A small group of hippos is resting in the water on the opposite shore of the small lake in the Pendjari National Park in Benin, their nostrils flaring open, ears twitching occasionally, annoyed with insects. They seem to be standing very close to each other, like in a bathtub slightly too small for such a weighty group of bathing guests.
A bit nearer towards us, fast ripples indicate a more agile swimmer: a crocodile is moving past the hippo group, and now that we look closer, there are a few more of them in the water. A number of wading birds are standing in the shallow waters, quite unimpressed, as are the guinea fowls on the opposite shore. An osprey is watching the lake silently, perched on the highest branch in the surrounding trees. Our viewing platform is rather open, not a concealed observation stand – but the animals don't seem to mind.
We are in the core area of one of West Africa's best and most well-known National Parks: Pendjari National Park, in Northern Benin along the border of Burkina Faso, covers an area of 2755 square kilometers and is home to lions, leopards, and cheetahs, the largest population of elephants in West Africa, and numerous rare and threatened species. Together with two nearby National Parks of Niger and Burkina Faso it has been inscribed on the UNESCO list as a World Natural Heritage site.
There's a baby hippo next to one of the larger ones, and we would be content to linger for a while and watch the events at the lake, but Malick, our guide, is urging us to move on. After all, we started at 5 am from the small town of Tanguieta in order to get into the core area early, when the animals are still active before the midday heat.
From the roof of the 4x4, we scan the dry Savannah landscape for animals. Most of the time, of course, Malick is the first to point out Bushbuck gazelles, warthogs, buffaloes or the huge horse antelopes. We see several groups of elephants, and although they stay in a distance in the high Savannah grass, we find their immense ears quite impressive since all the elephants we have seen on our travels have been Indian elephants, with smaller ears.
There are a lot of birds around, too, but the animals we see most are baboons and gazelles. "The lions don't like chasing gazelles," Malick explains, "because they are very fast and then they don't even make a full meal – they prefer the larger antelopes". This explains why there are so many gazelles although the lion population is quite large (around 70 animals) – large enough to make it relatively likely for visitors to spot a lion during the visit (the leopards, by contrast, are practically never seen). However, you would have to be in the core zone at dawn or dusk to have a moderate chance – and this means staying overnight inside the park, since the gate only opens at 6.30 and from there it is at least an hour's drive through a buffer zone where hunting is allowed and animals are difficult to spot. Lions are thus the only animals we don't spot on this visit which visitors could normally hope to see – we meet an Austrian family who had spent the night in the Park and who promptly relate their own lion sighting: With a baby warthog in his teeth! Like in a comic-book! Ok, nature can be mean to baby warthogs.
We had considered a two-day excursion to the Pendjari Park in order to increase the chances of a lion sighting, but after some deliberation decided against it. Apart from the time and expense required for another day in the park (the hotel inside the park is also relatively expensive), what made us reluctant was our experience that we tend to get bored easily even with the most exciting animals: "Oh, another crocodile?" "Oh, yes, look, some warthogs again – cute."
And although we think it would be appropriate to appreciate these wild animals more, we are indeed quite content when the sun becomes hotter to leave the park and move to a nearby waterfall for a bit of rest and a splash in the lake.
We were surprised how many animals there were in the park and how easyily they could be spotted. The landscape was also pleasant, and although we were there during the tourist peak in the dry season, we only saw two other parties of visitors during the whole day. The Pendjari Park ist a very natural park with low tourist impact, and definitely worthwhile.
How to organise a visit to Pendjari National Park in Benin
For a one-day excursion, like we did, it is best to arrange the visit from Tanguieta, a small town in Northern Benin (at least a full day by bus from Cotonou). We stayed in the Hotel Baobab, and it was quite easy to arrange for a qualified guide for the next day. Rates for the 4x4 and guide are fixed, apparently, from Tanguieta we were quoted 70,000 CFA from several sides, and this was not negotiable. If you want to spend several days, the trip can be arranged just as well from the larger town of Natitingou (for 80,000 CFA per day). The park entrance fees, which have to be added to the car hire, are rather moderate at 10,000 CFA per person / day plus 3000 CFA for the car/day.
+++ We were not in any way sponsored for this trip to the Pendjari National Park. We organised the visit with a guide recommended by Baobab Hotel in Tanguieta and paid ourselves for the visit and all related costs. +++