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.

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