Wednesday, 4 July 2012


We walked from here
We took a taxi from Beyin to Ankasa National Park, a large area of virgin evergreen rainforest right on the border with Ivory Coast. Tourism has yet to really take off here – certainly not on the scale on Kakum – and the road to the park took all our taxi driver’s skill, and at times good fortune to negotiate. He scratched his head continually as we skidded through the wheel-high mud, and went through the full reportoire of Ghanaian 'eh's, 'oh's and 'ah's. 
Ankasa is a biodiversity hotspot, particularly for its plant diversity. During our two-hour hike, Kofi, our guide pointed out different trees: Bako, a slow-growing species that feeds lots of animals; Kontan, the ‘arrogant tree’ whose vast buttresses take up lots of space. He also identified birdcalls as we walked along quietly: a yellow-billed turaco, pied hornbills and several others.

The wildlife that lives in Ankasa, which includes forest elephants, is rarely seen. The park warns tourists of this at the gate, suggesting they use their ears, nose and hands to experience the forest. This, combined with its distance from Ghana’s major towns, means tourism is unlikely to expand any time soon.

And maybe that’s a good thing. The forest is well protected legally, and its biodiversity attracts plenty of international funding. The local communities all appreciate the forest’s role in supplying their water, so there is little encroachment or poaching. And as we drove away – the only visitors to have gone that week – the terrible road was reassuring. Another barrier that leave Ankasa and its inhabitants in peace and quiet.


Tuesday, 3 July 2012


There’s something exciting about a border. Beyin, a scruffy village just a few miles from Ivory Coast, is similar to most of Ghana’s coastal settlements. But as we travelled to the country’s southwest corner, it felt more adventurous and exciting than our previous trips to the beach.

The tro-tro from Takoradi had taken four hours, along a red dirt road covered intermittently with sections of crumbling tarmac roads. Large signs promised new roads and more once the oil infrastructure starts to develop in the region. How many of these promises are realised remains to be seen, but for now the journey was typical of Ghana – cramped, bumpy and long.

Beyin beach resort
And so with dusty faces and dry throats, we arrived at Beyin Beach Resort. Friendly owners, comfortable wooden chalets, a pied kingfisher squeaking away … another entry on the list of Ghana’s fine eco-lodges. The cool weather of the rainy season meant the resort’s narrow beach was empty, but we hadn’t come to lounge about on the sand. Near to Beyin is Nzulezo, a village built on stilts and one of Ghana’s most popular and heavily promoted tourist attractions.

Swamp forest

Nzulezo lies a few kilometres from Beyin, out in the Amansuri wetland. The villagers are not fisherfolk, but farmers. Many of the villagers travel up to 8km a day by canoe to reach their farms on the northern side of the lake.  So why do they live in a wetland? The most popular theory of many that abound (no one seems to know for sure) is that their tribe was chased south during a war in the Ashanti region and, rather than keep fleeing, they opted for the perfect hiding place – the middle of the wetland.

Our guide met us at the departure point, near the flooded village football pitch. He gave me a paddle to help propel our dugout canoe along a channel that was recently dug out to connect Nzulezo with Beyin. Previously, people travelling to the market and children going to school – secondary pupils in Nzulezo travel to Beyin each day by canoe – had to walk some of the distance in the dry season, adding considerable time to their journey. The channel was built using the revenue from tourism – one of the many benefits the villagers have seen from their daily stream of visitors.

Mending fishing traps
 The canoe journey was wonderfully serene. We passed through tall reeds and small patches of overgrown swamp forest, before the channel opened out into the vast Amansuri Lake. Small birds flitted above the reeds, while others hid on the water, giving themselves away only by their occasional calls.

The school
Eventually we reached Nzulezo and, after tying up the canoe, climbed on to the wooden platforms and buildings that all rest on poles driven into the lake. And it immediately became clear that we weren’t really welcome. As our guide took us along the main central platform, all the adults of Nzulezo – whether eating, working or sitting with friends – ignored us. This was an unusual experience; everywhere else in Ghana, people will smile, wave and say hello to strangers especially white people, even when busy with daily tasks. But in Nzulezo, only the children were friendly, shouting, laughing and posing for photos.

Tourism must cause conflicting emotions in Nzulezo. It has brought considerable benefits; as well as construction of the channel, income from tourism has paid for two school classrooms and funds the salaries of the village’s three primary school teachers.

Nzulezo high street
And yet it is clear that the villagers are tired of the daily intrusion, an endless line of people traipsing through their village, photographing, staring, pointing. The tours are run sensitively – several signs instruct visitors to ask permission before photographing people – but there is no indication of whether everyone in Nzulezo has a say in how tourism is run, or if everyone benefits.

Fishing traps
After an awkward visit to the school – our schoolteacher guide stared over our shoulder, giving one-word answers to our few questions – we headed back to Beyin. The wetland was even captivating in the late afternoon. Villagers checked their woven fish traps, while children on their way back from school by canoe waved as they passed us. Women returning from market glided past, their jerry cans empty, meaning they had sold all the home brewed gin. Despite the daily disturbance from tourists, the people of Nzulezo should at least take comfort from the fact they have one of the world’s most scenic daily commutes.

Amansuri wetland

Sunday, 1 July 2012


A baboon
The Shai Hills Resort Hotel is just 500m from its namesake nature reserve and less than 70km from Accra. It is the ideal place for a weekend getaway, within easy reach for weary city dwellers looking to escape the capital. On the Saturday night of a bank holiday weekend, I rang ahead to book a room for Hannah, her friend Ariane and me. It proved to be an unnecessary precaution.

Even our taxi driver looked confused as we entered the deserted hotel grounds. Having reluctantly driven us all the way from Aburi – an hour away, in the breezy Akuapem Hills – he must have thought we were heading somewhere exciting, not this gloomy, run-down place. He pointed us towards the reception and quickly sped away.

Inside, a large woman was slumped behind the desk, her head resting on arms folded on the counter – a not atypical pose for Ghanaian staff. Our arrival failed to stir her, and she only looked up when I asked about our room.

“We don’t have any rooms for three people.”
“I rang earlier and reserved one.”
“We don’t have one.”
“Can you put a mattress in a room for two, please?”

Rising with the body language of a surly teenager, she showed us to a room, before returning to her desk, her silence daring us to disturb her again. Clearly one group of guests a night was one more than she liked.

The bar staff after their snooze
I headed off to find the bar, hoping a chilled beer might salvage what was shaping up to be an underwhelming evening. But the courtyard was empty, the flimsy plastic chairs stacked away against the tables. A dim light buzzing with flies indicated where the bar was, and I wandered over. In the only chair in use lay the waiter, snoring loudly while a cat dozed underneath him. I gave up and retired to the room to eat the mangoes we had bought earlier.

It’s hard to understand how a hotel with over 50 rooms and several staff (we found others eventually, hidden away and doing nothing), stays in business when so quiet. It’s a missed opportunity, as the Shai Hills are pleasant and most people in Accra need little encouragement to get away. A coat of paint and an injection of enthusiasm could quickly turn it into an appealing retreat. As it is, it is among the most unwelcoming hotels in Ghana.

Two baboons
After a peaceful night – one upside of staying in an empty hotel – we set off along the busy Accra–Akosombo road to the main gate of the Shai Hills Reserve. The gate area is often overrun by a large troop of baboons, and we saw them scampering along the road as we walked. Several sat around the gate as we entered, chewing on grass and acting like they were ignoring us, while actually keeping a careful eye on where we went.

We entered the small office, which had information about the various hikes and game drives on offer. While Hannah and Ariane selected, I went to a stall across the road to buy water and bananas. This time, the baboons took a much keener interest as I walked through the gate, having spotted the bananas in the small plastic bag. As we sat and ate, the younger ones came near, hoping for the chance to steal one. Stephen, our guide, shooed them away and we set off on our hike.

A monkey
The Shai Hills is a little underwhelming as a game reserve – few visitors see much other than the baboons and kob antelope – but it’s a lush, green landscape and we enjoyed our hike to a small outcrop near the reserve’s northern edge. Cloud kept off the worst of the midday heat and we scrambled up the steep rocks for a view of the surrounding plains and the hills I had climbed with the Ghana Mountaineers.

The Shai Hills
Descending from the rocks, our guide showed us a small cave where the baboons rest and play. The small boy in me simply couldn’t resist, and I slithered in to the cave. It smelled of baboons, and as I slid out the guide laughed and Hannah frowned at the state of my t-shirt. We wandered back slowly through the park, the kob watching us as we went, while I chatted to Stephen about his life as a guide.

Despite its modest attractions, our visit to the Shai Hills was an enjoyable and informative excursion. I learnt never to stay at the Shai Hills Resort; I learnt how little wildlife guides in Ghana earn (around 150 cedis, or £50); and, over the course of the next week, I learnt that playing around in baboons’ caves can give you an unholy case of the shits.