Howdy all! Today’s Epic Journeys takes me back a number of years now and over to West Africa, starting in the south of Benin in it’s largest city, Cotonou, and finishes in the capital of Niger, Niamey, late on the second day. A journey of just over 1000 kilometres in total, one that Google claims can be done in 16 hours. And perhaps it can, but there is a border crossing and when you do it by public transport you need to change vehicles multiple times, there’s waiting times and a night thrown in there, it ends up being a journey that I can say is truly ‘Epic’.
It started one early in Cotonou, at the train station. West Africa is not a train lover’s paradise. There are few trains in this large region to sample, a couple in Ghana and the most well known in the region is probably the Dakar to Bamako train, starting in Senegal and heading to Mali. Unfortunately it hasn’t run for a number of years and is mostly famous for being called the ‘Malaria Express’ and arriving days late at times.
Benin though does have a little train which runs every day or every second day from Cotonou northwards to Parakou in the northern part of the country. It covers some 413 kilometres, so that’s roughly 40% of the journey. This alone took up the entire first day.
First Leg – Cotonou to Parakou
Whereas Google Maps says by road it will take a little over six hours, by taking the train I managed to double that! No it’s not supposed to take quite so long, but invariably the train trip does take much longer than the 9-10 hours I think it’s supposed too. The journey itself started with a bit of a delay. Although people were there well before departure time, not to mention the train, it left around an hour late and got later and later through the day.
The journey on the outside was actually really beautiful, with hills and greenery and odd shaped rocks and more. There were a few other foreigners on the train, although most weren’t going to the end of the line like I was. The seats were wooden and the longer the day went, the less comfrtoatble they became. The carriage became really packed later in the day – not so much with people but with goods in large sacks and livestock, especially goats. Then rain came from nowhere for an hour or so. It pelted down, and people tried to pulled down plastic blinds to keep it out but not with a lot of success. We all got wet to some extent.
We were due in Parakou by nightfall, by 5 or 6pm, but in the end it was more like 10pm. I hadn’t eaten anything but snacks all day and it was too late to order dinner. I took a moto (hopped on the back of a taxi-motorbike) to my hotel and slept. Because the next morning I still had 600 kilometres to cover plus a border crossing. I wondered whether this was too much for a day and if I should find a hotel near the border – either side – and take an extra day.
I decided to do it in one day. 600 kilometres is not a really long journey for one day, anyway, right? But I also had in the back of my head that I could stop and leave the rest of the journey for the day after.
Second Leg – Parakou to Gaya (border)
It was pretty early then that I woke in Parakou. From Parakou to the border in north with Niger, I wanted to leave as early as possible in the hope that I could get there quicker. I was at the shared taxi park in Parakou before 7am, and straight away found a taxi headed to the border with Niger. ‘Great!’ I thought, perfect start.
THEN…. The waiting began. Waiting for the final person required before the taxi would go – they only left when full you see. Still do. It took for ever, it seemed. Not so long in reality, but it was after 10am before we were moving. I had hung around the taxi for over three hours, three hours I could have been sleeping! Of course, a long journey doesn’t require you to be awake the whole time.
Finally, after waiting over three hours to move off, I still remember vividly that we went around a block away and then stopped – for petrol. Not from a petrol station, but a little shop in an alley with what looked like glass decanters filled with fuel. From here we filled up. It’s a cash society in Benin I guess and people are living each day from the cash that comes in which is why before the driver had our money, he couldn’t buy the petrol. Still, this makeshift sort of store was a bit of a worry, a prime candidate for an explosion followed by fire I feared. Considering all the houses and buildings in the area were made primarily of wood, well, I could imagine the worst.
But we were off finally. In my head I tried to calculate based on the distance we were covering just how long it would take to the border, then factor in crossing it, finding onward transport and then predict a time I might get into Niamey. If all went smoothly I could be there around dinner time I thought. Oh how wrong I was!
The shared taxi I remember as being extremely cramped in the back seat. There were four of us and back in the day I was a LOT thinner than I am today, and sharing with some of generous proportions shall we say meant that I was crammed up against the door with one leg over another. The journey to the border was around 350 kilometres. Stretched out because of frequent stops for food from roadside stalls for the other passengers in the car. It was mid-afternoon, maybe 230pm when I arrived.
Third Leg – Gaya to Niamey
Crossing the bridge and doing the border formalities I had to hire a moto (I was on the back) which got me to the other side and then turned back. I was the only one crossing at the time, and this went really smoothly.
I was dropped off at a transport park with vehicles going all places. It was around 3pm now maybe 330pm, and I found a mini-bus heading to Niamey very easily. Perhaps I should have looked for one going to Dosso, because that’s a town on the way and it might have left more frequently, but now I waited until 6pm for the minibus to leave. I knew I wasn’t going to be in Niamey at dinner time!
This last leg of the journey is 286 kilometres, and the Goggle estimate on time is 4 hours and 45 minutes. That can’t be met if you’re on a minibus. So many stops! We left as dusk fell, we stopped five minutes later for prayer. Then on the road we stopped to pick up more people. We were crammed like sardines and I started getting some lower back pain. Once the bus had let a few off, I was able to get into the front seat which was a lot more comfortable. A surprising amount of traffic on the road despite the night going on deeper and deeper.
At 1am the next morning, so technically the THIRD day, we arrived in Niamey. I got off so relieved it was all over. I found a taxi which I shared with others which took me to my hotel of preference. At that time of night I worried that I would have trouble with negotiations, but it worked out fine.
And that was one truly epic journey that felt like it was never going to end. I will always remember this one I’d say, I still have surprisingly vivid memories of that second day. Have you ever had a journey you felt was truly ‘epic’? Tell me about it! Thanks and May the Journey Never End!