Category Archives: Benin

From Benin to Nigeria

Entering Nigeria
In 2006 the BBC reported that Nigerian politicians had syphoned off or wasted $ 380 billion, more than the combined aid given to the whole of Africa in the last 40 years (from blog Indlovu). And it is with mixed feelings of anticipation that I leave Abomey for the Nigerian border. Too many negative travellers’ accounts, too many checkpoints, too much hassle and extortion. I have stocked up on diesel (sometimes hard to get in oil-rich Nigeria!?) and dollars. And I’m taking a quiet border crossing from Ketou in Benin to Abeokuta in Nigeria.

Showing off. Abomey, Benin

Showing off. Abomey, Benin

 

Voodoo version of The Scream.Abomey, Benin

Voodoo version of The Scream.Abomey, Benin

Auberge Chez Monique. Abomey, Benin

Auberge Chez Monique. Abomey, Benin

The Benin side is friendly, efficient and easy. The Nigerian post is off the road but clearly indicated on the T4A gps map. The large building is pretty rundown  and looks empty but for a small table in the middle of the hall. A man is asleep behind it, resting his head on the desk. One of his two cellphones plays loud, metallic music. After my third “Goodmorning, sir”, he wakes up and looks at me with a disturbed face. This is a quiet post indeed.
I fill in a form. He then starts to meticulously copy the entire form on the backside. This is going to take a while!
“How long are you staying in Nigeria?”
It’s difficult to understand what he’s saying, especially with the decibels his cellphone is producing. I ask him to turn it off, but he won’t.
“I am not sure, two or three weeks.” I don’t intend to stay longer than 4 or 5 days, not longer than necessary to cross the country comfortably.
“Yes, but how long exactly?”
“I think two weeks.”
“Then I’ll give you two weeks.”
“But I’ve got a three month visa.”
“That’s not important. I’ll give you two weeks.”
After 40 minutes he is finally ready to put the stamp in my passport and he puts more effort in it than a Japanese Zen master in a tea ceremony. He thoughtfully removes the stamp from its box, opens the stamp pad, puts ink on the stamp, wipes it clean with a cloth, and tests it on a piece of paper. This is repeated several times untill he’s satisfied with the result and puts the stamp in my passport, pressing it down using both hands and his forehead. He remains in this position for so long that I think he’s fallen asleep again.

My gps says “checkpoint 31” and I assume that it refers to number 31, counted from the border. It’s not that bad but there are many, some not more than 500 meters  apart. They are all very friendly, welcome me and wish me a safe journey. And although it gets tiring after the 10th checkpoint it’s still very smooth going and I arrive in Abeokuta in the middle of the afternoon. The hotel I pick from the Bradt guide looks deserted, but a boy assures me that it’s open. He will go and look for the manager, who is a young man of barely 25 years old.
“We have no lodging. There is no light,” he says.
“Do you have running water?” I ask.
“Yes, we do.”
“Then I’ll take a room.”
I take Thimba to the room and return to the car to get some clean clothes to take a shower, when the manager sees me crossing the hall.
“O.k., now the money.”
“O.k. first a shower and some rest, then you’ll get your money,” I retort.
The entire hotel looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for ages. The room smells of old, damp matresses.
“You should really clean this place up, you know. It’s dirty and it smells, it stinks,” I tell him later when I pay him for the room. He nods, helpless.

The lampposts at the beginning of the highway to Benin City have all been canibalized. The lids are screwed off and cables are hanging out like the intestines of a dead animal. There are several mobile checkpoints, most of them signal me through, others just want a chat. At one of them a corpulent policeman brandishes a large wooden stick. He points at things on and in the car touching them with his stick: the jerrycan (“Diesel from Holland?”). I hand out a cold coke here and there.
I pass a recently burnt out truck. Frequently the two right lanes are closed because of an accident and cars and trucks try to get on the opposite lanes with a lot of pushing and horns blowing.  The traffic is chaotic and you need eyes in the back of your head. Not for the fainthearted.

To the Cameroon border (and back)
I expect a long day from Benin City to the border with Cameroon. I want to get my visa in Calabar, but understand from Charlie (met him in Morocco on his motorbike) that he got a transit  visa at the border. I take the risk and go straight for the border, after I stayed the night in Ikom. The Nigerian immigration officials are pertinent though: “If we stamp you out, they will send you back, and you can’t reenter Nigeria, you’re stuck!” So I drive back to Ikom, reconsidering my options. I could drive to Calabar for the visa, but it’s Saturday, Easter, and everything is closed until Tuesday. I decide to drive to the Afi Drill Ranch, a rehabilitation centre for Drill monkeys in the middle of the rainforest.  A 60 km drive on a badly potholed road and 17 kilometers of the worst rutted and most challenging dirt track I have ever negotiated. This is rough going! When I arrive at the Afi Drill Ranch I am welcomed in Dutch by Pieter. What a pleasant surprise to be able to speak Dutch again after 3 ½ months!
I take a cabin (I say to myself that it’s to sponsor their programme), and when Pieter shows it to me he notices that there is no bedlinnen, just a bare matress. He lifts it and a big, fat mouse escapes from under the matress into the corner, unsucessfully chased by Pieter. I offer to use my own Exped inflatable and bedlinnen, but he assures me that the matress is mousefree. The big holes – some taped – prove otherwise.

Dawn in Nigerian rainforest.

Dawn in Nigerian rainforest. Afi Mountain Reserve, Nigeria

Pieter explaining the chimps prgramma. Afi Mountain Reserve, Nigeria

Pieter explaining the chimps prgramma. Afi Mountain Reserve, Nigeria

Drill monkey. Afi Mountain Reserve, Nigeria

Drill monkey. Afi Mountain Reserve, Nigeria

Drill monkey. Afi Mountain Reserve, Nigeria

Drill monkey. Afi Mountain Reserve, Nigeria

Baby Chimp. Afi Mountain Reserve, Nigeria

Baby Chimp. Afi Mountain Reserve, Nigeria

The night before a group of seven young Nigerians arrived. It took them 3 hours to drive the dirt track in a luxury car with a driver, in the dark. That’s 5 km. per hour, walking most of it to reduce weight, push and shove. What a brave performance!
At dawn the rainforest is a cacaphony of birds’ singing, crickets tsjirping, and the odd “oe-oeh” of a monkey. And of course it rains, long and heavily. The dirt track promises to be even a greater challenge tomorrow morning.

“Are you Jenkins?”
I suggest to Pieter to cook a pasta meal together. He does the onions, garlic, and tomatosaus, I the pasta, vegetables and the sardines. We’re a good team!
We spend the evening together with the Nigerian guests discussing politics, conservation programmes,  and travelling.
We leave at 6.30 in the morning to drive the northern route together. It appears much easier than the southern route we took when we arrived, but has a tricky bridge with loose planks which takes some careful guidance and negotiating to cross.
We pass a few villages. The people give me an unfriendly look, shout, wave their arms as if to say “Get out!” I am clearly not welcome. The Drill Ranch is the biggest employer in the region, but Pete Jenkins (founder, 62 year-old US cowboy, who devotes everything he has to the conservation and rehabilitation programme) is also the head of a task force which implements a state government policy against hunting for bushmeat, the primary risk for the Drill monkey and the Chimpansees in the Afi Mountain Reserve. The hunters don’t hunt to feed their families but to sell the meat, so they kill as many animals as possible. The villagers have now turned against the Foundation and even threatened to block the road to the ranch. Pete Jenkins travels with a bullit proof vest and armed members of the task force.
James, the driver of the Nigerians, runs out of petrol and stops at the side of the road. We stop a passing motorbike, and they are willing to take him to the next fuel station. After filling up we say goodbye at the junction. Great people, I am glad to have met them! “You are the Nigerians I would like to remember!”
When I take the road from Ikom to Calabar the commander at the first checkpoint asks: “Are you Jenkins?” We whites all look alike, Pete is my age and frequently drives a Land Rover Defender along the same road. I explain to him that I am not, and he says: “You are free.”  Well yes, of course I am.

The Cameroon visa in Calabar is easy, takes two hours, and costs a whopping 130 usd. I wait outside in the car, drink some cold water, eat a few “The Laughing Cow”, read the Bradt guide for Cameroon, listen to the BBC world service on the radio, give Thimba a reassuring pat on the head, stretch my legs and talk to some passers-by. After 1 ½ hour the charming lady of the consulate walks to the car and hands me my passport. She had seen me walking up and down. How kind!
I hadn’t expected a lot of roadworks over the Easter weekend, and the road back to Ikom is as bad as the day before. I had planned to drive to Cameroon the same day, but never cross a border in the afternoon, fatigued, and in this case with a 60 km. very bad road to follow. I take a room in the same hotel and start the bordercrossing early in the morning, fresh, fit and relaxed!
I leave at 6.30 in the morning, I fit an extra GoPro adapter to the bonnet to shoot some video of “the wost road in Africa”, spend the last Nigerian Niara on diesel, and head for the border. The military and the police at the checkpoints remember me: “Hi. Mr. Gee, how’s Thimba?” The crossing is easy, no hassle, just friendly people doing their jobs.
The road is a good dirt track, nothing serious. Lots of road works (thanks, Chinaman!), and the last part is finished. Nothing spectacular.
I arrive in Mamfe early and take a room in the Data Hotel (15 euro), with a balcony and a view of the river and the forest. Ommelette with chips, relax, read, write, laundry.

“Is this Nigeria?”

siësta on the beach, Grand Popo, Benin

siësta on the beach, Grand Popo, Benin

“Is this Nigeria?”
From Big Milly’s in Accra it’s only a three to four hours drive to Lomé in Togo. Good roads, it’s Saturday so less traffic, and the Ghana-Togo border crossing should be a walk in the park! And with this mood I put Thimba in the front of the car, lower her window, open the ventilations flaps, turn on her fan, and hit the road. She lies down as soon we start off and looks at me as if to say “It’s a breeze!”. To get out of Accra takes me more than an hour in heavy traffic. After Tema there’s a complete stand still and it takes me three hours to cover 35 km. Not a good start of the day. At Segakofe, just before the border, a checkpoint. Now, It’s not my intention to give you a full account of all checkpoints; that would be very boring. However, some of them stand out in the way you are shamelessly extorted.

“Driving license!”

Why not: “Goodmorning, how are you, can I see your driving license, please?” Someone on a forum suggested to laminate your permit and stick it on the inside of the window (“It’s the taffic law in Holland.”). Well, I haven’t, and when a uniform asks for it they don’t want a printed copy but the real thing. And this officer is impeccably and handsomely uniformed. He studies it. Turns it over and looks at the backside.

“How long have you been in Ghana?”

“Oh, 10 days, two weeks.” I think he’s just making small talk.

“How long exactly?”

“Two weeks.”

“You can’t drive for more than two weeks with this permit.”

I’m not sure where this is leading to, so I show him my International Driving Permit. A colleague joins him, and they resentfully accept the IDP. Their routine continues. Fire extinguisher: check! Triangle: check! But I’ve only got the one (stupid! I should have bought a second one weeks ago!), and they invite me into their office. The senior office takes a seat behind his desk, and explains to me that I will have to appear before a court and that they will fine me 1.000 cedi (300 euros). And I will have to come back on Monday morning 9 o’clock.

“But we can settle this for half the amount, and you can leave now.”

“When are you coming back?”, the junior officer wants to know.

“I’m not coming back to Ghana, I’m on my way to Togo.”

Never give them more information than strictly necessary. I’m not good at this, try to negotiate but it feels like a Catch22 situation. I have no intention of coming back on Monday (can’t even, no visa), and there’s no way I’m going to pay 150 euros.

“When are you coming back?”

I’m trying to take the initiative, and put 100 cedi (30 euros) in front of the senior officer. He looks at it briefly, and continues to write some sort of report.

“When are you coming back?”

“JESUS CHRIST, I’M NOT COMING BACK! ARE YOU DEAF! WHERE AM I, NIGERIA!?”

Lost. The senior grins at me.

“Put down another 100 cedi and you can go.”

I resign, hand over another 100 cedi bill, and walk back to the car with a mixed feeling of anger and utter failure. The border crossing is easy and efficient, and I arrive at Chez Alice in Lomé much later than I had anticipated. This was a real off day, one that I must try to leave behind me as quickly as possible. And after a good dinner and interesting company, I can.

“Are you going Togo?”
You simply can’t do justice to a country when you stay there for only a week, and with the sole intention to get the necessary visas. But that’s what it is. I stay in Lomé for as long as it takes to get the visas for Benin, Congo Brazzaville, Congo Kinshasa and Gabon. Chez Alice is a nice enough place, not many overlanders, reasonably good food at a more than reasonable price.

Chez Alice, Lomé, Togo

Chez Alice, Lomé, Togo

Dropping and picking up passports for four visas means a lot of driving in Lomé, and I’m beginning to like it. It’s a complete free-for-all: you can overtake on the right or on the left and when I stop for a red traffic light I get pitiful looks. There’s also lots of hawkers at every junction selling windscreen wipers, cold drinks, mirrors, bluetooth adapters, biscuits, towels, shoes, baguettes, large maps of Togo, clocks, framed posters. Disabled, legless beggars move from car to car on  a plank with rollerscates. On the pavement a woman walks past with glazed, drugged, emotionless eyes. She’s completely naked. No one takes any notice.

I wake up around 5.30. It’s still dark, but you can feel and hear the new day. The first birds start singing, there’s the sound of early cars and mopeds, a dog barks. I notice I haven’t heard Thimba yet. She usually wakes me with her loud yawns telling me to get up and take her out. I get out of the bed and look in the corner where she usually sleeps. No Thimba. I look in the other corner, under the bed, nothing.  I open the door. Thimba is sitting on the door mat with her back to the room. She turns her head and looks at me as if to say: “Anything wrong?” She must have slipped out yesterday evening, when I left the door ajar to go to the toilet next door.

I ask Alice (originally from Switzerland, she must be in her seventies and still runs the place) if she knows a reliable vet. It so happens that her neighbour has his practice next door. He examines Thimba, gives her the necessary vaccinations, updates her passport and writes a certificate of health.

“Where have you been? Oh, I’ve Benin.”
From Lomé to Grand Popo in Benin is 60 km. Easy drive, even easier border crossing. Not even a hint of a bribe. Why can’t they all be like this! I camp at the Auberge Grand Popo, right on the beach beneath some large trees. Picture postcard, and completely alone. The tranquility. All you hear is the sound of the waves. A couple of young guys set up an enormous sound system. A few hours later two mini buses with students from the superior college of management arrive. They’re on an excursion and having a

partying students

partying students, Grand Popo, Benin

party on the beach. It’s great fun. They dance, drink, take loads of pictures with their cellphones. And drink some more. At 17.00 o’ clock they carry everything back to the buses and leave me with the sound of the waves.

Augustine

Augustin, Grand Popo, Benin

And with Augustin, a young boy who walked up to me this morning carrying a huge bowl on his head. Do I want to buy anything. He asks me to help him put the bowl down. He has all sorts of nuts and biscuits. “Farine et beurre,” he explains. They are packed in used bottles of all sorts and shapes (expensive) or small plastc bags (cheap). I buy a bottle of biscuits and pay too much, but I don’s care. He has a friendly face, soft voice, is colourfully dressed.  He has come for the students. Surely they will want some peanuts with their cocktails. Together we put the bowl under the tree next to the car. I give him a can of Coke and some Dutch candy. “Merci, Merci!” When the students have been dancing for a couple of hours the bowl doesn’t look much emptier. I give him a sandwich with cheese. He eats it slowly and with taste, breaking off small pieces and looking at them carefully. I give him my notebook and ask him to write down his name. He writes, no he draws his name, character after character: GNONKOKPON Augustin. When he leaves I lift the merchandise back on his head and he gently walks back to Grand Popo.

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tranquility, Grand Popo, Benin