Mar 5 2010

Togo and Benin – diary 2010-02-17 to 2010-02-26

2010-02-17

 Our arrival into Togo was through a small border post that hardy anybody uses. The Ghanaian side were helpful and wished us well for the remainder of our journey. We followed a dirt track until we screeched to a sudden halt as we passed the very small doune bureau (customs office) which we didn’t notice until the officials came running out. The change was immediate, no English, only French always accompanied by the requests for a cadeau. We declined of course and continued to Cinkasse where we would be able to pass through the formal custom and police departments. Once we reached the border post we were through with the formalities in a matter of minutes and were once again on the road again. We continued to Daopong where we would spend our first night in Togo. We found a cheap place to stay called Hotel Le Tolerance Annexe where rooms were clean and comfortable and came with fans to move the hot stifling air that had followed us from Bolgatanga! After dinner we rested our wary heads and prepared for another day of long driving.

 2010-02-18

We woke up to yet again another clear blue sky day and by 9am the sun was beating down on us. We unfortunately could not leave when we had planed to as both rear wheels had procured slow leaks. Kirk and Joe set to work to change the leaky tyres and put both spare wheels on. The rear left wheel was leaking through the rim…this is the 2nd rim that this has happened to, the first occasion being in Morocco, so you can imagine Kirks dismay at Toyota as they are genuine Toyota steel rims! The rear right tyre had a nail stuck in it so we would be able to repair that when we were camped up. With both wheels changed we set off south in the direction of Lome’. Togo is a beautiful country which stretches from the coast inland for 600km. The savannah plains of the north transformed into rolling hills covered with forests. Fruit was clearly in abundance as it was being sold by numerous fruit sellers along the side of the road. Pineapples, avocados, coconuts, bananas, plantains and mangoes; you name it, they sold it. The drive was going smoothly until we were stopped 2km outside of a town called Soutouboua. The presidential elections are coming up on the 4th March and we had happened to arrive at one of the current President’s election campaigns. All traffic north and southbound was stopped until the President had left the campaign. We had no option but to sit in the incredible heat along with many other local motorists. When we were given the go ahead to move we drove through he hordes of crowds who had gathered to listen to the President speak. We drove through slowly so as to avoid hitting or bumping any pedestrians.

We eventually arrived in Atakpame’ were we would settle for the evening. Our hopes of getting to Lome’ had been lost when we were sat on the hot asphalt further up the road and so decided that a good night sleep in the ‘Hotel de le Amitie’ would suffice. The rooms were very cheap and they had the crucial fan! We chose to eat dinner at one of the local places called Bar St. Louis where we enjoyed basic food at average prices. The wind had thankfully picked up and the location of the hotel meant that the breeze blew straight through the balcony and courtyard that surrounded our rooms. With the fan and the breeze we managed to get a good night sleep and even felt cold during the night.

 2010-02-19

We were finally on the road to Lome’ and with not far to travel we would certainly be able to make some enquiries about the visas that we needed to apply for. Top of the list of embassies to visit was the Angolan Embassy.  We were received well but still did not manage to get the visa that is proving to be the most difficult to obtain. We were given the phone number of the consular in Abuja, Nigeria and the man we spoke to assured us that a 10 day tourist visa should not be a problem…We will be holding our breaths in anticipation! Next stop was the Gabon embassy. Again we did not strike it lucky. We had had reports from other overlanders that they were issuing Gabonese visas within 3 hours but we were not getting that vibe from the consular members at all. We were struggling to communicate in French and they were not willing to speak English at all. We would have to return on Monday with a French speaking person to help us get our visas. We headed to Chez Alice, a campement on the beach 16km out of Lome’. The campement offered free wireless and camping for less than €2 per person. We were able to get the blog uploaded and speak to the family in South Africa. We had received an e-mail from Neil and Catherine (www.greattrecksouth.com), whom we were hoping to meet up with along the way, saying that they should be in Lome on Monday. Catherine could speak French so we were pleased that she would be able to plead her own case to the Gabon embassy as well as ours. The heat in Lome’ was unbearable, just sitting typing an e-mail resulted in rivers of perspiration pouring out of every conceivable pore in our bodies; the acclimatisation process was taking much longer than anticipated. With the weekend to play with we set about planning some touristy things to do to pass the time whilst waiting for Monday to arrive and the visa application process to begin.

 2010-02-20

 On Lake Togo’s northern shore is Togoville, the historical centre of voodoo in Togo and it was here in 1884 that the German explorer Gustav Nachtigal signed the peace treaty with Chief Mlapa III which would give the Germans rights over all of Togoland. This was to be our excursion for the day. We piled into Joe and Christine’s car, Tia, and cranked up the air conditioner. It was again a stinker and we simply could not resist the temptation of feely frosty and cool in the car. We set off and drove the very scenic 30km to Togoville. We parked outside of the church and visited the Centre Artisanal which stocked all sorts of touristy trinkets that depicted voodoo in some sort of way. We the ventured down towards the jetty where we watched a boat full of local tourists disembark from a traditional pirogue that ferries you across from the southern shores of the lake. The church was a traditional catholic cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows and wooden pews. Unfortunately it was not market day so we were a little disappointed that we were unable to witness any traditional voodoo practice and see some fetish stores. We decided to head back to Lome and visit the Grand Marche. This is the place to pick up anything from football jerseys to wax cloth. It was a delight walking amongst the stores and not getting bothered by persistent tourist touts. This market meant business and if you were not there to shop you were ignored! It was here where we got our first taste of Togolese food. We sampled their deep fried cheese similar to that of haloumi as well as boiled eggs on donuts. The best however was the simplest of them all, French baguettes filled with avocado, onion, tomatoes and haricot beans in a gorgeous tomato sauce. It was an instant winner and would see us returning for more in the days to come. We shopped in the usual West African fashion for fresh meat and vegetables and walked away suitably shopped out. Kirk and Joe looked as though they had had a bucket of water thrown over their heads as they were soaked through with perspiration. The comfort of the air conditioned car was blissful and we relished every moment of it for the duration of the trip home. Going to bed was not something t look forward to, the sheets were sticky from the sea air and when the wind dies down during the middle of the night the air in the tent becomes stifling. There is and will be no escaping the heat and humidity of the equatorial countries.

 2010-02-21

The heat during the day seems to sap all of the energy out of your body. The less you do the better which is exactly what I managed to do all day. We now understand why African people do things at snails pace; if you move too quickly you sweat so the best solution is to find a tree that has shade and sit underneath it for the majority of the day. Kirk managed to sort out the puncture and he also went to get a tube put into the leaky rim tyre. I really admired his enthusiasm in the humidity. It was a very uneventful day as far as days go but I managed to get some reading done whilst awaiting the arrival of Neil and Catherine. We had a welcoming BBQ for them that evening where we enjoyed some rump steaks, spicy rice and salad.

2010-02-22

We had 2 objectives for the day, the first was to get our DRC Visas and the second was to at least put the application in for the Gabon visa. If all went to plan we would have 2 visas by the end of tomorrow and we could be on our way early n Wednesday morning. The DRC visa application went smoothly except for the fact that we were told to pick it up at 3pm. This was not on our agenda so with some polite pleading we managed to get the administrator to agree for us to collect them at midday. Once those applications were in we set off to the Gabonese Embassy to enquire about visa requirements. Joe and Christine had gone off to the doctor to get retested for malaria and we arranged to meet them in an hour. Neil and Catherine went in to the embassy as they were unfamiliar faces and Catherine could speak French. They returned half an hour later to say that the administrators had abandoned the reception cubicle and nobody was there to answer ay questions. We returned to fetch Joe and Christine get some lunch and returned yet again to the Gabonese embassy. This time there was someone in attendance and we managed to get the requirements from them. We were also told that it would take 3 days to issue, this was not part of the plan and we needed to do some pleading in order for us to keep to our schedule. We were told that we could submit our application forms in that afternoon so it was a case of racing around Lome’ to extend car insurance, make relevant copies of the Carne de Passage, pick up our passports from the DRC embassy and race to the Gabonese embassy in time to submit the application all in an hour and a half. Now in Africa, that is a huge ask but we managed to do it. They had run out of application forms so Kirk was told to return the following day at 12pm so that he could fill in the required form and collect his passport. Everything sounded very promising and if all went to plan we could be on the road on Tuesday afternoon. We visited the Grand Marche again and topped up on fresh produce – it doesn’t last very long in the heat so we shop for the day! We headed home with 1kg of mince and made lovely meatballs with mashed potatos and salad. It was delicious.

2010-02-2

We had made a group decision to make tracks early Wednesday morning so that we could complete the 2 day transit through Benin as well as see some sights and try to enjoy the country. We all headed out in our own vehicles, Joe and Christine needed to pick up their results from the doctor and Kirk and Neil needed to get their wheel balancing done so Catherina and I tagged along. We arranged a rendezvous at 12pm at the Gabonese embassy to collect our passports. The wheel balancing proved to be very successful. Kirk has developed this incredible bargaining skill so much so that he managed to negotiate for it to be done for free! We ha pulled up to the Goodyear Tyre dealer where they had wanted to charge CFA2000 (€3.50) per wheel. This is not too bad for European standards but Kirk being Kirk decided to bargain bargain bargain! After about 2 minutes the customer relations officer offered to do it for free. Why he offered this I have no idea but we were extremely grateful. He also gave me and Catherine a 2010 diary. We made our way to the Gabonese Embassy where we were greeted with bad news. The passports were not ready and they would only be ready the following day. Kirk filled in his application forms and Catherine worked her magic and persuaded the lady at reception to allow us to pick them up at 3pm. She agreed to this but couldn’t guarantee that they would be ready. All we could do was try. Kirk and I headed back to Chez Alice whilst Neil and Catherine were going to kill time in town. We met Joe and Christine back at camp and waited to hear the fate of the visas. Neil and Catherine arrived back at 6pm with passports in hand. We were heading for Benin the following morning! Lome’ proved very fruitful and efficient; in 3 working days we managed o obtain 2 visas, get the wheels tubed and balanced, sightsee, renew car insurance and sweat profusely! Not bad.

 2010-02-24

It was an early start as we wanted to be at the border as soon as possible. All packed up we set east and arrived at the border in 20 minutes. The exit procedure was simple and straight forward and the entrance into Benin was effortless. Being South African meant that we got a 30 day visa t the border for FREE! We were unaware of this so it came as a huge surprise. Apparently South Africans also get free visas for Togo. We were a little bit annoyed by this as we had paid a lot of money for our visas in Accra (somebody obviously got a huge bonsella when they saw us coming!). With all the formalities out of the way we were on the open road again. The coastal road was paradise with palm trees lining golden beaches and an aquamarine ocean. It was all too tempting and the thought of not seeing the beach until Gabon proved too much for all of us. We stopped in at Grand Popo where we had located an auberge that allowed for camping and it had a pool. We were in traveller’s heaven and didn’t hesitate for a second to take the plunge into the swimming pool. The water was luke warm and after about an hour of wallowing we decided to test the waters in the big ocean. There was not much difference in temperature and it was quite rough so we decided to head back to the swimming pool and make the most of it. We set up camp later on in the afternoon and settled down for the evening. The wind had picked up during the course of the afternoon and with it, it had brought some nasty looking rain clouds. It was a relief to not feel hot and sweaty and we went to bed without plugging in the fan. It rained quite heavily during the night bringing relief to the hot sweaty days that had preceded it.

 2010-02-25

We bade farewell to Grand Popo, the swimming pool and the ocean and headed inland. Benin is only 120km across so with 2 days to cover a short distance we had a little bit of time on our hands to explore some other areas of Benin. We drove north to Abomey which is famous for the Kings of Dahomey. They have 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the town which we were keen to explore. We arrived at the Musee Historique d’Abomey which required for us to have a guide. We were tod to wait as there was only one English speaking guide and whilst we were waiting a school group of about 60 students entered the museum. We skipped the museum for this reason and instead visited the market. It was again bustling with women and children selling their wares. We even saw some fetish stores that sold loads of dried/dead animals, skins, claws, potions. It was similar to visiting the witchdoctors in Warwick Triangle in Durban. The heat was at its best again and we were in desperate need of some refuge. We stopped in at Auberge d’ Abomey to price the rooms and were super excited when we managed to negotiate the price from CFA12000 (€18) to CFA7000 (€10). We had to make an early start in the morning as we were heading to the Nigerian border and needed to make quite a bit of distance in order for us to get to Abuja on Sunday evening to apply for Angolan visas on Monday. We could now get up relatively early and not worry about packing up our tents and belongings. We found a local restaurant for dinner which served average food but filled our tummies. Kirk bought a shirt for himself and Joe which is a true depiction of African Art Deco.

 2010-02-26

We left at the crack of dawn and made the 120km trip to the border with only a few problems. They say that bad things happen in threes and it was not really a good morning for Kirk and me. It started with a huge stone hitting the windscreen on the passenger side. Luckily it hit the plastic beading that surrounds the windscreen but it sill managed to connect with the glass and we now have a crack that seems to be running. Whilst we were stopped checking out the damage Kirk checked the tyres and found that we had yet another puncture. This time it was a screw that had found its way into the tyre tred. It was not serious as BF Goodrich makes tough tyres and it did not seem to have pierced all the way through. The third was whilst we were in the police office getting stamped out of Benin I had the baby of one of the officers on my lap and lo and behold I got a lap full of wee! It was a trying morning but the painless border crossing into Nigeria made up for all the bad things that happened during the course of 2 hours!