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January 21, 2013 / samwilson60

Elephants at last!

While sad to see Sam-Sam go, we were (and are) confident she’ll track us down again and were excited about venturing further afield with Anthea. This relied on the Nigerians playing ball, which – for once – they did. They were almost exactly where advertised (a first), we turned up on the right day for interviews (a miracle) and, despite what the self-important receptionist suggested, the lady in charge assured us we could have precisely what we needed after a few random interview questions in the corridor. We were overjoyed, and free, and after a quick supermarket stop whisked our visitor as far north as we could get – the elephants of the Pendjari national park had waited long enough.

Despite our late start and our route taking in the most potholed road in the country, again, we made it to Dassa before giving up for the day. We arrived late by our standards, but still with the time and energy to dig out an auberge run by a local teacher/rabbit farmer, hidden on the outskirts of town and off the guide-book map. We were really glad we’d persevered when we met the teacher and his wife, who put us up in a lovely hut and cooked us an awesome dinner. It was a shame to be just stopping off, as this part of the country – famous for its 41 hills – really deserved a few days and a couple of good hikes, but our priority was the national park and we didn’t have time for much else.

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The next day we set off fairly swiftly after breakfast and thanks to vastly improved roads made it all the way up to Tanguieta, on the south side of the park. We camped within earshot of Benin’s biggest waterfall – not all that big in reality, but beautiful nonetheless – then the next morning made a stab at getting into the national park itself. This required some to-ing and fro-ing but once at the entrance we’d previously dismissed, we picked up a guide (on the roof, as in Senegal) and trundled off in search of elephants and other wildlife.

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The elephant sightings quickly went from uncertain to good to incredible, and although this was the outright highlight for us, the other wildlife was plentiful and beautiful too.

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We had an awesome ‘wild camp’ by a hippo lake, with yam cooked in the fire, pasta cooked more conventionally, and children’s stories from our guide under the stars. We slept to the tune of hippos farting (or at least that’s how it sounded) and lions prowling right into camp (no sightings but even the guide confirmed hearing them in our clearing).

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We were tempted to stay a second night in the park but knew that would leave us racing south so got up at dawn to see if the lions were still around (sadly not), then stopped off at a watering hole or two to see the crocodiles basking in the early morning sun and meet Nester, an old baboon the guides apparently know well.

After we’d bid farewell to Nester, our guide and the park, we headed back to Tanguieta and the Hotel Baobab we’d stopped in at the previous day – the ideal place for an afternoon of dusting. We’d promised ourselves and the Tinker Beast that she’d have more than a mechanical once over for her birthday (1 January) and after two days on dry pistes there was no putting it off any more. With Anthea’s help we made light work of what looked like an impossible task and rewarded ourselves with a bulk load of grilled cheese and some souvenir shopping (cracking purchases by Anth and great self-restraint from us).

It felt a shame to be rushing south before our encounters in the park had even sunk in, but we had a long drive back to Cotonou ahead and had identified another appealing stopover near Dassa. This campement was run by a small environmental NGO set up by two locals to help educate the surrounding villages and set up vegetable gardens, guttering and water storage, dustbins and the like. It was a really inspiring place and provided another great insight into life in rural Benin.

For Anthea’s last night, we headed back to Grand Popo – the most relaxing place we could think of within easy reach of the airport. A snap decision to try one of the other campsites in town paid off – much less hassle than the main auberge, equally good food and some unexpected live music to boot.

The drive into Cotonou the next day was one of our most traumatic in Benin – we’re still not sure if it had anything to do with the next day’s voodoo holiday or not but the locals were driving erratically at best and downright crazily for the most part. We arrived at the Nigerian embassy pretty frazzled so were extremely grateful to find our passports waiting at the gate for us, with precisely the right visas inside (second time lucky?!). This gave us a much needed boost and left us with just enough time for some last-minute souvenir shopping, a final supper with our guest and a last moped ride for Anthea – to the airport fully loaded with luggage!

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