Monday, 28 January 2013


At a Hearts of Oak match
The African Cup of Nations is here again and Ghana’s Black Stars are one of the favourites. Their games are notable for two reasons: they offer a rare chance to see Accra (virtually) devoid of traffic, and they are one of the few times when Ghana’s many football fans watch an African game.

For the rest of the year, people follow the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga, and increasingly Italy’s Serie A and the German Bundesliga. The talk in the bars and ‘football theatres’ – small set-ups that show the games via South African DSTV – is of Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Man Utd.

Debates rage as fans of the big European teams (and Liverpool) argue about which is the best team, who are the ‘true champions’, which club has the greatest history. It’s remarkably heartfelt, considering virtually none of them has seen the teams live, or likely ever will. The fervour surpasses the atmosphere at Ghanaian league matches; Hearts of Oak, Accra’s leading team, rarely sell even a quarter of the tickets for their games.

There is interest in other English teams as well: a few hardy souls will turn up for Wigan v Reading. For the first time in my life, an in-depth knowledge of lower-league right-backs is proving useful; certainly more than it did as an opening chat-up line at university. 
Epo's at night

One of the most popular places to watch games in Accra is the terrace bar at Epo Spot in Osu. Its reputation means you are as likely to be sat next to a Canadian volunteer as a Ghanaian, but it maintains its friendly chaotic ambiance. The shouting is loud, the beer is cold, and the aroma of grilled food drifts up from the surrounding snack bars.

I went there for Ghana’s last group game in the Cup of Nations, against Niger. Radio XYZ was commentating directly from the venue, adding an authentic atmosphere to their coverage. Ghana won 3-0, an easy victory to top their group. But many fans are still downbeat about the team’s overall chances following the experience of last year’s tournament.

Ghana lost to Zambia in the semi-finals in 2012, with Asamoah Gyan missing another penalty to follow his effort in the World Cup quarter-final. As the final whistle blew, the fans at Epo's were all in agreement: the team had failed to live up to expectations; the coach was clueless; the star players were more interested in money; they never win on penalties. 

They clearly watch too much overseas football – apart from the heat and the smell of grilled goat, it was just like watching England. Hopefully they can go two better this time around – not least because it will keep Accra traffic-free for a good few hours.
Epo's at dusk

Sunday, 20 January 2013


You won’t find Nsawam in any guidebooks – its main point of ‘interest’ is the large prison on its outskirts. But it’s just 45 minutes northwest of Accra along the Kumasi road, and the surrounding hills make it well worth heading out here. The lack of a tourist trail adds to the adventure – you could be one of the first people to go walking on them.

Walking on them for pleasure, at least. Farm tracks weave their way across the hills, connecting village to field to village, through fields of papaya, maize and cassava. And it was one of these tracks that we followed to create a new Ghana Mountaineers route.

In the village
Most tracks are steep in Ghana – no messing about with zigzags here – and we lost our breath as quickly as we gained height. The pause to regain it was a chance to admire the stunning early-morning view. The cloud that drifts in from the sea at night is caught between the closely packed hills, providing a scene rarely found on the more widely spaced hills around Krobo. The inversion, with the peaks bursting through the white blanket, was a fitting reward for yet another early start.

Stephen had brought maps of the area – one from Google, another from an obscure Russian website – but once in among the trees on our first summit, they were of limited use. Still, we were creating a new route so it didn’t really matter; we followed our noses in a vague direction of somewhere over there. The air was cool, and the walking easy, so why rush?

As walks in Ghana go, it was uneventful – no snakes, no ants, no secret cannabis farms – leaving plenty of time to enjoy the area. We passed through fruit farms, villagers preparing for church, the occasional bird in the trees.

At the occasional clearings, we saw further inviting hills to the south and further north, noting down inviting ridges and potential climbs. And that’s the problem with exploring new areas – you come back with a list of even more hills to tick off. There’s plenty more to be discovered around Nsawam.

Sunday, 13 January 2013


Harmattan haze
Ghana has no distinct seasons – it’s hot, very hot or stupidly hot – so the Harmattan, between December and March, provides some shape to each year. This trade wind, which blows southwest from the Sahara towards the Gulf of Guinea, coats Ghana and its West African neighbours with a fine red dust carried from the desert.

Not everyone welcomes it. Many Ghanaians complain of headaches and colds, brought about by the cool temperatures, and the dust can cause breathing problems. And Accra, never the smartest of cities, is even scruffier than normal with every last street looking like it needs a good sweep. Guidebooks advise travellers that the Harmattan can spoil views in the mountains or when wildlife watching, and photographers bemoan the damage done to their cameras.

Harmattan sunset
Personally I enjoy the Harmattan, not least for the spectacular effect it has on the sunsets. Each evening, the haze turns the sun into a perfectly round disc as it drops, tinting the sky with vivid oranges and reds.

A good place to appreciate the effect of the Harmattan is the Hillburi resort, near Aburi in the Akapwem hills. While this option is not open to most people in Ghana – one of the plush rooms costs 320 cedis a night, double what some earn in a month – for those fortunate enough, it makes a welcome escape from Accra.

Hillburi pool
Hannah and I headed there for a late Christmas treat, to enjoy their fine food and relax in the ‘world’s end’ swimming pool, which overlooks the surrounding hills. Normally the view stretches for miles across the interlocking hills, but in early January only the nearest two slopes were visible through the dust.

Enjoying dinner on the terrace, our eyes were fixed on this view across the valley. It’s captivating at any time, but the Harmattan haze made it particularly special. And once the sun had set and the day-trippers had departed, the only sounds we heard were the plop of a Gulder beer bottle opening and the flapping wings of the bats.