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 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

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.

Into Benin, Auberge de Grand Popo and Intro to Voodoo

We crossed the border into Benin on a Sunday afternoon after an uneventful hour long drive across narrow Togo from Lome.   The border crossing was also uneventful, the officials at both sides of the border were polite and professional.

Timing was great for a late afternoon arrival at Auberge de Grand Popo, a very laid back beach spot along the western coast Benin near the Mono River.  Its features include an almost idyllic campsite set just back from the beach among trees.   There are basic sanitation facilities for campers, but the  restaurant and small pool set in bushes are only a short walk down a path.   We are here in the off season so it is very quiet, but we really liked this place and it was from here that we made our first foray into the  culture and environment of Benin.

Many African countries have varying degrees of voodoo traditions but Benin is considered to be the source.   Most of the slaves that were exported from here  went to Haiti and Brazil, and took with them beliefs and practices that are known as voodoo.  To understand this better we hired a guide to take us into a so-called “voodoo village”.  It was a good place to go because we are off what tourist circuit as exists here, so there did not appear to be any thing being put on for tourists.  The guide we went with takes people there so they are accustomed to visitors and were somewhat accommodating, we had schnapps at 11:00 AM with the voodoo priest, who had just buried his son, who died at age 50.
The principal physical manifestation of the culture consists of several simple, occasionally disturbing, shrines constructed throughout the village.









There are many different “gods” serving many purposes.  There was an overal “Dieu protecteur du village”, another for good fishing, another to protect against smallpox, etc etc.  Some are figurative, others appear to be collections of assorted materials, almost like found art.

Laura and our guide Mathias at one of the voodoo shrines

Strolling through the voodoo village

Our visit also gave us the opportunity to see some community development in action.  The village was in the process of constructing a maternity wing on the health centre and needed to raise the level of the land to prevent flooding.  The site was at one end of the village, at the other end end  was a huge pile of sand that had been dredged from the Mono River.   There were about 10 men shovelling sand into a big old dump truck (which did not seem to have brakes, someone had to thr0w down a block of wood in front of a tire to make it stop!) , at the other end there were as many women taking the sand dumped by the truck into pans and distributing it around the site.

Women buidling maternity ward – there is at least one baby seen here being carried in the traditional way