Monday, 10 December 2012


Kokrobite beach
Arriving from the calm of Barbara’s Village, Big Milly’s was a jolt to the senses. The drumming workshop could be heard before we entered the gates: no surprise, considering the large group of rastas banging away, surrounded by a crowd of white backpackers all playing at being a rasta. Dreadlocks, tie-die t-shirts and fisherman’s pants: the familiar uniform of the gap year student.     

The courtyard was overflowing with market stalls and sellers, people walking through to the beach, and 4x4s – evidence of its glowing reputation among expats. As we were shown to the reception, we passed a big screen showing the English Premier League. A big cheer went up as Man Utd scored a last-minute winner against City – I was beginning to think that Big Milly’s wasn’t my kind of place. 

Amid all the commotion, Hannah and I did what all sensible creatures do – we hid. Our small room in the gardens, set back from the action, had two chairs and a table outside, so we sat and read our books. I felt a little middle-aged for not embracing the vibe and whipping out the bongos, but I would have stood out like Prince Charles at a rave.

A stall at Big Milly's
As dusk fell, though, the weekend crowds drifted away and the attraction of the award-winning resort became clear. A terrace bar overlooks the beach, where the souvenirs stall owners were packing up while the fishermen tidied up their nets for the day. Peace descended, and as the candles lit up the resort’s restaurant, Big Milly’s assumed a renewed charm. It may not have been the ‘love at first sight’ that many reviews insist is unavoidable, but the place was growing on me.

The restaurant
The attraction became yet stronger that night when Hannah called from the outdoor shower: a large fruit bat, eating a banana just behind our hut. We watched her feast until she flew off into the night.

Early Monday morning, Kokrobite beach looked similar to any other fishing resort along Ghana’s coast, a gentle hum of activity as people began their days. I walked down to the water, which was remarkably free of litter for such a popular beach. I made my way to the rocks further on – despite being 35, I still can’t resist looking for crabs in rock pools.

A man squatted on the rocks above me. I waved, and was surprised when he frowned at me; not a typically Ghanaian response. At that point I realised this part of the beach doubled as the al fresco toilet. I left him to it and headed for breakfast (after washing my hands very thoroughly).

While Big Milly’s dominates the beach scene in Kokrobite, there is a village just behind. That afternoon, we wandered up the steep track to explore. Tourism has certainly made its mark: every other building was a restaurant or guesthouse, in varying states of repair and completion, but they are all overshadowed by the glitz of the star attraction.

Thirsty in the afternoon heat, we called in at a small shack. The overpowering scent of dope should have warned us what to expect: a rasta bar, and we were the only ones without the ubiquitous dreads-and-vest look. The smiling owner took our drink orders, and a man wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt and smoking a massive joint stumbled over.

“Hi”, he drawled, sitting next to us. “I am the King of Tanzania, but have left my kingdom to see more of my homeland, Africaaah!”

I smiled and nodded awkwardly, the standard British response in such situations. By the time we had finished, he was asleep in the corner, joint still smoking away. It was a fitting image to take away from Kokrobite. 

Football on the beach

Saturday, 8 December 2012


Hannah birdwatching
After a fraught couple of days battling to get our passports back from the Ghana immigration office, Hannah and I needed some peace and quiet. And few places around Accra are quieter or more peaceful than Barbara’s Village, tucked away behind Langma beach. 

The ‘village’ is a circle of huts and stilt rooms modelled on Nzulezo village in western Ghana. On arrival, the resort was deserted apart from the eponymous Barbara and Moses, the barman/manager/handyman. The beach resorts in Langma probably lose many potential customers to the bright lights of Kokrobite, chiefly Big Milly’s, which are nearer Accra and better known. Barbara’s village also sits away from the beach, which is likely to put some off. But others’ loss was our gain; we dropped our bags in our hut and headed for the empty chairs around the bar.

Some sort of cactus
One of the many attributes of Barbara’s Village is the garden. The circular bar is surrounded by overhanging trees and an array of brightly coloured flowers and shrubs. These in turn attract the birds and I got out the binoculars to watch the weavers, shrikes and sparrows going about their business. Hannah joined in for once. “There’s a red one over there,” she nodded, barely looking up from her book as a Barbary shrike bounced about beneath the trees.

A barbary shrike

People head to the beaches around Accra to escape the city and enjoy some nature. So you cannot then complain if nature then surrounds you. But there are limits, even for ardent nature lovers like myself. The grass roofs of the huts match the traditional style for this part of Africa, but they also provide an ideal residence for mice. And the ones in our roof seemed to be indulging in a Led Zeppelin-style orgy, given the amount of banging and squeaking that went on.

A bronze mannekin

The rodents continued into the early hours, so with little chance of sleep I got up at dawn. The resort was louder at 6.00am than in the afternoon, with the birdlife in full song. I sat and watched the morning routines, as sparrows and bronze mannekins tended their nests in the rafters of the bar, and weavers flew across with more grass for their nests.

One of the legacies of the many foreign-owned beach bars along Ghana’s coast is the spread of proper coffee, in place of the filth that is Nescafe instant. When Moses appeared, I ordered a pot with which to enjoy the early morning activity. Barbara’s might be too quiet for some, but at that hour, it was perfect.

The bar

* Don't let the mice put you off visiting Barbara's Village. They have, according to Moses, been "dealt with".

Sunday, 2 December 2012


Situated in the breezy Akapwem hills, Aburi is a popular day trip from Accra – an increasingly easy trip as the road-building project at Madina reaches its conclusion. And the usual target is the botanical gardens.

The gardens were created by the British in 1890, who decided the best thing to do was chop down all the native plants and put in foreign ones. I travelled there with Guy, a colleague visiting from the UK. Our first encounter with nature was a little unexpected. A luminous green spider scurried across the path where it was soon chased down by some ants. The battle was swift and ruthless; the ants quickly ripped a leg off, then overpowered the unfortunate arachnid and dragged him away to meet his fate. It was a gruesome sight so early on a Sunday morning; I loved it.

Strangler Fig
The garden’s star aboreal attraction is the Strangler Fig tree. This is a parasite that, over a period of 30 years, fed off its host tree and eventually killed it. The dead tree rotted away, leaving the Ficus standing with a hollow trunk where the host once was. For botanists, it’s a fascinating specimen that demonstrates parasitism. For everyone else, it’s a chance to stand inside a tree and stick your head out of the little holes.

A butterfly (somewhere)
But Guy was here for the butterflies, not trees. And the botanical gardens are full of them, so he spent an hour chasing them about, trying to get good photos with which to identify them later. This quickly wore us out and we headed to the restaurant for a drink and a snack. We enjoyed kelewele (spicy fried plantain) and yam chips (yams cut into chips). A bee-eater and a pied hornbill flew past as we ate; I was proud that my new birdwatching skills enabled quick identification without flapping through the field guide.

A flower (a red one)
A student from Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew founded these gardens, but they bear little resemblance to their neatly organised UK cousin. From the restaurant, a steep path led into what was nominally the citrus section, but essentially an overgrown jungle. An army of soldier ants paraded in line along the path. I gave them a wide berth, having already seen what they were capable of.

Guy enjoyed the multitude of butterflies in the forest, while I simply appreciated being out of Accra – one of Aburi’s key selling points. Eventually the mosquitoes drove us back to the main gardens and as it was approaching midday, the gardens were filling with picnicking families and noisy church groups. Another key tip to enjoying Aburi – arrive early.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Cabbages and cannabis

Walking in the hills around Accra is an opportunity to get some fresh air, enjoy some exercise, maybe see a bit of nature. And of course a chance to get high.

Having battled with the ants to climb two of the four hills around Nsawam, a large group of Ghana Mountaineers returned to see what the other two were like. The Kevin-made route led us steeply uphill through farms, thick undergrowth, a short and slippery rock climb … and right into a clearing full of small cannabis plants.

Anyone familiar with the ‘The Beach’ will understand our sense of unease. Discovering secret cannabis farms in the tropics is not always a good thing…would armed guards burst out of the bushes and gun us down? Fortunately this is Ghana, not Thailand, and the only farmer nearby simply smiled, waved and pointed us in the right direction to get down.

As the temperature began to reach its ludicrous midday pinnacle, we were grateful for the relative simplicity of the second climb of the day - Bomofore.* We soon reached its breezy summit. No illegal activity here, just a convenient rocky perch for breakfast, with impressive views of the three other tops. Yasao, the first peak we climbed in the area; Mamidi, with its ferocious ants; and the rasta’s favourite Botosure just to the west.

The fire tree
Below, a clear path led back through farms to where our cars were parked. After walking past a striking, bright-red fire tree, then navigating the edge of a quarry, we headed along the track, thankful for the shade provided by the trees.

On the way, Lucy, Alice and Vivienne greeted a farmer and were rewarded with some organically grown cabbages. It was a typically generous Ghanaian gesture; a poor villager only too pleased to share his produce with strangers (who insisted on paying). 

As no one had thought to be so friendly to the cannabis farmer, we had to make do with beer instead, and quickly made our way to Nsawam in search of a spot to quench our thirst.

* This is what I think they were called when I asked a man in the village. Severe heatstroke may have affected my memory.