Friday, February 4, 2011

Benin

After the hot and boring road through central Togo – where arid teak plantations provided a rather depressing sight – the North welcomes us with its rough, stunning mountain scenery. On the expiry date of our visa we set off from Kara to leave Togo via the Koussamakou region, which is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004 because of its well-preserved Tata Somba fortified huts and lively animist culture. It turns out that UNESCO affiliation is no guarantee for quality and good organization. We spend about an hour trying to convince the “officials” at the entrance gate that we’re not going to take one of the overpriced, supposedly obligatory “guides” with us, some of them being obviously drunk…

Benin doesn’t miss the opportunity to make a better impression, with a friendly customs officer – although not in possession of a stamp for our carnet de passage – and friendly gendarmerie – although not in possession of a duty car any better than a wrecked old pick-up truck without wheels. Our GPS directs us straight to the hostel in Koussoukoingou, run by the Sisters of the Holy Heart of Mary. They welcome us with open arms, particularly the warm-hearted Soeur Marguerite. The boarding school girls help prepare the room while we sit in comfortable chairs and watch the sun set over the valley.

Next day we attend mass, which gives us the opportunity to hear the schoolchildren sing in church, before we start a tour of the village with Crépin. He’s part of a group of local guides who work in cooperation with the Benin Ecotourism Concern. Together they’ve managed to find a balance between stimulating people to care for their traditional culture and patrimony while at the same time allowing for modernity and progress. The parish priest invites us for lunch at the Sisters’. He brings a bottle of Ricard and the copious meal is accompanied by cool beers and South-African wine.
Not only do the Sisters take good care of their children and guests, they surely take good care of their Father and themselves as well. After our afternoon walk with Crépin through the valley, a dish of fresh guinea fowl with traditional “igname pilé” (mashed sweet potatoe) helps us regain strength.

After Koussou, we head for the Pendjari National Park, which is supposedly one of the best wildlife reserves in West Africa. At the entrance gate, we are disappointed to hear that motorbikes are not allowed in the park. Unclear if this is an official rule or a whim of the officer. Anyway, we ride 40 km back over the gravel road along the Atakora Range towards Tanguiéta, where we organize for a hotel to leave the bikes. We negotiate a fairly expensive one-and-a-half day car safari and next morning at sunrise, we enter the vast park with our driver and guide Loukman. At first there are hardly any animals to be seen, since the dry grass is still high in most places – despite extensive burning in others. But then we start seeing kobs, topis and other large antelopes, warthogs, baboons, vultures, wild guinea fowl,… At the wells and swamps, we see hippos, crocodiles, marabous and several stork and heron species. But nothing compares to our encounter with a large solitary male African elephant. It is graciously grazing the tree tops, merrily destroying them and leaving the place like a battlefield. During the afternoon, when all animals are hiding from the burning sun, we take off on a dugout canoe trip. With the help of the prying eye of our guide and boatman we discover hundreds of brightly colored birds, varans, and a few velvet monkeys.
South-African overlanders Claudia and Andrew have already set up their comfortable bush camp when we arrive at the Yangouali “camping”. Except for a signpost, it doesn’t have any infrastructure… While Loukman spends the night on the hood of his car, we talk until late into the night. We have a sound sleep afterwards, only occasionally disturbed by roaring lions. 
Next morning we’re anxious to find them on our route out of the park. Instead we’re treated to sightings of herds of buffalos and elephants and a glimpse of a solitary cat, fox and Pattas monkey. Back in Tanguiéta, I take the bike for a test ride after a few minor adjustments, but I enjoy the single tracks through the yam and cassava fields so much that I add nearly 60 kms to the odometer.

From Tanguiéta, we plan to ride to the village of Tanéka Beri, where Eco-Benin is running another tourism project. After much asking around along a dirt track we find the village, but nobody seems to understand what we are talking about. Not without leaving a few presents for the village chief, we continue our journey to the regional capital of Parakou. Our last stop-over before Nigeria, land of internet scams, corrupt police, kidnappings and ethnic tensions. Let’s treat ourselves to a nice dish of antelope first…
For more pics see album "Benin"

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