Distance Cycled : 14,250km
It’s less than three weeks since we left Accra, but since then we’ve said goodbye to Ghana, traversed Togo and are a day’s ride from the Nigerian border here in northern Benin. Despite all this frontier-crossing, we’ve had no hassle from immigration officials and only a few half-hearted requests for “cadeaux” from policemen. Let’s hope our luck continues in Nigeria…
Our departure from Accra was complicated slightly by the need to go via the main Post Office on the way. The delays with our Nigerian visa (which we eventually picked up) and various other tasks meant we’d arrived with our parcel for home a few minutes after closing time, and the customs agent, in totally un-Ghanaian fashion, refused to bend the rules and accept our box. So it was that we rolled up outside at 8am next morning with a cardboard box balanced somewhat precariously on the back of Luke’s bike. The whole thing took less than half an hour, so we were soon on our way, but with the road we needed leaving from the opposite side of the city we had to do battle once again with the madness of Accra’s traffic.
Though we’ve had two months of the rainy season now, we’re still finding it hard to predict when a storm will hit – there’s no set pattern, so you don’t know that you need to run for cover at 2pm every afternoon or anything like that. As we cleared the last suburbs of the city, though, the clouds thickened and it was pretty clear that we were going to get wet. Fortunately, as we scanned the roadsides for a bar or “drinking spot” to shelter in, we passed a petrol station and were ushered into the repair bay by the mechanics working there. Five minutes later we were very grateful, as the heavens opened and the rain came down so thickly you couldn’t see the other side of the road 15 metres away. It’s at times like this that you realise why everything is so lush and green around here! Half an hour later the rain had virtually stopped so we hit the road again.
The following day we crossed the Volta river on a huge suspension bridge just downstream of the Akosombo dam which produces much of the country’s electricity. By now, the road was winding up and down as we traversed the hilly Volta region of eastern Ghana. Arriving in Ho, we were glad of a good rest in a clean, airy room with a working fan – quite a change from the previous night’s power cuts and lack of running water. Still, we’re fairly used to these things by now, and it seems perfectly normal to be washing in a bucket of cold and sometimes slightly murky water using half a calabash as a scoop!
Crossing into Togo we were slightly nervous because of the recent rioting following the “elections” last month. Our nerves weren’t eased when, sitting in the shade of a tree to eat our lunch only 5km into the country, we heard gunshots coming from a nearby village. They were soon accompanied by singing and drumming though, and we realised that we were hearing some sort of wedding or funeral feast… quite a relief! In reality, as we expected and had been assured by people living there, Togo was perfectly calm – having been living under a dictatorship for nearly 40 years, people probably feel that a blatantly rigged election is a step in the right direction.
After a rest day in Kpalime, where we wandered round the huge market and bought pineapples, mangoes, avocadoes and bananas, our flying visit to Togo continued with a beautiful ride across the country to Notse, a sizeable town not far from the Beninois border (in fact, as the country is only 140km wide, it’s not far from the Ghanaian border either…). The road skirted Mont Agou, Togo’s highest peak, before crossing rolling countryside dotted with farms and tiny villages. Less than 72 hours after entering the country we were crossing the border and joining a beautifully smooth tarmac road, which took us the final 50 or so kilometres across more of the gentle hills to Abomey, the ancient capital of the Dan-Homey kingdom.
Greatly helped by a friendly local on a moped, we located a guest house down a twisting dirt track a stone’s throw from the bustling market in the centre of Abomey. The rather portly and mild-mannered proprietor ushered us in, and helped shove the bikes through a series of rather narrow doorways to our dimly-lit room. We couldn’t help noticing as we passed through the communal areas that there were lots of weird wood carvings, tapestries and candles about the place, all coated with a satisfyingly thick patina of dust and giving the impression that we were behind the scenes in a disused museum, rather than a hotel. Traditional belief systems co-exist
quite happily with Christianity and Islam here in Togo and Benin, and fetishes and little temples abound. Voodoo always seems to be portrayed in a negative light in the West, or at least conjures up images of spooky ceremonies and lots of chicken blood being sprayed about the place. In fact, as far as we can gather, a vodu is a spirit, perhaps a natural force or an ancestor, and offerings are made to placate or please them, maybe to protect a house or cure an illness. It’s odd how a dusty church in Europe proudly displaying bony bits of a saint in a reliquary would never make you feel uneasy and yet a room full of cobwebby carvings in West Africa immediately makes you think someone will be sticking pins in a wax effigy and plotting your untimely end come nightfall! Another prejudice to try and overcome… We seemed to be the only people at the guest house, anyway, and were instructed to ring an elegantly cone-shaped bell (rust-encrusted, of course) if we needed to summon anyone’s attention – the family’s compound was out the back. It was all rather bizarre but a pleasantly quiet place to hole up for a few days, and we did laundry and attended to the bikes for most of one day. By the time we reach Cape Town we will be experts both in bucket-and-elbow-grease washing techniques and the diagnosis of bicycle ailments. The mud and rain (and occasional long downhill) have all taken their toll, so we replaced all our brake blocks for the first time in a while and are now pleasantly surprised that we actually come to a stop when we squeeze a lever! Locals tend to look on in consternation, the West African method of braking being to scud your feet along the ground and let friction do its job. It’s very rare you see brake cables actually connected to the brakes, let alone any actual brake blocks.
But back to Abomey. After a rainy night, we were up early to seek out the city’s star attraction – the royal palace. In fact very little remains of the original palace complex, which consisted of a dozen contiguous palaces, constructed since the rise of the king Ouegbaja in the 1650s – the tradition being to build a new palace when the current incumbent coughed it. Given how many wives these sovereigns are purported to have had – King Glele, the last king before the French took over, had a total of 3000 – we suspect it might have been that it was rather difficult to evict the king’s entourage and so building a new house for yourself would have been the easier option! Our guide told us that some of the wives would have been selected for the honour of being buried with their deceased lord, so perhaps that kept the number of dependants down!
When the French moved north from the coast in the 1890s, intent on conquering the interior of what was then Dahomey, the royal city was torched as its inhabitants fled. So sadly only a fraction of the original complex remains, and being built of mudbrick, the elements have taken their toll too. It certainly does know how to rain around here – the previous day we’d been temporarily blocked into our guesthouse when the street outside became a river for a couple of hours following a particularly spectacular downpour! Today, a number of buildings have been restored, thanks in part to an injection of UNESCO cash, and the museum is all mod-cons but the roofs are rusty corrugated metal affairs and the whole thing seems vaguely like a low-budget open-air reconstruction rather than a historic site. Sadly you can’t just wander freely and photography is forbidden, so we felt a bit frogmarched, especially as our group contained at least thirty schoolkids on a day trip!
Leaving Abomey on Thursday, the sky grew darker until you might have thought it was dusk though it was before 9am. There was no doubt it was about to bucket it down – again. As the clouds turned a steely grey, and thunder boomed close by we rolled into a village and were ushered into a bamboo shack, where a dozen locals were already taking cover. Stalls were hurriedly covered with plastic sheets, tarpaulins hauled over baskets of produce, mopeds wheeled into compounds and trays of fruit abandoned as the first drops of rain came. The wind suddenly got up, twigs snapped, the tin roof above our heads threatened to take off and debris whirled across the road as the sky continued to darken. We were rather aware that our shelter was not quite as good as the petrol station in Ghana! Suddenly a huge basket hurtled off a nearby roof and a bunch of bedraggled chickens flew/was blown into our little refuge. Outside, we noticed a goat had settled itself in the lee of our bikes, hoping for some protection. We were suddenly cold – a rarity in Africa – and all around us women were swathing themselves in brightly-patterned shawls and cocooning their babies as the rain sprayed through the bamboo walls and found a way through the joints in the tin roof. Huddled in the semi-darkness, we had a pseudo-conversation with our new-found friends (not many French speakers among them and our Ewe only goes as far as “good morning”). We were soon sharing a plate of peanuts, cracking the damp shells and chewing the crunchy raw nuts to pass the time. A huge pot of rice was (as always) on the go, so we asked for two plates with some sauce. Despite it only costing 10p in total, our coins were refused as our French-speaking friend had already settled up on our behalf. It was hard to tell whether the thermal energy or the heat of the chilli sauce did more to warm us up! After an hour, we were slightly reluctant to leave, especially as it was still drizzling, but decided we had better get moving if we were to reach Dassa-Zoume, 65km further, before nightfall.
Having been on reasonably major roads for the last week or so, we’ve encountered more than our usual quota of crazy drivers. We can’t help thinking that most Africans would fail dismally at the driving theory test:
“You are approaching a blind bend/the crest of a hill when you come upon a slower vehicle you wish to overtake.
- Slow down and wait until you have a clear view before overtaking;
- Speed up and overtake as quickly as possible despite the lack of visibility;
- Sound your horn repeatedly while pulling out behind the obstacle to warn oncoming vehicles or
- (b) and (c) simultaneously?”
Here in northern Benin, the landscape has reverted to woodland savannah…and we’ve seen plenty of it as we’ve bumped off several hundred kilometres in the last few days. Approaching Dassa Zoume, huge rocky outcrops suddenly reared up, and jumbled piles of smooth boulders scattered the landscape. In the town itself, local people had made use of particularly smooth slabs of rock and built their houses on the firm foundation. The rock shelves seemed to be popular with goats too, little groups of them happily snoozing in the late afternoon sun, steaming gently after all that rain, high above the rooftops and out of reach of the kebab men. As well as providing meat, animals are actually milked here in Benin and the milk used to make yoghurt and a sort of spongy cheese. Often the yoghurt is mixed with millet, which makes it thick and sustaining – good food for hungry cyclists. The cheese is made by mixing a plant extract with the milk, and then skimming off the curds before pressing and frying (we think). The result is offputtingly red on the outside and the texture slightly reminiscent of tofu, but it tastes good fried and served with chili sauce and rice. Sort of like a Beninois version of halloumi.
We’re now back into mango territory, having gorged ourselves on pineapples for the last few weeks. The mangoes in these parts are a bit different though – the other day we bought one from a roadside vendor purely because it was so big – honestly the size of a melon. We cut it up one lunchtime but couldn’t finish it between us! Despite all the pineapples we’ve been eating, we hadn’t actually seen one growing until the day we crossed into Togo, when a friendly man took us off to buy one from his brother’s wife, and showed us the plant – they grow sticking up in the middle of a palm, apparently four at a time, three of which are removed to encourage the growth of the remaining one. He said that all you have to do to grow them is take one and stick it in the ground – the fertile soil and prodigous rainfall does the rest! While having all this amazing fruit is a bonus, there is a surprising dearth of vegetables – most markets have a selection of oranges, mangoes, pineapples, bananas, coconuts, guavas, plantains, and often avocadoes. We’ve been eating avocado or banana sandwiches for months, but in the absence of any other filling the other day Luke decided to make a mango sandwich, which was… interesting!
Our biggest day yet – 170km – brought us to Parakou yesterday, and we are having a day off today in order to phone home and bring you up-to-date once more. Tomorrow we head north-east and towards the Nigerian frontier, and we hope to be in touch again once we reach Abuja. This is Nigeria’s administrative capital and we will have more bureaucracy to overcome as we attempt to get our visas for Chad and Sudan from the embassies there…wish us luck!