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January 26, 2013 / samwilson60

À la prochaine, Benin!

It was odd to wake up the next day and find it was just the two of us again but before we could dwell on this, we realised Sam had more pressing concerns. The plan had been to dash on to Nigeria that morning but Sam’s bowels had other ideas and we thought it best not to argue. By spending another day at the guesthouse, we got to know a variety of interesting people including another Brit, also in a Land Cruiser, also heading our way through Nigeria and on to South Africa. The following morning we left him still sorting out his Nigerian visa, desperate as we were to get out of the heat of the city, but we agreed to keep in touch in the hope of meeting up further along the way.

Unable to face a third trip up the most potholed road in the country, we took a slightly less direct but much smoother route north via Porto Novo and, as an unexpected bonus, we even bypassed the crazy market leaving Cotonou. We made it as far as Dassa, again, and for a change camped at the auberge on the main roundabout in town. The upside was good food and a face to face encounter with allegedly the only hermaphrodite ostrich in West Africa; the downside was being camped on the main roundabout in town – in a town where you can’t do anything without beeping your horn, no matter what time of the day or night.

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We weren’t feeling fresh the next day and Sam was still not quite right but felt up to pushing on, so on we pushed. Before long we noticed the other cars on the road – there were lots of them, they were noticeably dirty and had been stripped of all their badges, and they seemed to be in a race. We soon twigged that a ro-ro boat must have docked in Cotonou in the early hours, offloading hundreds of exports destined for Africa (we initially expected Niger but perhaps they were just taking a circuitous route to Nigeria). It’s hard to describe how it felt being overtaken on a blind corner by a pair of unloved wrecks overtaking each other at the same time, but it made everyday African motorists look like Sunday drivers in Britain.

We were exhausted but relieved when we made it to Parakou. We’d already made one attempt at ‘cutting the corner’ to avoid the other road users but were forced back to precisely the point we left the road when the piste – already more of a footpath – was intersected by a bridge you wouldn’t want to cross on a bicycle, let alone four wheels that weigh over three tonnes. At Parakou we had another stab though, along a track that, with a little luck, would lead us directly to our last town in Benin. This time the piste was the width of a dual carriageway and a smooth one at that, so we made good progress before pulling off into a clearing just south of Nikki. As we were making friends with a handful of kids from the nearby village and trying to check no one minded our squatting, we spotted our new friend Richard who promptly swung back to join us.

The locals seemed bemused but not the least bit troubled by our presence and after saying hello the kids just watched from a distance so that we barely even noticed them. Then, just as we were settling down and exchanging stories about the crazy drive north, another moped came by, this time with the village chief on the back. Communication was limited but by the time he sped off we’d gathered he didn’t have a problem with us either, which was a relief. The greater concern was when he returned, brandishing a live cockerel. Clearly a gift, we were flummoxed. We tried protesting – we wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it even if we wanted to – but were genuinely in shock and by the time we knew what was going on, the chief was off and we were holding the bird. Torn between what to do with our gift and what we could possibly offer in return, we decided to tie the cockerel to the truck to give us time to think.

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We’d agreed that by morning we could cobble together a half appropriate gift or two in exchange; the bigger problem was what to do with ours. We didn’t want to kill it and certainly weren’t going to pluck it, but to let it loose or return it would be downright rude. Hanging from the roof rack, it played dead for a bit, then awoke with a fit and nearly knocked itself out. After a few such episodes and with the sun now fully set, we decided animal welfare came before local etiquette and let it loose. We were worried it would wander straight back into the village but instead the little bugger settled for the night under the truck, which would have been fine if he hadn’t felt the need to crow about it the next morning. Not wanting to have to explain ourselves to the chief, or anyone else for that matter, we set off early and continued the breakfast rituals a few kilometres away.

By now it was a short hop to the border, the far side of Nikki. Richard stopped for some tyre repairs and we hesitantly continued, wary of what even a rural Nigeria border would throw at us. We arrived at the Beninese police hut about 20km out of town and although the initial hellos seemed a little stern, the smiles soon followed. Until we enquired after customs. “Nigerian customs?” they asked. “Just the other side of that barrier.” But no, we still needed a Beninese customs official to stamp the car out and he was apparently in well-marked premises back in Nikki that we’d clearly blasted past. We reluctantly retrieved our unstamped passports and headed back into town, only to find a faded customs sign above a building we’d parked right outside when we left Richard. The official inside remarked on our failure to notice him earlier but seemed unfazed and friendly, but when we presented him with the carnet he didn’t have a clue what to do. His young assistant/hanger-on was the only remotely resourceful one of the pair and we helped him to fill in the four lines required to send us on our way. Back at the police hut, we were greeted warmly and processed quickly. Whatever Nigeria held, and despite driving round in circles to leave Benin, this was a very quick and easy start to proceedings.

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