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Published: November 5th 2018
Look at a map of Ghana and you’ll soon spot a spiky body of water towards the east that seems to reach its fingers back west and north, as if probing the country for Ashanti gold. This is Lake Volta, the largest manmade body of water (by surface area anyway) in the world. And it was proving remarkably hard to find.
After a couple of days in the lively and colourful Accra, I headed east to the hills that form the border with modern-day Togo. My immediate destination was the Wli Falls, thought to be the highest waterfalls in West Africa. The road there led close to the Lake, or so it appeared from the map, but neither during that journey nor on my unexpectedly arduous six-hour scramble up to (and, more wobblily, back down from) the Falls, did I catch even the most fleeting glimpse of the Lake.
I’d pencilled in three nights in the Volta hills, but the trip over from Accra had taken longer than expected. The primary form of transport here is the trotro. Equivalent to the East African matatu (though generally with a slightly – very slightly – more considerate approach to the number
of passengers that can be squeezed in), it’s a minibus-type of transport that works on a fill-up-and-go basis. Filling up can take five minutes if you’re lucky enough to arrive when it’s nearly full (though that leaves you with the most squished-in seat, generally between existing passengers and towards the back), or over two hours if you are trying to travel on a Sunday when few other people are doing so. In fact, my companions one Sunday had been waiting for what must have been almost four hours; I was lucky to arrive only two hours before we finally reached capacity. Some vehicles, nicknamed “Fords” (not necessarily their actual make) or “Stanbics”, have air-conditioning; all are in a varying state of repair. I was entertained to notice, late on in one six-hour journey, that the speedometer needle of my vehicle wasn’t moving. Theoretically, the police carry out checks on trotros’ capacity, licensing and basic safety, but I only saw this being undertaken thoroughly at one roadblock.
Once full – and subject to their remaining intact and avoiding accidents (I was in one that had a spectacular blowout, fortunately on a back wheel and part-anticipated by the unusually careful driver)
– trotros can be a remarkably speedy way of covering the distance. This wasn’t the issue in the Volta region. The roads were the problem. Roads aren’t great in Ghana, but, for the most part, the roads from reasonably-sized town A to reasonably-sized town B are surfaced fairly effectively. But the Volta region – which, until Ghana gained independence and the region’s population voted to join its neighbour, had been separately governed by the British as its share of the old German colony of Togoland – is still clearly regarded as a bit of a poor relation; not worth the investment. When you think that this area includes the first president and still-considered father of the country, Kwame Nkrumah’s pet project, the Akosombo Dam, a remarkable piece of engineering and vital to the country’s electricity supply, it seems bizarrely short-sighted. One taxi driver I met was understandably belligerent, saying that all drivers of all vehicles should go on strike and block the roads until the government promises to do something about it: if only. What it does to their vehicles’ lifespans, I hate to think, though I think that MOTs may not be mandatory here...
In any event, to
go back to where I was a few paragraphs back, I couldn’t risk trying to make the whole journey back to Accra airport from the Volta region in time for a 4pm internal flight on the day of that flight, so I opted to have a second attempt to find Lake Volta and stay overnight at in the town of Akosombo. This was the day of the longest wait for a trotro to fill, and the day of the blowout, so it was already a lengthy journey by the time I reached my somewhat nondescript accommodation. But I was on a mission to find a lake so, giving myself an hour to walk before having to turn back and be home before daylight started disappearing, I dumped my stuff, and headed back out.
It was not the world’s most exciting walk, though with quads still rebelling from the previous day’s hike up to the Wli Falls – and I thought I was reasonably fit! – it was probably just as well that the walking surface was no more challenging than a well-tarred road, albeit with a bit of an upward direction at times. I could see the Volta River
downstream of Akosombo almost immediately, also more of a lake in formation given the effect of the smaller dam fifteen miles downstream at Kpong, and about twenty minutes later I caught my first sight of the Dam. But I wanted to see the Lake, and that obviously meant being upstream of the Dam. I followed the road inland, up the middle of the peninsula to the west of the Dam.
Ghana is, at the moment, phenomenally lush. It’s supposedly the end of the rainy season, although downpours at least every other night suggest that the weather hasn’t read the rule book, and the rains have been very good this year, I gather. This all makes lake-spotting even more challenging. I checked my watch. I was running close to my outbound hour-limit, and still hadn’t reached a point above the level of the Dam. I was hoping to take a tour of the Dam the next morning which obviously would give me sight of my quest, but I wasn’t 100% sure that the timing would work given the time of my Tamale flight, and besides, I’m a bloody-minded what’s-it (as way too many of you will testify!) and wanted to
find it under my own steam. Oh well, just another quarter of an hour. After all, most of the return journey would be downhill and I wouldn’t be stopping for photographs. How hard could it be?
When I did finally glimpse the Lake off to my right, the feeling of achievement was ridiculous. I punched the air. Seven hours by road and what would be eight hot and humid miles on foot by the time I got back: mission accomplished. Ahead of me, I could see a small building and the Lake zigzagging into the distance. OK, that’s my turnaround point, I decided. Just before the building, my persistence was rewarded: a flight of concrete steps led down to the water’s edge for no very obvious reason, other than my immediate gratification. Ignoring my squawking muscles, I headed down, and rewarded myself with a face-splash in the world’s largest manmade lake.
The climb up the Wli Falls the previous day had been more predictable in its objective – I could see the Falls from the tourist office at the start of the trail – but certainly hard work on the legs. While two pluses of this two-month trip
in West Africa are the lack of climate variation and the absence of altitude, the downside is the moderately high temperature coupled with near-constant humidity. On reflection – part way up the hillside, a great time to work this out – I realised that I hadn’t done much long-distance trekking in this kind of environment. However Pilates- and running-up-and-down-two-flights-of-stairs-at-home- fit my quads might be, this doesn’t quite prepare you for steep hillsides in undoubtedly hot and sweaty conditions. I had also misunderstood the nature of the walk, thinking that it was going to be a full circle – i.e., once I’d finished climbing, that would pretty much be it. But at one narrow point on the steep descent to the base of the Upper Falls, my guide, Doodgie, and I overtook an Italian young woman and her father, and ran into a quintet of young German and Finnish women whom I recognised from my guesthouse heading up towards us. One of the Finns was definitely a little the worse for wear, and pointed out that this’d be me shortly – just after I’d said to my guide that I was very glad we were only descending this particular slope. I
turned to Doodgie for confirmation (in French – oddly his preferred European language, despite English being the national tongue in Ghana). Oh , I thought. Sure enough, we would be coming back up this track, albeit not the whole way to the top, as we’d then turn off to head down to the Lower Falls. On hearing this, the Italians decided they’d had enough of the descent while they still had the puff and energy to go back up the way they’d come, and I left the Germans and Finns to continue their slow progress uphill. How would I find the return journey, my legs already shaky? But I have well-developed ostrich tendencies, and carried on downwards.
Reaching the bottom of the Upper Falls was absolutely fabulous, and, leaving Doodgie a little way up the track, I went down to have an impromptu shower in the spray. We rested a little while and I persuaded myself to eat a mouthful of my UK-originated peanut protein bar, regretting that I hadn’t brought Dextrose tablets with me. We were not alone: across the gorge from us were hundreds of straw-coloured fruit bats that make the cliffs of the
Falls their home. Clearly they hadn’t read the rule book either, foraging relentlessly in the heat of the day.
Eating had not been a good idea. By only about fifty metres back up the hill – and we’re talking a steeply climbing muddy path, where roots and branches are essential for scrambling hand- and foot- holds– I was not in great shape. Regretting eating even that mouthful, I found my heart racing to a disconcerting extent, and I felt dizzy. Feeling about a million years old, I propped myself up on a tree-root at the side of the path and tried to wait it out. The kindness of strangers. One European man – like the locals, attempting the route in little more than flipflops – offered me dates and water. Doodgie and a couple of the guides conferred and rang base; then asked if I’d had breakfast (I had) and whether I had had enough water (I thought I had, carrying my usual three litres or so). Doodgie asked how much I weighed. I had enough puff left to laugh at that – he can’t have been much heavier than me, though I hugely appreciated the thought. After half
an hour or so, Doodgie took my daypack and I got to my feet. I stumbled up a few more metres, and sat down again. We repeated this a couple more times, and then suddenly I was better. We hadn’t even quite reached the top of the track, and it was as if a weight was lifted from me. I won’t say that I skipped up the rest of this part of the track or down the homebound one, but I felt an adrenaline rush and a feeling of relief wash over me. Maybe I wasn’t getting too old for this kind of thing after all.
Down at the base of the Lower Falls, I found the two Finns in their swimsuits, fresh from a dip in the water. We compared notes and relief/fatigue/ache levels, and then settled back into the usual whereareyyoufrom, whatareyoudoinghere, howlongareyouhere kind of conversation. Their guide came over at one point and asked if I was their mother. I grimaced, and we did the sums – yes, with these two trainee nurses clocking in at 22 and 23, I could quite reasonably have been exactly that. I’m starting to feel more and more of an
old stager around other travellers, though a few have said sweetly that they take inspiration from my way of life, reassurance that life doesn’t end when you hit the work rat-race. Meanwhile, around us, the pool filled up, a combination of locals, other hikers, and an overland group of indeterminate European origin. The girls told me that they’d had the place to themselves when they arrived; I left them to the shrieks and laughter of our fifty-plus new-found companions.
I reckon I’d deserved my beer that night.
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