Sunday, 30 October 2011
We sat in the chief’s dark living room – twelve walkers from Accra and eight members of the local tourism committee – exchanging pleasantries and making arrangements for the next day’s hike. I was unsure if there was an ancient tradition that meant gin must be shared, or if the chiefs just liked it. Either way, no one complained.
Outside, the large clouds that had been gathering over the summit let loose into one of Ghana’s violent tropical storms, with Mount Adaklu taking the brunt. As we drove back to Ho, I wondered what the deluge was doing to the mud paths we would be ascending.
We were up and ready to go at 05:30 the next day and after breakfast at the Bob Coffie Hotel (twelve of the smallest omelettes I have ever seen) we set off once more for Helepke, the largest of a collection of villages that circle the base of the mountain.
At 602m, Mount Adaklu is a mountain in miniature, but still large enough to mimic Mounts Cameroon and Kilimanjaro in its ecological zones that vary as you climb. We passed through maize farms in the village to reach the foot, then through tall grasses until we reached the treeline, where huge trees provided a dense shade.
The path through the jungle was steep and rocky. Nothing tricky under normal circumstances, but the previous day’s deluge had turned it into a type of gloopy porridge, causing everyone except our sure-footed guides to slip. The trickiest section was a near-vertical series of rocks up to a large boulder. Hard enough going up, it surely crossed everyone’s mind that we would also have to go down it.
Such trifles don’t bother most Ghanaians, though. Just above the rocky cascade was a cocoa yam farm. The farmer greeted us as he passed, then leapt down the rocks in his worn-out flip-flops while balancing an overflowing basket of the heavy tubers on his head.
The rain had also brought out the forest’s huge snails, which were enjoying the moist vegetation. The youngest guide with us was delighted, and collected several for his dinner. He assured me they were delicious; I was happy to take his word for that.
Beyond the yam farm the path levelled out as we crossed the plateau of this table-topped hill, and quickly reached the top. The guides proudly showed us the shelter they had built using the profits from tourism. They hope to encourage more visitors here, and the new road being built to connect Adaklu with the popular town of Ho will certainly help. The profits are also shared between all the villages around the mountain, so everyone gets their share, however small.
The walk down proved tricky, with some finding the steep and slippery paths a trial, but we all made it back to the village safely and headed back to Ho, where Kevin had organised a traditional Ghanaian lunch for us to finish the trip: light soup and fufu.
Fufu is a thick white dough made of cassava and it is one of the few trials of living in Ghana. It is best described as like eating Play-Do but without the novelty of being an interesting colour. It can’t even be described as bland; it manages to taste of nothing in a slightly unpleasant way.
It can take several hours to pound the cassava for fufu; why anyone bothers is beyond me. I managed about three mouthfuls, then gave up and ordered some rice to go with the groundnut soup – which by contrast is a delicious local dish. Feeling brave after managing a little fufu, I ordered a glass of cocoa bean wine, made locally. How bad could it be?
Very. Tasting of gone-off chocolate, which is essentially what it was, it was a hard glass to polish off. But having failed with the fufu, I was determined not to lose culinary face again. I held my nose, downed it, then ordered a large Star to wash away the taste, safe in the knowledge that Ghanaian beer is up there with the best that the country has to offer.
Sunday, 23 October 2011
The popularity of an attraction in Ghana can be roughly gauged by its booking office. At Wli this is a large room with tables and chairs, complete with adjacent snack bar and gift shop, so it must see a lot of visitors. We were assigned a guide and started off along the track to the falls. The path was still slippery following the previous day’s storms, and the fords where it crosses the outflow from the falls higher than usual, but the forest was refreshingly cool and butterflies flew about everywhere.
We heard the waterfall long before we rounded the corner to see it. It was in full spate, the water crashing around 30m out from the cliff and the spray covering the whole clearing. An impressive force of nature, only spoiled by the mounds and mounds of rubbish left in the undergrowth in every corner of the site. The waterfall was too forceful to swim in the plunge pool, so we passed the time trying (and failing) to get good photos, and getting soaked before heading back to the car. There are longer hikes around the upper waterfall as well; worth noting for a return visit.
The next day we headed for one of the Volta region’s most interesting places, and also one of the most remote. High up in the Avatime Hills is the village of Amedzofe and its nearby peak Mount Gemi.
The walk to the mountain is an easy half-hour pootle; it’s the drive there that brings you out in a sweat. A series of hairpin bends ascend an increasingly bumpy and poorly kept road. Quaysie lurched the car from side to side to avoid ruts and potholes, seemingly oblivious to how close we veered to the very long and very steep drop. I was relieved to reach the village.
We called in at the small tourist office in the village and our guide led us to Mount Gemi. The name is not an ancient Twi word, but named after the German Missionaries, who built the cross on its summit that doubled as a communications device during World War II.
This was about all he managed to explain; his attention was mostly on the village football match. Football is big news in Ghana, even in isolated mountain villages, and this encounter with Fume, a neighbouring village, was particularly spicy. I couldn’t understand the chants at opposition players, but they didn’t sound like friendly encouragement.
I asked our guide how many people visit Amedzofe each week. “Sometimes about 20, sometimes none, but it is fine, they are all welcome”. It’s a refreshing approach to tourism development. While it may not boost the bank balance, it helps to keep places like Amedzofe unspoilt as they slowly adapt to tourism.
After passing a cloud of biting gnats on route – the best technique is to run through swirling a t-shirt – we reached the summit. It’s one of the highest points in the region at 611m, and the views were incredible: miles and miles of dark green hills stretching out towards Lake Volta, with dusty brown villages dotted in every pass in between. Well worth a nerve-wracking drive and a cloud of biting insects.
Before heading off, we bought some cold drinks in the village and sat in stone chairs while a bunch of old men played Damii. This is a Ghanaian game similar to draughts, the main difference being that players have to slam the pieces down and shout regularly at their opponent. They ignored us completely as they focused on the next move or insult, so we drained our bottles and headed back to Ho, and the long drive back to Accra.
Friday, 21 October 2011
This approach of conserving wildlife rather than hunting it is slowly catching on in Ghana, and it is reaping rewards here. Since 1996 they have run walking tours around the small forest sanctuary and it’s now one of the most popular attractions in the region. And all the money raised goes back to the community and to protecting the forest, rather than to outside tour operators.
Ruth, one of our new friends in Accra, had organised a long weekend in the lush and hilly Volta Region during the school half term, and Tafi Atome was first on our packed agenda. Our guide led us down the track into the forest, explaining about how the monkeys live. There are four troupes in the forest, which all roam different territories. After about 15 minutes, we spotted tails hanging down from the branches above. Pausing on the track, we waited as more and more furry faces appeared in the branches.
The monkeys know what to expect from visitors. They are semi-wild; while the forest is not caged off, tour groups bring bananas each day, so their lack of fear was not natural behaviour. The trick is to hold the banana firmly so the monkey peels it from your hand. I tried, but the young male managed to grab it easily and scamper off. It’s a shameful day when a small monkey is stronger than you.
We saw one of the other troupes as we continued (although they had already had their banana breakfast, so ignored us) and a third at the information centre, where they were posing for a coach party who had just arrived. The fourth troupe is apparently quite shy, but Mona monkeys all look the same, so it was hard to feel too disappointed.
After Tafi Atome we drove to Kpandu, a busy port on the Lake Volta shore. First stop was lunch – Quaysie and Robert were keen for fresh Volta fish – and we then went to see the Kpandu potters, a small cooperative of women who make pots and clay figures using mud from the lake shore.
The potters’ showroom is down a heavily rutted lane and the clouds burst started as we drove down it. Rain in Ghana is never a subtle affair and the car was soon hydroplaning down the river that had replaced the mud road. Several ominous crunches suggested the car’s undercarriage was taking the brunt. After some frantic steering, we parked (docked?) by the showroom.
The female potters showed us their creations and we all bought souvenirs – I opted for a small clay tortoise. They also demonstrated how they make the pottery by hand. Like Tafi Atome, it’s not flashy, and there is no hard sell to buy souvenirs; just people happy to show visitors part of their local culture.
The final stop of the day was the most curious. Just south of Kpandu, at Agbenoxoe, is Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine, where huge marble statues representing the life of Christ have been erected on a hillside. I wandered around impressed by the scale of the statues but a little bemused, as the whole thing felt slightly out of place here in rural Ghana. It’s another winner, though; pilgrims travel from across the country to visit. Religious fervour knows no bounds in Ghana.
As we made our way back over the hills to Ho, the clanking from beneath the car that had started in Kpandu became an increasing concern. The volume cranking up with each pothole that we failed to avoid, and the rhythm built up to a regular beat, before exploding into the unmistakable sound of metal scraping on tarmac. Not a good sign in the middle of nowhere.
We pulled over and Quaysie, who was driving, stripped off his shirt, wrapped it around his hands and reattached the hanging exhaust with the only material we could find … grass from the roadside. I am no mechanic but even I knew that this was unlikely to hold red-hot metal in place for more than about two minutes. And so our journey continued in a regular pattern of clanking, stopping, and grass-based emergency repairs.
We made it to Kpeve, where Quaysie found a mechanic to fix it with something sturdier. A crowd of children came to watch, and the mechanic swiftly soldered our battered exhaust back into place. All for the price of 5 cedi (about £2) – beat that, AA. Keeping a very careful eye out for potholes, we returned back to Ho tired, hungry and, for me at least, still smarting from the fact I was outfought by a monkey.
Friday, 14 October 2011
The key to hailing a tro tro is to recognise the hand gestures made by the driver’s mate. Hand rotating in a circle means ‘Nkrumah Circle’, a point in the air means ‘Accra’ and the city circle, and three fingers pointing upwards means ‘37’. At first we were bemused, especially as most seemed to fly past. A fellow passenger helped us out, and hailed the next one passing. Apparently you have to shout and step out in front to show you want to get on.
Tro tros are hot, cramped, uncomfortable and invariably decrepit, and the random bits of rusty metal sticking out easily rip clothes (three dresses and counting for Hannah so far), but they are fun. Hawkers come up to the window at traffic lights, selling fried plantain and sachets of water, and the speed at which they dodge traffic beats any fairground ride for thrills. Shaken but happy, we arrived at ‘37’ to change for the service to Accra mall.
The buses only leave when full*, so we enjoyed the buzz of the informal market that surrounds the waiting vehicles. We bought fresh coconuts – deliciously refreshing and another unmissable Ghanaian experience – and took our seats while hawkers offered an amazing array of goods. Worm tablets (complete with graphic pictures), boiled eggs, handkerchiefs, papaya, meat pies, maps of Ghana, plantain, self-help books … you may be bounced about, but you won’t go hungry or thirsty (or get sweaty or wormy) on a tro tro.
* A Cameroonian friend visiting the UK got a shock when his train to Sheffield left on time, despite not being full. "The trains, they all leave when they say they will. Amazing!"
Sunday, 9 October 2011
We headed through a village to a mixture of cheerful waves and confused looks from the villagers – where are these obronis heading so early in the morning? Ghanaians are very sporty – running groups fill the streets early morning, and every scrap of land is used to play football – but hiking doesn’t seem to be on the radar yet. Plus Sunday morning is, of course, time for church for most people.
Outside the village, we crossed a mango farm – complete with a nearly-treading-on-snake incident – and refreshed ourselves under the shade of a baobab tree before continuing across the scrub.
The final climb was simple, and the cool summit breeze was thankfully blowing. This breeze is where the hill got its unofficial name, with Felix complaining on a previous visit that “it’s like Alaska up here”. An overstatement perhaps, but anything other than sticky heat is a welcome treat in Ghana.
The hill is also the perfect spot to admire the Shai Hills, a small group of outcrops that hosts an array of wildlife in its forested slopes. Apparently … there was no sign of life in any direction as we gazed across the grasslands. One thing West Africa lacks when compared to the East is the large game wandering about in huge groups. The scenery looks beautiful, but empty and somehow lonely with nothing grazing below.
We did see some animals, albeit not wild ones, on the way back. Three boys were herding their cattle across the plains. Despite the relatively wet climate and abundance of grass, there are few herders in the plains north of Accra (this might be due to Tsetse flies that thrive in these conditions and limit livestock keeping). Mount Alaska may not be the most challenging climb, but the cows, with their long horns and humped backs, gave the walk an African flavour.
Saturday, 1 October 2011
It’s a winning formula. When I met Nikki and Sarah at 7am for England v Scotland in the rugby world cup, the bar was already packed with grumpy looking men wearing white or dark blue tops, all clearing up the last of a cooked breakfast. Hungry, I checked the menu … 18 cedis? Eggs cost about 15 pesewas (there ae 100 pesewas to the pound) and Heinz beans 40 pesewas, so either bacon costs more by weight than cocaine or someone is making a tidy profit. I ordered a coffee and toast, a bargain by comparison at 7 cedis.
The game was dull, especially for someone who doesn’t like rugby much, and we were told off for talking by the ‘locals’. And with early kick-offs leading to early final whistles, I found myself in Accra at 9.30am on a Saturday with nothing to do. It doesn’t take long living here to realise that, drinking aside, entertainment in Accra needs seeking out. So I was happy to follow Nikki and Sarah to the Centre for National Culture.
Don’t let the name fool you; this is a market, where unsuspecting tourists are led to be ripped off. Inside the covered part of the market is a maze of narrow alleys, where animated stall owners pursue a hard-selling approach that is uncommon in Ghana. They even block you off in the alleys to deflect you into their stall, like a game of gift-shop pinball. It doesn’t work; the most common response is to quicken your pace, eyes down, and head for the nearest exit you can find.
We escaped to the open area at the back, where the stall owners are happy for you to wander about at your own pace. The dusty wooden sheds contained vivid paintings of village life, carvings of African animals long since hunted out of Ghana, and a collection of wooden penises that was second to none.
The reason for our visit was to collect a West African drum Nikki had ordered, and the young men who made the drums offered us a lesson in how to play them. We tried to mimic their quick hands and rhythms while outside their colleagues carved away on new drums. I desperately wanted to buy one, but they are made with goat skin. A vegetarian dilemma; could they make one from a goat who had lived a happy life and died of natural causes?
Post-lesson, Hannah joined us and Abraham, the drum teacher, offered to take us to the Rising Phoenix for lunch. And so the day descended into a boozing session by the sea. Star beers were sunk, pool was played, we met the Rastas smoking on the plastic-strewn beach, and in the evening we were treated to something we could never have planned – a beauty contest.
The Ghanaian Dale Winton introduced the three contestants competing for the title of Miss Accra, and led them through a series of acts which all seemed to revolve around bum-wiggling. I was too drunk to see who won, but it rounded off a varied take on a quiet Saturday in Accra.