Angry Elephants, Castles and Muggings

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November 26th 2012
Published: November 26th 2012
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The border of Ghana was a breath of fresh air. Although our French had come on leaps and bounds over the last several weeks it was nice to take a break and revert back to English. Ghana is still seen as a bit of a jewel in West Africa in terms of having one of the most stable governments in the region and a growing economy. The first thing we saw when crossing the border were the signs advertising ‘help lines’ that you could call to report any government official or police officer who attempted to solicit bribes from you. A far cry from what we had encountered so far! The border formalities were fairly painless and we slipped into Ghana without incidence. We again tried to offload are toxic Guinea Francs but this just invited more laughter from the moneychangers who had gathered around our car.

Our first stop was Bolgotanga, an administrative town in the north that had nothing of great interest to keep you for long but an email from our new Swiss friends Robert and Maria who were a few days ahead of us had recommended a secure hotel that allowed camping in their car park. It was all we wanted after the long drive from Ouagadougou. We treated ourselves to a meal in the hotel restaurant and a few beers before bedding down for the night.

We were woken up at first light by a conversation outside our tent. “Yes, it is most clever, the tent packs down on top of the roof….and you access the tent by climbing this ladder here….watch”. We listened as we heard footsteps climbing the ladder of our tent before he halted his ascent when we threw a barrage of protest at our new curious friend. “What the hell are you doing” we yelled in unison. “Oh, just showing my friend how the tent works”. “But we are in it, can you bugger off”. The man, who turned out to be the hotel gardener seemed disappointed and sauntered off back to tend the flower beds. It was something that we had slowly got used to on our journey so far and that was the total lack of understanding when it comes to privacy or personal space. My particular bugbear was having people quite literally breathing down your neck while you are trying to withdraw money at an ATM, polite requests to back off by a few paces were usually met with confusion or amusement. We had spoken to various NGOs about this and they had explained that most Africans live in very social communities and it is considered very strange to seek not to be around other people. We tried to understand this but we drew the line at some random chap trying to climb into our tent at 6am.

We made our way to Mole National Park, one of the country’s premier tourist attractions, famed for its elephants and baboons. We had left the otherwise excellent main roads and found ourselves back on corrugated tracks being shaken to pieces. We were still worried about the damaged disc so tried to take it slow, we did not mind though it was scenic drive. It was striking to see how much more developed Ghana was in its rural areas then many of the countries we had passed through to date. Modern European style ‘square’ houses had replaced the round mud houses that we had grown used to. Every village had a school and clinic, running water and electricity was the norm, if only they could fix the road!

We arrived at the park and soon found Robert and Marie, we set up camp nearby and after dinner we all sat back to enjoy a few bottles of wine. The campsite was set up high on the edge of an escarpment that afforded magnificent views over the main watering hole and the canopy of forest that extended as far as the horizon. We also had ringside seats for the huge storm that swept across the valley in front of us. We were far enough away from the storm not to be rained on but could still marvel at the forks of lightning as they arced across the sky every few seconds before being shaken moments later by the accompanying rolls of thunder. We never get cool storms like this back home.

We rose early as we had booked ourselves on to a morning safari walk. We met our guide, Paul, a genial man who had been working in the park for several years. You could tell this was more than just a job for him, he loved his work and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the flora and fauna of the area. It was quite thrilling as we tiptoed through the long grass in the cool morning light following Paul as he found clues and tracks of any recent animal activity in the area. In fairness it did not take a genius to see where the elephants had been recently, they are massively destructive and evidence of broken tree branches and uprooted shrubs told us they were not far away. Sure enough Paul led us to a clearing and standing not more than 30 meters away from us were half a dozen elephants stripping the foliage from the nearby trees. They did not seem too bothered by our presence and seemed content for us to watch them go through their morning routine of throwing dirt over their backs and pulling small trees over. All the elephants had names and Paul knew the unique character of each one. As our walk progressed we saw warthogs, impala and baboons. We had to be careful with the latter as they were not afraid to rob food or bags from people as they had long since lost their fear of humans.

The campsite was attached to the grounds of a hotel so we made use of the pool and even managed to watch Andy Murray lose the Wimbledon final. From the escarpment we had perfect views of the watering hole nearby so could watch the elephants indulge in their afternoon swim while sipping a cold beer. It was arguably more enjoyable watching the baboon’s stage ninja attacks on any food that people had unwisely left unattended for a few seconds.

Later in the day the elephants decided to pay a visit to the edge of the hotel compound so we managed to get some cracking photos. I got a bit too close and one of the huge creatures made a fake charge at me. This general involves the elephant making a lot of noise, flapping its ears wildly and making a 10m or so dash towards you. Generally you don’t get warned twice and I scurried away back to safe distance. Got some great pictures though.

Our departure was marred by some underhand tactics by the hotel staff who tried to overcharge us for our stay. They had advertised the daily camping rate at the park entrance and on the information pamphlet that they handed out but had decided not to honour these prices. It was not huge money involved but it was a pretty poor tactic. Smugly they asked myself and Robert to point out on the tariff list that they had displayed in the reception where it stated that the prices were fixed. It was pathetic really and it all got a bit ugly after I called them unprofessional useless thieves. After several minutes of heated argument it resulted in us paying the correct advertised rate but also getting banned from the park.

We made the long drive down to Kumasi, seat of the old Ashanti Empire and still a place of considerable importance to the Ashanti people who make up most of the Ghanaian population. The main draw here, as always, was the market. Again we had huge fun getting lost in the myriad of alleys and having fun banter with the stall holders. We bought some new bed sheets for the tent and took a stroll around the food stalls. I was stopped by one woman who ‘had someone who wanted to meet me’, intrigued I waited as the women scurried off and came back with a small child who was thrust into my arms. The toddler, who looked as if he had just been woken up, slowly took stock of the situation and eyed me up and down before letting off a blood curdling wail. Apparently he had not seen a white person before and this new experience was not a welcome one. All the stall holders nearby thought it was hilarious watching me try to calm down this petrified child and seemed more interested in taking photos with their phones then rescuing the blubbering from his plight.

Ashanti people still have a monarchy and it was possible to visit the royal palace. The original palace that had stood for centuries had been levelled by the British when the Ashanti had the audacity to resist British attempts to annex the region. Despite brave efforts it was an exercise in futility as spears and magic charms were no match for British cannon and muskets. As a sort of half apology the British in 1930s had rebuilt the palace and reinstalled the monarchy. Out of respect the King is still briefed on matters of state by the incumbent government even he does not have a direct say in parliamentary matters. Upon arrival it was strange to see that the ‘new’ palace was remarkably similar to the sort of detached house you would find in Surbiton. In fairness it was a very good tour and the house had since become a museum with the King now living in a more modern residence nearby. Two of the more bizarre attractions were Ghana’s first ever television and a huge US refrigerator that has been ‘on’ and working for more than 70 years!

Later, we decided to try one of Ghana’s national dishes called foo-foo, basically a large dumpling in a spicy peanut soup. We were informed that this dish is eaten with your bare hands, no cutlery is allowed and we soon discovered that there is a definite art to tearing off bits of the dumpling and dipping it in the soup with one hand. We failed miserably and at the end of the meal both us and the table looked like a poor man’s Jackson Pollock painting.

We again made our way south and got pulled over by the police. Unusually this time they had us bang to rights as I had been speeding. They were very good about it and after some friendly banter about where we were from and the current form of Barcelona and Lionel Messi they let us go with a warning. We arrived at Cape Coast, a former of British trading station and fort. It lovely to see the ocean again having left it behind in Senegal. We found a campsite in that backed onto the beach and made ourselves at home for a few days. The castle at Cape Coast is one of the finest preserved coastal forts in the country. Its white washed battlements that hold guard over the Atlantic have a dark history as the fort was one of the main slave trade centres in West Africa. Hundreds of thousands of slaves transited through the castle before being loaded on ships to the new world.

The castle museum was excellent as it detailed the history of European involvement in Ghana from the early Dutch explorers through to independence in 1951. Sadly the tour was marred by some idiots who seemed more content to chatter away noisily on their mobile phones then take stock of significance of their surroundings.

While relaxing on the coast we were lucky enough to see the local fisherman at work. Their preferred method of fishing was with huge nets that would be deployed the night before they were hauled in the following day. These nets often extended a few hundred meters off shore and it took dozens of men to slowly pull them in. It was a fantastic sight as the fisherman all sang moral boosting songs during the 40 or so minutes it took to complete the job. Any sense of team spirit soon evaporated once the bulging nets had hit the shore as fights broke out as to who got the take the choice fish home.

After a few days of soaking up the sun we meandered up the coast to Korobite beach. We reunited ourselves with Roger and Marie who had already been there a few days and had set up camp at ‘Big Millie’s Backyard’, a backpacker’s instition. Korkrobite was about 30km outside of the capital Accra and would be our base for a few weeks as we sorted out our next tranche of visas. Specifically we would be applying for our Nigerian and Angola visas with the latter one being notoriously difficult to get. We were slightly nervous about this as there was no real alternative to bypassing Angola apart from shipping your car to Namibia. You could in theory drive through central and south east DRC to Zambia but you would need your head examined if you seriously entertained that idea as the only thing to be gained with that venture, if you survived, would be bad dreams and bragging rights.

Ghana is also one of Africa’s volunteer hotspots, teenagers from across the globe descend on the country every year looking to spend some time working in local villages. They mostly seemed to consist of middle class kids wanting to do something worthy in their gap year before heading to university where they would then go on to bore everyone to death about their amazing experiences. From what we observed their ‘experiences’ seemed less about ‘making a difference’ to their sponsored village and more about getting pissed and stoned at weekends.

It is very easy to be cynical as to precisely what contribution most of these volunteers make. Most of them are young unskilled teenagers who end up teaching English or assisting in various community projects such as painting walls or building wells. One thing Africa is not short of is unskilled labour and the jobs these volunteers were carrying out could easily be done better by unemployed locals. But as we discovered the volunteer industry was big business in Africa with many folk paying thousands of pounds to spend a few weeks in a village doing not a lot. It would be interesting to see a breakdown as to what all this money is actually spent on and indeed how locals benefit.

Big Millie’s was a pretty busy spot, and it was a shock to the system to find ourselves part of a crowd again after spending so long alone on the road. We also made friends with Ronald and Merlika, a Dutch couple who had been travelling overland in an old Land Rover. They had brought with them their dog, Polly, who had been rescued from a Spanish dog home. We realised that we had roughly the same itinery and over a few beers agreed to travel in convoy together. We were more than happy with the idea as the prospect of transiting Nigeria and the DRC on our own did not fill us with joy. They were also experienced over landers having already travelled to South Africa via the east coast route so were old hands at this game.

We took the plunge and applied for our Angola visas first. To our surprise they were pretty friendly and accepted our applications without question. We had heard horror stories of over landers being passed on from embassy to embassy on their way south being told that they could get their visas there before finding themselves stuck in the DRC. The process was going to take two weeks so there was not much to do but wait. With all this spare time on our hands we went looking for spare parts for Tyrone, specifically a new brake disc and some new wheel studs as we did not trust the ones that were fitted in Guinea. I found the head office Toyota garage in Accra and despite their shiny new air conditioned building they had none of the spares we were looking for and were advised to nip across the road to the ‘car market’. Ronald had some parts to get for his Land Rover so we both set off into the market together. The ‘car market’ was huge, it was pretty much like Camden Town but for auto spares, parts for every make and model could be found here. The place was a labyrinth and the acrid smell of oil and welding hung heavy in the air. It was a hive of activity with constant background noise of hammer on metal, revving engines and car stereos blasting out the latest afrobeat music. Tiptoeing our way around the belching fountains of grinder generated sparks and shielding our eyes from the flickering piercing light from the bevy of arc welders we could see stalls selling nothing but car horns, radiators, gear box components, bearings or exhausts. The carcases of several cars were strewn about as various street mechanics like vultures picked them clean. Nothing it seemed was wasted no matter what state the car was in. After a few enquires we found a man who dealt only with Toyota parts and sure enough he pulled out from under a counter an original brand new Toyota Land Cruiser brake disc still in its factory packaging. We haggled over the price and soon I was the proud owner of a new disc. Ronald managed to find the bits he was looking for and we made our way back to Big Millie’s with our booty. We spent most of the next day fitting the new brake disc but it was reassuring to know that Tyrone was back to full health.

The next several days were largely spent doing not very much, reading, drinking beer, lying in the sun and drinking beer. We became friends with two British lads, Simon and Hamilton, who had driven a beat up old Peugeot from Calibar in Nigeria to Ghana, the car had died on them and like us they were trying to get their car fixed before they continued their journey, in their case back to the UK. We were all getting a bit bored and decided to organise a beach BBQ. Everyone was assigned roles from fire lighting, buying booze and preparing food. Luckily the fisherman had landed a huge haul that morning and we managed to buy two dozen fresh fish and soon we were enjoying an al fresco meal under the stars on the beach. We were even graced by a visit from a number of local lads from a nearby gospel choir who kindly joined us around the fire sang long into the night.

Korkrobite beach was also home to a large number of ‘Rastas’, whom, despite being Ghanaian, had somehow developed very strong Jamaican accents. I have to confess to taking a bit of a dislike to them as they all seemed a bit plastic and clichéd as they loafed around the place in their in Bob Marley t-shirts trying to sell you crappy homemade trinkets, selling huge quantities of weed or, even worse, joining your table uninvited and boring you stupid with their philosophical views on life. One particular chap received my ire when he approached me accusing me of being racist because I had not bought him a beer at the previous night’s beach BBQ. We have had had similar accusations levelled at us in the past on our trip, usually by pushy faux guides who have just had their offered services turned down. It’s a cheap shot that we had learned to just ignore but this chap had pushed things too far. He was a walking stereotype, a thatch of dreadlocks, the obligatory marijuana leaf necklace and a wardrobe that had enough colours that he looked like a circus clown that had just been sick on himself. I was in a bad mood too, Gill was kicking my ass at scrabble so he had picked poor time to start claiming racism on my part and so I gave him both barrels and a bit of a shouting match developed in the bar. It was all very ugly and I was very close to punching this idiot before his Rasta friend intervened with a cry of “I don’t like da vibe at dis table, let’s all be cooooool man”.

We were getting cabin fever at Big Millie’s so we were very much looking forward to spending a night in Accra with an old work colleague of mine. I worked with Scott back in London and he had since been relocated with work to Ghana. Scott and his wife Bibi took us to a Jazz bar and it was lovely to get away from the backpacker scene and catch up with people in a ‘normal’ venue. It was too late for us to make our way back to Kokrobite and Scott kindly invited us to stay at their home for the night. It was pure luxury as their spare room in their huge house had crisp cotton sheets, air conditioning and an onsuite bathroom. We had completely forgotten what life was like since we had been on the road. Nursing hangovers we were treated to fry up breakfast the next morning. We were very sad to leave.

We picked up our visas from the Angola embassy, we were very lucky in that we had been issued a full 30 day tourist visa rather than the usual 5 day transit visa, next up was the Nigerian embassy. Again we had heard some fairly unpleasant tales from other travellers with regards to rudeness and general corruption so were braced for the worse. Low and behold we were met by a small arrogant man who took great delight in in tormenting us with various additional requests for paperwork and we spent most of the day making multiple trips to the photocopy shop and internet cafes as we had to produce evidence of bank funds, car documents, more photos and travel insurance. The man seemed visibly upset every time we returned with what he had asked for. Eventually we got fed up and decided to produce our Zac Goldsmith reference letter and watched with quiet satisfaction as he changed his tune and suddenly started to treat us with a bit more respect. We picked up our visas the next day. We now had the two most difficult visas, things were looking up.

Or so we thought, the following day Gill decided to go for a run along the beach, she had barely run one mile before some arsehole decided to violently relieve her of her iPod. He struck her on the back of the head and ripped the iPod from her. Gill put up a fight and hit the guy back before she realised it was just not worth risking serious harm and just let him have the iPod. Infuriatingly there were several other locals on the beach nearby who casually watched the assault and elected to do nothing. I was furious, more so as I knew there was bugger all chance of catching the guy by time Gill had raised the alarm. We were fed up, it was time to leave, and we made our preparations to move on. Simon and Hamilton had similar ideas and had decided to sell their sick car and had bought a Chinese built motorbike with a view to riding that back to the UK as well. It was sad to see them go as they had provided many laughs over the weeks. We wished them well and started to pack up our own car.

Merlika and Ronald had already pushed on ahead to Togo, we had arranged to meet them in a few days time, it was great to be back on the road again.

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29


27th November 2012

Good read!
Thoroughly enjoyed this and especially the photos. They all tell such a great story! Well done fellow travelers. :)
29th November 2012

great blog
I've been enjoying your adventures - keep 'em coming.

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