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.

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