Howdy all! I thought I’d start a new series of weekly articles today (aiming for every Thursday) about some of the train journeys I have taken. I have to confess to not having taken all the world’s greatest train journeys – for example I haven’t done the trans-Siberian or the Orient Express, but I thought I could recount the tales of a few lesser known journeys about the place (hopefully with photos) and that there are a number of journeys I’ve done which would be interesting enough to write about.
So today, I’m starting the whole thing off with one not so many people have done, and that’s from Cotonou to Parakou in Benin. For those not familiar with what I admit is a somewhat obscure country, Benin is a long, thin country wedged between another long, thin country, Togo and a big, fat country with lots of people to the other side, Nigeria. To the north it also borders Burkina Faso and Niger.
I went there years back now as part of a West African tour. I visited a lot of countries in the region, and this was the only train I took. Although there are a few trains in the region, it’s not a very common or reliable form of transport in West Africa, with buses and bush taxis preferred. But it just so happened that the train went exactly where I needed to go.
Cotonou is the biggest city in Benin, although it is not the capital. It sits right on the coast, which forms the southern border of the country. The train journey goes northwards to Parakou, a biggish town a little over half the way to the northern border with Niger at Malanville. It is a distance of around 450 kilometres.
For those wanting a luxury option, there is none. The train is the closest thing you’re going to get, and the seats are hardwood, which is not too comfortable on a long journey that is supposed to take around nine hours but usually takes a lot longer. Bring a cushion is you have one handy, your bum is going to get pretty sore anyways.
I was lucky, I arrived at around 7.30am at the station with the train waiting to go. I was lucky because I was told that there is just one train a day, in either direction. Not both, but either direction, so I could have been headed back to my hotel had there been no train that day. My guide book (NOT the Lonely Planet) had told me that it was one in both directions, but everyone I asked in Benin told me otherwise.
I had a seat, which was nice – there were a lot of people aboard at the start, but it wasn’t completely full. That would come later. We chugged along slowly, after leaving about an hour late (9 am ish). There were two or three carriages for passages, and a long row of trucks behind us. We were pulled along by a smallish diesel engine, producing plenty of smoke. You’d have almost thought it was steam!
The journey was memorable. Outside, the land was green and fertile. There were small mountains too, and frequent stops. A number every hour. It got a little annoying after a while. Vendors at the stations rushed up to the windows to sell anything and everything from bananas, potato chips to medicine. I sat opposite an Italian man for the first half of the trip, the only two non-Africans on board. We talked in French as I didn’t speak Italian, and he didn’t speak English. Neither of us spoke great French, but over the hours we managed to have some sort of conversation. French is the most widely spoken language in Benin.
As the day progressed, I said goodbye to my new friend and the carriage filled up with bags, cases, rice and grain sacks and even small chicken coups cluttering the carriage good and proper. It was amazing, at first. But my back was getting sore, and it was soon dark and we still hadn’t reached our destination. Then it started to pour rain, and the carriage had open windows and a leaky roof! I didn’t take photos inside the carriage, and today wish I had but I was very unsure about what would be okay to snap whilst in Africa – people are very sensitive about having their photos taken (and I understand why, people are not a tourist attraction!) and I guess, looking back it’s disappointing.
It was around 9.30pm when the train finally arrived in Parakou. We were wet and sore and desperate to sleep! For the most part it had been an amazing journey, it was just the last few hours that had started to bite. The train was around 3.5 hours late. It sounds like a lot, but I’ve heard of far worse. As bad as it might sound, it was probably the best long journey I took on that trip – bush taxis are faster, but they squash as many in as they can, and you can wait half a day for one of them to leave. The buses get incredibly hot, they also squash a lot of people in, and then there’s motion sickness if you get it.
This is not one of the world’s GREAT train journeys, but it’s memorable, and the scenery is beautiful. The experience of being inside with chickens and families is genuinely special. If you are in Benin, you really must try to take this little train!