Saturday, 27 October 2012


Legon botanical gardens
In a city with few green spaces, the University of Legon’s botanical gardens are a haven for those needing some fresh air. Wandering around the disorganised collection of trees and shrubs quickly takes you away from the noise and fumes of Accra’s busy streets. On any given weekend, you will find many of the city’s dog walkers and joggers treading the brick-red paths, and students reading quietly underneath trees. 

The gardens also attract much of the city’s wildlife, particularly the avian kind. And so at 7.00am I took a taxi to the northern end of the campus to join the birdwatching walk run by BirdlifeInternational and the GhanaWildlife Society.

A shikra
Confession time: I am something of a reluctant birdwatcher. Despite being a nature lover, I always considered watching tiny specks in the distance and making notes on them a rather geeky pastime, only one or two steps up from trainspotting. But before we moved to Ghana, a friend from TCV told me about the diversity of birds in West Africa (he had lived in Nigeria) and recommended a good field guide.

And I have become hooked. Sort of. I don’t take notes or make lists: no recording of the overhead conditions, or numbers of males and females. I am also a bit of snob. I have no interest in all the little brown ones, or pigeons or crows – I can see them back in the UK. Luckily Ghana many brightly coloured species with suitably tropical names; more than enough to occupy a fledgling twitcher.

Samuel, the walk leader, set us off at a lazy pace. Within a few steps we had found our first specimens: a couple of grey hornbills calling to each other. I had seen them before hopping between the trees in Accra, but this was a chance to admire them more closely. We stopped to watch their routine, some in the group taking notes, others photos.

A grey hornbill
Further along we saw green wood hoopoes, two handsome shikras, glossy purple starlings and a blue-bellied roller – brightly coloured, easy to spot and exotic-sounding, so instantly one of my favourites. I was impressed by the number of different species Samuel was picking out – far more than I had managed on my solo efforts here.

While he set up the telescope – or ‘scope’ to us birdwatchers (I was learning the lingo fast) – a bird moved through the trees further away. “Tim, can you have a look at what that was?”

The pressure was on – would my identification skills pass the test? I could sense a dozen pencils poised, waiting for my expert opinion. Sweat dribbled into my eyes, and the binoculars (or ‘bins’) trembled as my fingers fumbled on the focus.

“Er, I think it was another hornbill” I said, trying to sound authoritative.
“Great, thanks, mark that one down.”

Relief; I had passed the test. (I think the sage nodding of the head helped to convince people I was an old hand.)

A cattle egret
The highlight of the walk near the pond on the northern edge of the park. I already knew this place well for its large colony of cattle egrets, noisy white birds that nest in the trees, and whose toxic droppings make area fairly pungent. But ‘Uncle’, a senior member of the group, had spotted something far more exotic – a yellow-fronted tinkerbird, high up in the tree.

We took turns looking through the lens at this beautiful little creature, while Uncle smiled proudly at our admiration. I asked him how he had spotted such a small bird, so high up. “I heard its call, and knowing they like to sit high up, I managed to find it,” he replied.

His skills put my clumsy, ‘play it safe’ guess at a hornbill into perspective; I have a long way to go as a birdwatcher. Luckily the botanical gardens provide the perfect training ground.

Photos by Rene Mayorga

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


Accra is developing fast. Glass-fronted high-rises fill the city skyline, with the steel-and-concrete shells of many more growing daily. Shiny land cruisers pepper the traffic jams that choke the city, while expats and wealthy Ghanaians pack the smart restaurants that serve food from across the planet.

Jamestown lighthouse
And then there’s Jamestown. Accra’s poorest district is just a few hundred metres from its most expensive hotel – $300 a night for the cheapest room at the Movenpick – but the contrasts between the old fishing harbour and the wealthier parts of Accra are stark.

I visited Jamestown with Manuela and Flo, friends visiting from Germany, and it was an instant jolt to the comforts available on my side of town. Mountains of plastic rubbish smothered the ground, some smouldering in small fires. Mixed with the piles of drying fish around the harbour, these gave Jamestown an incredibly pungent aroma. Battered old cars replaced the 4x4 behemoths seen elsewhere, many with more dents than bodywork. And Jamestown is the only place in Accra I have seen kids running about barefoot and in rags; Ghanaians take huge pride in their appearance, but the realities of poverty were evident.

The most striking contrast for me was the small wooden shacks. These are found in all corners of the capital, selling everything from fruit and veg to phone credit and lottery tickets. Elsewhere, they are brightly painted in the colours of whichever mobile phone company sponsors them. In Jamestown, they are cobbled them together from pieces of scrap wood, leaving a hotchpotch structure that looks unlikely to withstand the next strong breeze. Instead of an array of goods on view, most have just a small pile of dried fish or a tiny bag of sweets – whatever the owner could scrape together to sell.

We met outside Jamestown’s lighthouse, where Emmanuel, the keeper, was waiting to show us around. His deep voice made every aspect of the tour sound like a threat.

“This lighthouse was built by the British”, he growled as we went up the spiral staircase.
“Oh, brilliant”, I muttered.
“It has 91 steps” he barked next, with a look that suggested he didn’t think I could make them all.
The stairs
“Oh, ok, that’s, er, really impressive”.

We reached the viewing platform at the top – it’s best not to look too closely at the last few wooden rungs, especially the snapped rotten ones just behind their nailed-on replacements – and Emmanuel started pointing out landmarks.

“That is the oldest hotel in Ghana. Built in 1903”, he said, pointing to the faded Sea View Hotel opposite. “Not just the oldest in Accra, but Ghana!”
“Wow, that’s amazing. Is it popular?”
“It’s closed.”

Sea View Hotel
We continued with our 360° tour, him angrily identifying landmarks – the palace of Jamestown’s chief, Ussher Fort, James Fort – while I struggled to think of replies that didn’t incriminate me or my British ancestors. (Flo and Manuela had wisely sneaked off to the other side). Luckily the views were fantastic and I didn’t need to fake my interest.

After the lighthouse, Emmanuel offered to show us the harbour. I have always felt uncomfortable with ‘poverty tourism’ – essentially looking at some poor people and the squalor they live in. But at the same time I was fascinated by Jamestown and wanted to see more. Plus I didn’t dare refuse Emmanuel.

As we walked, Emmanuel explained the history of the Ga fishing communities who settled here before Accra existed as a city. But he was interrupted by an angry shout from a group of men playing cards.

“You just walk through and don’t offer us greetings?”
A large man had stood up from the card table and was staring at us, his friends grinning silently.
“Er, we’re sorry, we…” began Flo.
“Not you, him”, interrupted the card player, pointing at Emmanuel.

There followed a brief and angry discussion in Ga, the language of Jamestown, including the full complement of Ghanaian hand gestures and shouting. Emmanuel’s quick submission and grovelling bow as we departed betrayed his earlier ferocity, I noted (silently and to myself, of course).

As we continued through the harbour, I made sure to smile and say hello to everyone we passed. The residents responded with varying degrees of amusement, friendliness and apathy; most were too busy sorting the day’s catch to worry about another group of Westerners poking about their home. Tourism is beginning in Jamestown – most evidently with the Jaynii beach bar – but what the locals think of it remains unknown.

Thanks to Flo for the pictures. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


Akosombo Dam
The Akosombo Dam is Ghana’s equivalent of Big Ben. The country’s signature monument, a world-famous sight that every visitor wants to see. And when you get there, you look at it, take a photo, and … well, that’s about it.

You can’t walk on the Akosombo Dam without prior arrangement with the owners (and ‘prior arrangement’ is a loosely understood concept in Ghana). You can’t even get that close – the best viewing point is the balcony of the Volta Hotel, several hundred metres away.

And again
And yet, like Big Ben, it is still worth the effort to see it – to marvel at its size and wonder whether it really is just the pile of rocks and mud it appears to be. There’s no information boards, no museum and no guide, so these questions remain unanswered until you can get home and google them.

The region has other plus points as well, making a trip out here worthwhile. Chief among them is the Aylos Bay Hotel, perched on the bank of the Akosombo River. Hannah and I, with Manu and Flo, visiting friends from Germany, had arrived the night before after a hellish tro-tro journey from Kpando – thunderstorms, potholes, darkness and a maniacal driver are not a good mix. 

Atimpoku Bridge
The hotel’s lazy charms were the perfect remedy after such a journey. The highlight is the riverside dining area, especially the pontoons that float on the river. You cannot see the dam from here, but the impressive bridge at Atimpoku is visible. 

We immediately made our way there and our nerves were soon restored as we sank beers and enjoyed the good quality Ghanaian food (the best palaver sauce I have had here). It takes time to arrive – service here is as slow as most places – but for once the lethargy is in keeping with the surroundings.

Aylos Bay
Two bats called to each other in a tree nearby, a high-pitched squeak they repeated for two hours. The only other sounds were the oars of the occasional pirogue splashing into the water, and of course frogs and cicadas – the soundtrack to any night in Ghana. Certainly no interruptions from the staff; when I walked up to the bar to order more drinks, they had long since gone and the bar was closed.
Our visit to Akosombo could be summarised as an attraction you can’t visit, and a hotel with staff who would rather you didn’t bother them. It would be mean-spirited to conclude it was a typical Ghanaian experience. It would also miss the point; Ghana does understated better than anywhere, and in places as peaceful as Aylos Bay, that’s no bad thing at all. The dam was merely the cherry on a very sleepy cake.


Sunday, 14 October 2012


There’s no need for an alarm clock in Wli. The local cockerels provide a free wake-up call, competing to see how can screech the loudest. The problem is you can’t set them for a particular time. And so, I was roused at 4.30am – more than an hour before the scheduled start of our walk to Wli’s upper waterfall.

Wli waterfalls, a combination of two falls that together form the highest in West Africa, is one of the Volta Region’s most popular attractions. The usual approach is along the floor to the lower falls, but James and I had signed up for the route along a mountain ridge to the upper falls.

Looking across the valley
We met Samuel, our guide, at the Wli tourist office at 6.00am. Wli village was already busy; women and girls swept the yards, while a local bar already had music playing. And the souvenir sellers who line the path to the falls were already setting up their stalls, ready for the earliest arrivals. Clearly the cockerels do a thorough round of the village.

Samuel, with Mt Afadjato behind
We enjoyed the cool morning air as we climbed steadily, following the steep southern shoulder of the bowl that contains the falls. After 45 minutes we paused above a sheer rock face. As we sat, a West African River Eagle swooped past. It nearly dropped the branch in its beak, before performing a clumsy mid-air juggling act and gliding off nonchalantly, pretending nothing had happened.

As we followed its flight round to the cliff face where its nest no doubt lay, our gaze was drawn to Mount Afadjato to the south. This is Ghana’s highest mountain, if only by a few metres, but it looked suitably imposing for the title, rising up from the early-morning haze that hid the villages below.

A short climb further and we reached the forest that covers the top of the hillside. Hidden in the grass lay planks of wood, clearly cut by a mechanical saw.
Wli Upper Falls
‘Togolese’, said Samuel. ‘They come up here to steal wood and smuggle it across the border.’
‘But why don’t they cut wood in Togo’ enquired James.
‘And why do they cut wood in the forests right at the top of the hill, not lower down?’ I asked.
‘And do they really drag a mechanical saw all the way up here?’
‘Yes, Togolese’ repeated Samuel, emphatically. Discussion over. And neither of us could come up with a better explanation as to how they got there.

From the contraband wood, the path headed steeply into the chamber. Tree roots and vines provided vital handholds during the precarious descent, and the brief glimpses of the upper falls provided little distraction from the task at hand. After a final, vertical slide through mud, rock and bush, we finally reached level ground again and continued quickly to the falls.

The water cascaded from high overhead, dispersing into spray before it reached the plunge pool. The spray soaked us in seconds, providing instant refreshment in the morning heat. On the opposite side of the falls was a path leading uphill. ‘The path to Togo’, said Samuel solemnly. No doubt used by those pesky wood smugglers.

"Numerous bats"
After admiring the falls, we headed quickly downhill to reach the main footpath. After passing the colony of bats that live near the falls – modestly promoted in the region as Wli’s “numerous bats” – we returned to the comfort of Wli Water Heights Hotel to shower, shower again, and then eat.

From the hotel’s courtyard, you can just see the waterfall, as well as the many other hills that crowd this beautiful corner of Ghana. And so we settled in for an afternoon of the scenery it from a distance while the hotel’s friendly waiter brought a steady supply of well-earned beers. It had been an early start thanks to the cockerels, but at least Wli is suitably sleepy during the rest of the day.

View from the hotel

Sunday, 7 October 2012


Palm trees
The coastline east of Accra gets far fewer visitors than the resorts to the west. Yet Ghana guidebooks sling out the usual clichés when describing the beaches here – unspoilt, peaceful, off the beaten track. Would Prampram be a hidden gem or a damp squib?

With James, a friend from Accra, we drove past the port city of Tema along the road that eventually leads to Togo, turning off for the village of Prampram. After a quick browse of the beachfront options described in our well-worn Bradt guide, we decided to try the Golden Beach Resort.

Pulling into the car park, the resort instantly gave off a neglected air. Piles of building materials cluttered the garden, evidence of half-completed or abandoned renovations. The paint on the resort’s buildings was heavily faded and peeling. The staff stared absently out to sea, with little to do as only two other guests occupied the cracked plastic chairs spreading across the beach.

At least the resort wasn’t quiet. Celine Dion powered out from the resort’s speakers, which vibrated precariously with every high note. We ordered drinks, and joined in with the sea watching, which seemed to be Prampram’s main activity. Two shipwrecks just offshore provided a little interest, but a large dump of plastic rubbish spoiled the view. The Golden Beach Resort does little to encourage its visitors to hang about; when Celine gave way to Chris de Burgh and Phil Collins, it was time to move on.

Boy on horse

The next settlement along the beach road is Ningo, formed of the villages of Old and New Ningo. We opted for the Comme-Ci beach resort on the basis of it having the most advertising signs along the road. The bright red signs suggested a little more life and Comme-Ci was certainly a step up. A boy offered us horse rides as soon as we arrived, and a chubby waiter pottered straight over to welcome us and take us through the food options (rice, or chicken and rice).
Comme-Ci resort

After eating, we walked along the beach. All along the top of the sandbank that lined the beach were deserted, half-completed buildings, which seem to line so much of Ghana’s coast. It’s hard to know why so many have, apparently, been abandoned. Perhaps the owners are waiting for money to finish the project, or are going through one of Ghana’s notoriously protracted land negotiations. But these deserted concrete shells gave the beach between Ningo and Prampram a melancholy, unfulfilled appearance.

It’s easy to describe any trip out of Accra as worthwhile, and Ningo in particular beats a Sunday spent in the city. But it’s hard to see either resort competing with the bright lights of Bojo Beach or Kokrobite any time soon. Except among Celine Dion fans.

Chillin', innit