Togo & Benin

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April 10th 2013
Published: April 26th 2013
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By the time we had crossed into Togo it was late in the day and we had little time to find the campsite. It was a bit unnerving as the moment you cross the border you are spat out right into the centre of Lome and forced to negotiate the gauntlet that is African urban driving. Even in the fading light you could see that the city had seen better days as we drove along the promenade passing the various crumbling edifices that were thrown up in the post independence building boom. Although the palm tinged promenade and wide colonial era boulevards had a certain charm the city had long lost its tag as the Paris of West Africa. After a few wrong turns around the docks and some questioning from an inquisitive policemen we manage to find the campsite and caught up with Ronald and Merlika who had arrived a few days before. We set up the tent and settled down for night, next door to a crocodile pool.

The next day we all moved a bit further outside the capital to Lake Togo to another better appointed (and cheaper) campsite, from here we could set up base while we applied for our Benin and Republic of Congo visas. It was a fairly idyllic spot, the clear waters of the lagoon lapping on the sands of the beach while palm trees provided enough shade to protect you from the worst excesses of the sun. The following morning we hopped in a taxi to make our applications to the Benin embassy. With no let up in the bureaucracy we were advised that we had to first get Togolese residents cards from the police, this involved another run around as we tried to locate the correct police station and find the right office to process us, finally, and several hours later we were the proud owners of Togolese residents permits and we shot back to the Benin embassy just before they closed. We were getting good at filling in application forms, by now we could translate the French, regurgitate passport numbers and expiry dates without reference to original documents.

While waiting for our Benin visas to be processed we decided to take a sightseeing trip to Togo Ville, a religious centre located on the north shores of the Lake Togo. The Germans had built a cathedral there back in 1910 and it is also said to be the site where the Virgin Mary made an appearance to say hi back 70s. Interestingly, Togo Ville was also a very important centre for voodoo. We negotiated a boat ride and we set off across the turquoise waters. During our negotiations with the boat man he for some reason failed to mention that his boat had a hole in it so we had to take it in turns to bucket water out of the vessel or there would have been a fair chance that we would have not made it to the other side. Predictably enough the moment we reached the north shore we had various offers for tour guide services but we were happy to just stroll around and take in the sights on our own. The cathedral and its grounds held a very relaxing air and it was actually nice just to be out of the bustle of Lome where it was difficult to walk more then a few steps without a ‘hello my friend’ echoing in your ears. We tried to have a look at the voodoo village nearby but were stopped on the grounds that it was a very sacred site and foreigners were not allowed, however, for a small fee the gods could be appeased and we would be permitted to see an ‘authentic’ voodoo ritual and dance, something very few tourists see, we declined as rarely these things involve a one off fee as you are press ganged and emotionally blackmailed into forking out for the various ‘extras’. We found leaky boat man and managed to get back to the other side of the lake without getting too wet.

We collected our Benin visas and even managed to get our Republic of Congo visa, we were ready roll. We treated ourselves to a nice cooked meal and several beers back at the lake and rose early the next morning to make our dash to Benin. Well we thought it would be a dash, what with Togo being about 50 miles across but unfortunately it took us most of the day to cross the border as the one Benin official who had the authority to stamp are carnet had gone on AWOL on a ‘very important mission’ as his colleagues informed us. We waited in the baking sun reading our books and trying to avoid making eye contact with the street hawkers selling Celen Deon and Micheal Jackson CDs. Once the official had returned from his mission of buying a new TV we were duly stamped in and we made our way to Grande Popo, another former slave trade centre that still boasts a number of colonial buildings. One of them had been converted into a rather swish hotel and restaurant which allowed camping on their grounds. It was another great spot to relax by the beach and do a spot of fishing for a few days.

North of Grand Popo we found ourselves in the ancient city of Abomey, former capital of the Dahomey Kingdom which had existed for centuries until the French had put a final end to things when they laid siege to the city 1892. Unfortunately for future tourists the fleeing Dahomey king set fire to the city before he made his escape north. That said Abomey still had a superb market and the friendly locals made us feel very welcome. By this stage in our trip market shopping had ceased to be a functional activity and had now morphed into an enormously fun enterprise in its own right. It could be argued that the African market is like the equivalent of UK pub, it is more then just a place to sell goods and services, it is a social hub, people come from far and wide not just to stock up on or sell provisions, but to share news and gossip, watch a football game on one of the numerous TVs or just to crack a few jokes with old friends. The atmosphere on market days are enormously infectious and even if you have completed your shopping after 20 minutes you often find yourself wandering around for an extra hour just to see what is going on..

We were heading north with the view to entering Nigeria at a halfway point well away form the troubles of Lagos in the south but not too far north that we risk getting caught up in the sectarian violence that was unfolding around Kano. To be honest we were treating the next few weeks with apprehension. From previous trip reports that we had read crossing Nigeria seemed like a bit of a lottery, in equal measure we had heard horror stories of violent car jacking and endless police hassle through to unrivalled acts of random generosity and assistance.

The further north we travelled in Benin the more visibly poorer the country had become, most kids were running around naked or in rags and there were few cars or signs of electricity. The vegetation had become more wild as well, there were fewer well kept fields and instead the road was flanked by an almost impenetrable green foliage, this, coupled with the scattered nature of the roadside villages was such that bush camping without drawing the attention of locals was going to prove difficult. We made it as far as Nikki, the last major town before the Nigerian border. We had GPS coordinates for a ‘campsite’ which turned out to be somewhat run down hotel complex. We were not fussed about the state of the facilities as we were pretty self sufficient, as always our biggest concerns were site security, and the availability of a decent nearby bar. We were also having to be much more observant with our fuel situation, garages were increasingly far and few between and more often then not they had run out of diesel so we made a point of stopping and filling up whenever we could. We had limped into Nikki very low on fuel and we had to ask around to see where we could fill up, we did not want to risk waiting till Nigeria which we had heard was suffering from chronic fuel shortages. Long gone were the western style fuel stations with half a dozen digital pumps and a shop, fuel stops in this part of the world largely consist of some ancient stripped down solitary fuel pump that needs a few kicks to get it going. If you were really unlucky you would be stuck behind half a dozen trucks and buses that take an age to fill then it would be a case of settling in for an afternoon of queuing. Early in the morning though we were lucky, we only had to queue for about 20 minutes before we filled our tanks, we were ready to go.

By the time we left Nikki we were back on dirt tracks, leaving the Chinese road engineering teams behind us we struck out east to Nigeria, we nervously watched the ‘distance to destination’ counter on the GPS reduce from 30 odd kilometres to a few hundred meters, we were at the border.

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