Monday, 15 July 2013


Hamale bus station
Once you’ve experienced Ghana’s main attractions, there’s really only one thing left to do: travel the entire length of the country in one day. That’s 665km in a cramped, rickety bus. With unforgiving wooden seats and a crotchety driver.

Late in the afternoon, Hannah and I had crossed into Ghana from Burkina Faso at Hamale, a small town in the far northwest. Our plan was to get a tro tro to Wa, the nearest large town, then continue to Accra the next day on a comfortable VIP bus – complete with comfy seats, Nigerian films on TV and perhaps even a preacher on board.

But the border guard who stamped our passports told us that the last transport had gone for the day; we would have to catch the Metro Mass bus to Kumasi at 4.00am in the morning. Metro Mass is Ghana’s state-funded, poorly managed transport network, with antique, overcrowded vehicles. It was not an attractive option, but the only one available.

The Hamale Hilton
Our next task was to find somewhere to stay until 4.00am. Hamale is chaotic, like many border towns, but it’s a remote crossing with few tourists – hence a lack of tourist-friendly outlets. The town’s only hotel offers dingy rooms around a bare concrete courtyard. The mattress had an ominous brown sheen and the bathroom comprised a tap in the courtyard and a foul-smelling long-drop toilet. It was far from inviting, but as with the transport, there were no other options.

No other options for cosseted Westerners at least. Rising early, we walked to bus station. Clearly most travellers wait at the station, rather than paying 30 cedis for a hotel room (this would more than double the bus fare); some were still asleep, wrapped up in blankets to keep out the cool night air, while others crowded around a TV showing a spy movie. Simple our hotel may have been, but it was a luxury few could afford.

Only 21 hours to go...
I bought a fried egg sandwich from a father-and-son team who were feeding the waiting crowds. The boy, no more than 10 years old, looked exhausted as he brought over my breakfast, his eyes half-closed and steps slow. I wondered if he had been working all night, and if he would be going to school in a few hours. Despite the economic progress, Ghana is still a poor country, especially in the far north, and many children have to work to help out the family business.

Ghanaians don’t travel light, and it took over an hour to cram all the bags into the bus’s storage decks. The driver shouted directions at his young ‘mate’ (or conductor) before eventually we took our seats. As the driver revved the engine, the mate tied the door shut with a piece of twine. Clearly this was a bus that had seen better days.

And so began the journey. The bus skidded and bumped along the dirt road to Wa. We waited for two hours in Wa for no apparent reason. Passengers shouted impatiently at the mate when they wanted to get off; the driver then shouted at him for making the bus stop too many times. The sun cooked the inside of the bus and my t-shirt began to melt into my skin. The wooden seat got harder with every tedious mile.

The bus stopped and everyone got out for a piss beside the road: men beside the bus, women behind the trees. We got back on and continued through the endless scrub forest of the Ashanti region. By this stage the driver was at the point of killing his poor mate, and I would have probably joined in, just for something to break the tedium. Eventually the bus entered the suburbs of Kumasi; relief was tempered by the thought that we were still at least five hours from home.

Nearly 22 hours after leaving Hamale, we reach the capital. I was exhausted, foul-tempered and even fouler-smelling. It was an unforgettable journey, despite nothing happening. And one that I never want to repeat, although it did create an unusual feeling – I was pleased to be back in Accra.

Home sweet home

Friday, 12 July 2013

Burkina Faso part IV: Domes

Karfiguela Falls
After a peaceful evening spent sipping Brukina beer – one of West Africa’s finest brews – and nibbling groundnuts in the gardens of Le Calypso, Hannah and I awoke slowly the next morning and ambled down to breakfast. After two years in Ghana, our body clocks were set to GMT – Ghana Maybe Time – so the pre-arranged 9.00am meeting time was treated as little more than a vague suggestion.

But Burkina Faso is not Ghana. On the dot of the hour, Metina, our tour guide, hurried into the hotel grounds to see where we were. Burkinabes pride themselves on punctuality; we had noticed already that the buses leave on time, rather than when they are full, when the driver wakes up, etc. We scoffed down the fresh baguettes and coffee while Metina chatted to the hotel’s owner – another of his contacts on Banfora’s informal tourism network.

July is the rainy season in this part of West Africa, the hot days interspersed with welcome bursts. But with few roads properly surfaced, many resembled a thick porridge after the heavy downpours. Metina guided us expertly through the worst ponds, over rickety bridges and through the numerous herds of cows being led to new pastures, waving to the herdsmen as we passed.

The recent rains also meant that Karfiguéla Falls, the next stop on our two-day tour, were at their most resplendent. We pulled into the car park and Metina introduced us to the group of young men who scratch a living guiding the region’s infrequent tourists to the nearby falls. Handshakes all round, and we set off along the mango tree-lined path.

Sugar cane
Our young guide was keen to show us the base of the falls first. “You must see the top and the bottom”, he said, without explaining why, exactly. But storms had brought down several trees, meaning we had to pick our way through fallen branches and leaves to get there. Unfortunately, soldier ants had wasted little time setting up camp in the foliage and objected strongly to us passing through their new home. I’m not sure if there is an international scale for measuring the painfulness of ant bites, but if there is, then these lads must be near the top.

Hannah and I retreated quickly but the guide was insistent: we had to visit the lower falls for the perfect photo opportunity. As the ants split up into two groups, one for each leg, more schoolboy French came flooding back: “Je ne veux pas un photo; je vais maintenant”. It’s amazing how much actually sinks in at school, even when you’re not listening.

The chocolate-brown water cascading through the upper falls didn’t look too inviting, but with burning ant bites to soothe, I stripped off quickly and slid in. The curved rocks, worn smooth with the water, provided handy entrance points, plus some underwater seats to lie back and admire the view.

Not as high as it looks
And we could admire it in solitude. This is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions, but even on this weekend morning it was far from crowded. The few visitors – a group of American volunteers, a large family from Ouagadougou, and a local church group – spread out among the chocolate-filled pools, each finding their own private section to bathe and picnic. This is one of the benefits of visiting Burkina Faso – the country’s spectacular natural attractions have yet to become overcrowded or over-developed. Facilities rarely extend between a local person to show you the way and a few plastic tables and chairs for enjoying cold drinks and simple meals.
Metina has spent 20 years driving tourists around Banfora and he knows how to plan a tour. The car weaved through fields of bright green sugarcane, vibrant in the midday sun, until we reached the entrance to the best of all the sights around Banfora – the Domes of Fabedougou.

They are a truly remarkable sight. Over 1.8 million years ago, layer upon layer of sediment was laid down. These have since eroded to form a jumble of giant stone teacakes, all tumbling down a hillside with patches of forest clinging into the gaps. They demand exploration; even Metina eschewed his usual car-seat nap to come with us.

After two hours clambering about the domes alone (Metina had taken his nap on the first dome we climbed), we reluctantly descended. The heat was rising and there was a Brukina with my name on it waiting at the hotel. Tourism is coming slowly to Banfora, and in time its nearby attractions will get the visitor numbers needed to boost the local economy. But having had the rare experience of exploring this phenomenal natural wonder in solitude, I could only be thankful that they hadn’t come just yet.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Burkina Faso pt III: Peaks

Sindou Peaks
The Sindou Peaks in southwest Burkina Faso are an astonishing geological spectacle. Across the millennia, the elements have carved these giant columns into a stunning array of shapes and sculptures. Today, these dazzling maroon formations are a giddying sight, enough to send you head over heels – and straight down the rocks below.

Sandstone may be the perfect material for allowing Mother Nature to get creative, but the small pile of dust and blood at my feet proved that its structural qualities are less noteworthy. “Some of the rocks are not very strong”, confirmed Paul, our guide, in French. Helpful advice, especially when delivered before you start climbing them.

Once my cuts were cleaned and I’d checked my ego for bruising, Paul continued our walk. He led us nimbly through the crevasses to the best vantage points from which to appreciate the surrounding Senoufo villages and lush farmland, vibrant with tall stalks of sugar cane. Looking out, he explained how entire villages trek into the hills for religious ceremonies. Tourists used to be allowed to attend these, and even camp on the plateau, but visits are now limited to day treks. “The campers left too much rubbish”, Paul said, solemnly. “People didn’t respect the importance of this place.”

Hiking through the peaks
After two hours of exploring, we descended back to our car. Hannah and I had been a little daunted about heading out into rural Burkina Faso. It’s one of Africa’s poorest countries, and there is little in the way of organised tours. But an unofficial grapevine exists between the excellent hotels in the southwest region. The manager of the Villa Bobo hotel in Bobo Diolasso had made all our arrangements in advance, and Metina, our affable driver, had met us at Banfora’s scruffy bus station.

The haggling for our two-day tour around the region had been simple. Metina had typed a figure into his calculator – 50,000 CFA (around £65) for two days including petrol – and we had quickly agreed.  He used the calculator because he couldn’t read or write, and later told us that he used the money from his tours to pay for his grandchildren – 37 and counting – to go to school so they could learn.

After the morning’s rock-climbing-and-falling excitement, the second stop on Banfora’s tourist circuit was far more leisurely: a trip to see the hippos on Tengréla Lake. As at Sindou, the facilities for tourists were basic but well organised. Metina introduced us to the owners of the small guesthouse on the lake shore. Five minutes later, we set off in a hand-carved pirogue for the northern end of the lake, while he kicked back with a coke.

For anyone used to safaris in East or Southern Africa, wildlife watching in West Africa is a remarkably health-and-safety-free experience. We glided silently through the water lilies resting on the lake until we could see the hippos right in front of us. Then we went a bit closer. Then closer still.

Now that's a hat
With our boatman showing little sign of stopping, I urgently recalled enough French to ask, as calmly as possible: “Is this close enough?”
“It’s ok, the hippos are happy today,” replied our guide nonchalantly.

I’m not entirely sure how you gauge the mood of a pod of hippos just from their ears, which were all that showed above the water’s surface. But my French definitely wasn’t up to asking, so instead, we watched the huge beasts from just a few metres away. I divided my time between taking photos and calculating if I could paddle to the shore faster than a hippo could swim, should something snap one of them from his good humour.

Hours drift by peacefully at Tengréla. Herons waded through the shallows, competing for the lake’s fish with the local men. Hornbills peeped loudly from the trees overhanging the lake. Children waved frantically as they made their way home from school – white tourists are still a novelty here. The sun pounded down relentlessly. After two hours, it had become too hot and we turned back for a cooling drink. The hippos had barely twitched so much as an ear; perhaps that’s how you tell that they’re content.

A cow

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Burkina Faso pt II: Films

The film poster

As a geeky teenager, Ouagadougou was my barometer. I would ask new acquaintances what the capital of Burkina Faso was; if they knew the answer, I was confident that this was a chap with a solid grasp of useless geographical facts, someone I could get along with. (And it was always chaps; I quickly learnt that this sort of thing didn’t impress girls. At all.)

Visiting the quirkily named city as a geeky 35-year-old, I was slightly underwhelmed. Not disappointed – it’s a friendly place and less stressful than other African cities I have been to – but it doesn’t take long to realise that there’s not much to it. The owner of the Tiandora Esperance hotel in Po had said Accra was “like America”. I had laughed at the time (perhaps a little too loudly) but I could now see his point. No sleek cars, no high-rise buildings, no smart cafes; it all felt very sleepy compared to Ghana’s rapidly expanding capital.

Kids in Ouagadougou
One thing for which Ouaga is famous is its film festival and cinematic outputs, regarded as the best in West Africa. Not that this is a huge accolade; the region’s most popular films come from Nollywood and are, without exception, complete and utter shite. The typical Nigerian film – and I have had to sit through many on long bus journeys – is a poorly shot, badly acted story of domestic violence, devils being cast out, ridiculously bloody murders, and usually contain a good smattering of comedy dwarfs, wizards and diabolical special effects. Throw in the ubiquitous pisspoor sound quality and shaky cameras and you have two very long hours to endure.

Having scoped out one of Ouaga’s outdoor cinemas earlier in the day, Hannah and I were surprised to find it locked up and in darkness when we turned up for 7pm, when the film was supposed to start. But on the dot of the hour – people are very punctual in Burkina Faso – the curator toddled up on his bike, smiled at us and unlocked the doors. Silently, he set up the projector, slipped in the disc and we were off. No popcorn, no trailers, no fuss.

The big screen
And the film was good. Despite being in French, I managed to get the gist of the plot. A wife makes a love potion for her elderly husband, to put a bit of lead into his drooping pencil. But rather than reaping the rewards herself, he uses his new ‘powers’ with a string of younger, prettier women, at the suggestion of his best friend. The wife, understandably, is a bit upset and the friend feels a bit guilty.

Then, husband’s new ‘girlfriend’ is mugged in the street (by a man who, for some reason, is dressed like Noddy Holder). A brave mechanic working nearby rescues her, and she falls in love with him.

Sunset in Ouaga
At this point, it got a bit confusing. The husband and his friend have an argument and, possibly with an eye on their potential Nigerian audience, there is a random dwarf with magic powers who vanishes into thin air. But by the end, the husband is sorry, the girlfriend marries her mechanic boyfriend, and then comes to apologise to the older man’s wife for sleeping with her husband (as is only polite, after all).

The cinematography was excellent, the acting was good and it didn’t go on too long. No one screamed, no one died and no one went mad with a scythe. And it was all enjoyed beneath the stars on a clear night in Ouagadougou. It may be faint praise, like being crowned the prettiest slug or most talented Spice Girl, but there is little doubt that Burkina Faso’s films are far and away the best in the region.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Burkina Faso pt 1: Nazinga

Safaris in West Africa are different to those in East or southern Africa. There are no big cats in the reserves (none that you see, at least); the camps tend to be basic concrete rooms rather than luxury tents; and there is a wonderful disregard for health and safety.

A ground hornbill
Finding elephants on a safari in Kenya a few years ago, our driver kept his vehicle in reverse, ready to make a swift retreat if necessary. But when we discovered a small herd in Burkina Faso’s Nazinga Game Ranch, our driver simply parked up and got out; I half-expected him to pull out a picnic rug.

They had taken a bit of finding. Nazinga is rarely visited, so there is no network of guides radioing each other with sightings; it’s just a question of luck whether you see them or not. After two hours’ rattling around dirt roads in a decrepit 4x4 (doors held on by string, cardboard for the rear window), we had seen hammerkops and bizarre-looking ground hornbills, but no sign of the elephants.

Our transport
I was thinking we were going to be unlucky; the elephants tend to head into the bush during the rainy season. But then our guide spotted them. He led Hannah and I slowly through the trees to get a better view as they trudged slowly towards a nearby water hole. One of the larger females eyed us warily as we approached, and a couple of them turned ominously towards us.

Our guide led us quickly onto the road; were we sensibly returning to the relative safety of the vehicle? Not a bit of it: we crouched down on the open road and watched, from no more than 10 metres away, as the giants thundered across before us, more than 20 animals in total. It was a brief encounter, but one well worth the effort of travelling to this remote corner of Burkina Faso.

Why did the elephant cross the road?