We had a great night enjoying our stew with the Africa crew. Cat even managed to round up all the boys to help with the dishes. Shame, the poor guys didn't know what had hit them, so used to travelling without woman and getting the locals to do everything for them. What brilliant fun, as we sat around the campfire talking the night away, mesmerised by the flames.
We left the next morning feeling sad we had to leave them and the gorgeous palm tree covered beach. But it was time for us to head to Benin as our visa had already started and we wanted to spend some time seeing what Benin had to offer. Massive goodbyes and good lucks passed around and once again, leaving having met such awesome people!
We soon arrived at the border which is always great fun when you can't figure out which building to go to first. After passing the numerous stalls selling all name of things, we arrived at the barrier where there was a building to the left where we got our passports stamped out. Once again, very friendly, laughing and teasing that the boys could continue to Benin, but Cat and I should stay. We apparently would make great wives for them....
We made our way around the building to the right where we handed over our passports, for more note taking. Then over the barrier to the Benin side. Again no bribes, no hassle!!
We drove to the next barrier where we went across to the building on the right where we got stamped in. And then across to the building on the opposite side. This was not the building we needed and were just told 'la ba', meaning over there or straight. Great, we would have to find it ourselves in the masses of cars, trucks, people and buildings. We headed in the direction that he pointed and would hope for the best. Eventually some very helpful Benese directed us to a glass reflected building where we could get the vehicles paperwork. Unfortunately they didn't accept our carnet (apparently from other travellers it can be done with a bit of gentle persuasion, but we were only told after we had crossed) so we bought a Laissez-Passer for 5800CFA (£6.70). And we were through! Another easy border with no bribes!! Fantastic!!
We were now in Benin... A new sticker and a new time zone. So we moved our clocks forward 1hour and headed for the nearest street stall for some lunch. A very large, tasty plate of rice and pasta with chicken and spicy sauce for only 800CFA (£0.90) for 1 plate. Brilliant!
We made our way to Cotonou the capital where we would try get our Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) visa and the Angola visa. We reached town in good time; even though (annoyingly) we were stopped by police a lot; so we decided to see if we could get a SIM card and Internet. We popped into the MTN shop to try get it sorted. Something we expected to take half an hour, took just less than two hours and we still needed to find a campsite. Bugger!! So we drove around in search of one, but as we had hit rush hour, we weren't moving anywhere quickly! We were loosing daylight and patience as the MTN store took forever while the boys were getting pestered about parking in the wrong place. It was now rush hour and the place was riddled with beaten up cars and hooter mad bikes that made navigating around town a very dicey experience. Eventually we all agreed a hotel would be our only option as there were zero campsites available.
We tried hotel after hotel, and they were either fully booked or mega expensive! So we opted for the least expensive hotel and got a room.
We had chosen Hotel du Port, a nice hotel in a not so nice area as explained in the lonely planet guide. When approaching the reception we were told the basic rooms were all taken, so we had to opt for the second higher option. We had no option, so they would charge us 56000CFA per room .... That's £64!!!! That would be the most expensive price to date, and blowing our £50 a day target out of the water!! Ouch!! We paid, reluctantly, and made our way up the stairs to our rooms. We were shocked! Charles and Cats room looked like it had someone staying there with the bed unmade and food in bags lying everywhere. The receptionist had also walked off with our key cards, so we couldn't even lock the doors. We were not putting up with this!
Luckily a cleaner who happened to pass down the corridor, showed us to the lesser priced rooms and said we should ask the receptionist for those rooms. He had lied to us, there were cheaper rooms available! So we went back to reception and demanded the lesser priced, clean rooms! We were fuming at this rate as it had now taken over an hour and a half to organise clean rooms in a 'fancy' hotel! We were eventually given 5000CFA back and were told the other 2000CFA they would give us tomorrow, as the rooms were now 48200CFA each. At this point we were fed up and just wanted to go to our rooms.
On the plus side the Internet was amazing, the rooms had aircon and there was a massive pool!! We could upload all our photos, finally!!!! We gathered some food out the cars to make in the room and then venture down to the pool for a late night swim. Our tempers were slowly disappearing as we were now enjoying the comforts this hotel had to offer. The pool was fantastic and massive, but we noticed a small sign that said no swimming shorts allowed, only budgie smugglers... But a gentlemen came over and said it was no problem for the boys. Great news!! We enjoyed a dip in the pool under the stars and the boys enjoyed the 3 diving boards which they took full advantage of, jumping off and scaring the living day lights out of me and Cat... It was mega high!!
We had a great nights sleep and would enjoy the hotel until check out as it was so expensive! So we headed down to the pool only to be told that this time the boys shorts were not permitted and therefore could not swim in the pool.... So frustrating!!! Our fuses were obviously still recovering from the day before and this was pushing us in the wrong direction! So we went back to the rooms to use the wifi....
Check out soon came so we headed down to reception to ask for the bill and get our 2000CFA per room. Only to be told the guy that deals with the money wasn't there. WHAT!? He then started saying that we got our change the night before. Yes, he was right, but not the full amount. Although it was only £2.30, it was now the principal... Cat tried her best to get through to the receptionist with her French, and even ended up speaking to the owner on the phone. But as he was not there we weren't getting anywhere and eventually had to give up and move on after an hour of arguing. Now our tempers were at breaking point!!
We left the hotel and within seconds were pulled over by the police. This was not what we needed as pulling out our fake smiles and same old, same old, stories was proving difficult. At this point we decided to head to head to the Super U grocery store, a place where obviously all the Europeans and wealthy Beninese people shop. A large clean store with everything placed strategically with labels on the bottles; a real difference to the side of the street stall where everything is just flung in piled on top of each other. We bought a few things, but we're certainly not used to these European prices and decided only to get the essentials we couldn't find elsewhere. Then it was onto the Steers/Debonairs restaurant for lunch... This is something Charles and I remember from back home in South Africa, so it was a must!! It did turn out to be a little different from what we remembered with the usual... We don't have pineapple, cheese, caramelised onions, etc, etc... But it was still good!!!
We would now try to find the DRC embassy to ask about the requirements needed for a visa. We drove and drove around town with no luck. The address on the Internet was not working in the satnav and the map of where the embassy was on the Internet was wrong. We asked people and they couldn't tell us. We arrived at Hotel Chez Rada on the beach front just outside of Cotonou, where they offered camping as well. They even had a pool which is always delightful. So we pulled up, set up, and dived straight into the warm salty pool. There was a big group of Beninese who became increasingly interested in us as they watched us swim, particularly cat and myself, asking to take photos with us individually. These men were obviously going to make the photo with us their profile photo on Facebook... With a white girl no less! We could imagine that's what celebrities would feel like, with cameras and videos pointing at you, when all you want to do is have a relaxing swim in the pool after a couple of stressful days. Lol!!! But they were actually a good laugh, while some were asking us to teach them how to swim. A much harder task than expected!
It was an early night for us and in the morning we would try onceagain to find the DRC embassy.
We drove around for hours trying to find the embassy with zero luck! After asking person after person, who had no idea, we going to give up. But eventually we asked a police officer who very kindly offered to chauffeur us in a convoy to the embassy! Fantastic!! He didn't even ask for anything in a return. So we followed him to the other side of town and eventually turned up at the embassy. We were so grateful! We gave him and his partner a cold coca-cola for the road as thanks. Very sweet of them!
We entered the building and soon realised we had come to the wrong Congo embassy. We wanted the DRC embassy but were brought to Congo Brazzaville. Luckily the lady inside knew where we had to go and gave us directions, back across town to where we had come from! We pulled up to see Andi's BMW motorbike (Wheelie Adventurous) parked outside the embassy. What a nice surprise!
We went inside and were very lucky to be granted a visa as we didn't have an onwards visa for Angola. Something that was a requirement to prove you would not settle and overstay your welcome. But we told him our story and after a phone call to the chief, we were asked to fill in the application form, hand over 15000CFA (£17) per application, 2 passport photos, 1 copy of the passport and he would take photocopies of our bank cars. He didn't however get round to taking the photo copies of our bank cards as they soon became flustered after realising they had lost someone's passport. A very reassuring feeling after he asked us to return after 3pm to collect our passports.
We met up with Andi and would go grab a bite to eat at the restaurant down the road to kill some time. This was where we noticed they were playing international sport, so we asked the waitress if they would be playing the 6 nations rugby game the following day. To Robs great delight and excitement, they were!!! Well this was a date Rob was not going to miss!
Andi was staying in a hotel around the corner for the night, but he said he'd join us at our campsite and head off with us to watch the rugby the next day. Fantastic!
We headed back to the embassy to sit and wait! Charles even fell asleep in the fan cooled room. We laughed as he jolted himself awake in his seat, like sometimes you do in bed while falling asleep, when your muscles suddenly make you do karate moves like a pro. We then heard a familiar honking noise outside.... This was the Fan Ice man selling a small bag of heaven!! With frozen chocolate nesquik, or vanilla ice cream inside... I can't tell you how orgasmic a bag in the sweltering heat is! So we dashed outside to buy one for 150CFA each (£0.17), just then we were called inside to collect our visas. So we wandered back inside with our bags of heaven hidden behind our backs, like naughty school kids bringing sweets in class when we knew it wasn't allowed. But there were no problems as we left with our fan ice's and passports in hand. Happy days!!
It was time to head back to the campsite for dip on the pool! And another celebrity moment as we were being filmed by the locals while enjoyed a leisurely swim.
But the pool needed to wait, as we were in for our first bad encounter with the police. There was a height barrier coming onto the beach that was bent inwards and therefore we would never be able to make it under, so we did as the locals and drove over the curb and around it. Just then the cops waved us down... Bugger we hadn't seen them!!! But they took our documents and told us to make our way with them to the police booth. A decrepit old wooden shack on the side of the road. We were nervous as he had our documents (Aware that every traveller has always advised to keep hold of your paperwork and keep it safe). Our lack of French and his lack of English meant we weren't getting anywhere fast while tempers started to flare. Benin was proving a real challenge for us! But just then a lovely, well dressed man walked passed and asked me, in English, if we were OK and if we were having trouble with the police. I explained our issue was that we didn't speak French so we were finding it difficult to talk through our problem. This man offered to help and soon had the situation under control with his calm approach to dealing with the police. The copper was going to issue us a 15000CFA fine per car, keep our documents until we returned to the police station on Monday morning to fill out paperwork as record of our crime. But he bartered for us and brought our fine down to 5000CFA per car, without needing to report to the police station on Monday and we could have our paperwork back there and then!
This man was amazing and got us out of the shit purely because he was interested in our adventure and the cars. A man that often visits South Africa and recognised the flags on our cars. We were lucky in our lack of luck!
The funny thing was, after we paid our fine. The copper then said he understood why we did it and said we could do the same thing and go around, like we had done earlier, to get to our campsite and he would alert the rest of the police officers. What!? NO WAY ARE WE DOING THAT AGAIN! We would take the half an hour round trip to get to our campsite... The right way!
The next day we enjoyed a long dip in the pool before Andi joined us. Then it was time to head into town to make Rob a very happy man. After some serious negotiations to get a taxi, they were gonna charge us too much, so we started to walk instead and would try hitchhiking a lift. We soon flagged down a Kawaseki, a three wheeler pickup truck. We all piled in and soon realised the poor engine was on its last legs with the gearbox missing a few gears. It was a pure test of his skills while he battled with the now very heavy load on the sand with minimal gears. Every now and then the boys had to jump out to push this kawaseki out of the sand. While driving along the beach, the locals were all laughing and pointing in shock with this truck filled with white folk; rich people doing as the locals!? It was great fun as we waved and laughed with them.
England won!! But Rob was furious as this was not the clean win he was hoping for saying we needed to win by more to get more points. It totally goes over my head, so I just nod and let him rant in his drunken state. Lol! Quite funny really to watch!
We enjoyed a delicious pizza, the best in a long time while we chatted and drank the night away. Well the 4 us anyways, as Rob fell asleep in his chair with all the excitement of booze and rugby. People kept walking past him to ask if he was ok. We thought the owner was gonna chuck us out at one point with Rob passing out in this classy establishment.... But we laughed with him and ensured that he was fine and was just tired.
We eventually decided it was time to go, so I tried to wake Rob up quietly so I didn't get too many grunts and groans to leave him (the usual when he's in this state.. Lol!). But he pounced up as if ready to start all over again. Sober as a judge... So we decided to stay for an ABF (absolute bloody final)!!!
It was time to find our way home, so the lovely owner of the Livingstone bar, called to organise a taxi. After finding out it would be 15000CFA (£17), there was no way we would pay that! They love to charge European prices when they know our skin is white. None we will do and pay as the locals. So we called up a few zemi-John's (motorbike taxis). No helmets! 3 on a bike! On the sandy beach road! This would be interesting!! But it was a great laugh and poor Cat was put on a bike sandwiched in between two Beninese men. So half way she got off and got on her own, as Charles' driver was obviously trying to win first place on a MotoGP race, and dashed ahead of us. We were happy to make it back to the campsite with all our limbs still attached! It was past midnight, but we still had the whole night to enjoy so we all jumped into the pool and drank Gin and Sprite under the stars!
The next day was a chilled day spent by the pool as the place became filled with local Europeans enjoying the pool and good food. What a great relaxing day. The next morning we got up early, paid our bill, said our goodbyes to Andi and headed to the Angola Embassy in hope to get a visa. Unfortunately it was not an option as we needed to have Beninese residency to apply for the visa in Benin. She ensured us Abuja in Nigeria would be the best place. That's what we thought, but no harm in trying our luck.
We headed back inland to explore more of Benin. We headed to Grand Popo along the beach front where we stayed at the Lion Bar, a reggae feel bar as you feel yourself getting high just off the second hand smoke. This place was both lovely and awful. The bar area and rooms looked amazing, but surrounding the bar was covered in rubbish! This was where we were made to camp.
The next day we set off into Grand-Popo to explore and get some street food lunch. We wondered to a stall with a sign for fufu, sometimes also called igname (cooked and puréed yam - a sticky substance and staple food). So we sat down and ordered a bowl of fufu with palm nut oil sauce and fish and fufu with a tomato sauce and fish. It was actually not that bad as we ate our food with our hands. No utensils here!! Even Rob had a good go and ate the lot! This meal was incredibly filling and only cost 1000CFA (£1.15) per plate, so no need to have dinner! Even better.
The next day we left for Abomey, a town of the Dahomey Kingdom, that has palaces and temples dotted all over. But the road to get there was equally amazing and horrific. With perfectly laid tar, better than you've ever seen before and then massive potholes lining the roads a few kilometres down. But we arrived to Chez Monique, a weird place that once again was becoming the story of Benin. Some really good points and equally some real bad ones! It was a massive place filled with large wood carvings that gave the place a beautiful African feel. She would charge us 6000CFA (£6.90)per car, but you'd only get a bucket shower that you had to ask for and a semi working toilet. This was loads of moola for what you get!
But we decided to have a stroll into town to hopefully find some veg. Well all we came across was moldy tomatoes and a shit load of onions!! While walking down town we noticed the trees where all squawking like crazy. We looked up and it looked like the trees where covered in oysters. No, these were bats! Every tree covered in hanging bats! We had never seen so many bats just out in the daylight, such a weird thing to see.
We eventually stopped and enjoyed a cold beverage to cool us down before heading back to camp. We bought a baguette and a pineapple and that's what we would have for dinner. We got back, made our tuna and mayo baguettes with pineapple for desert. Just then Rob said he could hear a TD5 defender in the distance (a weird talent of his)... It got closer and closer and then Olly and Lena pulled up into the campsite. What a small world we live in bumping into our traveller friends everywhere we go! It's fantastic! Unfortunately Olly is not well and has been struggling with a fever for the past couple of days and they had just gotten back from a hospital that declared that he didn't have malaria luckily! So it was an early night so he could get some rest.
The next day we decided we would go check out some of these palaces with Lena and Olly. But first Olly and Lena popped into town to get some repairs done on their car, this meant we had time to empty out the cars, do a bit of cleaning and chuck out things we weren't using. Free up some space and make things a little easier to access. We got rid of our big clothes box and transferred our clothes into two wolf boxes. We reduced our 3 food boxes into 2 boxes and put our touristy souvenirs into the everyday box. Perfect! After jigging a few things around, it feels just perfect. Everything can now be accessed easier and the lady we gave our big box to was over the moon, almost in tears!
A successful morning and now we were ready to hit the palaces and temples of the 12 kings. We started walking through town and one by one started seeing what apparently was a temple or a palace. These places just looked like broken mud huts... Nothing out of the ordinary. The signs explaining what each building was, was a rusted metal brown sign that made reading anything very hard. This place obviously has been hit hard by Ebola causing a massive decrease in tourists to west Africa! People all claiming to be guides and begging you to buy anything from them.
But eventually we came to the Unesco world heritage sight where here there was something to finally see. We got a guide who would show us around two palaces where two of the kings lived. It cost us 5000CFA per couple (£5.70) for a tour. After a while of Cat and Lena translating what the guide was saying to us, a South African guy joined our group with an English translator!!! Fantastic!! Lena and Cat were let off and could enjoy the tour with us. Unfortunately it was forbidden to take pictures, so we've got none to show. But it was a great experience!
While walking back to camp the streets were covered with children returning from school and bats flying above! The children chanting a French hello song.... Ça va, ça va, bonsoir, ça va, bien, merci... And so on. Fantastic watching them and we enjoyed their animated faces to go with the chants!!
We got back to camp where we tried to collect our washing we had handed in to reception in the morning. She had told me washing was 200CFA... Really cheap. So we handed her loads, our sheets, jumpers, towels... The lot! But silly us didn't agree a new price for our massive pile. We got back and she said it would cost 7500CFA (£8.60) per couple.... WHAT!? That's crazy expensive! We went back and tried telling her we would pay 4000CFA, but eventually settled on 5000CFA. Still expensive, but our own fault for not agreeing a price. We got our clothes back, and they actually did a very good job and got most of the red dirt stains out!! A real accomplishment in these parts... Lol!
We packed up the next morning and would head back down for a change of scenery. Again Charles and Cat were held by the cops, questioning every bit of paperwork and eventually asking for a gift! We are now fed up with the Benin police and weirdly looking forward to Nigeria... If that's even possible, even knowing they are going to be incredibly more aggressive and demanding for gifts.... But at least we can talk the lingo then... ENGLISH!! (It may be a bad thing, but a different location, country, people, will be awesome!)
We've arrived into Porto Novo and with no camp sites available, so we've ended up at the local community centre where they have rooms. They are charging 9000CFA (£10.30) a night for a room, with a fan, mosquito nets, BBC tv (in English), working toilet and shower... Can't complain!!! A bit of nicety to lift our spirits!! This community centre is like non other I've ever seen. This seems to be a training, research and production centre for farming. We joined a tour around the gardens and production sight with great insight into the importance of this facility, with people travelling from neighbouring countries to learn or refresh their knowledge on farming and different techniques. We've met incredibly interesting people during our time here in this up and coming farming village.
Our last weekend in Benin, has been a real high! Like I said before, Benin has both been fantastic and horrid. So we leave to the Nigerian border on Monday morning with a love-hate relationship of this small West African country.