Itinerary Reality Check

At time of departure from Accra we had planned to visit four countries: Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali, or five if you include Ghana which we will travel from north to south.  Upon arrival in Ouga we had to sit down and assess the feasibility of getting to Mali given the unstable political/military situation there.

There are always risks associated with visiting Mali, kidnapping by Al Queda in the Maghreb (AQIM) being one of them.   We were prepared to run that risk to get at least to the Dogon country in the south central region of this very large country.   However, we learned in Ouga that AQIM had indeed taken over the northern half of the country from the Tuareg rebels who seized it from the national army several months ago.  Our  original Mali  objective was Timbuktu, but we had to give up on that months ago when the Tuareg seized the northern half of the country.   No-one was able to tell us what happened to the Tuaregs now that AQIM is holding that territory, other than to say they may start to destabilize other areas of the country.   We were told in Ouga that the Burkina army had set up roadblocks all over northern Burkina and that there were mined roads in Mali, and we see that the French Foreign Minister has said western military intervention may be necessary to prevent AQIM from setting up a regime similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan before the NATO intervention there.

We have limited time and internet access to confirm any of this and it could well be possible to duck into the Dogon country.  I am very familiar with the tendency of media and diplomatic missions to exagerate the seriouness of a situation, but time is also working against us on this one.   Our departure from Accra was delayed by a week to complete vehicle preparations and we only have time left now to do western Burkina or Mali, we can’t do both.  So we have decided to apply the time to western Burkina. We will have to wait for another day to get to Mali.

Camping Wild in Burkina


With the exception of Pendjari Park in Benin, virtually all of our camping thus far has been within the grounds of some establishment, for which we pay the average of about $10.  While we had not planned it, for completely circumstantial reasons we are doing a lot more camping in the wild here in Burkina.

Our second night in from Benin we were en route to Ougadougou late in the afternoon down a good paved road through classic Sahel landscape, sandy and desert-like but with some trees and scrub.   We could have made Ouaga that day but decided we did not want to arrive  in the late afternoon, the risk of getting lost and driving around in the dark in a strange city, poorly lit city is no fun.  Instead, we took from the Bradt African Overland guide  about a campement  located about 5km off the main road some 50 kilometre east of Ouga.   We arrived there about 5:00 PM to learn from the attending gardien that it is only open for business on the weekend.  A telephone called to the partron confirmed he was not keen on us camping on their grounds, although we could take a room for the equivalent of $40.  Clearly he had a particular idea of what a campement is We were not keen a spending that much to take a room in an empty hotel that was not even offering meals.   The late hour, the threatening rain clouds closing from the south and the vast exotic landscape in which we found ourselves inspired us to set up camp in the wild, midway between the campenent and a village called Wakpati near what has to be the largest baobab tree I have ever seen.

Camp Baobob

There is something a bit unnerving about camping in the middle of nowhere is a strange country.  You are never sure you are alone, and in this case we did see a few people passing on foot and on bicycle to and from a nearby village.   But once we were set up and the stars came out it was quite special.  We were visited in the morning by someone from the campement who apologized for us being turned away and he gave us some pintade (guinea fowl) eggs.  No hard feelings.  By 10 we were back on the road to Ouagadougou.

Our next experience with wild camping also provided some great off-road 4×4 fun.  It was a couple of days later when we left Ouga for Bobo-Dialassou.

Picnic lunch en route to Bobo-Diaoulasso, it is much wetter and greener west of Ouga.

We had read of a Campement  Kaicera at the halfway point, billed as 7km off the main road.    This turned out to be a very long 7km was across a dirt track along the base of power lines, bordered on either side by rice that was just started to grow.  Recent rains had reduced large sections of the track to mud.  We followed it for 8 km through the mud in search of the campement but concern that further rain that night would submerge  the already barely passable track in another foot of water led to us decide to turn around and go back toward the main road.  The trip in was a bit scary at first, travelling through  mud in a truck laden with all our gear: two weeks supply of food, a heavy fridge,  a 55 kg tent and 40 litres of water.   Most of it was done it 4WD low, which takes some getting used to, you have to shift to 3rd before you get to 10 km/hr, and once we realized how the Landy was able to carve through whatever we came to we relaxed, blasted some rock music and forged on.  There were a couple of times when it started to slow down and we thought we might be getting stuck, but somehow it just grabbed and kept going.

An hour later we emerged back on high ground in a very dirty Defender (which we had had thoroughly washed the day before in Ougadougou to get the mud from Pendjari off)  to set up camp in lovely bush, not too far from the track where agricultural workers would pass in donkey carts on their way home from the fields.

The terrain here is completely different than that east of Ouga, much greener and wetter, in many places muddier.


Land Rover Laundry Day

We passed into Burkina Faso from Benin on a Wednesday afternoon.  Burkina is a land-locked country in the Sahel region.

Burkina was for years called Upper Volta, or Haute Volta in French.  The new name means ‘country of `honest men’ a name given it by highly admired president in 1973 by a President who was later taken out and shot by the military following a coup.   Dry and poor, it is ranked 173 out of 178 countries on the UN Human Development Index (HDI).   I had heard that despite, or perhaps because of,  the geographical and environmental challenges Burkina had developed some good agricultural  and water management practices that compared very favourable to Ghana so I was interested to see it.

The border crossing was without any hassle.  Staff on both sides were very pleasant, although the facilities on the Burkina side extremely basic. We sat in a shabby room with a nice gentlemen in uniform who was watching television (just like Ghanaian Immigration staff were when we left to go into Togo) surrounded by discarded office furniture as we came in.  He stamped our passports and wished us a pleasant stay in Burkina.

We spent the first night in a pleasant rural hotel restaurant run by a French couple near a town called Pama.  They gave us a great spot to set up camp on their lovely grounds just far enough away from the goat pen.   We took advantage of their restaurant for supper and endured one of the longest Celine Dion sets ever known, which was presented by the DJ for the benefit of the visiting Canadians.   The next morning we took advantage of their water pump to do laundry and clean the worst of the Pendjari dust from the interior of the Defender.

Clean up Day in Pama, Burkina Faso

We were on the road to Ougadougou by early afternoon.

Pendjari Safari

Benin has a couple of large national parks in the north and the Parc Pendjari provided our last adventure in Benin.

The drive up from Nattitingou was much further than we expected.  There seems to be a commercial mafia in Nattingnou that works to give visitors the impression that Natti is the logical jumping off point for the park, which we learned is quite nonsensical.   It is 50 km from Natti to Tanquieta  on the main road, then another 30 km up a along a laterite road featuring some serious stretches of washboard to get to Batia, which is the actual Park entrance.

Washboard road into Batia from Tanquieta

We were insulated from that because we had our own transportation and we were not in a hurry.  We planned on going to the Park before looking for a guide and this worked perfectly. Batia is the place where visitors should plan to head for, not Natitingou. We arrived at Batia about 16:00, just in time to make arrangements with a guide to heinto the Park at 6:00 AM the next morning.  We stayed that night at a great campement  in Batia. Campement Numi is run by a German named Alfred who has been there for some 15 years.  Set against a cliff he has  a couple of rooms and a good campsite not far from a creek that also feeds his swimming pool.   Numi was the first campement we have been in with hot water, and it was very hot, a real nice surprise.  For overlanders is it s great place because he also has a mechanical shop.   He also rents 4X4s.   So, if you go to Pendjari, with or without a vehicle, don`t waste time in Natitingou, rather plan to arrive in Batia mid-to late afternoon, make arrangements for a guide there and with Campement Numi to rent a vehicle if you do not have one.

We got an early start the first day, were on the trail in the park before 7:00.   We slowly cruised about 7o km into the park along a good laterite road.

Our visit to the park were two of the most languid days we have spent in a very long while.  We set out at 7:30 and drove at a very leisurely safari pace (max 40K/hr) along 250 km of piste which varied from quite good

to quite challenging.  Indeed the challenging bits let us have some fun with the Land Rover.  We took some videos of the best parts.  For example we had to drive through the bush to get around this fallen tree that blocked the road…..

The Park is quite large, it to0k us a good day to reach the northen part that borders Burkina, where an inaccessible river full of hippos discourages anyone, certainly us, from crossing the border there.    We spent ne night camping  within the Park itself, with our guide who we engaged for the first two days.  There are no facilities as such, you just find a place that you like and set up.   We picked a spot adjacent to the so-called Pendjri Lodge, which was closed for the season but gave us the option of retreating to covered picnic space in the event the threatening rain clouds ever arrived.  They did not.

Boondocking in northern Pendjari

It is the rainy season which is not the best for wildlife viewing because of the abundance of water and concealing vegetation.  Of course we knew this, and it is actually much prettier now than in the dry season when there are no leaves and the grass is brown.


In addition to the landscape the abundant bird life was also a highlight for us.  We had a few great sightings of birds we had never seen before.

Abyssinian Roller

Of course we also saw a few of the regulars, like hippopotami, antelope cob and baboons.

Hippos in tbe rainy-season-full Oti River with Burkina Faso visible on the other side.
Buffon Cob Antelope

From Pendjari we continued our trip north into Burkina Faso.

Tata Somba in Two Countries

Today we went out from Nattatingou in northern Benin on a real overlanding adventure.  The object was the amazing residential

Typical Tata in Benin

structures known as Tata Somba, which span the border region here between Benin and Togo.   In 2004 UNESCO declared the Koutammakou area on the Togo side a World Cultural Heritage site and it is easy to see why.   The tata were apparently designed in the 1700s to provide some degree of security to the family against mauraders (slave hunters primarily).  They are compact single family dwellings that consist of four two-storey towers joined together by an external wall.  The main floor is dedicated to animals (guinea fowl, cows, etc) and the man, who sleeps in the base of one of the towers.  Another tower base is for cooking and grinding maize, another provides the access to the second storey where the mother and children sleep in “rooms”.  The tops of each of the towers is a flat slanted space used to dry grains in the sun.  This is also where the grain is stored, in a large conical bin that is also accessed by means of a ladders.


Our guide Valerie leaning against one of the towers on the second floor of a Tata. The door behind her is the room where the Mother sleeps

The advancement of modernity is seen in the presence of numerous complexes that consist of larger, rectangular brick structures integrated into the expanded circumference of the original house for children who find the original structure too small and impractical.  Our guide in Togo referred to children who worked as civil servants in Cotonou, Lome, or Paris, who built these so they could come home for their holidays.  It is intriguing to think of the Immigration or Customs official or Tax Policy Analyst who goes on holiday fromtheir office in the city and moves into the family tata.

Traditional Tata with Modern Additions

The traditonal animist religion is evident everywhere.  Families build fetishes to represent deities that protect the family or the property.  Each member of the family has a fetish to represent them.


Collection of fetishes outside the main entrance door to a tata.


Even without the human footprint, the area is beautiful. You actually cross the Atakora Mountain chain as you go west from Nattitingou and then descend into a beautiful valle and into Togo, made more so now by the green lushness brought by the rainy season.   The green of the exotic vegetation and the fantastic nature of the Tata Somba residential  complexes gave the whole thing an unreal feel to it.  It looks like something out of  fantasy writers imagination.  I almost expect Bilbo Baggins to emerge from a doorway.

Atakora Mountains en route between Togo and Benin



Abomey is the historic heart of Benin, it is where the Dahomey Kings reigned for 4 centuries from the early 1600s.  We ended up  setting up camp at Chez Monique, a  backpackers complex spread out over four adjacent properties that offers camping in a garden full of sculptures where craftsmen work every day.  It sort of varied between fascinating and scary.   We cooked ourselves an Italian dinner with wine and were witness to a steady parade of locals and backpackers going by.

Images from Chez Monique


More Imaghes from Chez Monique









Abomey has many, many palaces in varying stages of decay or reconstruction , the main palace is a walled area 14 hectares in area.   We hired a guide out of Chez Monique for two hours in the morning to show us things other than the museum in the main palace because the admission includes a guide.  Two hours is not very much time but he took us to an older, quasi-restored palace on the outskirts of town.  Here one could see some of the same structures that had been present in the Palace of Tofa I.   The element that this visit most drove home to us was again the link between the past and present.   In this case it came in the form of the respect which the guide showed for the king that had been dead for 4 centuries.    It is traditional that anyone visiting the king visiting room has to take off his shirt, partly as a sign of respect and partly to show he has no concealed weapons.  They excuse tourists from this requirement, but any Beninois to this day takes their shirt off when they go in.  Our guide was not the only one to do this.

Jonathon and our guide Marc at a Dahomey Palace

The visit to the palace was not an altogether positive experience.  The site included a cage for two sick looking lions and a pretty disgusting pit where they kept a pitiful-looking crocodile.

Afterward we took our guide for a slow lunch that took up any time we might have to spare for the museum before we had to leave for our next Dassa, the next destination in our journey north.   Dassa is only a stopover on a long journey to Nattitingou, which holds both enthnocultural (the Tatasomba houses) and natural (Parc national Pendjari).  After numerous unsuccessful visits to ATMs and filling stations we were able to get some CFA (French West Africa francs) and some diesel before we headed north out of town.   The bank that worked for us was the Bank of Africa, which we have not used before but seems to have many branches so we can relax a bit about cash flow.  We are actually not spending very much money at all: diesel is cheap, our accommodations are not expensive even when we go to a hotel, and we make most of our own meals.  Guides and souvenirs are likely to be among the greatest expenditure we have.


African Print Fabric

Wax print is the typical fabric of west Africa. We know it in various forms in Ghana. This traditional brightly printed fabric is sewn into lovely up-and-downs(skirt and top) and some shirts for men. Wax print designs tend to be large and multi-coloured. I’ve seen wax print with images of alphabet letters, computers and now purses and stiletto heels. A few years ago a Ghanaian promotion of local fabric encouraged wearing traditional cloth on Fridays. We both enjoyed following this local custom.

Benin takes wax print to a whole other level. Men and women wear clothes made from the bright fabric as everyday wear. Men wear pants and shirts from the same fabric. Women might have a skirt of one and the wrap of another and baby tied on her back with a third. And somehow all the bright colours, the matchy pants and shirt, and various combinations of prints all seems to work and to our eyes looks so glamorous.

Jonathon bought a shirt (but not matching pants). Laura will stick to buying yards of the fabric for future use.

Some Beninois men looking good


Porto Novo

Time in Cotonou was dedicated to adminstrative things, the mechanical work, banking, shopping. The city is a bit manic, with the most remarkable traffic, comprised principally of fast new motos and slow old trucks.  It moves quickly, but it is crazy.   We actually were laughing as we drove through, completely surrounded by motos at close quarters.

We  left Cotonou on a Thursday via Porto Novo, the actual capital of Benin, inland a few kilometres to the north-east.  We thought that perhaps Porto Novo was a created capital, like Brasilia in Brazil, or Abuja in Nigeria, but that is not the case at all. Porto Novo was first established by the Portugese as a slave trading centre in the 1600″s, and was made the capital of the colony by the French in the late 1800″s.  a colonial centre (?) but is now another rambling African city with little to distinguish it.  We did go the the Musee Homne, a reconstruction of the Palace of Tofa I, the first local king in a long dynasty that began in 1688 and ran until 1976, when a succession dispute led to the abandonment of the palace and its assumption by the state which then established the museum.

The museum is a small complex of simple one storey buildings linked together and tastefully restored.  The lifestyle depicted has many similarities with what we know of that of Ghanaian chiefs.  Today part of the governance system of Benin, like that of Ghana, consists of traditional leaders, known as chiefs in some countries, kings in other.  In Benin the term King continues to be used, as we saw when we visited the village near Grand Popo (see earlier post). The feature of the complex in Porto Novo that really drove home for us the physical link between the past was the courtyard where the king held public events and ceremonies 400 years ago.   It consisted of a large open square with covered areas just a few rows deep around the perimeter.   A special, slightly higher place was for the king”.   This kind of structure was clearly the inspiration for the durbar squares that exist throughout Ghana and where I have attended many functions.  They are all even squares open in the middle with one side higher than the others for the dignitaries, just like the one at the Musee Homne.   On the occasions I have attended no one sat in the large open middle of the square. It was empty except for intervals when traditional music and dance troupes appeared to provide entertainment.   The Palace in Porto Novo was much more than this, and was very tastefully reconstructed to convey a sense of the myth and reality of the life of African kings, at least these ones.

Laura in the Hall of the Queen Mother

Tofa I Palace

Living out of the Land Rover

So how do we get everything in the Land Rover? Laura chimes in with her comments on “overlanding”. It’s one thing to do the touristy stuff but we are living out of our Land Rover. How do we do it?

The equipment and supplies in the back of the Land Rover have been moved around a couple of times over the week and a half we have been on the road and now we seem to have things where we need them. The back of the Land Rover has been specially outfitted with 4 bins on slide out drawer rails that fit between the wheel wells.  I have marked each bin lid so we know which is which. 1) Dishes 2) Pots and cooking utensils 3)Breakfast and some snacks and 4)Toiletries including malaria test kits, various antibiotics we hope not to need and the malarone tablets we are taking every day to protect against malaria.  Set on top of the drawer system and the wheel wells is a plywood floor that has been carpeted.  Here is where we each have our suitcase and to one side of the suitcases are the folding chairs and to the other is the plastic dish washing bin with the dish soap, sponge, tea towels and table cloth. This is also where the flashlights and fire extinguisher are kept.  Then there is a box with overflow food, clothes hangers if we ever want to hang clothes to dry. (So far we have sent our washing out while in Lome. Besides which we haven’t been in one place long enough to wash and dry clothes.) and there  is a basket with “activity” stuff which includes our crossword puzzles, a quilt I am beginning to piece, pens to give away when we feel charitable and a couple of books. I have my Kobo though one of the books I bought doesn’t seem to have loaded.  Jonathon has   tool box and a ratchet set in the middle of the floor. These have already proved useful for tightening the light on the back of the vehicle or replacing a grommet in the awning and for loan to a Togolais to repair a wheel  hub on his moto.

The guide books are kept in a basket squeezed between the back of the passenger seat and the fridge is  in easy reach while traveling. There is a space under the fridge floor that runs halfway across the vehicle that is handy to store things:  a small shovel, the emergency road alert triangle, the jack, and the long rod that makes the fourth side of the awning. We kept the single passenger seat on the other side behind the driver and when not in use for guides or other passengers it comes in handy to put day packs and other miscellaneous pieces. The awning and its poles are inside the door on the side where the awning hangs. The fridge behind the passenger seat is plugged into a specially installed plug that runs to the second battery, which is installed under the passenger seat. The fridge is big enough to hold what we need to keep cool, from milk and butter to white wine and insulin.


On the roof beside the tent are two more almost empty black bins (“ammo boxes”) in a waterproof traveling case. These are for the purchases we make along the road. So far they just have two jars of jam and a bag of coffee from the Benedictine Monastery.  Surely there will be more to come.

It took us a couple of days to master opening the tent on the roof and putting in the metal stays that hold out the fly. I try to keep the sand out of the tent by sweeping the sheets and floor every morning. We have a mini broom and dust pan that fit in a side pocket of the tent. We hang a bag from the tent frame with our pj’s that can stay there when the tent is folded. The roof of the tent is high enough to be able to sit and read by fluorescent lantern.

Jonathon on the laptop. Note the Ipod and battery monitor on the near side of the dash console

The ipods have music. The mobile speakers have new batteries. This computer can be charged using any one of the three “cigarette” lighter plugs we have wired to run of the second battery.

We have drinking water on jerry can  attached to the outside on one side, wash water on the other, and a propane cooking fuel canister on the back.   Many people, including me, wondered about toilets. So far we have always had access to a toilet and often shower in a nearby hotel, monastery or host’s house. I do take advantage of our couple of hotel stays to wash my hair and luxuriate in a long hot shower.

We aren’t deprived – did I mention the couple of bottles of wine we have drank and replenished?  As for security, all our cash, passports and other valuables are locked in a very secure hidden place that no-one will ever find, but of course I can’t tell you where it is. It’s camping comfortable. Sort of like shabby chic but with al fresco dining.



First Maintenance sur la route.

When we left Lome we noticed the second battery was not charging correctly.   It was only when we arrived in Grand Popo beach in Benin after a couple of hours driving that it seemed to be charging, but the power quickly dropped.  We had to run the vehicle a bit over the two days we were camped there to keep the power level up.   To make things more interesting, when I was doing the routine vehicle levels check (oil, water, etc) the morning we left Grand Popo I noticed the cooling hose was sitting against the AC pulley.  I pulled it away and was horrified to see the pulley had carved a deep groove into the hose, not enough to open it, but a deep groove nonetheless.   Pretty poor workmanship  to have left it like that  and one would not have seen it without looking closely.  I had the cooling system flushed and a gasket replaced just before we left Accra and it was that high hose they used to bleed the air out of the cooling system .   I was able to pull it away from the pulley by a millimetre or so bit using a rubber-coated wire I had in my odds and ends can but it was very tenuous.  With the damage already done to the hose it was clearly going to have to be replaced while we were within reach of services to avoid losing our cooling system in some remote location.  Our next planned stop was  the city of Cotonou anyway, we would simply add a visit to a mechanic  to our itinerary.

It turned out to be quite easy.   Inquiries about garages at the Chez Clarisse Guest House where we stayed led to their driver getting a mechanic to come in.  He took the hose to size a replacement and took the auxiliary battery to put on charge.   It was all done by the end of the day.  The battery will need to be monitored and if it does not hold the charge it will have to be replaced, but the mechanic here said we could get a deep cell battery anywhere in the country.

While one is never happy to have problems the experience also demonstrates a couple of positive features of our systems.  One is the dual battery monitor that we bought from BushPower in South Africa in March (see separate post A Shopping Spree like no Other) and had mounted on the dash when the dual battery system went in.  The meter enabled us to see right away that there was a problem with the second battery, before it was run down.  There is also a battery meter built into the National Luna fridge, but it only reads the auxiliary battery and metering both batteries helped to isolate the problem.  The other positive feature this experience highlights is the value of checking the vehicle closely.   It was not by chance I saw the hose problem, and will be sure to continue to watch for things like that.