Sunday, 30 September 2012


A new direction for the Ghana Mountaineers: northwest from Accra rather than northeast, along the rutted, quarter-built Accra–Kumasi road. Kevin had spotted two inviting-looking hills near Nsawam. The only problem was finding them.

The early-morning mist that hung low across the road was atmospheric but didn’t help with route finding. It was so dense that we missed Nsawam; a policeman guarding an overturned truck pointed us in the right direction. One U-turn later, we pulled up at a quarry cut into the foot of the larger of our two new hills.

The mist was clearing as we gained height quickly. A cheerful family, pottering about their farm on route, told us the names of the hills: Yasao (the bigger one, 425m) and Mamidi (240m). Their path to their fields provided an easy route up, and the singing from village church services far below provided the usual Sunday-morning soundtrack. Even though it was a new hill, it felt very familiar.
Stephen and Nathan take a breather

The only thing missing was a summit view. The top was a building site, with a new farm building in the early stages of construction. Any views were blocked by trees – good for the environment, bad for photos. So after a brief pause we headed back down. But a quick up-and-down felt too abrupt for a proper walk, so we headed across and take on the second peak, Mamidi.

A wide variety of crops grew in the valley farms: tomatoes, yams, maize, plantains, papayas, even onions, which are usually imported to Ghana. After weaving through the fields, we reached the foot of the hill. It looked benign; much smaller than Yasao, with clear grassy slopes up. I estimated an hour up and down. I was wrong.

The tall grass disguised sections of steep, loose rocks, which made the climb up tricky. It took a while to reach an exposed outcrop just below the summit, where we paused for breakfast. The reward was the view that had been missing earlier, and two more hills behind Yasao were noted for our next trip out this way.

Continuing over the summit, the grass reached above head-height, so we followed our noses down the opposite side of the hill, trusting to luck and a basic sense of direction. A very thin path weaved through the grass – formed by a farmer? a grasscutter? – and headed in roughly the right direction. We followed into a gully that would surely lead us back to the start.

It did – but not easily. The low-lying branches and rattan stalks made progress tricky, and every branch was swarming with ants. Not vicious biters, but their numbers meant they soon got everywhere – in hair, up shorts, down T-shirts. A five-metre, near-vertical rock face proved the final obstacle. As the ants nipped away at secret places, we headed down one by one, using a combination of sliding, root grabbing and swear words from several different languages.

Once safely down, it was one final push back through the farms to the cars. We passed two more farmers on the way. On our early morning walks, we often attract surprised looks from local people: what are they doing, hiking in this heat for fun? This time, the farmers looked even more bemused than usual. As we reached the car I looked round at the group – hot, grubby, sweaty and still brushing off ants – and concluded that, maybe this once, they had a point. But it was still fantastic fun.

Mist over Nsawam

Wednesday, 26 September 2012


Our new flat is in East Legon, in northeast Accra. It’s the first, and probably last, time I will live in a city’s trendiest quarter.

You can tell it’s trendy because the taxi drivers ask Hannah and me for double the normal city fares – even on top of their standard obroni tax. We can usually haggle them down, but one or two have got very irate when they felt they hadn’t ripped us off sufficiently. Another refused to take us for less than 10 cedis (for what should be a 3-cedi journey), arguing, “I will then have to turn round to come back”. True, perhaps, but failing to grasp one of the key aspects of taxi driving.

Dzorwulu, our old quarter, was a suburb for wealthy Ghanaians, but East Legon is a suburb aimed at young middle-class Ghanaians and expats, who are spilling out here now the smartest districts, Airport Residential and Cantonments, are full. Flashy new restaurants line Lagos Avenue and Freetown Avenue, with many more being built. New houses and flats are also going up, their grey concrete skeletons springing up on every spare bit of land.

The lesser-spotted air-conditioning repair man
Our own flat is new. It’s bright, shiny, and suitably trendy for East Legon, with white leather sofas and a flat-screen TV. But pick away at the mahogany-finish, stuck-on surface and the cracks quickly appear. The list of faults is too long and dull to list, but is epitomised by the front door. Strong, sturdy and shiny … but put on back to front. So the lock is on the outside, and you have to put your shoulder to it to close it properly. A new one is being shipped from China (everything is imported from China). The other problems will be fixed tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.

The back of our flat overlooks one of Accra’s few rivers. It’s not quite a Ghanaian equivalent of Wind in the Willows; you are more likely to see a chicken pecking about in the sludgy trickle than a water rat in a rowing boat. Unfortunately, like most waterways in the city, it’s used as a rubbish dump. And as there is nowhere else to dump it, where else should it go? Our security guards set fire to the pile when it gets too high.

The river does, though, provide a green and leafy view, with trees lining either side. As I approach middle age, I can justify keeping a bird watching book by my desk, which overlooks the river. And my new binoculars help to determine whether that flash of red and yellow is a Barbary shrike or a Shoprite carrier bag blowing in the wind.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Year two

Friends who have spent time living overseas say that the second year in a different country is easier. Your new home city is no longer a mystery; the weather and seasonal changes don’t catch you off guard; you have an existing circle of new friends and generally know what to expect.

And so it proved. Stepping off the plane at Kotoka International Airport, the tropical air smelt instantly familiar: warm and damp, with a faint tinge of burning plastic. Porters in bright yellow jackets sat stood about on the runway, smiling broadly and doing nothing.

In the terminal, every wall was plastered with adverts for phone networks, each with their own distinctive colours and boasting that their coverage is the cheapest, the best value, Ghana’s most popular, the most reliable – an instant reminder that in this country, the mobile is king.

At the immigration desks, the queues shuffled forward at a torturous pace, the young men behind the glass screens in absolutely no hurry as they mulled over each bit of paperwork. By contrast, it took less than five minutes back in Ghana to be asked for our first ‘dash’, or bribe; the lady organising the lines asked us if we wanted to join the now-empty delegates line, “for some small compensation”. We declined; it was a little too soon to resign ourselves to the fact that almost every task requires a backhander.

We passed the sign politely advising visiting “paedophiles and sexual deviants” to “take their business somewhere else”. A surprisingly quick trip through customs – the officials were too busy negotiating the ‘extra duty’ on other people’s goods to bother with us – and into the chaos of the arrivals hall.

A generic Ghana photo
Taxi drivers swarm around new arrivals, preying on their bewilderment to get overinflated fares. Prior knowledge proved useful this time; ignore all calls, hold on to your bags, and keep walking to the official taxi rank outside. (The one time we did get hooked by one of the hawkers, his engine caught fire less than three minutes from the airport). One ridiculous price later – there’s only so much you can haggle, despite experience – and we arrived at our newly built flat in East Legon.

None of the jobs that needed doing had been completed in the preceding six weeks. The door still stuck, the washing machine was still unconnected, the toilet seat broken. Eric, the caretaker, assured us they would all be done. “Soon, soon, I am just waiting on a few things.”

Akwaaba. Welcome back to Ghana.