The icing on the cake

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Africa » Ghana » Northern
November 5th 2018
Published: November 6th 2018
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Things don’t always go to plan in Africa, or even as might reasonably be anticipated. The old hands have a couple of acronyms for this: TIAB (this is Africa, baby), or the more fatalistic AWA (Africa wins again). But this can go both ways, and the positives never seem to get much of a name-check.

Seeing elephants in Mole National Park was definitely one of the latter. It’s the back end of the wet season here. Water and vegetation are everywhere, so animals disperse; no need to congregate around shrinking resources when there’s an abundance. The chance of seeing anything in the long grass – sometimes 10-12 feet just high at the roadside – let alone in a national park where only a small percentage of the park is accessible and then only when being driven by rangers who don’t always seem to realise that slower is better, was always going to be slim. And, owing to a little of the more customary type of TIAB, we were heading out in the hottest time of the day when nothing, given any choice in the matter, moves. (Under pressure from volunteers on the Namibian elephant project keen to get their money’s worth, Keith would take them out over one lunchtime during their 10-12 days in the desert. They soon learnt that sitting in a vehicle in 40-ish degrees (105-115F) watching a sleeping elephant for an hour was not a whole lot of fun, particularly if the pachyderm had nicked all of the available shade.)

To get to Mole, we’d left Tamale, the unofficial capital of Ghana’s northern regions, at 7am for the two-hour drive west. On arrival, we were greeted with the typical hot climate sight of everyone dozing under the biggest acreage of shade available, the tree in centre of the rangers’ compound. No-one was jumping up to offer me the walking and driving safaris I’d been expecting; instead we were told that trips only happened at 7am, 11am and 3.30pm. And this appeared to be non-negotiable. (It’s forbidden to drive yourself in Mole National Park.) My driver, James, set to with his best talk-’em-round skills, but there are times when it’s worth just saving your breath. These guys weren’t goin’ nowhere. Fortunately, there were other things on the day’s itinerary that didn’t involve disturbing sleeping guides, so we left them to it.

On our return an hour later, no-one seemed to have moved very far. I sat down to wait for the promised witching hour of 11am, but then the first of the positive TIAB events happened. James had been chatting to one of the rangers, and, looking up, suddenly asked if I’d mind going out on my own. This couldn’t be right; maybe we were going to pick up more people at one of the two lodges inside the Park. One of the drivers un-parked the budget option of the available game vehicles – no roof covering, and certainly no air-conditioning other than the au naturel variety (which I infinitely prefer) – moved it forwards and bade me ascend. I was followed by James’ ranger, now introduced as Sadiq, complete with an elderly rifle over one arm. When we stopped at the Mole Motel just up the track (such an incongruous name for its location), I assumed that others would emerge – perhaps the two Brazilian girls I’d met at the airport the night before – but it seemed deserted. Sadiq got out of the vehicle and beckoned me over to the edge of the turning circle. Just as I was opening my mouth to comment on the unexpected view across the gorge, he pointed: “Elephants in river. We go.” Leaving the unfortunately-never-named driver behind, we started down a rocky path towards the river. I could barely contain myself. Legs still wobbly from the weekend’s ascent to the Wli Falls, thrilled to be back in Africa and seeing elephant for the first time in over four years, yet nervous to be on foot through dense vegetation in a national park, it was all I could do to focus on putting one foot not too noisily in front of the other. Did Sadiq know what he was about? He took us round the back of a deserted hut and then we emerged, near the water’s edge. Four male elephants, one a monster of an old guy, were almost fully submerged in the middle of the river; what was showing of their skins glistening and un-customarily dark grey. It wasn’t long before the old boy spotted us, the end of his trunk doing a snorkel routine from below the surface, swivelling round to point in our direction, and, locking onto us, the rest of the head followed. He gazed over at us, flaring his ears, trunk now out of the water and raised. I gulped. According to Sadiq, he’s an unpredictable elephant – thanks, now you tell me! – but we were clearly, in his mind, far enough away not to be any kind of threat, though he still mustered his acolytes and, after a final splash, the four of them made languorously for the far shore.

Sadiq wasn’t done yet. He phoned the driver (this was a novelty, game rangers communicating by mobile phone rather than radio. Says something for mobile phone coverage here that you don’t tend to get in national parks elsewhere on the continent in my experience, unless things have changed dramatically) and arranged for him to meet us with the vehicle at the point to which Sadiq was anticipating the animals would move. Meanwhile, we were to follow the elephants on foot. Not something you should try at home, folks, but my confidence in Sadiq was growing by the minute. He was as excited as I was to see this number of animals together (on the morning walk, they had only seen two, he kept reminding me – as if I needed to understand how lucky I was), and he clearly knew the individual animals, as well as pointing out other wildlife, including birds, which I’ve found can be a more hit-or-miss sphere of knowledge amongst guides in less well-developed national parks such as those in Uganda and Malawi.

Meantime, we had to cross the river ourselves. There was some mention of a branch. I just followed the guide in front – zen navigation (à la Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently) safari style – walking through the scrub at the edge of the water. And then we reached the branch. Yes, it really was just a branch, not half-a-human-foot’s-length at its widest, but one that had thoughtfully fallen in such a way as to leave various upright sub- or related-branches within reasonable grab-reach, so, with Sadiq pointing out which foot to put where and which handhold to look for, I made it across, to my surprise, with dry feet and camera.

A little further on, as Sadiq had predicted, our path intersected with the elephants emerging through the bushes to our left. Sadiq carefully positioned us so as to be out of the animals’ direct line of movement, but we had ringside seats to watch them carefully and deliberately ruin their newly scrubbed up and glistening appearance with trunkfuls of dust and mud. It would take a little while for the sun protection to even up; in the meantime, we had the amusing spectacle of these regal and intimidating creatures turning stripy and blotchy, the elephants clearly conflicted by the need to reapply by their sunscreen yet easily distracted by the lushness of the grass around them.

And so the trip continued, Sadiq second-guessing the elephants’ trajectory, as it were, and moving us into position behind or to one side of the animals to watch them safely. It was a mini lesson in elephant behaviour. A little bit of trumpeting. Some ankle scratching. Some displaying of “manhood” (to quote Sadiq). A bit of kicking the ground to loosen dirt for application, via trunk, to still-damp skin. And lots of feeding. If an elephant can stuff its face, these guys were certainly doing just that. There was a bit of reaching up for a branch or two, but, to be honest, why bother, when just around the corner is more grass than four male elephants could eat in a week?

Eventually we left them to it, Grumpy even seeming to wave us off with his trunk in one of my last photographs. Reunited with the driver who’d joined us for the last couple of animal progressions, we boarded the safari vehicle and continued, somewhat rapidly, on our way. I assume that the guides here are on the clock: that’s how they’re charged out to tourists, so maybe we had reached our time limit. But we couldn’t help stopping for one of the prettiest of the buck species in Africa, a small herd of female kob with their ever-twitching ears, soulful eyes, and delicate build. There were also bushbuck, warthog and baboon; a heron wrestling with a fish, a tree-ful of egrets, and a woolly-necked stork flapping slowing overhead. Three ecstatic grins drove back into the compound.

But I wasn’t done with wildlife yet. Next on the day’s agenda was Mognori Eco Village. When Mole National Park was gazetted in the late 1950s, inadequate provision was made for the people who had to be relocated from inside the Park’s new boundaries. This is an ongoing issue, and tourists are sometimes tackled for handouts to remedy the government’s omission. Mognori, on the other hand, is a success story. Set up in 2003 after local elephants decimated the crops, this ecotourism project certainly attracts the accolades, and income from tourists is put into a community development fund. While it was interesting to learn about the incredibly resource-intensive process of making shea butter – a local speciality that gets a big name-check from those internationally seeking non-chemical skin products – the highlight for me, without a shadow of a doubt, was the canoe safari.

We’d picked up Baba as the local area guide, but, as is the way of things, we evidently needed a canoe guide, and, as he was clearly too senior to paddle, we also collected a couple of younger boys to do the hard work. I felt distinctly and embarrassedly like a Raj memsahib with so many “staff” to take me out on the river. But I don’t think the boys batted an eyelid, regarding it as a bit of a jape and a chance to natter to their mates. Tranquil it wasn’t, though to their credit they all kept their eyes peeled, pointing out an impressive array of small colourful birds, such as the malachite and blue-breasted kingfishers, the red-throated bee-eater and the blue flycatcher. In what was otherwise a monochrome environment, the water and trees hotly unmoving, these bright blasts of fast-flying colour were fabulous. I could happily have stayed out there much longer than whatever was my allocation.

I had not come to Ghana for the wildlife. To have had such wonderful sightings was truly a case of Africa pulling out all the stops. TIAB indeed.

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