W is named for a W-shaped meander in the Niger River. In French it's pronounced doob-luh-vay. The "du Niger" in the name, Parcs Nationaux du W du Niger, refers to the river rather than the country. This transnational park covers 10,000 km2 in Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger. It is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, and a BirdLife International Important Bird Area.
You must have a guide to enter W, for your own security, for the safety of the animals and the ecosystem, and to preserve the archaeological sites. When you walk out from any of the sites, you must also have an armed ranger, a requirement both practical and highly disconcerting!
You must also have your own transportation. You can arrange for a car and driver yourself (Peace Corps volunteers, for instance, often arrange drivers for their parents). If you don't want the hassle, contact the guides' association in advance, and they can make the arrangements for you. The standard rate for a guide is 20,000 francs per day. A car and driver is 50,000 francs with air conditioning, 40,000 without, plus fuel.
You can also travel the Niger River by pirogue (dugout canoe, with or without an outboard motor). It is possible to start in Niamey -- arrange this through a travel agency -- or to take short pirogue trips from the Campement du Nigercar or the lodge at the Ile du Lamantin.
Within the park you do not need visas to pass from one country to another. But if you leave the park, visas are required.
The Beninois section of the park is open more or less from December into June, depending on rainfall and road conditions. If you want to visit during the rainy season, contact the park authorities or the guides' association in advance. The Nigerien section is open all year, although insects, rain, and marginal road conditions llimit tourism in the summer months. The lodge at the Ile du Lamantin is closed in summer.
W is huge. You can drive for six hours from the Hotel de la Tapoa (in Niger) to the town of Diapaga (in Burkina Faso) without encountering another vehicle.
You will, however, encounter plenty of wildlife. Roan antelopes (hippotragues) and warthogs often stroll across the road; you may pass elephants or even a lion along the way; and a cloud of dust may conceal a herd of running buffalo. Get out of the car whenever you can to watch for monkeys and birds. Over 350 bird species have been recorded in W. Stroll near your campsite at night and listen for hyenas. Lions roaring may wake you in the morning, but don't panic; the roar can be heard for up to 5 miles (8 km.) Watch baboons eating breakfast in the trees. W contains 1300 elephants and 200 lions. You are less likely to spot cheetah (guepard), hunting dogs (lycaon), or manatees (lamantin), since they, like the elephant, are highly endangered.
Several stops in W are on all the Burkinabe guides' circuits. Others, especially along the Niger River, depend on the time you have available. The centerpieces of the park are:
- Point Triple, the spot where Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger come together, is not just the physical center of the park, but its symbolic center. You may not even be aware of which country you are actually in! Archaeological excavations in the Point Triple area have placed the beginning of metallurgy in the area far earlier than had been assumed. The huts and other buildings at Point Triple were built to house the excavators and their ongoing research. Comfortable overnight lodging and meals are available in the excavation facilities.
- The Chutes de Koudou (Koudou Falls) may seem more like a dribblel if you visit in the dry season. But wander around on the rocks and you will see huge potholes carved out over millennia by the cascading water. In January you will have to wade or wait to cross the Mekrou River, but by February you may be able to walk across the border. From the Chutes you can take a hike of about five kilometers to a hippo pool. Random locals may appear out of nowhere to bang sticks noisily on the trees to rouse the otherwise somnolent and slow-moving hippos. Of course, the hippos may not be in that day, but if they're gone the local fishermen may be using the pool instead! Unfortunately lodging is no longer available at the Chutes de Koudou.
- Throughout the park, in all three countries, you will find wildlife observation areas (miradors), some in better condition than others. The later in the season you visit, the more animals there will be at these points d'eau, as other water sources dry up and the animals are forced to congregate at the remaining watering holes. If you manage to carry a spotting scope, the miradors are the place to use it, and to try your hand at digiscoping.
There are very few English-language guides to the area, but fortunately the Bradt series covers all three countries, and all three books have extensive sections on the wildlife. Many U.S. libraries do not yet carry the Bradt series, so plan in advance and get them through interlibrary loan!
- Niger: the Bradt travel guide / Jolijn Geels. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press; Chalfont St. Peter, Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Guides, 2006.
- Burkina Faso: the Bradt travel guide / Katrina Manson and James Knight. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press; Chalfont St. Peter, Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Guides, 2012.
- Benin: the Bradt guide / Stuart Butler. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press; Chalfont St. Peter, Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Guides, 2006.
W National Park's own web site
http://www.parc-w.net/en/html/intro.html is being improved. View it in English or French.
African Natural Heritage (includes a nice slide show of W)
In 2010 the African Wildllife Federation named W its newest African Heartland.
Beyond Boundaries: Transboundary Natural Resource Management in “W” Park / World Wildlife Fund, 2001.