A chants encounter

Aboard a privately-owned train, Flora King explores a bewitching African nation from south to north.

Guy Catherine is a broad-shouldered bear of a man. "Top up?" he asks, brandishing a gin bottle and pouring a slug before I have time to protest. It's noon and I'm sprawled on the back deck of a 1920s colonial railroad car listening to crickets trilling above the sound of a panting engine and watching green savannah fall away behind me.

Catherine takes a swig from his glass and settles into a chair to tell me the story of how he sailed from France to west Africa in the 1970s, arrived in Benin via Togo, opened his first guesthouse and eventually bought his beloved railroad cars for the equivalent price in scrap metal. I listen in gin-soaked contentment as the train rattles northwards and the landscape begins to change, thirsty savannah thickening into lush forest.

Sipping G&Ts on a private train isn't quite how I'd envisaged my first day in Benin, not least because passenger rail travel has as good as ceased to exist here. When I stepped off the plane in Benin's largest city and economic capital, Cotonou, the lack of tourist infrastructure was immediately evident. This small, club-shaped, francophone country sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria has little in the way of timetables, bureaus de change or buses from the airport. Nothing runs on time (if it runs at all) and if you plan to do one thing, you'll almost certainly end up doing another.

But if you take this in your stride, Benin is a culturally intriguing place, home to more than 50 African ethnicities and languages. In 1991, it was the first west African nation to move peacefully from dictatorship to democracy and has recently benefited from a series of economic reforms. But it is also a country in which memories of ancient dynasties linger and where traditional beliefs die hard, as seen in the voodoo shrines and fetish markets.

Benin's guesthouses are mostly rustic, simple and affordable and Catherine, originally from Paris, owns the lion's share of them. His Auberge de Grand Popo, two hours from Cotonou and set around restored colonial buildings, captures the laid-back spirit of southern Benin, with simple bamboo cottages and a thatched-roof restaurant shaded by palms, facing a yellow stretch of empty Atlantic coast.

Grand Popo, a fishing village near the Mono estuary and the Togo border, is in the heart of voodoo country. Local Fa diviners are active here and in the nearby voodoo settlement of Heve, I witness a potent, disturbing ceremony in honour of zangbeto spirits, the nightwatchmen, in which men swallow shards of glass and women spin themselves into a fever.

Also nearby is the fishing village of Ganvie, established in the 16th century by the Tofinu tribe fleeing their slave-trading Dahomeyan neighbours. Sprawled across the waters of Lake Nokoue, Ganvie is a place where the clock has stopped.

At the opposite end of the country, 650 kilometres to the north, Auberge de Kandi is set in a greener, more hilly landscape. The train doesn't go as far as this diminutive farming town close to the border with Nigeria - we drive there from Parakou - but it is worth a visit for its proximity to the 405,000-hectare W National Park, which teems with buffalo, warthogs, elephants and more than 350 species of birds. Ganvie and W National Park are two of Benin's main tourist draws but I share my visit with just a handful of travellers, mostly from France.

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Catherine has three other properties along the line: Auberge de Abomey, Auberge de Dassa Zoume and Auberge de Parakou. The first is a stately colonial building, the second a laid-back place with billiard table and pet ostrich and the third is leafy and green with internal gardens and terraces. But Benin's roads are potholed at best, impassable at worst, which is where the private train comes in handy.

There used to be two passenger trains a day travelling the 600-kilometre narrow-gauge track from Cotonou to Parakou but today, the line is used only by freight trains. In beautiful, ramshackle 1920s stations, the ticket office is forever "ferme" and a solitary stationmaster might doze the day away on a seat in the shade.

An undeterred Catherine bought two colonial-era carriages on a whim three years ago. From this northern autumn, however, the train will be available for hire by hotel guests.

I board with Catherine, his son, Charlie, his Beninese wife, another guest and a driver. The first stop is Abomey, the old capital of the feared Dahomey kingdom, which is still crowded with royal palaces and haunted by the ghosts of bloodthirsty kings.

The route passes 20 stations on its way through rainforest into the hills. All along the route, village children in traditional pagne wraps pop out of the undergrowth to wave. At Dassa Zoume further up the line, the streets are busy with vendors selling bananas, drums of fuel and bags of cardamom and tapioca.

Walking north out of town, we explore the surrounding sacred hills. Dotted with shrines to voodoo divinities, they are also, strangely, home to the largest Christian pilgrimage site in west Africa.

At the end of the line is Parakou - the name means "everyone's city" - a busy market town and home to many ethnic groups.

For all this diversity, it is Catherine who really makes my journey. A warm character with a big sense of humour, he regales me with stories, cracks jokes and makes sure my glass is never anything but full. In a jokey reference to France's Trains a Grande Vitesse (TGV), he describes his version as Trains a Grande Vibration. It's true that despite the comforts of a bedroom (for afternoon naps; you can't yet stay overnight), bathroom, bar and back platform strewn with hammocks, the ride is anything but smooth. At top speed, the train reaches 50km/h, breakdowns are common and safety measures consist of a conductor watching for freight trains hurtling the other way.

But in Benin, that's part of the parcel. Don't come looking for luxury hotels and smooth service. The charm is in its decay, coupled with its optimism and slow regeneration.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines/Air France has a fare to Benin's capital, Cotonou, from Sydney and Melbourne for about $3455. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then Paris (about 14hr), then Cotonou (about 6hr). This is a low-season return fare, including tax. Australians require a visa; apply in advance at visalink.com.au.

Staying there

Day hire of the train (up to 20 people) costs from 400,000 CFA francs ($A839). The route, length of trip and nights in guesthouses along the way are flexible; meals and drinks are extra. Phone (+229) 22 43 00 47, email voyageur@intnet.bj, see hotels-benin.com and benintourisme.com.

Auberge de Grand Popo has doubles from $A40 a night, breakfast from $5, three-course dinner from $16. Guests can pay using CFA francs, euros, $US or Visa credit card card.

- Guardian News & Media

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