascinating history of the area. There is loads of information too on voodoo "fetishes". These are just symbols of spirits and can be found all over Benin - being the home of voodoo.
Eventually at Cotonou we negotiated a £3 per night fee at the dreary Camping Ma Campagne. The initial price was twice that amount. Sadly there are no other camping options around Cotonou. We refused to use the showers, the loos were awful and the water supply was cut off for half of the time. One cell on the second battery has died. Disaster - warm beers!.
Spent a morning planning our route through Togo and Ghana then arrived at the French Embassy too late to buy the Togo visa. It seems that Cotonou has the largest mobylette population in the world. They are everywhere and driving around here is a pretty hairy experience and the air is thick with exhaust fumes. Taxi bikes with riders in yellow numbered shirts pull out in front of you or stop in front of you without warning. The state of the local bikes and cars is as expected in West Africa.
Took a pleasant diversion to the old colonial town of Porto Novo. This is actually the official capital of Benin but Cotonou is the administrative centre. Here we rejected the £15, 3 hour pirogue trip around a stilt village built in the lagoon. The three hour journey was more of a problem than the steep fee. Had the battery replaced and when the two chaps waved us off with both hands and big grins we knew we had been ripped off. Benin is doing a very good job at improving its roads and they are using concrete - a new invention in Africa! That night we splashed out on a chinese meal which seriously dented the budget. Andrew and his passion for crispy aromatic duck! On the way back from the restaurant the roads were lined with market stalls lit by candles and parrafin lamps. It looked like a Christmas scene.
Up early the next day to get to the French Embassy before it closed. We were told they no longer issue visas for Togo, we had to get them on the border! Stocked up with fruit and veg, bought cheese (hurray) from the supermarket and spent vast amounts of money for 25 minutes in a cybercafe. I was delighted to find an optician who could replace the nose pieces on my specs. It could only happen in Africa - the optician propudly presented me with a pair of non matching gold coloured pieces! Yuk.
Drove to Ouidah to take in some voodoo. The town was having a new road and drainage system installed so the initial feel of the place wasn't as expected. I had hoped for the sound of drums but got the road digger instead. I had read about sighting fetishes about the town but didn't see any - the town was being dug up. Voodoo originated in Ouidah. Known as "white magic" the followers worship whichever god (or fetish) they want to. Voodoo ceremonies are highly animated affairs where the spirits supposedly take over bodies of their followers and cause them to behave in outrageous ways such as pulling heads off chickens. In reality such treatment of animals is common without the voodoo effect and the Africans don't know the meaning of the word "pet". We didn't see any such performance, sadly (not the chicken bit, just the drumming and dancing). Voodoo only became "black magic" when the Beninoise slaves introduced it to Haiti and Brazil after deportation. Ouidah historically had five forts, one of them English, where slaves were held before being deported. The Portuguese fort now houses the museum which displays maps, photos and articles of the slave trade and voodoo. After a museum tour we visited the cathedral which is being renovated using bathroom tiles! The Temple of Pythons was interesting. Snakes feature heavily in voodoo culture and one of the fetishes is that of a python swallowing its tail. The image of a circle represents eternity. After a brief tour of the area where animals are sacrificed and where people wash in sacred water (previously infused with iroko leaves) we were taken to the temple. The snakes were asleep in their den - all 31 of them. One was woken for us to hold and appeared quite happy to be stroked. Normally you only get to see a snake through glass but to hold one was quite increadible. It was dry, cold and you could feel its insides wriggling underneath its skin. We could have taken a photo - for a pound! Pah, you pay to get in then get asked for money to take a photo and then money for the guide. So we didn't take a photo out of principle. The sacred forest in Kpasse has a number of fetises designed by two artists - one using concrete, the other using car bits welded together. Now Andrew is the worlds worst believer in anything spiritual and his reaction to these "pieces of s--t" made me laugh for the rest of the day. We had the inconvenience of four guides thrust upon us throughout our visit to the forest but had the last laugh when we refused to give them "a small gift or payment". In fact, the only way to survive these irritants is to keep thinking about the payment that they are not getting at the end of it all. That night we had cheese for dinner - yum yum.
In the morning the journey out of Benin was smooth and the only delay caused by the customs man who had to finish his peanuts before getting around to stamping the carnet.
|Cascade de la Kota||Posing by the Cascades de la Kota||Jac cooks up a smashing plantain curry||Mad drivers and loads||Loaded to the gunnels|
|Abomey kings palace||Some sort of initiation ceremony - did he blub||The palaces are covered with these rather grusome fetishes||See what I mean|
Apart from a chinese restaurant we didn't try out any of the local food.
It is possible to find cheap cheese in abundence.
from Burkina 2
|Bush camp in the Atakora Mountains||N: 10.28.591 E: 01.21.801|
|Cascade de la Kota||N: 10.12.612 E: 01.26.766|
|Abomey||via Dassa. Frog burp bush camp||N: 07.58.727 E: 01.59.140|
The knowledge that you are not going to pay for the unofficial and unwanted guidance that is thrust upon you will help to maintain sanity.
Benin's tourist industry is just starting to expand (again) so be prepared for a few corrupt officials who have yet to understand that you have to be pleasant to tourists to get them to return.
Abomey kings would kill their enemies and use the skulls of the dead to make bases for their thrones.
When a king died his wives (up to 41 of them) were thrown into his grave with him to keep him company. They were buried alive under a mixture of beads, gold dust and human blood mixed with clay.
Female warriors known as "amazons" were so involved in fighting that they would cut off a boob if it got in the way of firing their bow and arrow.