Kpalimé – City of Unkempt Promise

When I was plotting this trip to West Africa, I’ll confess that very little in my guide book and research attracted me to Togo – it was, as I’ll readily admit, just somewhere to pass through on the way out of Benin. One of the few places that did sound like it might be nice though was the city of Kpalimé (pronounced, as with ‘knife’, with a silent stabbing motion towards the heart). Rolling hills (including Mount Agou, the highest point in Togo at a marvellously altitude-affecting 986m – this makes Togo about as flat as England), treks through lush forests with coffee plantations, and small but pretty waterfalls.

As if to confirm my initial suspicions, my experiences in Lomé had left me distinctively underwhelmed, so my expectations weren’t high for Kpalimé to be anything particularly special. And my expectations were largely met; a fairly run-down, unkempt town set amid some relatively pretty scenery – although with the benefit of hindsight, nothing I saw in Kpalimé I couldn’t see better elsewhere; a bit like Togo in general to be honest.

Health Signpost
That this sign even needs to exist is testament to the nature of the town.

River in Kpalimé
The small river running through the town. Bear in mind the above sign, have a guess what the lady walking along the river did next.

The town centre was small; one main road running through, with a handful of pebble-covered tracks leading off either side. On the right (East) side, just down a slope, was the large market area – a whole block of street stalls packed tightly together selling the usual African combination of kitchenware and fruit. Stalls spread out along neighbouring lanes too, pretty much surrounding both the large bus station and the fenced-off remains of what used to the be the railway station – remains of the rail line still exist near the market. On the other side of the main road lay nothing more than a few roads of shack housing, and a slightly out-of-place church …

Kpalimé cathedral outside
The outside of the cathedral. See how out-of-place it really looks?

This was the ‘neo-gothic’ styled Catholic Cathedral, ‘Saint-Esprit’. Built just before WW1 by the German colonials, it’s quite ‘jarring’ compared with the surrounds – not just because of its style but also its height, as there’s very little else in the area that’s quite so tall. Although around 40% of the local population claim to be Catholic, the cathedral was very quiet and relatively empty during my visit, with only a couple of local children playing games of ‘chase’ flittering in and out of view. Despite its impressive exterior, the inside was relatively plain compared with other cathedrals, with few of the adornments I’d come to expect.

Kpalimé cathedral inside
The altar inside the cathedral – much less ornate than you’d expect.

The town itself was pretty grim. ‘Functional’ would be a good word to describe it; although the surrounding countryside attracts tourists, it did become clear the guidebook suggested the best places to stay were in the neighbouring villages rather than Kpalimé itself. I did manage to find a cybercafé very close to the hotel, and there were a handful of places to grab some food – indeed on arrival I’d launched myself into a small diner that felt like someone’s front room – the hosts were lovely and friendly though (seemingly a rarity for Togo), and through the medium of broken French I managed to get a very filling plate of ‘riz sauce gombo’, basically rice with okra, which looks like some kind of glutinous radioactive mess, but tastes infinitely more boring.

Riz Sauce Gombo
Lunch of ‘gloop’ and rice. So sticky that when you lifted it to your mouth, the sauce trailed down like ooze or snot.

Some places were open in the evenings; on my first night I had some food at the Togolese equivalent of a ‘burger van’, complete with long serving hatch and stools to sit at. My second night was at a more traditional café with outside dining, where I’m sure one of the locals was trying to hook me up with one of his female friends, but I was too busy eating to care.

One of the odder things in the town was the ’30 August 1969′ monument. Apart from being nothing more interesting than a beige stone block, it was located in an overgrown square that had, to all intents and purposes, been fenced off – the gate on the fence was broken so I wandered in to have a closer look. My brief research has found nothing to suggest what exactly this commemorates, although the time period suggests it’s commemorating something to do with the then President of Togo, General Étienne Eyadéma, trying to gain popular support in Kpalimé following his successful coup two years previously (later that year, Togo become a 1-party state, and Eyadéma was President until his death in 2005). The monument was constructed in 2001, by which time he’d changed his name to commemorate his survival in a plane crash in 1974.
He was a quite dictatorial leader, with a strong personality cult attached to him; after his death, his son initially took over but was forced to reign pending democratic elections, which he ‘won’ anyway. Although his son is still President, it’s possible he wants to ensure a visible ‘break’ from his father’s rule, hence the lack of upkeep to the monument. But I don’t know.

The 30 August 1969 monument
The monument, fairly dull and unloved, unkempt, a symbol of the town itself. I’m not really ‘selling’ this place am I?!

I’d had no particular rush to get to Kpalimé; I effectively had a day ‘spare’ in my itinerary since I didn’t need to be back in Accra until Sunday evening. Following my smile-free checkout from the hotel, a casual barefoot moto ride took me up to a dusty, stony bus park somewhere in the Northern suburbs of Lomé and the standard 2-hour wait for the minibus to finally leave; the overall journey time being marginally less than the waiting time. Unusually for a West African minibus, we were barely a quarter full on departure, and I had pretty much the whole of the back seat to spread out in.

As now seems to be standard in this adventure, I’d not booked ahead; my experiences in Tamale aside, I hadn’t ever really needed to. Although in a touristy area, a couple of the guesthouses I’d made notes about were a further moto ride out of the town (in surrounding villages near the mountains) rather than central, but in the event I didn’t have to walk far at all; a guesthouse (Bafana Bafana) pretty much outside the cathedral had a simple room for a reasonable price (about 7000CFA/night).

Outside the hotel
The outside of the hotel. Not going to win any design awards.

Inside the hotel
The open courtyard inside the hotel – nothing special, but what else do you need anyway?

As guesthouses went, it wasn’t the most spectacular; it was, however, comfortable, quiet, and by no means the worst place I’d been on my trip. It actually reminded me a little of the places I’d stayed in Northern Ghana, if in fact even a little more comfortable. The room was light but plain, with a ceiling fan, small shower cubicle, and desk. The door opened onto the cement courtyard; rooms were only on one side – on the other was a simple wall. I’m not sure how many rooms there were – maybe 6 or 7 – but I’m pretty sure I was the only person staying there.

The staff were young and reasonably friendly locals, if maybe a touch overly laid-back and unfocussed. They did manage to get me in touch with a local guide, who of course may or may not have been the boyfriend of one of the staff (and whose name I unfortunately forgot to make a note of), but he spoke reasonable English and claimed to have ‘not long before’ taken a party of Americans out to see the local countryside. A swift bit of negotiation and he came off 14,000CFA richer, while I had a guide for a few hours the next day. I’m not much good with this bartering lark, I’ll readily admit – never quite understood why the simple process of buying/selling needs to be made more complicated; I’ve enough trouble with the USA not labelling prices on goods correctly (oooh I’ll buy that soda for 99 cents; what do you mean it costs $1.07?!).

There were two spots I was interested in visiting – the aforementioned Mt Agou, and the waterfalls at Womé. Both were maybe a half-hour moto ride out of Kpalimé, albeit in opposite directions; Agou back towards Lomé, whilst Womé was to the West, near the Ghana border. We went to Mt Agou first, a nice ride on fairly smooth roads through the trees, before taking a side road, going through a ‘checkpoint’ (it seems that the road up Mt Agou is privately-owned, therefore ‘chargeable’), and then riding the road up the hill. It felt like we were riding for quite a bit longer than I’d have expected; we must have been quite a way up already by the time we parked up near a couple of houses, and set about walking the rest.

My guide around the Kpalimé hinterland.

One of the many cocoa trees. No, I didn’t know either that cocoa beans looked like that until this trip.

The trek uphill took us mainly through fruit and cocoa trees, a reasonably steep climb but quite easily manageable. We did pause every so often so I could take pictures. After a while, maybe an hour or so, the trees thinned out and we came past a small village, where the path turned and flattened out. It came as a bit of a surprise to me to find that my guide said that this was the end of the trail – apparently “the path doesn’t go to the summit”. Interestingly, the signs suggested that the road we’d been riding up initially does, and I’m absolutely certain my guidebook concurred. However, I wasn’t going to argue, mainly because the view wasn’t that great from here due to haze, so I’d imagine that once you reached the top it would have been even worse. Still, on a clear day I’d imagine it would look pretty awesome – you’d be able to see all the way into Ghana.

Village on Mount Agou
The pretty village on the side of Mount Agou.

View from Mount Agou
And this is the disappointing view from the mountain, looking West towards Ghana. It’s funny how this sort of thing happens to me any time I try to go somewhere scenic.

If Mt Agou was a disappointment to match the town as a whole, the waterfall at Womé did go some way to make up for it. After returning to Kpalimé, we then rumbled over a very stony and rough series of dusty roads through small villages, past remote churches, before turning off at the last junction in Togo before the Ghanaian border (complete with customs post). After a further 5 or so minutes over a grass trail, we parked up in what passed for a car-park and trekked down a short stairway through a forest to reach the edge of a wide stream. A couple of turns later, I was confronted with what felt like my own private waterfall.

Womé waterfall
Overview of the waterfall at Womé. It did look prettier than this in real life.

Although not a large, gushing, series of epic falls (partly due to this being the dry season), its location in a clearing in the trees made it seem quite special and serene. The fairly circular pool at the base of the waterfall would have made a good location for a relaxing swim, had I the ability. Instead I just walked along the stony bank, occasionally paddling in the very cool, clear, refreshing water. Though it seemed a long way to go to just see a small amount of water fall down a cliff, it was a really good place to relax and just take in the atmosphere – with no other people around at all, it was very quiet and the perfect place to take stock.

Me at the waterfall
Grumpy-looking backpacker, and ‘Baby Ian’.

Thus ended my time in Togo – a country I hadn’t been fussed on visiting and which proved me right, I’m sorry to say.

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