Wednesday, January 22, 2020

West Africa - a 24 Day Adventure into the Heart of the VooDoo Culture

We said goodbye to our sweet home in Cape Town, returned the car at the airport, and boarded our flight to Addis Ababa.  We were facing a twelve-hour layover once there but were pleasantly rewarded by Ethiopian Airlines, a hotel room for the night.  We also received a free transit visa and were able to add Ethiopia to our world list...yippee.  We arrived after dark and left before the sun rose so we never got to see any of the capital city.  Back in the air we flew across the African continent and landed in Accra late afternoon.  The Accra airport was ultra-modern and gave us an initial great firt-impression.  And yes, I was a bad boy and took a photo of the immigration gates.
However, once outside things changed dramatically.  Accra is a huge city, and it is also pretty much a mess.  Awful roads, lots of old buildings, blatant poverty, and the smog was overwhelming.  On to of all that it was almost 100^ with high humidity.  We negotiated for a taxi, paid a bit more than we should, and were at our hotel in the city center within an hour.  The hotel was a nice surprise, and at the $150 a night price, it was a hard pill to swallow on our budget.  "Decent" hotels in the city for tourists are hugely overpriced.  We had to wait a bit for our room and were rewarded with a nicely appointed suite with A/C and decent wifi.

For two days we walked the hot, dusty crowded city streets looking for something to see and do.  The markets were busy, the national monuments in poor repair and unattended.  We were warned that visiting West Africa was about the people and not the sights and it was correct in every way.  The people were charming.  Going about their daily lives, few gave us much attention, even the vendors.  It was a nice break and we were able to see quite a bit.

We made our way on Day 3 to our Dragoman host hotel and were surprised to find "Sura," the first Dragoman truck I ever experienced.  She had been all over the world and had ended up here in West Africa.  What a great coincidence.  Our crew, Tanja and Liz, all-female and charming.  We checked in, got our paperwork out of the way, and had a nice group dinner with our travel companions...two Aussies, a Brit, a Swiss, a Fin, a Sri Lankin, and a Korean.  Quite a nice mix.  It was going to be a grand 20-day tour.

We departed early the next morning for our first camp, along the shores of the Akosombo reservoir. We a great spot, lots of grass and shade, to celebrate Bobbie's birthday and her 100th country. Alongside was our new friend Rivka celebrating her 74th. We had hidden two cakes from Accra and it was a lovely night with fireworks to celebrate the new year as well.

Bobbie showed off her new Cullinan Mine Garnet earrings.  We were there for three days and toured the nearby dam that supplies power for Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Burkino-Faso.  Our dam guide was really great.

From here we headed to the Togo border and would not see a tarred road for several days.  It was a pretty drive up and into the mountains that separate the two countries.  The border station was a hut with a few guards, and because we all had gotten our visas in advance, it was a quick process.  On the other side, a truck had died in the middle of the road and we all had to get out while Tanja skillfully maneuvered Sura past and beyond the block...a really tight squeeze.

 We had to all get out and walk past the block and then a bit further on.
Once in Togo is took another four hours of dirt road winding through the thick tropical jungle to eventually reach our campsite on the grounds of an old and rundown tourist lodge.  There we stayed for two nights.  On the morning of our second day, we enjoyed a walking tour of the nearby village.  Met a locally famous artist, and eventually ended up at a lovely hidden waterfall where we enjoyed a few hours of cool bathing and a nice lunch served up by a few local fellows.  The area is famous for its butterflies.

Abubo was quite charming and we purchased two of his pieces. 

That night we were treated to a drumming and fire dance show.  The drums were moving, loud, and whimsical.  The fire dancer was amazing.  Sadly the lighting was so bad that we only got a couple of photos.
We departed the next morning a drove another four hours on dirt roads before reaching a tarred road that eventually led us into a small town.  There we did a bit of shopping and afterward were taken for a short walk into a small valley were we witnessed thousand of bats, hanging in the trees and flying...IN THE BRIGHT SUN.  That was a first.

We departed again for what ended up being another six hours of driving further north into Togo.  The saving factor was that it was a commercial road most of the way.  There was plenty to see and at a security checkpoint, the truck blew a water hose and we were grounded for the night.  Luckily there were plenty of trucks being worked on and a mechanic was found and repaired the issue.  Being so late, we bush camped on the grounds of a restaurant nearby for the night.

Another long day driving to almost the Burkino-Faso border got us to Sarakawa Game Reserve where we were treated to a great game drive and then a night in a really nice hotel.  Real beds, a nice dinner, and hot showers.  Along the way, there were countless firewood gatherers selling their finds for the day.  While the law says one cannot cut down a living tree, it was obvious few were observing the ordinance...and the signs of drought and cleared land was evident.

 The game reserve had none of the Big Five, but the drive was nice and there were some great shots of some of our favorite grazers.

In the morning we set out for another long drive, this time heading south for many hours, and then crossing into Benin.  Along the way we visited the two-story mud houses of the local tribe and toured the inside.  Once across the border is was a short drive to our next lodge.  This time one built by the US backed development foundation.  It was first class all the way with bucket showers and a bucket toliet complete with a sand box to cover our business.  Ha-ha.

We were here for two nights.  The following day we enjoyed a long walk through the nearby village where we say sleeping huts below.
 We walked through the bush and visited several homes. 

This one belonged to our guide.  He is in the process of building it.  One bucket of mud at a time.
 The kids were curious as usual and we did get a change to visit a school.
Later in the day, we enjoyed another, albeit hot, trek to a cave reported to be where folks hid in the 1700s to avoid being captured and sold into slavery.
For the next two days, we continued further south into Benin, stopped at a catholic religious site for a short visit to see a grotto where the Virgin Mary presumably appeared.  We did not see the grotto choosing to wander the small town instead.  That afternoon we heard about hippos in a river a "short" distance away and opted to use our free night to go see.  After several hours down a long dirt road, and then down yet another even narrower track, we reached the river.  It was hot and humid and we both opted to not do the trek to see the hippos.  We stayed in the truck and played Scrabble.  The rest of the group went on...three hours later they returned torn up by all the reeds and hippos.  It was now almost dark and we found a school a bit up the road where the local elder said we could set up camp.  The locals came by to watch and we were surrounded by curious kids through the night and into the next morning before our departure.
We departed very early for the long drive to Abomey, the center of Voodoo culture and the seat of the central Benin government.  The city is large, about 300,000 people but very underdeveloped.  We stayed at a decent hotel with nice grounds for two nights.  On our full day, we took a scooter tour to the local palaces of the Fon Dynasty.  These were the kings of the 1700s that sold their own people into slavery...those later sent to South and North Amerca.  Sad.  I took no pictures because, to be honest, I've pretty much had as much information and remembrance of that era as I can stand.  The ride was nice, the drivers were pleasant, and the city, honestly, a bit depressing.
We departed the next day and drove almost to the coast where we parked the truck and took flatboats out to the stilt city of Ganvie.  There we stayed overnight in a stilt hotel and enjoyed a boat ride around the village.  Built by fleeing tribes in the 1700s, the opted to live in the middle of the lake because the Fon people believed the water was full of devils.  They did not venture on the water to capture slaves.  It saved this tribe and they have flourished to this day, living and fishing on the water.  This was my favorite part of the Benin segment.
Then it was further down to the coast where we stayed in Quidan where we toured the Python Temple...yikes, loads of snakes everywhere we stepped.

The VooDoo sacred forest was interesting with all of the statues.

Later that night we visited a local village and were given a grand Voodo performance with drumming, dancing and singing...and magic.  It was great and we had loads of kids to keep us entertained..

We crossed the Ghana border and spent two more nights at a really nice beach resort, Dragoman's way of saying "sorry" for all the bus camping.  The it was back to hot, humid, and dusty Accra where we sequestered in our air-conditioned suite at the hotel for two more days before departing for Lisbon.

As we were warned, West Africa is about the culture and people, not the sights and wonderful cities.  We're glad we went. 

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