Friday, September 2, 2011


Dust illuminated rays of tired sunlight cutting through the savannah trees. We were approaching the end of a long, bumpy road into the wilderness, and the train of thoughts that went through my head with all those hours to stare out the window was disappearing into the distance as our destination drew nearer. Crawling along the banks of streams in North Carolina, plunging into a freezing lake in Montana, smiling in a coffee shop in Seattle, staring up at a frescoed ceiling in Bologna, the wind passing through my hair on the back of a bike in Amsterdam, images began to disappear as the future rushed up to greet me in the calm of the African evening.

Sun going down over the African Savannah

I have just finished an exhausting trip of Northern Ghana. Starting from Lome, I took a bus with two friends up to the Kara city of Togo. We then went west to Tamale in Ghana and further west to spend three days at Mole National Park. Afterwards we headed to the western border with Burkina to check out the Wechiau hippo sanctuary, making a needed pit stop in Wa along the way. We finished up with two days full of travelling to get back to Daopang and land on solid ground. It was truly worth it, worth all the cramped bush taxis and endless roads and long waits to take off. What made all that worth it?

My homies, bandannad to keep dust off our faces... and rock

We took off together from Lome as the sun was coming up on the Poste bus. Taking the Route Nationale all the way to Kara looked daunting but doable, and I downed some rice and beans from the earliest vendor of the day before the bus took off. I had wanted to read during the ride, but the swerving to avoid potholes made that impossible. Whenever we stopped to pick up passengers, women with food and drinks balanced on their heads swarmed around the bus and we got to reach way down out the window to grab water sachets and beignets. The trip was relatively uneventful until we had to make an ascent through a gap in the mountains going up to the Kara region. At this point the Route takes on a slightly terrifying quality. Semi trucks that seem inches from breaking down or having all of their parts suddenly explode to look like an assembly diagram crawl up a steep, winding hill while motos swerve around them and more semis come downhill the other direction seeing how much pressure their brakes can stand. We passed the other daily Poste bus travelling south on the way up. A very exciting time was had by all when we reached the top and celebrated our survival by taking pictures of the scenery.

Crazy hill on the route

We spent the night in Kara before getting a car west at dawn to head towards Tamale. The driver opened the door and we tumbled out to change cars in a town before the border. My friends joked with some Belgians while I wandered around and tried to figure out what in the culture and architecture was changing. Not much: they still sold the same imported Chinese soap, women sat all around selling the same onions, tomatoes, and peppers I find everywhere, and the countryside was scattered with concrete block shells that would surround family compounds if the families had decided not to go elsewhere. On the other hand, the dramatic shift from my Catholic dominated community in Anfoin to a mostly Muslim population in Kara had some stunning effects. Ramadan was in full force, with loud music and chanting issuing day and night from speakers mounted on the top of village mosque minarets. This also meant that street food was difficult to find during daylight hours throughout our trip because of fasting. After crossing the border with Ghana and being assaulted by money changers (instead of zimmy john moto men like in Togo) as we stepped out of the car, we caught a bus one the way to a village… on the way to Tamale. I was angry because I had to scarf down all my late lunch as the bus began bouncing down the road, but I understood when we halted to let the drivers and passengers pray at the next stop.

Muslim community coming from afternoon prayers on the road to Tamale
Throughout the trip I was constantly confused about Ghanaian currency and how to change African Francs (CFA) to cedis, the Ghanaian dollar. The currency was changed very recently and the old money is still used when discussing prices in the north of the country. When I bought my first bus ticket I paid 45,000, which translates into 450 peswas (like cents), or 4.5 cedis, or 1,500 CFA, or $3. Since I think totally in terms of CFA, this was pretty exhausting. Another habit that was difficult for me to get used to was set prices. Throughout Togo, bargaining is the norm. I haggle for everything when I go to the market or travel, but when I tried this in Ghana I failed. Paying a set price for products seems so strange…
After spending a night in Tamale we set off for the hotel at Mole National Park and paradise. Along the way we chatted with a group of European tourists from all the different countries of the EU. They were planning on getting up at 6:30 AM the next day to go on a safari. While we were very eager to see the animals, my friends and I decided to use a different strategy: let the safari come to us. When we saw our air conditioned, refrigerator equipped, shower and bed present hotel room we knew getting up at an early hour was not going to be an option. Fortunately, when we awoke the next morning and stepped outside the door there was an elephant standing there to greet us.

Aaaaaand... Elephant! Off our hotel room porch

Brandon surprised at stepping outside after a morning shower
and seeing a giagantic elephant tromping through the bushes.

Other people taking pictures of the elephant, nicknamed 'people lover'

Unfortunately it did not trumpet to express its joy for us, but since trumpeting tends to indicate rage I was grateful for that. Elephants are the largest land animals weighing in at 5000 – 6000 kg. They have two tusks: one for eating and grazing, the other for engaging in combat with other elephants. Despite occasionally violent clashes between males, elephants are very social creatures and could easily be seen happily playing and galumphing (the very technical word I created for describing the elephant walk) from the viewing platform of the park hotel.

Elephants at the watering hole as seen from the park hotel viewing platform
The entire day we saw an incredible amount of wildlife while barely leaving the hotel. Monkeys, antelope, and warthogs seemed oblivious to humans as they grazed beside the porch railings, and when I rode a moto into town to stock up on provisions and explore cheaper lodging options baboons were lining the road.

Warthog eating some grass

Monkey scrambling across the entrance to the park

Me with elephant


Me with elephant skull (different elephant from previous photo)
Baboon sniffing out some snackies from a trash can

This hotel was the ideal spot for my first vacation. While it was quite difficult to get to and quite expensive for someone as poor as this guy, there was a pool with a nice bar/restaurant overlooking an enormous watering hole where all kinds of animals flock to drink and hang out. We had thought at the beginning that we would need to go deep into the leafy wilderness to see even a hint of animals, but after the first day we settled on a walking safari and spent most of our time at the hotel pool. The safari was spent walking mostly around the aforementioned watering hole with close up views of elephants awkwardly plunging into the water. We also saw several different species of antelope, a crocodiles, lots of monkey, and birds like the Northern Red Bishop. During the evenings we took advantage of the hotel bar (they have a beer called Castle in Ghana that is lightyears better than anything I’ve tasted in Togo) and I attempted to communicate with the other foreigners in their various languages. We spent the last night of our at a cheap hostel in the nearby town of Larabanga where I slept on the roof, listening to evening prayers and pondering the stars.

Sign at the visitor's center

Our next stop on the trip was the Wechiau hippo, but to get there we had to go through the city of Wa, whose local dialect is called Wa-Wa. While there we stayed with several Peace Corps Ghana volunteers who gave us much useful advice on travelling through their country. I thought at first that it would be much easier travelling around an English speaking country and not having to speak another language, but I had a lot of trouble understanding locals while we were travelling. Just as the French spoken in Togo is much different than the French spoken in France, Ghanaian English is very different from that of U.S. citizens such as myself. Volunteers living in Northern Ghana have adapted their manner of speaking to better communicate, a skill which I sorely lacked. Thus, I left ordering food and asking for directions to those better suited to the task.

The Wechiau hippo sanctuary, our next stop on le voyage, is an AWESOME community-based ecotourism site. This means that community members do all the managing of the park, such as trail and building maintenance, budget organization, and tours. Ninety percent of the money that is made giving tours of the hippo sanctuary, lodging people, and other services is used to benefit the villages within the sanctuary. For example, every village now has a water pump and many have received funds to build schools. The chiefs of three of the villages and other elected community members sit on the board for the sanctuary. Basically, this place is an example of tourism positively impacting an impoverished region.

The Wechiau sanctuary is located on the western border of Ghana with Burkina Faso, which are separated at this point by the Black Volta River. We stayed at the lodge in the sanctuary, which unlike the hotel had no electricity or running water but is super cheap as was everything else. Our guide was amazing: he gave us a canoe safari identifying birds and trees along the way, gave us a lot of information about the park, and cooked us a dinner of spaghetti with sauce. During the safari he had told us there are electric fish in the river that shock people like eels do, so on the way back we bought one that had been smoked and put it in the sauce. It was delicious.

My friends in the back of the canoe

Smoked electric fish
Unfortunately we did not get to see any hippos, the second largest land animal after the elephant. We went during the height of the rainy season when the river is at almost its peak level. This means there was no dust clogging our nostrils during taxi rides, but also there are much more places on the river where the hippos can hang out. Thus, we saw no hippos, and I had to be content with reading the extensive info on them in the guide book. What I did see were lots of birds: Northern Red Bishop, Laughing Dove, Bruce’s Green-Pigeon, and best of all the Hornbill (which swooped over my head as I was diving into the forest for an evening walk). Also we got to see a family of vervet monkeys swooping through the trees on the riverbank.

Following our day at Wechiau, we spent two long days just travelling to get back to Togo. From Wechiau we went back to Wa and then spent a night in Temu before passing through Bolgatanga and finally making it to Daopang in Togo. Although the northernmost region of Togo, Savanes, is renowned for its dry climate, we arrived at the peak of the short wet season. Grasses were popping up everywhere, and some land was covered with great plains obstructed occasionally by the rare Baobab. Others were a kaleidoscope of rice paddies, corn and bean fields, and circular huts arranged in circular family compounds.

While in Daopang I borrowed a bike and visited a friend in a nearby village. He helped me to explore the local brew called Tchakpa, which tastes like a light delicious millet beer. We biked to different stands and sampled the taste. After finishing our tour in a tiny nearby marche, I downed some bean beignets and biked happily back to Daopang.

Drinking Tchakpa with the locals and John, my tchakpa hopping companion
The next day I went to visit the caves close to Nano in Savanes where slaves used to hide from traders back in the 16 and 1700’s. The landscape was amazing: hills topped by giant cliffs spilling onto a vast open plain. I could see for miles.

View from atop the cliffs near the caves

Some of the caves under the cliffs

Soaking under a tropical waterfall

Today I am tired and happy to be heading back to post, to my village and the people I work with. Time to go home.

No comments:

Post a Comment