From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



I woke this morning when Andrew turned on the light in our room.  It was still night outside.

“What’s the matter?  Are you okay?”, I asked him.

“Yes, but it’s time to get up,” came Andrew’s reply.

I had set the alarm on my phone for 5:30 am, ready to have breakfast at 6:30 am and depart for our long day’s drive as arranged at 7:00 am.  “It’s 6:30”, added Andrew helpfully.

I had committed the standard iPhone error, setting my alarm for 5:30 pm, not 5:30 am.  But we rose to the occasion, with each of us having quick showers and packing while the other was in the shower, and we were sitting down to have breakfast at 6:45 am.  We finished just before 7:00 am, and after returning to our bungalow to get our luggage and bringing it to the car park, we were on the road by 7:07 am – which is definitely classified as ‘on time’ in Africa.

The drive that lay ahead of us was indeed a long one.  Our destination was Parakou in Benin, a distance of 615 kilometres that Google Maps suggested should take 8 hours and 18 minutes driving time.

However, that estimate did not take account of stops, and we had several today.  The first stop was after just ten minutes driving time.  Neither Mama nor Harouna had had breakfast, so we stopped at a small café so they could have something to eat and some coffee while Andrew and I stood by the roadside, giving coins to some blind beggars and watching a US drone take off stealthily from Niamey Airport (that was just down the road).

The drive from Niamey to Dosso was on a sealed road that was in quite good condition.  However, the road quality deteriorated markedly from Dosso to the border.  Some sections of the road were just sandy dust.  Other sections were old tarmac that looked as though it had been breaking up for several decades, with jagged, sharp, undercut edges and many potholes that were the width of the entire roadway – larger than the length of our car.  Needless to say, progress was very slow on this section and the travelling was rough, hot and dusty.

The driving took its toll on our car too.  We had to stop at one point and fix the battery as one of the terminals had almost shaken off during the bumpy driving.  The air conditioner, which has been temperamental since Djenné, also decided to perform intermittently, with quite loud screeching noises emanating from the engine from time to time.

The border between Niger and Benin is the Niger River, a ribbon of blue with small bright green rice fields on both sides of it (but mainly on the Beninese side).  The bright blue and green were quite an assault on our eyes – we had seen nothing but greys and browns for most of the day.  In fact, the lack of colour arose partly because most of today’s driving was into the run.  We started driving into the sun in a south-easterly direction, we turned south to face the sun around the middle of the day, and the sun moved around to the south-west, our road also turned to face south-west.  With all the dust, haze and glare, today’s viewing of the countryside was not always easy – or photogenic.

We arrived at the border at 1:00 pm.  A large bridge spans the river as a sort of ‘no man’s land’ between the immigration checks on each side of the river.  Immigration on both sides was quick, efficient, relaxed and friendly, and we had completed all our formalities by 1:30 pm.

Rather than continuing our drive, however, Harouna decided to drive to the mechanics’ street in the Beninese border town of Malanville to try and fix the air conditioner as the temperature was 36 degrees Celsius in the shade, and must have been in the mid to high forties out in the sun where we were driving.

Fixing the air conditioner proved to be a little more problematic and time consuming than we had hoped.  Harouna had to buy a spanner and an air conditioning belt, and then try to fit the belt to an extremely hot engine.  It took him an hour of hard, hot, dusty work.  Meanwhile, at Mama’s suggestion, Andrew and I went into a small café to sit down and have a cool drink, which proved to be quite a bizarre experience as a television was on and all the patrons (and we) were watching ‘Wrestling Mania’, a comically violent wrestling competition filmed in Miami.  I can only guess what the local people thought of this American contribution to world culture as the competitors threw each other out of the ring before running out after them, screaming, and jumping on their adversaries.  At one stage, a wrestler came into the ring with a sledge hammer and started attacking his adversary.  It wasn’t quite the cultural introduction to Benin that I had been expecting.

We finally managed to get back on the road at 2:30 pm, but contrary to Harouna’s hopes, the air conditioner failed to work at all.  The afternoon drive was therefore a very hot, dry, dusty experience.  Fortunately, Benin’s roads were almost uniformly excellent, enabling us to travel at a hitherto unknown speed (on this trip) of 120 km/h.  And while the air conditioner may have stopped working, Harouna has successfully stopped the car producing those guilt-inducing blue clouds of smoke.

We reached our hotel in Parakou, the Hotel Majestic, just as the sun was setting at 6:40 pm.  Parakou is really just an overnight stop for us before we continue driving tomorrow, and the town does not have any sights as such.  However, the hotel is comfortable, and the town confirms our initial impression that Benin is a far less impoverished country than Niger.

In undertaking today’s long drive, we have left the arid Sahel region and entered the greener tropics of the southern part of West Africa.

The morning in Niger was dusty brown; the afternoon in Benin was a smoky green.  Today’s border crossing was at least as stark as the one we experienced a few days ago when we left Burkina Faso.

I find it fascinating that national borders here are like clear lines, not zones of transition.



16 January 2014

Day 20 - Niamey, Niger to Parakou, Benin