Thursday, 29 March 2012


There are two ways to experience the rainforest canopy walk at Kakum National Park. One is to arrive during the day and share it with the hordes of other visitors, many of whom are likely to be over-excited schoolchildren. The alternative is to stay overnight in a tree house and have the forest to yourself as the sun rises. We opted for the latter.

Kakum, the largest of the few remaining fragments of natural rainforest in southern Ghana, is one of the country’s leading attractions. A short distance from Cape Coast, it is a slick operation by Ghanaian standards, with a well-designed education centre and a variety of hiking and bird watching tours available.

Arriving mid-afternoon from Elmina, we were unsurprised to find our reservation for the tree house – made weeks in advance and twice confirmed – had not been written down. (I had my suspicions about the efficiency of the booking system when I first called; I had to suggest to the receptionist that she should take down my name, and maybe the date we were coming, for it to count as a booking.) But the guide on duty made a quick call to a colleague –all Kakum’s guides live in nearby villages – and he soon appeared to take us into the forest.

The tree house is only around 40 minutes from the park entrance but, as anyone who has seen the BBC documentaries of David Attenborough badgering gorillas will know, rainforests are very humid places. Despite the brief walk, we all had to wring out our T-shirts on arrival.
After a couple of hours munching biscuits and listening to the noises around us, we set off for our night hike. The hope was to see bush babies, but all we encountered were giant snails and numerous black and red millipedes, a few of which came to an unfortunate boot-induced end. Millipedes may not be the most exciting of creatures, but they do make one hell of a crunch.

Despite the lack of night creatures, the forest at night is a unique experience. We spent the night amid the cries, shrieks and howls of the residents. The tree house was remarkably comfortable, its collection of mattresses somehow surviving the humidity and mosquito nets keeping out all but the most inquisitive bugs.

We woke early and set off for the much-publicised canopy walk. It resembles an Ewok village, a series of wooden platforms linked by long and narrow rope bridges. George, our guide, explained how two Canadians suggested the project to the President in 1995, as a way to boost tourism. A good idea in one sense, but the downside was that all the people who used the forest for subsistence hunting or to collect wood were instantly evicted without consultation; “You do what the President says in Ghana”, remarked George. Some villagers, like him, were compensated with jobs in the National Park, and the walkway is a success, attracting around 1000 visitors a day.

But we were keen to avoid these hordes, and the early start did the trick. At 7am, the forest was once more alive with birdcalls and the morning mist hung about the emergent trees. Across the first two bridges I focused on exactly how well these things were constructed, with unfair and unfounded suspicions about the quality of Ghanaian engineering.

But as we reached the third viewing platform, high above the canopy layer, we got our reward for the early start. A few metres below were a troupe of Dinah monkeys. We watched for 15 minutes as they breakfasted on leaves and leapt about the branches, before disappearing from view. This magical rainforest scene felt like our own first-hand Attenborough documentary – complete with sodden T-shirts for a truly authentic experience.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012


Egypt has pyramids and Kenya its wildlife, but Ghana’s best-known icons – the slave forts and castles along the coast – were places of misery and suffering. Not the easiest features with which to market your country.

Given this tricky selling point, tours of these historic buildings are done extremely well. At Cape Coast castle, the most famous slave fort, the visit starts in the museum. This has artefacts from the slave trade – chains, shackles, whips, that sort of thing – as well as interesting details about all the trading that occurred in the Gold Coast.

Europeans traded in guns and powder; they would leave their goods on a beach and return to their ships. At this point the local traders would leave an amount of gold or ivory on the beach, before heading back into the forest. The Europeans would then either accept the trade, or return again and wait for more gold and ivory to be added. This wordless bargaining continued until both sides were happy and would take away the goods.

Other displays detail the extent of the slave trade. The large maps demonstrate just how many countries were involved, but the role of different African tribes, who captured slaves and sold them (usually captives from inter-tribal wars), is also fully acknowledged. The Ashanti people don’t come out of this too well, although, as a Brit, colonial slave forts are not the best places to start pointing fingers.

It is during the tour of the castle’s rooms that the grim lives of the slaves are spelled out. Our guide described each room in an understated way, without any melodrama or sensation. But much of the tour makes for uneasy listening, with the little details often the most shocking. In the windowless punishment cell, he pointed out the scratches in the stone floor, made by prisoners going mad as they were slowly starved to death for the most trivial of disobediences. In the male slave holding room, he showed us a line about two feet up the wall; this marked the level of human excrement that had built up during its period of use, discovered as archaeologists dug out what they thought was the floor when excavating the cell.

Our guide at the Castle of St George in Elmina, which we visited the following day, had even more stories to tell. He described– four times in fact – how the courtyard by the female cells was built so that the governor, from his living quarters, could choose which women to take to his bed. He then showed us where the women were made to wash before entering, and even the steps they used up to the bedroom. Judging by the detail, this was his favourite bit of the tour.

More sobering was the Dutch church, built directly over the slave cells, from where both groups would have heard the other during services. And perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the tour was the two punishment cells near the main gate. The cell for soldiers, whose usual crime was coming in drunk, had windows for air. The cell next door had no windows; this was for slaves, who were locked in there to suffocate in the intense heat.

We made a quick tour to Fort St Jago in the centre of Elmina – worth the climb uphill for the opportunity to explore a castle without any guides or other tourists – before exploring one of Ghana’s most colourful coastal towns.

We stayed at the Bridge House Hotel, next to the harbour, and were woken at 5am to the sounds of fishermen preparing their nets, one man beating a rhythm on a bucket while the others sang and worked. This, along with a pungent smell of fish, provided our backdrop as we ate breakfast, accompanied with several lizards and geckos that fought for the bits of jam on toast we dropped.

Elmina’s main activities are fishing and harvesting salt from the nearby lagoon. Given its famous castle and prominence in Ghana’s coastal tourist circuit, it’s remarkable how little tourism has affected the village. It feels very different to beach resorts in Thailand or Goa, where towns seem set up solely for tourists; in Elmina, visitors are welcomed, catered for, and then largely ignored as people get on with their lives. And, as a result, Elmina is a much more interesting place to stay.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Veranda Mountain

Veranda Mountain, an inselberg lying east of the Shai Hills, is easy to find but hard to get to. We turned off from the Stone Lodge road and headed along one of the many tracks leading to isolated cattle stations. But as we got closer, we found our route blocked: by scrub along one route, impassable animal tracks along another, and finally by cattle themselves. 

It took several bouts of head scratching and even more U-turns before we found a way through. Michael and Priscilla’s skilful driving took us over a landscape of deep ruts and rocks I would never have considered crossing. Clearly growing up in southern Africa prepares you for these things in way that Wiltshire doesn’t. 

We parked, unloaded the cars and set off for the mountain. My fellow campers had described the walk up as easy going, so I had been liberal in my packing. A bottle of South African wine, a bird-watching book and novel, spare water, jellybeans, some spare food, and even sandals for the evening. It all seemed a good idea back in Accra – nothing like a few treats while out under canvas. But while Veranda Mountain is not high, it certainly is steep. And we had set off in the mid-afternoon heat.

And it's covered in dense scrub. We had discussed what kit to bring during a pre-trip drink at Roby’s Dutch pub, but not got around to deciding who would bring what. So while three of us lugged up potatoes for the campfire, no one had brought a machete to cut through the thorny branches. Slowly we picked our way, trying to find the path of least resistance. 

I can’t have been the only one wondering if it was worth the effort as we staggered to a steep rocky step near the summit, covered with treacherous dried grass. My thoughts took an unsavoury turn, contemplating whether to share the wine weighing down my rucksack or hide it in my tent until everyone was asleep. Michael’s moral dilemma must have been harder still, as he lugged up a backbreaking cool bag packed with meat for the fire.

But all negativity soon slipped away as we reached the mountain's eponymous 'veranda'. There can be few better camping spots in Ghana; a platform of flat rocks with ample room for tents, fires and sleeping bags, set off by spectacular views across to Lake Volta and the nearby hills. 

We set up camp and got the fire burning as a storm rolled in from the north. It passed between us the lake, providing a spectacular backdrop as we started grilling the assorted goods: Boerwurst, tilapia, spuds and veg, barbecued ribs, and plenty of marshmallows for the younger campers. At least the packs would be lighter on the way down.

I woke early the next morning and headed to a small clearing on the summit, just behind our campsite. The scrubby slopes below were already busy, with several White-throated Bee-eaters flitting about almost close enough to touch, and many other calls came from the scrub below, including the high-pitched call of the Black Kites high overhead. The grunt of a lone baboon also drifted over, but I couldn’t spot him. As the sun rose, Andrew’s binoculars helped us to spot Grey Hornbills, Senegal Long-tailed Parakeets and a pair of Red-headed Lovebirds. 

Further below, the residents of the cattle stations started on the long walk to church in brightly coloured dresses and shirts. The cattle made their way to the watering hole for a drink, before being herded out to the tinder-dry plains to search for nourishment. It was a vivid picture of rural Ghanaian life, and our mountainside perch was the perfect place from which to enjoy it.