Them Bloody Loud Roosters
North & Central Togo
You may be crossing a modest border, where a rusty sign barely reads “La Republique Tolgolaise”, but this is not a country you can miss. The diminutive Togo is loud and proud and it was to become one of our trip’s highlights. At the border the police are half men, half con artists, half stand-up comedians and there is that joyful somewhat slimy feel of a route people place. A transit visa can be issued at the border (and later extended in Lome). We’ve got the Visa de l’Entente valid for 2 months for Togo, Benin, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire, issued at the Surete office in Ouagadougou. To apply go from 7.30 to 11.30 am to the building on Av. Kadiogo with your passport, 2 photos and 25000 CFA; the visa is issued within 8-48 hours. The Laissez Passer for Togo is processed in the pink building on the right, just behind the police station, and it costs 6000 CFA (5000 the laissez and 1000 laissez registration or the beer for the officer… we’ll never know). The good news is that gas is cheaper in Togo, at 595 CFA/l.
The 650 km long Route Internationale in the Togolese Autobahn, connecting West Africa to the Atlantic coast and the duty-free shipping hub that is the Lome port. This very important artery is heavily transited by innumerable hyper-loaded trucks, wearing off the poorly sealed tarmac. The first 50 km have huge potholes that could swallow a car, putting to shame the untarred section of Route de l’Espoir. After Dapaong, a dusty little town where we stopped for the first togolese lunch of pate and sheep head, the road is very good, so we were able to ride safely to Kara.
Pate – a corn based sticky polenta (the staple food in West Africa) with sheep brains and meat in a very hot sauce and a local beer
En route to Kara we crossed the scenic Mt. Kabye area, covered in lush banana, millet and rice plantations dotted with karite trees.
Arriving late in the evening in the town where the incumbent president poured significant cash into was a paranoia inducing experience. By nighttime the Togolese get their groove on: cars and scooters zoom by chaotically (many with no lights on), streets are buzzing with food vendors and smoking grills, fluorescent lit pubs are loudly broadcasting the local taste in music. To us, coming from the tranquil rice paddies of southern Burkina and after crossing muslim countries during the Ramadan, it felt like being swept into a beach party.
Togo is divided between two dominant tribes: the muslim Kabye control the north, while the christian Ewe inhabit the south. We decided to get a room to wash some stuff and dry our soaking wet tent and boots and on the way we grabbed a yummy street dinner: rice with beans, hot sauce, eggs and corn on a cob. The Togolese nights are long and extremely noisy, with people engaging in onomatopoeic conversations. Mornings though kick off with innumerable roosters giving a very loud wakeup call, so we barely got a few hours of good night sleep. In the early hours of the day Kara market is a lively beast. Breakfast joints sell rice and beans with sauce, meat, bread and hard-boiled eggs. Women carry boxes with doughnuts and bread on their heads like some kind of eccentric colorful hats. We bought a huge sweet pineapple and some uneventful grapefruit and later checked out the local dancing talents at a Maggi cubes sponsored contest next to the market.
Pate is sold wrapped in plastic or in banana leaves – 25 CFA
The price of a Lipton Tea includes a bread roll; you can add scrambled eggs
A local landmark
African beauty (left) vs. a Moroccan depiction of a woman (right). Both are paintings from our rooms in Togo and Morocco respectively.
The grass is as tall as a man along the road that crosses six geographic zones, from the Sahel in the north, to central rolling hills and dry savannah, stretching further to the plains that border the ocean.
We continued south to Bafilo, passing through the diminutive and postcard perfect Aledjo Fault and the many trucks and car wrecks that are sometimes left to rot in the middle of a turn. We rolled into Sokode – the second largest city of Togo – in time to stubble upon a group of girls selling freshly cut coconuts and to have lunch.
First Bushmeat Meal
Lunch in Sokode: corn pate, okra, Guineea fowl with sauce and some mysterious bushmeat stew, gamey and delish. We cannot help but feel a little weird, as poaching is serious business in Togo
Atakpame was our target for the night, en route we passed the village of Yomaboua, in Sotouba district. This was the first slave trading base from where people were herded to the river for washing, then hot iron marking and shipping by train to Lome. Every year African countries observe the world slavery day.
We spent two nights in Atakpame at Auberge de l’Amitie, a chilled out place at an unbeatable price, where we took a shower and streched our bones. The auberge was a much welcomed rest, especially the second night, when we returned here after more than 200 km of potholed tracks, up on the coffee and cocoa planted hills beyond Badou. We arrived too late in the afternoon in Akloa to hike to the waterfall, but the ride was beautiful, if tiresome. The route passes with twists and hairpin bends through sleepy villages with hardly more than 10 mud houses with straw roofs, where the occasional local DJ is blasting loudly some engaging African beats. As it’s the rainy season, there are big water puddles and many muddy patches which are a bit of a hassle to cross. The beautiful panorama from uphill reveals rural fruit plantations and wild tropical forests, but also the heavily forested savanna below, where poaching and overpopulation are serious environmental concerns. That is correlated with the governmental lack of commitment for conservation; there is a Swiss foundation working to repopulate with wildlife a small park in central Togo, but hunting is still allowed (we even saw a dead monkey carried by 2 men).
We are amazed at how different Togo is from its neighbors: people have distinct, more rounded features; they are very easy going and many don’t even notice us, too involved in their daily chores to care about becoming impromptu guides. The few who interacted with us were genuinely nice and never asked for money or stuff. Maybe in Lome things will change. As we are in the month of Ramadan (Careme), the predominantly muslim northern half starts grilling it’s spicy brochettes only after dark, so breakfast and lunch can be find only at street stalls: pate, rice, chicken, bushmeat, sauces, boiled eggs, avocado, corn on a cob. Beware of the local favorite sandwich: bread with mayo. Bread can be salty or sweet, almost like a cake, eaten with a millet porridge (boui) for breakfast. Weirdly, the ubiquitous unappetizing fried doughnuts are preferred by Africans to the amazing fruit they have lying around.
Breakfast in Atakpame: avocado salad, rice & Guineea fowl in tomato sauce
The breakfast joint where the girls have quickly become best friends
Up on the mountains of Togo, on the way to Badou
We found one tasty treat, loved by Togo kids and Romanian girls: sweet peanut paste with a dash of chili (Klo-kluoi)
Home Away From Home
Wake up at 6.20sh, yoga with Tony Horton or do laundry, fix breakfast, say hello in Ewe to a gazillion people on our alley (all too familiar with our life story), negotiate the mad traffic to Lome (sandy deviation and bribes for the barrier people included), go to meetings, lunch at Maman’s or at fufu bar, crash in our tent, repeat. This was our routine for the long 3 weeks we spend in the capital city of Togo. Lome is now like home. We have become familiar with life in this sprawling African city, most of which is under construction: streets are being paved or redesigned, sky-scraping bank HQs built, parks delimited. The major infrastructure operations are controlled by the Chinese, but the underpaid workers are Togolese, with wages starting at 800 CFA/day (1,20 Euro).
Street workers are fancy in Togo
Similar wages for the military personnel, a very conspicuous presence all over town, especially when the largely hated president passes through, stopping all traffic at very irregular and unpredictable hours. The president is the son of the former defunct chief of state who was a feared dictator and who messed up big time. Even if some reform has been implemented in Togo, the past is still part of the present. The president is serving for his second mandate, but it is likely that at the last minute the constitution will be altered so he can hold on to power for as long as he wishes, despite voters’ choice. We witnessed one presidential escort crossing through downtown and the strong reaction it generated among the infuriated residents of Lome, who had to stop and wait at gun point for the shiny limousines to pass. Also while we were in Lome one of the many siblings of the president went on trial for conspiracy to organize a military coup about a year back. That again stopped all Lome for two days and tied people to their radios, but one can’t help but wonder about a positive outcome. As our long stay allowed us to be close with a few locals, whom we spent time cooking, sharing our life and chatting till night would fall, we learnt some worrying details about what it means to live in Togo, a modern African dictatorship, something that us, Romanians, have almost forgotten. For example, if you would buy a nice car in Lome you might be asked to pledge it as a gift to the president and if you would open a new business you might get yourself arrested and held for inquiries about the source of your money. And I could go on.
Lome infrastructure developed and financed by the Chinese
The suburbs of the capital are organized by districts or neighborhoods, controlled by a local chief who is elected during an elaborated ceremony from the “royal” family”. People of Togo still rely on their chief for all social matters, which makes them less aware of their power to elect and change governments they don’t approve of and is allowing dictatorship to flourish. Preserving the tradition whilst living in a modern society is not easy.
Initially we were not planning to come to Togo at all, but here is Tony, the only KTM dealer in the area where we could properly service the bike and repair our topcase, which had fallen off after kms of bumpy driving.
Our Tenere next to its older avatar. Meanwhile our ITW motorbike tour of Africa got featured in the Togolese media!
We are staying at a well known overlander’s joint in Togo, Chez Alice. As this blog is sharing our honest opinion, we are forced to badmouth the place. In a word, it stinks. Literally. The decaying huts smell and the communal toilets reeking of piss are unbearable; the monkeys, imprisoned in the name of love, are embarrassing to watch. Due to the ongoing street works, we were far from anything of interest and wasted a lot of time on dusty and sandy detours to Lome. First morning of our arrival one of the dogs bit me and teared my only trousers, Alice didn’t care. To conclude this rant, if you are like us, and decide to stay for the cheap camping (1000 CFA each), ask the lovely Yawo to let you pitch your tent in the second compound, which is quiet, clean and pleasant.
Prices are higher in Lome than elsewhere in Togo, but street food is spectacular. The Togolese are passionate foodies, with countless variations of sweet and savory treats widely available. We had superb lunches at this central street-restaurant, where a family serves on weekdays from 1 pm rice, beans, pasta and pate with various proteins in chili sauce. To find this gem, get in line with the business people on Av. 24 Janvier, opposite Boston Pub, near the French Institute. Also you will find here excellent homemade lemonade and bissap juice.
With Maman Victorine, the queen of Lome lunches, cooking some of the best rice we’ve had in years.
Ana with Beauty, the lovely daughter of the lunch lady and our new friend. She is beninoise/ togolese, spending holidays in Togo helping her mum
Another popular street food in Togo: pate rouge (millet flour, corn flour, tomato paste, tomato sauce, onion, peppers, Maggi cube) with chicken wings and yam wedges
Fufu bars serve a tasty West African staple, now in season: yam fufu with sauces (peanut and mackerel, tomatoes with onion or spinach and beef)
Bouille, a millet porridge, is served with sweet bread for breakfast all over Togo. We don’t care so much for it (preferring to prepare our own guacamole with vegetable salad, or to eat chili beans with eggs in the morning).
African Cola – a popular corn and caramel soft drink made in Togo
Togolese cheese is a delicacy made from cow’s milk and wrapped in a leafy plant that gives it a reddish hue; is usual sold in the north and also at the Benin border
Few days into our stay we settled for this hearty breakfast: beans with chili oil and cornflour.
And the inescapable sugar cane for who’s got a sweet tooth
We were happy to see again the ocean after weeks of riding through desert or landlocked savannah. The beach is nice in Togo, with houses and bars lining the ocean. The waves were too strong for swimming or for fishing and the seafloor is quite steep. When the sea got calmer we found great fish and seafood at local fishermen.
In Lome many locals grab a picnic or catch a game of foot on the beach that lines the Atlantic coast.
We would have stayed in Chez Alice only as long as we needed to wash our stuff, but in Togo we faced the troubles of getting the Nigeria visa. After being rejected once, we thought we should attempt to obtain a letter of invitation and try again. The Sallah holiday pushed our next attempt at the visa one week later, as the whole Nigeria stopped to celebrate the end of Ramadan. This extra time allowed us to meet the mini Romanian community in Togo and the honorary consul, Mr. Alin Roman, head of Togolese Dacia/Renault subsidiary, and who very graciously assisted us with the visa. As always, the expats from our country who chose to live in Africa are not ordinary people. We were invited for a delish fusion dinner at Virginia’s and enjoyed yummy traditional Romanian dinners at Stefan and Nicoleta’s. Romanian cheese is nothing like its French, British or Swiss counterparts (we had smoked cow cheese and sheep cheese in fir tree bark); it is rustic, but still handmade in mountainous areas from fresh unpasteurized milk; quite tasty, goes nicely with a dry red wine. Eating this simple cheese in Togo suddenly felt exotic and we wondered again why the Romanians don’t cherish their heritage more, while being more fair about our flaws.
Inside Togo Bois, a teak factory headed by Stefan
Lome was the place to fix another small disaster that hindered our travels since Ouaga. Our GPS – the one that we had to buy back from the thief in Morocco – broke there and proved impossible to repair. This time we decided we cannot be cheap again and went for the expensive but hopefully more sturdy Garmin Zumo, that we bought online, had it shipped to Paris, had a friend carry it to the airport where a contact of our consul brought it to Togo by airplane. Let’s hope that we won’t have to dig again this deep in our pockets or we may have to go home sooner than planned.
I am ecstatic for the new GPS
We were lucky to find many lovely people in Togo. They (Gaspard, Devine, Blondine, baby Lea nicknamed Chocolate, Nesto, Epiphany) were our daily buddies, happy to share a laugh, taste our cuisine, watch us exercise and listen to our travel stories spiced with pics and videos.
After 3 weeks in the capital of Togo we were settled into our own rhythm, eating and fruit shopping at the same ladies, moving about like locals, when we finally got the Nigeria visa. We happily packed our stuff and set off to Benin, not before ditching the very used tires that took us over 15000 km and after mounting the knobbies (fingers crossed that they’ll last till Namibia!).
Ready to make a move and gulping our last beans’n cornflour breakfast in Togo.
Exit Togo via a serene road that lines the turquoise ocean after the fetish center of Aneho