Benin – Land of Adventure
By: Dan Grec
Sandwiched between Togo and massive Nigeria, Benin is another tiny West African country that is easily overlooked, but is not to be missed. From the gorgeous beaches in the South, Voodoo culture in the middle of the country, and Pendjari National Park on the Northern border with Burkina Faso, Benin packs a lot into a small space.
Immediately South of Cotonou lies Chez Rada, a beautiful hotel run by the extremely friendly and outgoing Rada, originally from France. Rada moved to Benin decades ago, and enthusiastically welcomes travellers to her slice of paradise. Eager to talk, Rada entertains guests with stories of her own travels and experiences in Benin over the decades.
The city of Cotonou is tightly packed and bursting with the smells, sights and sounds of West African street markets. Motorbike taxis zip to and fro, ridden by friendly young men wearing bright yellow vests. Flagging down a ride is easy, and going almost anywhere in the entire city costs less than fifty cents.
Unfortunately almost all large animals have been hunted to extinction in West Africa, and can only be seen in a very limited number of parks where they are protected. One such park is Pendjari National Park in the extreme North of the country. After paying a modest entry fee, I am able to self-drive anywhere I want within the park, and I can camp in the designated campgrounds. Over the course of a day I make my way along extremely corrugated, dusty roads, always keeping a close eye on the vegetation. A few times I spot monkeys and beautiful birds, though nothing large stirs in the midday heat. I stop at different watering holes where I see hippos, crocodiles, birds, and antelope-like animals.
Later in the day – towards dusk – I am driving next to a lake and am unsure about some large grey boulders on the other side, a few hundred yards away. After looking more closely, I realize they are moving! I pull over and stand on the open window and hood, grinning from ear to ear as I watch the mother and two baby elephants make their way along the lakeshore. These are the first elephants I have ever seen, and I can’t wipe the grin off my face for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
The next day in the early morning I am treated to three different herds of elephants, each with about 15-20 animals of all ages. I watch these groups for a long time, pulling leaves off trees, upending grass to thrash it about and generally lazing in the still-cool morning.
Famous for voodoo culture, Benin is the source of many myths and legends. An extremely impressive festival is held every January in Ouidah, where thousands of locals descend on the town, singing and dancing for days on end. In Abomey the Royale palace is a must see, and it’s also possible to visit many different “fetish markets”. Objects to perform the actual spells and incantations can be bought in these sprawling markets. All manner of animal parts, voodoo dolls and ingredients for spells are on sale, and the markets are often bustling with shoppers eager to cure their ills.
With friendly people and unique voodoo culture, Benin is a must-visit country in this corner of West Africa.