The night in Fada N’Gourma luckily passed without incident, unless you count the fact that Mike and I both got up in the night and had to pee in our shower, since our bathroom was sans toilet. We had to get transport to Pama and then onto the border with Benin from there, so the first order was to find a ride to where minibuses were heading south. We had been seeing these tricycle trucks that were flatbed trucks being pulled by a motorcycle, and I couldn’t resist thumbing one down and asking if he would take us to the station. At first, the guy was confused since he wasn’t a taxi – but gladly accepted our offer of money and we were happily on our way. It was one of my favorite forms of transportation yet.
Better yet, the guy driving knew exactly where to go, and I was lucky enough to be able to find a café that let me fill my Nalgene with coffee for the long journey ahead.
The minibus was jam-packed and turned out to be one of the tightest squeezes on our foray into West African public transport to date. At one point we were 23 people, 6 goats, a motorcycle strapped to the roof, luggage, jerry cans and even then 2 more people squeezed in through the back windows to fill any available pocket of air, regardless of whether an area of their butt actually touched a seat or not. Mike and I were squished together to where we had to relieve certain areas of our body that had gone numb in unison, otherwise it was pointless.
I was pretty happy to get out of that transport once we were close to the border.
For the rest of the ride, we negotiated to go in a private taxi that wanted to take six people before it would leave. Imagine riding with 2 people in the front seat and 4 squeezed into the back? Yeah. That is standard practice in Burkina.
To be able to get going faster and have a little more room, we negotiated to pay the cost of 5 seats so that the one person waiting could still go and we wouldn’t have to wait any longer. All seemed to be going well until our driver decided it would be ok to try and make some extra cash along the way and leverage the fact that he already had six paid fares in the bag. First, he picked up someone who rode in the front for five miles and then mysteriously got out. Then, he tried to put a pregnant woman and her small daughter in the front seat sitting next to/on a man she’d never met. We violently protested and, of course, insisted that she get in the back with us. I complained to the driver who just kept saying it was only for a “short distance” – which was a blatant lie.
The woman, who at first was grateful, decided she could own her part of the back seat and gladly spread out herself and her child to where Mike and I were now squashed. I assured the driver that he had broken his agreement with us and he was not gonna be getting the full fare.
I was well and truly convinced of this when he had the audacity to then further pick up another THREE guys and put them in the rear of the vehicle, crushed and sitting on top of our luggage. I was livid at this point, and by the time Mike and I had made it through the border crossing and the extra hour to Tanguieta, the town we would stay at in order to visit Penjari National Park the next day, I was determined to only pay for 3 of 6 seats and geared up for a confrontation.
I gave the money to the driver, got out of the taxi and walked straight into our hotel for the night – and the taxi drove away without saying a word.
Exhausted, hot, sweaty and irritated – we still had to figure out transport and a guide for tomorrow, as well as figure out communication/SIM cards for our time in Benin. After a shower and beer on the rooftop terrace, we started feeling a little better. The hotel contacted a local guide, Charles, who came over to the hotel to explain what would be involved in a visit to Penjari the next day. Another guy who worked for the hotel in maintenance had also been kind enough to go into town and register SIM cards for Mike and I. We offered to pay him for his trouble and he actually turned it down. We were shocked – that was a first in Africa. Charles explained that this was not that uncommon and that the Beninoise people were very hospitable by nature and truly wanted visitors to feel welcome.
We were going to need to be ready to leave the next day at 4:30am in order to get to the park at a reasonable hour to spot wildlife. We would rent a private 4×4 vehicle and complete a full game drive till around 2pm when we would leave the park and head to a waterfall for a refreshing swim. We then negotiated into our private tour the option to visit a traditional Tata Somba house in the evening before returning to the hotel.
Charles didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately, despite being promised repeatedly that there would be a packed/prepared breakfast ready for us to take on safari at 0500 – the restaurant was closed and no-one who was awake knew or cared enough to find out where our promised food order was. This meant that we would have to go till 2pm without refreshment as there was apparently no services inside the park until we had reached a distance where the two lodges were located. Luckily, Charles knew of a shack that sold coffee and eggs that was open at this ungodly hour.
Not only was it open, but they were literally blasting a full on action movie at that time. It was something to behold. Armed with coffee and baguettes with fried eggs – we could finally be on our way.
We tried to get some sleep but the road was just too bumpy. We arrived at the park around 6am and had to register. Then Charles put up the rooftop seat for us to climb into for our private game drive. Apart from the fact that the seat up there had no guard rail and a large bump in the road or an overly enthusiastic right turn would result in certain death for the unfortunate occupant of that side of the seat or both – it was super fun being up there.
I’d say the wildlife here was far less habituated to humans than we had seen in Mole and so, Penjari became a highlight for us. Aside from the expected crocodiles, hippos, baboons, oodles of antelope (JAFA, or AKA Just another fucking antelope) elephant and warthogs, we also saw red colobus monkey and some incredibly colorful birds that I can’t remember the names of, but will try to include photos of lhere.
We were altogether quite happy with our decision to visit, and yet, the highlight of our day was to come during our lunch stop at the Penjari Lodge. I had requested to dine at this accommodation because I knew they had a watering hole and I thought we might be able to view more wildlife while having lunch. As it turned out, it was a beautiful spot and rather swanky to boot – and despite the fact that they told us the kitchen didn’t serve lunch, per se, and we could only have spaghetti with tomato sauce – we were quite happy to enjoy cold beer and our simple meal while watching for more animals.
During our meal, the waiter came over to tell us that a lion had been spotted at the watering hole. We excitedly made our way over and looked through our own binoculars as well as with the hotel’s own standing powerful scope that afforded a very clear close up of the two lionesses who were walking together around the water. It was such a treat to see big cats – which are rarely spotted anywhere in West Africa anymore. After about a half hour, satisfied, we returned to finish our now-cold spaghetti.
A huge herd of Hartebeest started approaching the watering hole and also a family of warthogs (well, I like to think they were a family, but I really have no clue). The lions were nowhere to be seen, but the herd was beautiful to see nonetheless.
Just as I had grown tired of watching them and was about to go back yet again to our table, Mike shrieks and says “Oh My God! One of the lionesses just grabbed an antelope!” and in an instant I spun around to see the cloud of red dust from which emerged the gruesome sight of an unfortunate Hartebeest with its neck in the jaws of one lioness while the other was chewing away at its intestines and leg. This was my second time seeing a “kill” in the wild, and I couldn’t believe we were so lucky as to have such a clear view of what in reality was a good distance away, through the hotel’s scope. I started screaming in French in case any of the other guests of the hotel were in earshot and wanted to witness this spectacle.
Incredibly, people seemed totally nonplussed at this awesomeness and we continued to have the viewing platform to ourselves, and we were giddy as children with toys.
As gruesome as it was to watch, it was still just astonishing. These cats really play with their food. This animal was being eaten alive – it took a full ten minutes for it to die. One cat just held it in its mouth, allowing the other to eat. You could see the ring of blood around her mouth as she munched away.
In any case, we were grinning from ear to ear when we left and Mike was excited to see what shots he’d managed to capture on his zoom camera. Charles was happy for us – he didn’t get to see it at all as he was attending to our rented vehicle whose wheel had decided to come loose…luckily for us, right as we arrived at the lodge.
If the lion kill hadn’t been entertaining enough, Charles woke us both from afternoon naps on the way out to see a herd of elephants that were crossing the road right in front of the car, including a few juveniles. As we stood up out of the car to get a better look, the dominant male starting to charge our vehicle! We jumped back inside and Charles floored it out of there. So exciting!
By the time we reached the waterfall it was after 4 in the afternoon and blazing hot. It was a nice 30- minute walk to the lower falls and we cheerfully noted that we passed the campground where the Dragoman truck had stayed just three days prior. After a refreshing swim in and around the falls, and watching the daredevil climbing antics of a few locals – it was time to head back to Tanguieta. I did purchase some drop earrings made from bone that were being sold by a local artist – it’s so rare that I buy souvenirs, but this had been a special day for sure.
Despite our blinding exhaustion, Charles said that he had promised us a Tata Somba tour, and by God, despite the growing darkness, he was going to show us one. These are traditional homes in the north of Togo and Benin that are designed to house livestock in the ground floor of the home along with a kitchen, and the roof contains other rooms where the family sleep, eat, and where grains/foods are stored. We got a tour by a very enthusiastic Tata Somba occupant, and managed to take just a few flash-produced photos before I insisted Charles drive us back to our lodging at Hotel Atacora because we had now had a 15-hour day-trip and I was so tired I no longer knew my own name.
Unfortunately, there is no rest for the wicked, and the next day we were going to be leaving the hotel at 0500 to catch the 0600 bus that would be taking us all. The. Way. South. To Abomey-Calavie – a stop just short of Cotonou, and a journey which promised to be about 11 hours long. We would be re-joining our friends on the Dragoman truck the following day on an overnight stay/tour to the stilt villages of Ganvie.