Monday, 15 July 2013

Bus


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

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