IT took Togo all of a couple of hundred yards to throw up a new travel experience – a road sign immediately after crossing the border from Ghana, pointing the way to a whole new country just a short drive away.*
But then, country number seven on this trip is only 56km wide along the coast.
Any thoughts, however, that this was a short, uneventful stay en route to Benin (not that much wider itself) has been dispelled by fresh experiences and incidents – not all of which can be recounted to a family audience.
We have rattled through more visas, been held up by the police, scaled the highest point in Togo, got a tree stuck in the back of the truck, splashed about in waterfalls, sweltered at the coast, wrapped up against the cold and damp, tried to swim in a lake only a foot or so deep, got up close to a voodoo priestess and a swarm of bees, marked Australia Day in suitable fashion and, briefly at least, lost a couple of souls.
With an angry baboon thrown in.
On paper, Togo is merely a brief stop – hard to be much else when it makes up such a small part of this huge journey – at the start of potentially the most difficult stretch of the trip, but it has thrown up enough to make its mark.
Not that we were ever going to race through the country. Mainly because, the main road along the coast apart, it appears pretty difficult to race anywhere.
What appears a short hop on the map can produce a long afternoon on the truck as Nala negotiates ramshackle roads, climbs mountains through overhanging branches or circumnavigates a large lagoon (we could still see our starting point in Togoville across the lake two hours after we had set out).
Released from the shackles of Big Milly’s by the final set of visas, we made the break for the border which both trucks were through in pretty rapid fashion (can’t help get the feeling that the smooth crossings so far are saving up a heap of border problems further down the line) and into the outskirts of the capital city Lome.
Once we had somehow worked out how to get two big yellow trucks into one small courtyard, we worked on two truckloads squeezing their tents into a second courtyard watched over by the angry baboon behind his bars – and, evidently, a monkey in a tree which nobody noticed until our truck had moved on – and all using the single shower.
My option, staying in the bar until everybody else had given up trying to use the stuttering wi-fi and gone to bed, seemed infinitely preferable than those queuing up to use it before first light the next morning.
If getting anywhere on the roads can be frustrating in these parts, getting anywhere fast with bureaucracy is just as difficult as we again dived into a round of form filling and sitting outside embassies.
And in a Lome side street waiting for the trucks’ paperwork to be returned by the police after we were caught ignoring a sign saying we should not be on an adjoining street – until, that is, both drivers (both called Steve, just to be confusing) pointed out the signs were actually facing the other way.
This is Africa.
A hot, frustrating wait was enlivened by a small group of us climbing off the back to feign frustration in an attempt to hurry along the police, which grew into groups heading up the road to the nearest shop or chatting nicely to the neighbours for the use of their toilet.
But finally, freed from police checks and bureaucracy, we briefly broke away from both the other truck and Lome and headed north to what pass as mountains in these parts and the welcome return of bush camping.
Our first overnight halt came pretty much on a road – motorcycles heading up and down the hill drove through camp until well after dark, despite not often bothering with lights – alongside a thin, but hugely refreshing waterfall.
Opting not to head off on a trek to more waterfalls (mainly due to the return of bush camp belly**), the next morning was spent largely sleeping and watching the monkeys scaling the adjacent cliff face.
But there was no need to worry about missing out on any scenery or climbing – it came to us later in the day as we drove up Mt Agou.
The views of the valley were pretty spectacular and the villagers we passed on the way up seemed happy, if surprised, to see us.
Not that we were looking too closely, our attentions being taken by the collection of branches, insects and other creatures which were tossed into the back of the truck by the overhanging foliage as the road narrowed to a single path.
One branch managed to wedge itself into Nala’s innards, requiring some rapid work with a hacksaw, while we finished the last few hundred metres of the climb on foot as some more serious tree surgery was required to clear the road ahead of the final bend.
What we found at the top was not the most spectacular mountain summit, but it provided our home for the night and, for the first time in a couple of months, jumpers and jackets were pulled from the depths of our kit as the cloud rolled in and we had to remember how to deal with a damp night (with the advantage of being able to snuggle up in sleeping bags).
There was no such concerns at the next night’s stop, down on the banks of Lake Togo, after a journey to Togoville relatively short on distance, but fairly lengthy on time.
Based around the gardens of an artistic centre, we found ourselves in the heart of the community with card games and watching football on the side of the street, refreshed by a few beers from the shop across the road.
Those of us who opted to miss the visit to a voodoo priestess spent the next morning swimming (well, paddling – it’s amazingly shallow) and washing in the lake and were relaxing around the truck when the peace was disturbed by a huge swarm of bees which sent us scurrying for cover and even interrupted the card game before settling on a nearby tree.
All a good sign according to voodoo.
It certainly pointed to a fine night once we had returned to Lome, albeit to a larger beach resort down the road, and set about marking Australia Day.
There may only be three Aussies on board, but everybody joined in with relish. Some of the details must remain hazy (mainly because they are), but one reveller was found asleep the next morning in the shadow of the baboon at our previous stop.
Sure the Aussies are very proud.
* That is a short drive in normal conditions. In Togo, that may not be the case.
** Or so we thought at the time. It may well have been a precursor to something else, of which more next time…