Thursday, 29 March 2012

Kakum


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.

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