Sunday, 14 April 2013


Butre beach
Stirring myself from the sun lounger at Fanta’s Folly, I walk along the beach to Butre, one of Ghana’s popular coastal villages. Small, near-translucent crabs scuttle towards their holes in the sand as I pass; they pause on the edge, waiting to see how close I will get before disappearing from view.

Across the wooden bridge that spans the river between the beach and the village, I wave at a group of teenagers, anticipating a chorus of ‘obroni. But they are too engrossed in their game of damii to notice me.

I look for a path to Fort Batenstein, which sits on a small hill overlooking the village. There is no obvious way up through the haphazard houses, and no one offers directions as I walk through the main street. But at a school on the edge of Butre, a man asks me where I’m going. I answer him; he tells me I need a guide to visit the fort. ‘It’s illegitimate to go without out one’, he smiles. I smile back, deciding not to correct his mistake.

In the village, I soon find the simple wooden shack that acts as Butre’s tourist information centre. The teenage girl outside looks up at me impassively. I ask to visit the fort.
‘OK, let’s go.’
‘How much?’
‘Five cedis.’
‘Too much, I’m not paying that much.’
‘Then you’re not going.’

She grins broadly. I wonder whether she is pleased to have outwitted the sweaty white man, or simply to have avoided a walk in the searing sun.

Instead, I head to the harbour. Men sit in groups mending their nets; they look up and nod curtly, not hostile but indifferent to yet another tourist with a camera trying to photograph their boats.

The children splashing in the water are more responsive. ‘Obroni, snap me’. They strut and pose for the camera, then crowd around to see themselves in the viewfinder. I take a deep breath as then sandy little hands grab at my expensive camera, reminding myself it can be cleaned. ‘Obroni, give me one cedi’ they then ask, an almost Pavlovian reaction to seeing a white person. They don’t seem to really expect a response, running back into the water, and I don’t give one.

Butre harbour
I walk back along the beach and notice that most of the fishermen have discarded their nets. I ponder why, then spot a chalk notice on a board outside a bar: ‘Rubin Kazan v Chelsea, 4pm’. The cheers from inside suggests Chelsea have scored already (I have yet to meet a Rubin Kazan fan in Ghana).

Back across the bridge, I stop for a drink at the Johannesburg bar. The couple that own it pause their argument to serve me a chilled Star beer. The toothless old man next to me starts talking in broken English. ‘Visit … photo … leave … drink.’ A hand gesture confirms he wants, or expects, me to buy him a beer too.

I consider whether buying him one would reinforce stereotypes of tourists as cash points, or be a kind gesture to a poor man on a hot day. Then realise I only have four cedis on me. I pretend that I don’t understand him, pay up and leave hurriedly.

On the beach outside, a young rasta leans over his shoulder, smiles and waves. ‘Hey, obroni, how are you?’ A small dark pool is forming on the beach in front of him. ‘Fine, how are you?’ I wave back, making a mental reminder that talking to people mid-piss won’t be normal when I move back to Germany in two months.


Thursday, 11 April 2013


Not Kumasi
The Lonely Planet’s West Africa guidebook says ‘Kumasi is worth as much time as you can give it’. Hmm … my first five minutes in Ghana’s second city were spent picking a route through Kajeita market – through open sewers, ankle-deep rubbish, and street traders who cover the pavement with cheap plastic tat and piles of fruit. Five minutes was more than enough time for me.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy Kumasi is not to live in Accra. The ‘sizzling street food’, ‘colourful markets’ and ‘bustling/vibrant/hectic/pulsating nightlife’ may be exciting the first time, but the novelty quickly wears off. Kumasi had the same hassles, traffic and potent stenches that Hannah and I were escaping for two weeks.

That evening we got food poisoning from an expensive Indian restaurant and were greeted in our hotel room by a cockroach the size of a cat. I was more than happy to leave Kumasi early the next morning to explore the countryside of the Ashanti region.

Lake Point Guesthouse
It’s an unfair comparison: a crowded city of 1.6 million people versus a tranquil lakeside retreat. But Lake Bosumtwe felt a world away from Kumasi. Formed by a meteorite several millennia ago, the near-perfectly round lake is surrounded by quiet fishing villages and forested peaks – not a bustling market in sight.

We took a taxi to Lake Point Guesthouse on the western shore of the lake. Our room was charmingly furnished with local materials and adornments. In the garden, birds flitted between the flowers and star fruits, mangoes, bananas and oranges hung from the branches of the various trees. I could feel the grime of Kumasi leaving me instantly.

Star fruit
We spent the day lazing by the lake, reading books and playing scrabble. Beside the lake, the only noise came from the raucous weaverbirds that were nesting in the reeds. The shallow lake water was as warm as a bath, and an eagle swooped overhead as I swam. This was my kind of place.

It’s hard not to fall into the relaxed vibe of life beside the lake. Unfortunately the staff at Lake Point had done likewise. The next day, we asked about the lunch menu – a limited but tasty selection of soups with bread or toasted sandwiches. We were told that they had run out of bread at breakfast and were waiting to get some more.

A cattle egret relaxing at the lake
Breakfast had finished four hours ago; the nearest village, complete with a stall selling bread, was a mere 10 minutes’ walk away. I asked if they could get some bread: ‘Someone has gone already’. When will they be back? ‘I don’t know’.  Can you prepare soup and bread when they are back, and bring it to us? ‘No, you must wait.’

It’s a minor gripe, and lethargic customer service is hardly a new complaint in Ghana. And if you’re going to wait for two hours for a bowl of soup, there are few more relaxing places to do it than Lake Bosumtwe.

A butterfly
The Ashanti region is Ghana’s traditional heartland, as well as being the source of much of the country’s wealth, particularly from the region’s goldmines. There are plenty of craft villages nearby, but as with bustling markets, you only need to see Kente weaving once to get the idea. Instead, we decided to visit Bobiri butterfly sanctuary. 

It was a good decision. Situated just off the Kumasi–Accra road, the forest sanctuary is surprisingly well preserved considering that logging has decimated much of the region’s forests. And you don’t have to go far to see its eponymous residents.
Another butterfly

There were butterflies on every bush in the garden as we dropped off our bags; several different species flitted about on the road through the forest; one or two even found their way into the sanctuary’s guesthouse. Filling in the guestbook, I noted the previous visitor was ‘disappointed not to see any butterflies’; I wondered exactly where he had been looking.
'I saw her first...'
We were soon on a forest trail with James – the only wildlife guide who wears polished slip-on shoes and an ironed white shirt. He identified the different trees and told us how people use each one. He also explained the threats facing Ghana’s forests as the demand for timber rises – part of the forest is selectively logged. 

The forest was also alive with many of the 400 butterfly species recorded in the sanctuary. Although how anyone records them is beyond me – butterflies rarely sit still long enough to be examined, the little scamps.

Breakfast at Bobiri
That evening, we relaxed in the sanctuary’s guesthouse, a painted wooden house built on stilts. It felt like a trip back from the 1930s – sipping drinks on the terrace, looking out to the forest. The only thing missing from a full Happy Valley experience was the wife swapping – not easy when you’re the only guests –although two of the resident tortoises were scrapping over a lady. (If you’ve never seen lovesick tortoises fighting, I can assure you it’s very entertaining.)

I stretched out, beer in hand and with the sounds of the rain forest all around. Kumasi may delight backpackers, and Bosumtwe has its charms, but for me, Bobiri and its butterflies are the highlight of the Ashanti region.

Monday, 8 April 2013


A hippo
Weichau hippo sanctuary feels a long way from anywhere. We rattled along the bumpy, potholed road from Mole National Park for four hours before reaching the sanctuary’s visitor centre. Jo, our guide, showed us inside while KK, our driver, surveyed his mud-splattered car with the look of a man who regretted spending an hour washing it that morning. After paying the entrance fee, I asked Jo where the hippos were. ‘We have to drive; it’s another 22km along a dirt road’. KK didn’t look like he wanted to see hippos anymore; I was beginning to wonder myself.

We headed towards the Black Volta River, past the small communities who together created the sanctuary. I should have admired this remarkable community-based ecotourism project; instead I wondered when it was lunchtime and if it was too late to head for a hotel in Wa.

A young hippo
A dugout canoe was waiting on the river, which flows along the border between Ghana and Burkina Faso. We climbed in and were paddled upstream. And just five minutes later, we saw them. A bloat of hippos, submerged in the centre of the river. They rose one by one to snort out air, nudge each other or, on several occasions, fart loudly.

We pulled into the undergrowth on the Burkinabe side of the river and watched them. There’s something enthrallingly special about being 20 metres from wild hippos – about as close as I’d want to be. As each head appeared slowly, it was hard to shake the feeling they were keeping an eye on us, checking that we were keeping our distance.

The hippos have been protected since 1999, when the local communities created the sanctuary to generate a bit more tourism revenue in this quiet corner of Ghana. The scheme has been a success: visitor numbers have increased steadily and so, more importantly, have hippo numbers.

Our canoe
Numbers may get a further boost shortly. The hippos in Bui National Park, further along the Black Volta, are under threat from the new hydropower dam. Weichau sanctuary and Ghanaian wildlife groups hope they will move upstream. They will have to make their own way, though; no one has yet offered to move these giant, grumpy beasts. There are also doubts whether the land around Weichau could support more hippos. There’s plenty of space in the water – the problems will arise when they come on land to graze, threatening local crops.

Hidden in the shade, with the two young hippos now jumping on each other, it would have been easy to stay for longer. But tummies were rumbling; I illegally entered Burkina Faso for a quick piss, and we headed back to Weichau, leaving the hippos to enjoy their serene sanctuary.

Ghana does tropical storms like few other countries, and the one during our night camping near the river was a classic. The lightning was so bright that the cockerels started crowing at 3.00am, thinking it was morning. We had to move our tent in the middle of the night to avoid a drenching.

Next morning, our charcoal burner was too wet too cook breakfast on, so we headed into Weichau village to eat. Jo took us to Yussif’s Tea Spot, whose motto is ‘Call in for all kinds of beverages’. As long as it’s Lipton Yellow Label tea. Still, at least Yussif acknowledged how lacking in flavour this shameful British brand is and put two bags into my plastic mug.

Mmm, Lipton!
Four of our six eggs had survived the storm and were soon being turned into an omelette. The tins of Heinz baked beans caused a problem, however. After explaining to Yussif that they didn’t go in the omelette, he then tried to fry them. It took a bit of discussion – Yussif was mute, so Hannah and I first had to explain to Jo how to cook beans, and he then signed this to Yussif. The expression on Jo’s face when he ate them was similar to my first fufu experience – people actually like this stuff? – but he ate them all, and Yussif’s fine breakfast restored our spirits after a wet night.
Mmm, beans!

Sipping my syrupy tea, I revised my opinion from the previous day. Weichau is a wonderful place and the local people deserve huge credit for their project. It’s well worth visiting – just don’t expect the journey there to be easy. And maybe leave the beans behind.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Tick lists

There’s no mistaking a birdwatching enthusiast. Zechariah, wearing a dark green uniform complete with an ancient-looking rifle over his shoulder, was waiting at the safari office in Mole National Park when I arrived at 5.45am. ‘I was up at four, looking for fishing owls’ he explained. ‘Didn’t see them, just heard them.’ This was a man who took twitching seriously.

Mole National Park
Seriously enough to knock on the door of the two guests who had failed to show up. He came back, shaking his head disbelievingly: ‘They didn’t come, because of the storm’. The downpour just an hour earlier had been torrential; it seemed a viable excuse to me. But I opted to hold my tongue.

It was soon my turn anyway. ‘You’re too young to be a birdwatcher’, he said, looking me up and down. ‘Do you have a camera and notebook?’ I told him that I wasn’t too serious about birdwatching, and just enjoyed seeing tropical birds. The look he gave me in response left me wondering if I would make it past the crocodiles in the water hole.

But credit where it’s due: Zechariah Wareh knows his birds. As we made our way down the steep escarpment in front of the Mole Motel, he picked out various weavers and seed-crackers and the colourful red-cheeked cordon-bleu. He knew them not just by sight, but also by call; while I tried to find one species through my binoculars, he was already calling out the next one. Mole has over 300 species of bird, and he seemed keen to show me all of them.
A red-billed stork

As we walked through the scrubby savannah forest, he mentioned how lucky I was to have him for this walk. He had been booked on a course, but as the other birding guide had called in sick, he had stayed to take me out. ‘I am in the Bradt guide’, he said, not boastfully but rightfully proud of his reputation.

He also told me about two avid twitchers who had spent nearly a week in the National Park looking for the rare painted snipe. ‘They are wasting their time; it has gone for the year’, he said emphatically. ‘I have told them.’ I was surprised that anyone would doubt his word on avian matters. 

Keen to redeem myself a little, I mentioned the red-billed stork I had seen the previous day. He smiled and nodded; I was starting to make amends for my lack of years or tick-list.

For two hours, we wandered about, viewing gonoleks, starlings and vultures, among others. I lost count of the species we had seen, and was grateful I hadn’t had tried to keep a record. As we returned to the motel, we passed the crocodiles at the water hole. Zechariah stopped, admiring the creatures as they basked in the morning sun. It was warming that, after 25 years as a guide, he was still awed by a sight he must have seen nearly every day.

By this time I was hungry and, well, a little ‘birded out’. As I trotted quickly up the steps towards breakfast, Zechariah called me back. ‘Look, fruit pigeons – three different species’ he said, pointing to the colourful birds, which put their dour UK cousins to shame. I looked up, muttered something appreciative and then headed off for breakfast. Zechariah headed off to the office, and I was fairly sure he would be out there at 4.00am next day looking for his owls.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A tale of two villages

There are an increasing number of village tours available in Ghana. These offer visitors the chance to experience rural life, see traditional crafts and peek into people’s houses. They often provide a fascinating glimpse into a part of Ghana that most people don’t see. But some are better than others.

Crockery sets
Zozugo village is located behind Asempa Lodge on the outskirts of Tamale. At the suggestion of the lodge staff, Hannah and I went on a tour before leaving for Mole National Park. Christopher, our guide, was wearing his school uniform when he collected us from the lodge. But despite his age, he was an excellent guide, explaining every little detail of his village.

We started at the village’s cotton tree near the mosque, from which the village’s weavers get their materials. He found a pod, cracked it open and explained how it was harvested.  

Next he showed us around a traditional homestead. One room was stacked from floor to ceiling with different crockery sets and cooking pots. These are owned by women, enabling them to accumulate wealth in a way that stops them from running away with it – so the men are happy. A little misogynistic? Maybe, but it also prevents the husband spending the family’s money on palm wine and pito.

We met the village’s oldest weaver, a smiling 98-year-old lady who showed us how to spin the cotton harvested in the village. We visited two women who process shea butter and sell it in Tamale. And then we visited the village midwife’s home, where the realities of rural life in Ghana seemed less cosy and photogenic.

Weaving cotton
Just four miles from Ghana’s fourth-largest city, a young woman was giving birth on a stone floor in a mud hut. The midwife was tending to her with a collection of herbal remedies, but there was no bed, no evident sanitation, and no emergency response if things went wrong. The rate of maternal mortality is still high in Ghana, and medical conditions in rural areas are a factor. It all felt a long way from the shiny clinics of Accra (and even these are only available to the fortunate few).
Shea butter

It was a confronting end to the tour, but it was still hugely enjoyable. Christopher was helpful, informative and friendly. As we shared a drink back at the lodge, he explained how the tour fees of 15 cedis per person are shared between the guide and the community. He then caught a tro-tro to school in Tamale while we headed off towards Mole National Park in our hire car.

Larabanga, situated just outside Mole, is better known than Zozugo. It gets far more visitors, being so close to Ghana’s most popular National Park. But much of its notoriety comes from the many guidebooks and websites that rate the village’s ancient mud-and-stick mosque as one of Ghana’s most disappointing trips. This is mostly due to the amount of hassle tourists receive from local people.

It was little surprise, therefore, when a smartly dressed young man approached our car when we arrived that afternoon. He introduced himself as Abe, Larabanga’s ‘official tour guide’. Without pausing for breath, or even asking if we were visiting the mosque, he pointed us towards it and told us where to park.

People in Larabanga are aware of their bad press. At the small tourist office, Abe explained how things had improved recently. He had noticed our Bradt guide, in which Larabanga gets slated for its pushy guides and hangers-on asking for money. ‘We have official guides now, to make things better’, he said.

So has the experience improved? It’s hard to say, having only visited once, but to me there is still some way to go. Abe knew a lot about the mosque’s history, but interspersed his tour with several references to how poor people in Larabanga were and how many visitors liked to give donations to the village. Not a direct request, but fairly unsubtle.

Larabanga mosque
Throughout our tour around the mosque – visitors aren’t allowed in –three of Abe’s friends followed us silently. They weren’t aggressive or pushy, but it was a bit off-putting to have them stood directly behind us the whole time. I asked Abe why they were with us. ‘They don’t have anything else to do’, was his honest reply.

As we wandered back through the village, Abe showed us kids playing games and picked a local fruit for us to try. He made a genuine effort to make the tour interesting, and his friends also relaxed a little, asking us about Ghanaian politics as we headed to our car.

And then it started. As I paid Abe the seven cedis each for the tour (half the tour fee for Zozugo) his friends started producing clipboards with sponsorship forms, asking for contributions to school fees, the village football team and other vague community funds. We jumped into the car and drove off quickly, as they continued to call after us. It felt very different to the morning, when we had shared a leisurely drink with our guide in Zozugo.

A plastic teapot
This is just my perspective, of course. Ask the people in Larabanga, and they would likely bemoan the fact that wealthy tourists turn up in shiny 4x4s, take lots of photos on expensive cameras, and then whinge online when they are asked for a very small amount of money. The midwife in Zozugo could reasonably question why I chose to write about the conditions she works in, rather than do something practical to help.

Still, tourism relies on recommendations, good reviews and word of mouth suggestions. I would encourage anyone to go to Zozugo; I would advise people not to bother with Larabanga. If Abe really wants to improve the experience for visitors to Larabanga, he ought to visit Zozugo and see how a community tour should be run.


Monday, 1 April 2013


Bolgatanga is hot. It is doubtless many other things, but it’s hard to appreciate them in such intense heat. The stifling, windless air feels like it is slowly cooking you; plastic chairs burn your legs; the heat rising from the dirt roads passes through your sandals and warms your feet. To confirm, it’s hot in northern Ghana.

Shrines at Tengzug
Luckily the Sand Gardens hotel, on the town’s outskirts, has several large mango trees in its spacious grounds. After arriving from Tamale in a Flintstones-era bus – complete with holes in the floor for your feet – Hannah and I headed instantly for their shade.

Faced with these options – blistering sunshine versus cool shade – it was tempting to spend both of our days in ‘Bolga’ hidden at the hotel. But describing the drinking of various soft drinks in a hotel would make for a fairly dull blog (insert joke here). So early next morning, we slapped on the factor 50, bought loads of water and hired a taxi to take us to the nearby Tongo hills.

The chief's palace
The village of Tengzug is the site of several shrines. Ernest, our guide, met us as we arrived and took us to greet the village chief. After a smile and a wave from the big man, we climbed to the roof of his house to admire his compound. It’s reputedly the largest chief’s dwelling in Ghana – and he needs it, having 18 wives and 350-odd relatives to share it with. Valentine’s Day must take a fair bit of planning in Tengzug.

Various dead animals
We went to explore the small, mud-built houses, one for each family group. The dwellings are all built into each other and connected by a labyrinth of narrow passages. And outside each house is a shrine – a stone stump plastered with chicken blood and feathers, or occasionally decapitated livestock stuffed with leaves and various charms. They looked vaguely sinister but were also intriguing – it’s not every day you see a headless goat with leaves up its bum. 

Discussing Barcelona in the shade
Ernest then took us to the cave shrines among the ‘whistling hills’ – so-called because of the sound the wind makes as it passes through the rock formations during the Harmattan. As we walked, our conversation turned to the forthcoming Champions League games, and at the first shrine, Ernest’s efforts to inform us about his community’s traditions were betrayed by his love of football.

‘This is the donkey shrine, where people leave the skulls of their dead donkeys.’
‘Why do they leave the skulls here?’
‘To represent hard work by their animals. Tomorrow, you will see that Barca are still the greatest’.
‘Yes, but they struggled against Milan in the last round. Who comes to visit the shrines?’
‘People come from very far, from many lands. But with Messi, anything is possible.’

Donkey skulls
I could pretend this was frustrating and ruined the authenticity of the visit. But most people reading know that I am far more interested in football than rural Ghanaian traditions. By the time we reached Ba’ar Tonna’ab Ya’nee, the most important shrine at Tengzug, we had given up on local history and were fully focused on the shortcomings of the Ghana national team, particularly how the manager was a corrupt fool who favoured Ashantis.

A Tengzug kitchen
Ernest refocused sufficiently to remember tradition, so we left Hannah by a rock – no girls allowed at the shrine – and removed our shirts and sandals before climbing over the scorching rocks to the cave that holds the shrine. Inside sat the priest, wearing scruffy grey shorts and nothing else. Filling much of the cave was the biggest pile of dead chickens I have ever seen. I was asked if I would like to make a sacrifice, for wealth or to help my family prosper; I wasn’t sure of the vegetarian position on chicken sacrifice, so declined.

The priest then said something to Ernest, who translated for me: ‘He would like to know if you are a Barcelona fan’. Lying topless with two other men in a cave full of dead chickens, discussing Barcelona with a tribal priest, must count as one of the most surreal moments of my life (and I lived in Brighton for five years). I told the priest I supported Liverpool, wished Barca luck for their game against PSG, then made my way down to the relative normality of the Tengzug chief with his 18 wives and collection of leafy-bum goats.

The Whistling Hills


Travel broadens the mind; it gives you new perspectives, it challenges prejudices and misconceptions. And in Tamale I learnt that, contrary to popular wisdom, you can make an omelette without breaking eggs.
A Tamale omelette

Hannah and I were tired and hungry when we arrived at Asempe Lodge after an early flight from Accra to Ghana’s hot, dry north. Before even checking into the room, we ordered omelette and toast – the standard (i.e. only) breakfast option in most Ghanaian hotels. I emphasised to the chef that I wanted ‘no meat, no fish’; experience has taught me how easily these sneak into the simplest of dishes here.

Fifteen minutes later, she brought our breakfasts … two plates of steamed cabbage and carrots. I looked at it suspiciously. “This is how we do omelettes here, if you don’t eat eggs”, came the reply to my inquiring look. It’s rare to find a Ghanaian who is sensitive to vegetarianism – most don’t consider even chickens to be animals – and it was pretty tasty for steamed cabbage and carrots. Besides, anywhere that serves fresh coffee can be forgiven.

Tro tro and truck
Asempa Lodge also challenges the perception that first impressions count. As you turn into its dusty driveway, off the Tamale–Kumasi road, the hotel looks a bit run down and half-finished. Storms have twice blown off the outside restaurant's roof, but a new local-style grass roof is forthcoming.

Home time
The lodge has many attractions in the meantime. The rooms are clean and cool – a vital factor in baking north Ghana. And while the grounds need a few more trees or shrubs – the resident donkey ate the last lot planted – new saplings have been planted. And the grounds are blissfully peaceful compared to the busy nearby city, and full of colourful starlings, kingfishers and rollers.

The lodge’s main asset, though, is its staff. Friendly, helpful and competent, which isn’t always the case in Ghana, the four young people who run Asempa Lodge catered to our every need. They organised our bus onwards to Bolgatanga, and car hire for later in the week. Rather than explore Tamale’s meagre attractions, we decided to spend the afternoon sipping drinks outside. Joseph, the lodge manager, taught us the local version of mancala, taking great delight in repeatedly thrashing us.

The Tamale Gandalf
As we sat, an assortment of local characters headed along the road outside – farmers carrying their goods on small trucks, school children cycling home, local women returning from the mosque. I ordered a beer, sat back in the shade, and watched Tamale life trundle by.