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The last stop on our West African adventure was Burkina Faso. It’s a country who’s name itself evokes exotic images. It didn’t disappoint! Exploring Burkina Faso with kids was the perfect way to end our trip to Africa.
Pendjari Park in Benin is supposed to be full of elephants. However, due to recent poaching problems we barely spotted any on our 3-day safari. I made the executive decision to head to Burkina Faso a day early so we could go searching for elephants in Réserve Nazinga.
Our “bus” ride from Tanguieta in Northern Benin, to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, was a short 400km. Everything in Africa always takes longer than expected. Since this journey would take us about 4 hours at home I figured we would be 8 hours max on our journey. This was NOT the case! It took us 11.5 hours in total.
We were cramped in the back 4 seats of a small van, with a pile of luggage on the top.
Luckily, the girls are pretty good in the car. We only stopped a few times for bathroom breaks, but we had a total of 9 passport checks and 11 other security/police stops during our 400km journey, and this doesn’t include the border! This provided lots of opportunities to pee on the side of the road. Thankfully I packed a bag full of snacks, so other than being uncomfortable, the day passed without much fuss.
Exhausted from our bus ride, we spent the first day in Ouaga regrouping. Randy got us organized while the girls and I relaxed by the somewhat crumbling pool. It was well after dark by the time we had a vehicle and driver for our mini-safari. For a country lacking in tourists, it was shocking to me how complicated it was to give people our money! A few companies were happy to agree to our negotiated price, but included a last-minute caveat that we would pick the car up empty and return it full. Or, they were uninterested in negotiating at all and wanted us to pay a ridiculous amount of money. It resulted in a good deal of frustration for Randy. Poor guy, whenever it seems to get difficult I always pass it off to him! We ended up paying a fair price, in a reliable vehicle.
I was happy with our car when it picked us up the next morning. It had air conditioning, and didn’t look like it was going to break down on the side of the road. Our driver, on the other hand, had no clue what he was doing. I don’t think he’d ever driven on the highway before. We hit a goat (not entirely his fault), took a few wrong turns, and almost crashed a few times passing other vehicles. He was scared to accelerate too quickly. On the plus side, he didn’t run out of gas and leave us to walk up a hill in the blazing mid-day sun! (Like our similarly inexperienced driver in Natitingou).
We made it to the park in one piece. Just in time to drop off our bags, pick up our guide, and head out for an evening drive.
The elephant grass in the reserve is so high in November that I was sure we weren’t going to see anything. Luckily, we had Isaac with us. The sun was just starting to set as we slowly passed a major waterhole in the park. Isaac tapped the driver and pointed out the window. Sure enough, just on the other side of the waterhole, there was a whole family of elephants. Taking our guide’s lead, we jumped out of the vehicle and started towards the water’s edge. He stopped us, telling me to keep the girls away from the edge because of the crocodiles. Duly noted!
We crept our way closer to the water until we were able to see the elephants in full view. They were just finishing up their evening drink and were making their way through the brush away from the water hole. It was unbelievable. This is what we came to Nazinga to see! It was our own private viewing. There was even a baby in the mix! Kacela was very happy about that.
Fulfilling our goal of seeing elephants, we headed back to camp quite content.
We woke the next morning still excited from our elephant encounter the night before. We decided to forego the morning safari drive. Instead we enjoyed the early morning sunrise at the Ranch de Nazinga.
Nestled right on the edge of a waterhole, the lodging is the perfect place to scout for animals in the morning. There’s a small enclosure at one end where visitors can safely look for animals. The sun came up right over the watering hole as we watched a variety of antelope drink from the far edge. It was so peaceful I could have stayed happily in that moment.
However, we had a long drive ahead of us. Transportation is expensive, and there’s a lot to see in Burkina, so I combined as many activities as possible. I had a plan to stop at Tiébélé Village the way back to Ouagadougou.
This smallish village in the South of Burkina Faso boasts a large Royal Court with geometrically painted houses. In recent years the number of people living inside the Royal Court has decreased, and the houses are not being maintained as much as they used to. As modernization begins to move in, the younger generations are starting to stray away from their traditions. This is one of those situations where I think tourism can play a role in helping to support traditions. It’s a lot of work to maintain the artwork on the exterior of the houses. If it will help bring money into the community the people will be more likely to undertake the effort.
Tiébélé was the only place during the entire month where we got to experience a local celebration. Isaac had been on the look-out the whole time, but the situation surrounding the few others we encountered was less than ideal. As soon as he heard the music he had our driver pull over and went to investigate. It was a post-burial celebration and most of town was out participate. A few men played music, a few more were beating on drums, and even more were dancing.
We watched from the sidelines for a bit, but it was hot in the sun and the girls started to get tired. I gave a small donation to the eldest drum-player as a thank you and we continued on. We were privileged to get a glimpse into some of the most intimate parts of their culture.
Of all the cities we visited in Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso, Bobo Dioulasso was my favourite. It had a relaxed vibe and there was LOTS to do!
Our hotel in Bobo, Villa Rose, was also lovely. We splurged for a family room (one king and TWO twin beds), something we rarely found elsewhere. Most of the time the only thing available was a triple. This meant that one of the girls was sleeping with us, or they were attempting to sleep together on a twin, or Randy was sleeping on the twin and me and the girls were crammed into the double! None of which were ideal. Our sleeping situation meant that we were the most rested in Bobo, which likely also led to it being my favourite!
I would have loved to visit Mali on this trip, but the political situation is too unstable to bring the kids across the border. The Grande Mosquée was the closest we got to the Sahel-style architecture of Timbuktu.
Our guide for the mosque was a direct descendent of the mosque’s first Imam. His family is currently raising funds for a complete restoration. Built in 1893, this mud building has survived over a century, and I thought it was in surprisingly great shape. That being said, I can see why they want to restore it to ensure it lasts for many centuries to come.
There are a number of narrow passages inside the mosque, between large pillars used to hold up the structure. The front is reserved for the men with a large area at the back for women and children. They are definitely used to tourists because I brought a scarf with me to cover my head but our guide said it wasn’t necessary. It was really warm, so I appreciated not having to put on another layer of clothing!
As well as a place of worship, the mosque was also used for military purposes. There were multiple points of access to the roof, from where the mosque could be defended. We climbed up to the roof for a better view of the main tower (on the left), which is only accessible by the Imam. It also allowed us to see the mosque’s skylights (holes in the roof that can be covered by clay pots when it rains), and we got a bit of a history lesson on the defence of the mosque.
It might not be Timbuktu, but the Grande Mosquée is a beautiful structure that I hope gets the funding it needs for the restoration.
Adjacent to the mosque is the neighbourhood of Kibidwé, the oldest part of the city. It’s an interesting neighbourhood to wander around, with lots of winding passages and life happening on the streets all around you.
Divided into 4 quarters, each with a distinctive vibe, it was easy to spend a couple hours learning about the history of Bobo and meeting some local people. We started in the Muslim quarter, closest to the mosque, then wound our way to the musicians, farmer/textile and finally blacksmith quarters. Although the area is divided into quarters, there are no boundaries and everyone interacts amiably.
We stopped to view a few artisan shops, watched some children dance to the musicians, and bought a small figurine from one of the blacksmiths.
The girls also threw some bread to the sacred catfish in the We (Houët) River, which makes up the Eastern border of Kibidwé. It’s a place of pilgrimage and many of the locals will come to give offerings to the catfish. It’s also the main water source and sewage plant for the neighbourhood.
Standing on the banks of the river it was amazing to see the amount of garbage. The girls couldn’t quite understand why it was such a mess!
What shocked me the most, was that the well for the neighbourhood stood about 25 ft from the water’s edge. It’s a deep well, so is mostly safe from contamination, but it was crazy to see people fetching drinking water and washing clothes on the banks of such a filthy river.
We finished our tour with a snack of caterpillars on the side of the road! Calais was brave enough to try them, although she wasn’t a huge fan. Her braveness forced me to try one too! It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, but I’m not sure if I could be convinced to eat the whole bowl.
The other large animal we only saw from a distance in Benin was a hippopotamus. There are two places to go hippo-spotting near Bobo, however one of them was closed due to a recent tourist death. This made our decision about where to go easy! We set off in a clunky light blue car with one side-mirror and a back door that didn’t open, for the two hour drive to the Mare aux Hippopotame. It’s a small biosphere reserve north of the city created in 1987 to protect the area’s hippos. The local people still fish on the lake, but the creation of the reserve has protected the surrounding habitat from being destroyed to make room for cotton farming.
Turning off the main highway, the car bumped and lurched over pot-holes beside large cotton fields. The land was cleared of everything but Shea nut trees.
Burkina is one of the poorest countries in the world, but it’s economy is starting to improve from the cotton industry. It’s a physically demanding industry, but the conditions in Burkina are good for growing and it doesn’t require much irrigation. As we crossed over the entrance into the bioreserve, the landscape rapidly changed from cotton fields to cool, shaded teak forest.
Our family, Isaac, and one solo Swiss tourist climbed aboard a reasonably sized raft. About a dozen local men jumped in along with us to pole the boat out into the lake. We got close enough to see the hippos, but not so close as to be in danger. These men are on the lake everyday, either with tourists or fishing for themselves. The hippos are used to them being around so they pose less of a threat.
We didn’t have to go far to reach the hippos, so after our small push out onto the lake the boat stopped and we sat for some time just observing them in the water.
After about half an hour the guide decided we’d been there long enough. They brought us back to the shore and we climbed back in our car for the long journey back to Bobo.
It was a long way to go for 30min of hippo watching, but it was worth it and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
The Sindou Peaks are perhaps one of the most amazing, otherworldly landscapes in the whole of Burkina Faso. Brown, craggy rocks loom out of the red earth and make you feel like you could be on another planet. The absence of any other human presence just adds to the experience.
The peaks can be visited multiple ways: as a day trip from Banfora, on an overnight or week-long trek, or you can do what we did and visit as a day trip from Bobo Dioulasso. This was the right choice for us as it let us stay in the same hotel in Bobo for 5 nights in a row.
Xavier, the French owner of Villa Bobo (a highly recommended hotel in Bobo), picked us up in his 10 year old Land Rover first thing in the morning for the 85km drive to Banfora. We sped along the highway in the most comfortable driving conditions we’d had in weeks. The police merely waved us through every check stop. It’s amazing the difference in security requirements for a middle-aged Caucasian male, driving a Caucasian family, compared to a mini-bus full of locals. I’m sure we arrived in Banfora in half the time it would’ve taken us had we been a local driving themselves.
We stocked up on water and a few picnic supplies in Banfora, then continued on to the Peaks. Once we got closer Xavier called a local guide and who met us in a small parking lot at the entrance to the Peaks. The girls and I had a quick pee in the bush, then we headed up and into the Peaks.
In the past this was home to as many as 2000 Senoufou people with the peaks providing protection from invaders. In 1919 French colonization began and the Senoufou were forced out of the peaks to the adjacent flat land. It’s now a Unesco world heritage site, so these people have lost their ancestral home forever.
The hike was hot, although small pockets of shade provided a bit of reprieve. We climbed to the top of one of the peaks for a view of the surrounding countryside. The peaks seemed to go on forever. It was understandable why this was chosen as a settlement thousands of years ago, I can’t imagine anyone risking climbing into the area for an invasion.
Nearby the Sindou Peaks are the Domes of Fabedougou. They are similar rock formation to the Peaks but seem a bit older as they are dome shaped and not pointed. The Domes were a shorter, easier hike than the Peaks and didn’t require us to have a local guide.
As we climbed up to the top of one of the domes a herd of cattle walked through the valley. We watched from above as they made their way through the domes just like they may have done centuries ago. It was a flashback to another time, when life was simpler.
After a couple hot hikes Xavier suggested a late picnic lunch at the nearby Karfiguéla Waterfalls. We laid out a blanket in the shade of a tree and discretely disappeared into the bush to change into our swimsuits. The rushing sound of the falls was the perfect backdrop. Xavier brought along some home-made Passion Fruit liquor, made with fruit from trees in his yard. It was delicious!
Sitting there in the shade, sipping our drink and enjoying a simple lunch of bread, cheese and fruit, it was easy to forget we were in Africa. Even harder still to imagine that only a short time ago it wasn’t safe to drive on these roads in the dark. Militia from Mali had taken over the area. The government enlisted the help of the Senoufou people of the region to help flush out the militia. Within a very short time the militia were pushed back to Mali and the roads are safe again.
Even so, Xavier wanted to leave in time to get back to Bobo before sunset.
There was time for a short swim before we needed to hit the road, so as soon as we were finished eating we jumped in the water. The pool at the bottom of the falls was refreshing. Kacela climbed on my back to swim across to the other side of the falls. We all splashed our way through the small pools that made their way up the cascade. Kacela was happy in the littlest ones. Calais was brave. She even jumped off the side of the main fall with Randy!
While drying off we sipped fresh coffee made by Xavier, our first non-instant coffee in almost a month! It was the perfect ending to a great day.
Our flight out of Africa left from Ouagadougou. I looked at flying from Bobo to Ouagadougou but it seemed like a huge hassle, so we took the bus. The bus had air conditioning and we didn’t stop too many times. It was a relatively pleasant few hours back to Ouagadougou.
We spent our last day in Africa eating ice cream and shopping at the artisan market for some last minute souvenirs.
Where We Stayed: Ranch de Nazinga, right at the center of the reserve and I would stay here again in a heartbeat. The accommodations were rustic, and the food was okay but nothing special. The location, right beside the water hole, was simply amazing.
Cost: 16000 CFA ($35 CAD), Breakfast was 1500 CFA ($3 CAD) for toast and coffee, Dinner was 4500 CFA ($10 CAD)/meal, our family of 4 shared 2 dinner meals.
What We Did: We went on a safari!! A drive with one of the park’s guides was included with our over-night accommodation. He wasn’t instrumental in spotting the elephants (Isaac did that!), but he assured us it was okay to get out of the vehicle for a closer look. There’s also no way our completely un-knowledgeable driver would have been able to navigate us around the park, making our guide indispensable.
Transportation: We hired a car and driver from Ouagadougou for the 2-day trip. We over-payed, but were unable to find anything cheaper. The only reason I feel like we overpaid is because the owner of our hotel in Ouagadougou told us we should be paying less!
Cost: 50,000 CFA/day ($110 CAD) plus gas. Our driver’s wage was included in the day-rate for the car.
Tiébélé was a side-trip on the way back to Ouagadougou from Nazinga. The tour of the Royal Court cost 2000CFA ($4.50 CAD) and took just over an hour. We were quickly met by one of the guides from the local tour group not long after arriving in town. We didn’t eat here and had lunch in Pô, on the main highway, instead.
Where We Stayed: Villa Rose. This was one of my favourite accommodations of our whole trip. It’s owned by a Dutch-Burkinabe couple who both speak English. We had a family room with a king and two single beds, with hot water and air conditioning. As an added bonus the hotel is set in a large, lovely garden and can prepare or order-in excellent meals.
Cost: 27,000 CFA ($60 CAD) per night for the family room.
Where We Ate: We ate breakfast every day in the gardens of Villa Rose. It was 2000 CFA ($4.50 CAD) for coffee, toast and an omelet for breakfast. Dinner at Villa Rose was an average of 5000 CFA ($11 CAD) per meal. Our family of 4 shared 2 dinner meals.
We went for pizza one night at Pizza Fabrice, an easy walk from our accommodation. (7000 CFA, $15 CAD for 2 pizzas and drinks).
There was also a fantastic little local place just down the street in the other direction where we ate lunch one day. It was a grand total of 1900 CFA ($4 CAD) for all of us with drinks(including Randy’s beer)!
What We Did: We spent one day exploring Bobo and went on a couple day trips.
Sindou Peaks: Doable as a day-trip from Bobo, the Sindou Peaks can also be visited from the smaller town of Banfora. We rented a 4-wheel drive vehicle with driver (Xavier, from Villa Bobo) for 40,000 CFA ($90 CAD). We spent the morning hiking in the Sindou Peaks, early afternoon at the Dome de Fabedougou, and had a late lunch at Karifiguela waterfall. It was a jam-packed day but was lots of fun! As an added bonus, Xavier took us to his favourite restaurant for fried fish and chips that evening.
Mare aux Hippopotame: This is another easy day-trip 2 hours North of Bobo. We drove a long way to spend 30min watching hippo’s, but we were all happy with it! We rented a smaller car and driver for 25,000 CFA ($55 CAD) for the day.
Grande Mosque: Upon arriving at the Mosque we waited as our driver called a guide. We learned about the mosque and the community that built it on a short tour. The cost was 2000 CFA per adult ($4.50 CAD). The family is raising money for a complete restoration of the Mosque, so I had no problem paying the asked amount!
Kibidwe: Kibidwe is the original neighbourhood of Bobo Dioulasso. We hired a guide for 2000 CFA ($4.50) and he took us on a 2 hour tour. We stopped at a few artisan shops along the way; a mask carving shop, a music performance, a blacksmith and a weaver. It was interesting to see the different crafts, even better because I didn’t feel obligated to purchase. It was interesting to see daily life in Bobo carrying on just as it has for hundreds of years.
Transportation: Isaac got the name and number of a local river from our guesthouse owner in Ouaga. He picked us up from the bus station and we used him for most of our larger trips around Bobo. Taxis are also plentiful and easy to hail from any of the main roads.
We took the Rakieta bus to, and from, Ouagadougou for 7000 CFA per seat each ($15) each direction. The drive took 5-6 hours and was comfortable. Our luggage was safely packed away under the bus, alongside a motorcycle!
Where We Stayed: We stayed in Les Jardins de Koulouba, a small guesthouse set down a quiet alleyway in the centre of town. The pool is starting to crumble, but it’s still useable. Meals were delicious. The garden was full of ex-pats at lunch and dinner, grabbing a bite to eat and enjoying the cool tables in the shade. The staff were often rude and not very accommodating, but the owner was pleasant enough and provided us with some good information about traveling around Burkina. We stayed in 3 of the 4 rooms during our multiple nights in Ouagadougou, and each one was pleasant and clean. The rooms were big enough to put the kids on a mattress on the floor, so everyone slept pretty well.
Cost: 22000 CFA ($50 CAD) per night.
Where We Ate: We ate lunch and dinner at our hotel most days, and found lunch on the street. Breakfast was 2500 CFA ($5 CAD) for toast, coffee & an omelette. Meals at Les Gardens de Koulouba were 4000-6000 CFA ($8-13 CAD) per meal. As usual, our family of 4 was able to share 2 main meals. Lunch on the street cost around 500 CFA ($1) per person. We just wandered until we saw a spot that was full of locals, and followed the crowd.
What We Did: We used Ouagadougou as our base for Burkina Faso. We travelled from here to the Reserve de Nazinga and Tiébélé. We spent one afternoon at the Village Artisanal de Ouaga, and another afternoon just wandering the streets and alleyways. The Artisan Village is a government run cooperative with essentially fixed pricing. The vendors are still willing to negotiate if you don’t get a receipt and put your purchase in your backpack or shoulder bag.
Transportation: We either walked or took a taxi to get us around town. We always negotiated our taxi fare prior to getting in, and paid no more than 2000 CFA ($4.50 CAD) for the longer rides.
Our flight to Europe left from Ouagadougou’s airport. Many of the flights come and go in the middle of the night (ours left at 3:15am!). We arranged for a driver to pick us up from our accommodation at midnight to give us lots of time at the airport. We went through a passport check to turn into the airport and again when we pulled up to the front to the airport. There was a metal detector and small security stop with passport check as we entered the building.
Our passports were checked when we walked up to the line to check-in, at the check-in desk, when we got into line for customs, going through customs, and again going through security. It was completely ridiculous! After getting through security the airport is sectioned into zones for each flight. An agent made us open our bags to check them, just incase the scanner they had just passed through wasn’t good enough! She also checked our passports (of course!) and we were ushered into a small waiting area. As soon as everyone on our flight was in the holding area, they began boarding. We left 45 min early! There was two more passport checks on the way out of the building, and then getting onto the bus, and then we were off.
My passport has never seen as much action as it did in Burkina Faso.