Mountains Out of Molehills

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AT some point, it was necessary to explain to my brain those really were hippos surfacing out of the Black Volta River not far from our less than substantial dugout canoe.

And yes, the bank closer to our other side was in Burkina Faso (not on our route due to political upheavals and, despite pleadings from Terry and myself, not available for a quick detour to chalk up another country).

All a few hours after my first encounter with elephants in the wild.

And the promise of getting up close to a sacred crocodile to come.

So Close - That'll be Burkina Faso just there. Just out of reach
So Close – That’ll be Burkina Faso just there. Just out of reach

Not a bad day all in all.

With Christmas and new year out of the way, it has been back to business as usual as we turned our back (for a few days) on the coast and headed inland for a further exploration of what Ghana has to offer.

Our main destination, after a couple of long drive days which saw us reacquaint ourselves with the art of bush camping and cooking through a language barrier, was Mole National Park.

In comparison with what lies ahead in the more tourist-friendly east, Mole is not the biggest of safari areas and offers only one of the big five* – elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion and rhino.

It is also in need of a little bit of care and attention, particularly the campsite and its rather fraying facilities which ranked it as little more than a well-situated bush camp, albeit with the odd baboon running attempting to make off with our cutlery (and curtailing foot traffic to the loo throughout the night).

But it did have a pool, a bar, food, televised football (West Brom v Gateshead with the poor Ghanaians, and most of Africa, having to withstand tortuous studio analysis from Andy Townsend), other people to chat to/up (delete as applicable) and enough wildlife to whet our appetites for what lies ahead in the months to come on, for many of us, a first taste of safari.

Which brings with it a pre-dawn breakfast and the first taste of clambering onto the roof of a jeep for the best viewing position.

We’d already chalked up baboons, warthogs and more than one type of antelope before we headed back to base, changed drivers and headed off to see the same baboons, warthogs, varieties of antelope and even locals as we covered the same  ground again.

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Safety First – Not sure if that’s what you call a nervous smile

There was, as Joanne succinctly put it, the threat of the whole day “sucking ass”.

Her one proviso for a much better outcome as the clock ticked on through our two-hour drive was spotting elephants.

Then it happened and the day started to “kick ass”.

After veering off the main track, our guide ushered us down from the roof (about as elegant as some of the wildlife in some of our cases) and quietly urged us to follow him down a track.

And there, as we moved into a clearing on the edge of a watering hole, were the elephants. Four young males making the most of the lake to swim, drink and cool off before emerging back onto dry land, covering themselves in dust and doing what a gang of young lads do to keep a watching, growing gang of enraptured onlookers happy and their camera lenses full.

It seems a bit trite and cliched to say it was a magical moment, but pretty much any encounter with wildlife in their natural habitat is just that. And there’s something that bit special about elephants.

Just to round off our morning, our debate with the guide about whether we paid extra to extend our two hours in order to search for larger adults on foot was rendered pointless by the emergence of one such female from the trees directly in front of us.

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Waving Goodbye – It was supposed to be a shot of the motorbike in the canoe, it became one of Jiro waving. One of my favourite pics

Certainly enough to send us home happy and sustain us as we headed further north – not to our original destination of Wa, but after a quick (and pretty much unanimous) vote, to the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary on the border with Burkina Faso.

The journey there was interesting enough as we collected first the guy from the sanctuary office, some half an hour or more drive on some less than pristine roads from the river, and then the boatmen who would take us out onto the river in search of the hippos.

The boats we found waiting for us (across and, in one case, submerged in the river) were pretty basic dugouts and we tentatively stepped aboard and attempted to balance them well enough that they stayed above the surface (all while the locals were loading piles of stuff, a motorbike and themselves into one of the craft for the crossing over the border).

A delicate balancing act finally left Terry and myself (let’s just say, the two biggest guys on the trip) waiting for the final dugout to return, although we had the advantage of having a vessel all to ourselves as the sun started to dip behind the trees.

Thankfully, the hippos were stationed pretty close to our boarding point, so there was not too much time to fret about the stability of the boat (not helped by the sound of baling out behind me) before our attention was drawn to the sound of the hippos surfacing and snorting away to our right.

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Three Men In A Boat – One was paddling, one was baling, one was sitting as still as possible

Admittedly, as one less positive view of our visit had predicted, you did not see much of the hippos. But having never seen any before in the wild, having four heads emerging in the water that close is a pretty special moment.

Another head emerged from the water the following morning as we broke our journey back south with a quick visit to the sacred crocodiles of Paga.

Having got somebody to retrieve the guide from his bed (caught out by our early arrival), we were given the tale of just why the crocodiles are sacred to the village (and not merely dyslexic and scared) after one of them saved one of the founders and they had protected each other ever since.

The current resident certainly knows when he is onto a good thing, emerging from the far depths of the main lake when called. Or at least when he knows it is going to be fed the chick which was used to keep it on the shore for long enough all to get our pictures.

Bidding farewell to the sacred crocodile, we headed for central Ghana’s main town of Kumasi and sacred ground on the lawn of the Ashanti Presbyterian Guesthouse.

Much of a sweltering afternoon was taken up with an in-depth truck clean – which saw much of Nala’s contents strewn across the church grounds – before we set about cleaning ourselves (cleanliness is, after all, next to godliness) and making full use of the wi-fi the Lord giveth before he took it away again.

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Hippo – Just there. In the middle. Honest.

Plans for a group of us to head out and find a decent restaurant were scuppered largely by the fact that there aren’t any, but Steve and myself settled into a bar he remembered from a previous visit and set about consuming its wares and those of a nearby street food vendor (although not sure he quite understood our request to go easy on the spices).

We were joined by more of the raiding party, more of those who had eaten back at the truck, a group of German volunteers and Samuel, a Swiss tourist we had first stumbled across at Mole for one of those long evenings of swapping tales and making friends which travel is so good at throwing up.

What better way to remind yourself exactly what you are experiencing.

* There are supposedly two of the big five in Mole (that’s pronounced Mol-ay by the way), but as they average one lion sighting every five years, we were not exactly getting our hopes up.

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