Should I Stay Or Should I Togo?

IT took Togo all of a couple of hundred yards to throw up a new travel experience – a road sign immediately after crossing the border from Ghana, pointing the way to a whole new country just a short drive away.*

But then, country number seven on this trip is only 56km wide along the coast.

Any thoughts, however, that this was a short, uneventful stay en route to Benin (not that much wider itself) has been dispelled by fresh experiences and incidents – not all of which can be recounted to a family audience.

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On The Road – Our camp on a mountain road in Togo. Best not to sit in the way of any motorbikes

 

We have rattled through more visas, been held up by the police, scaled the highest point in Togo, got a tree stuck in the back of the truck, splashed about in waterfalls, sweltered at the coast, wrapped up against the cold and damp, tried to swim in a lake only a foot or so deep, got up close to a voodoo priestess and a swarm of bees, marked Australia Day in suitable fashion and, briefly at least, lost a couple of souls.

With an angry baboon thrown in.

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On paper, Togo is merely a brief stop – hard to be much else when it makes up such a small part of this huge journey – at the start of potentially the most difficult stretch of the trip, but it has thrown up enough to make its mark.

Not that we were ever going to race through the country. Mainly because, the main road along the coast apart, it appears pretty difficult to race anywhere.

What appears a short hop on the map can produce a long afternoon on the truck as Nala negotiates ramshackle roads, climbs mountains through overhanging branches or circumnavigates a large lagoon (we could still see our starting point in Togoville across the lake two hours after we had set out).

Released from the shackles of Big Milly’s by the final set of visas, we made the break for the border which both trucks were through in pretty rapid fashion (can’t help get the feeling that the smooth crossings so far are saving up a heap of border problems further down the line) and into the outskirts of the capital city Lome.

Once we had somehow worked out how to get two big yellow trucks into one small courtyard, we worked on two truckloads squeezing their tents into a second courtyard watched over by the angry baboon behind his bars – and, evidently, a monkey in a tree which nobody noticed until our truck had moved on – and all using the single shower.

My option, staying in the bar until everybody else had given up trying to use the stuttering wi-fi and gone to bed, seemed infinitely preferable than those queuing up to use it before first light the next morning.

If getting anywhere on the roads can be frustrating in these parts, getting anywhere fast with bureaucracy is just as difficult as we again dived into a round of form filling and sitting outside embassies.

And in a Lome side street waiting for the trucks’ paperwork to be returned by the police after we were caught ignoring a sign saying we should not be on an adjoining street – until, that is, both drivers (both called Steve, just to be confusing) pointed out the signs were actually facing the other way.

This is Africa.

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End of the Road – No option to walk the final few hundred yards to the top of Mt Agou. At least until the saw came out

A hot, frustrating wait was enlivened by a small group of us climbing off the back to feign frustration in an attempt to hurry along the police, which grew into groups heading up the road to the nearest shop or chatting nicely to the neighbours for the use of their toilet.

But finally, freed from police checks and bureaucracy, we briefly broke away from both the other truck and Lome and headed north to what pass as mountains in these parts and the welcome return of bush camping.

Our first overnight halt came pretty much on a road – motorcycles heading up and down the hill drove through camp until well after dark, despite not often bothering with lights – alongside a thin, but hugely refreshing waterfall.

Opting not to head off on a trek to more waterfalls (mainly due to the return of bush camp belly**), the next morning was spent largely sleeping and watching the monkeys scaling the adjacent cliff face.

But there was no need to worry about missing out on any scenery or climbing – it came to us later in the day as we drove up Mt Agou.

The views of the valley were pretty spectacular and the villagers we passed on the way up seemed happy, if surprised, to see us.

Not that we were looking too closely, our attentions being taken by the collection of branches, insects and other creatures which were tossed into the back of the truck by the overhanging foliage as the road narrowed to a single path.

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A Real Buzz -A swarm of bees descends on our base in Togoville

One branch managed to wedge itself into Nala’s innards, requiring some rapid work with a hacksaw, while we finished the last few hundred metres of the climb on foot as some more serious tree surgery was required to clear the road ahead of the final bend.

What we found at the top was not the most spectacular mountain summit, but it provided our home for the night and, for the first time in a couple of months, jumpers and jackets were pulled from the depths of our kit as the cloud rolled in and we had to remember how to deal with a damp night (with the advantage of being able to snuggle up in sleeping bags).

There was no such concerns at the next night’s stop, down on the banks of Lake Togo, after a journey to Togoville relatively short on distance, but fairly lengthy on time.

Based around the gardens of an artistic centre, we found ourselves in the heart of the community with card games and watching football on the side of the street, refreshed by a few beers from the shop across the road.

Those of us who opted to miss the visit to a voodoo priestess spent the next morning swimming (well, paddling – it’s amazingly shallow) and washing in the lake and were relaxing around the truck when the peace was disturbed by a huge swarm of bees which sent us scurrying for cover and even interrupted the card game before settling on a nearby tree.

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Waltzing Matilda – Michael, Me, Skippy and what may not just be Coke toast Australia Day

All a good sign according to voodoo.

It certainly pointed to a fine night once we had returned to Lome, albeit to a larger beach resort down the road, and set about marking Australia Day.

There may only be three Aussies on board, but everybody joined in with relish. Some of the details must remain hazy (mainly because they are), but one reveller was found asleep the next morning in the shadow of the baboon at our previous stop.

Sure the Aussies are very proud.

* That is a short drive in normal conditions. In Togo, that may not be the case.
** Or so we thought at the time. It may well have been a precursor to something else, of which more next time…

 

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Cooking Up Surprises

SPENDING ten months travelling around Africa on a big yellow truck was always going to throw up a healthy number of surprises.

And our final week in Accra certainly lived up to that with some or all of these events falling into the tales of the unexpected:

  • For the first time since my teenage years, my hair is now long (and thick) enough to get coated in sweat.
  • Girls were queuing up to get in my room (certainly a surprise to me).
  • My cooking skills – normally reduced to throwing something in a wok, heating something which somebody else has created to stick straight in the oven or heading out to a takeaway – have somehow been elevated into the chef of our latest cook group.
  • A lengthy game of beach volleyball saw me throwing myself about, actually managing to return a few shots and, most surprisingly, not receiving any lasting injuries.
  • Two marriage proposals coming my way.
  • My knees hurt (as predicted, not all of these events are that much of a surprise).
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Freshly showered – A nightcap at Big Milly’s with Karla, Ale and Linda

All this took place on familiar soil as the weekend retreat back to the beach at Abanze was followed by a return to Kokrobite and the welcoming surroundings of Big Milly’s Backyard – and the equally welcoming bed which had been home for the previous week – as we settled in to wait for the final visas required before heading to the border.

The sojourn to Abanze rather ruined our plan to spend a leisurely afternoon producing a potato bake, which instead was constructed after dark and fighting with a new recruit from the other truck for space on the fire while sweating over a white sauce.

Having had no idea how to create a white sauce before we headed off (you buy them in a jar, right?), the prospect of me bemoaning how difficult it is to get one to thicken with limited heat while using Blue Bird margarine will have anyone who knows my lack of culinary expertise reeling in shock. Especially when someone keeps shifting it off the heat to cook his sausages.

But it all worked well and, once we had dug out the pots from under the coals, it disappeared in rapid fashion.

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Beachfront dwelling – The front garden of our campsite at Abandze

There was less surprise about my decision to spend the next day making the most of our chilled surroundings, until the outbreak of a lengthy game of beach volleyball which made up in enthusiasm, diving around and sand in strange places what it lacked in any form of skill. Splashing about in the waves was needed to shift the sand and cool down.

Our weekend chilling out on the beach was replaced with… well, to be honest, more chilling out by the beach as we returned to our hangout at Big Milly’s.

And so we, largely, fell back into our routines.

Plenty of playing cards, sitting around the bar, convening at 12.30pm when the restaurant reopened for lunch (and waiting as the African idea of fast food is considerably different to ours) and wandering up to the newly-discovered internet cafe in the village (handily situated next to the building showing both Premier League and African Cup of Nations football).

With more visa forms and trips to the mall for food and supplies thrown in – the distinctive yellow bags from the Shoprite supermarket are scattered around the truck – some also headed further afield, although not the intrepid party we dropped at the mall to catch taxis into Accra to catch a local football match.

Only as the truck pulled back onto the main road did we notice them running after us, the taxi driver having kindly informed them the match had been played the previous day.

Back at base, there was also the attraction of having a bed to chill out on – and actually stretch my legs out properly – in my room (my only planned upgrade before our hostel in Cape Town, when that hair will finally go under the clippers).

The bed may have been a major attraction – to say nothing of the ceiling fan in the soaring temperatures (at least when the power was on) – but my shower proved just as big an attraction to some of the girls who were sleeping in their tents and making do with a bucket shower.

Really should have charged. Or stayed.

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Meeting the locals – One of the younger children at the orphanage. Unruly hair partially hidden by sunglasses, rescued from eager hands of the children

But it was not all lounging about at Big Milly’s and one excursion out provided a truly memorable day.

Three years ago, Karla spent time volunteering at an orphanage near Accra and keen to catch up, she headed off with me in tow as a curious onlooker.

A shared taxi to the main road and two tro-tros – the minibus-type vehicles of varying condition which plough back and forward along fixed routes, picking up and dropping off at a very cheap rate – dropped us at the Good Shepherd Orphanage and we wandered across the barren ground past the neighbouring school.

Any worries Karla had that nobody would remember her were dispelled as Gloria, one of the women from the kitchen, spotted us from some distance away and shouted out her name – a wonderful moment, which not only brought a smile to Karla’s face, but rates as one of my favourites of the trip.

Gloria’s welcome was echoed throughout the afternoon, a string of children not only swooping on the pens Karla had brought along with her, but reintroducing themselves, three years older and taller and delighted just to say hello.

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Decent proposal – Gloria and her son

And not just to Karla. Many were just as keen to say hello to me (after all, how often do they get to meet a large white man in a bright orange shirt?), two of the younger ones opted to cling on for dear life (although think the one in the Celtic shirt just wanted me to lift him up so he could get at my sunglasses) and my first marriage proposal came from one of the older girls who sat and chatted to us about life at the orphanage and what had happened to some of the other youngsters from her previous stay.

We wandered up to the school which, sadly, seems to be in a state of disarray. Having sat in the back of one geometry lesson, the children seem keen to learn, when they are actually in the classroom and not wandering in and out without anyone batting an eyelid.

From what we saw – and the background from Karla – the school and orphanage are in need of some tender, loving care and strong, disciplined leadership, but one does doubt whether cash injections are enough with the distinct impression that not all the money would make it down to the children who need it most, particularly not in the way they need it.

But with people like Gloria – who fashioned my second marriage proposal of the day, despite already being married and feeding her young son at the time – there is hope these children are getting some of the care and attention they need.

And on a trip full of surprises, this whole experience is one which will go down as one worth holding on to.

Even if it may have ended with me being betrothed. Not quite sure.

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Anchored Down In Accra

IF you find yourself in need of a last-minute present, forget rushing to the shops or the final resort of an all-night garage. Head to a traffic jam in Accra.

The streets of the Ghanaian capital are awash with vehicles, usually not moving that fast (if at all) and myriads of enterprising folk offering to sell you just about anything you need. And lots you don’t.

Fancy a snack? Something to drink? No problem, wind down the window, open your door or hang out the side of the truck and hand over your cedes for a pack of plantain chips or the ubiquitous bag of water (very handy, usually cold and about 2p, although not the easiest to drink while trying to maintain some dignity and prevent spilling most of it over you).

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The Originals – Possibly the only shot of the complete group that started the trip before the first departures. Taken before we left Abandze and headed to Big Milly’s

Need a present for the children? Flag down the guy carrying sets of building blocks, one of which is already made up and being carried around for demonstration purposes.

How about some paintbrushes? Religious pictures? Or a copy of the local newspaper with the splash headline “Commuters Stranded” to be read by stranded commuters going nowhere fast?

Or what about a framed picture of Barack Obama shaking hands with dignitaries at an official function?

It’s all there and you will have plenty of time to peruse what is on offer as sooner or later – almost always sooner – you will get stuck in a traffic jam trying to go anywhere in Accra.

Not that we have been going anywhere fast as the need to sort out visas has seen us sitting in some of those jams, waiting outside embassies, hanging out at a couple of shiny new shopping malls and chilling out at our base, Big Milly’s Backyard.

An institution among overlanders, young volunteers seeking a weekend retreat away from their schools and orphanages, holiday makers and locals escaping the bustle and smog of Accra, Big Milly’s has become a major stop on Oasis Trans-Africa trips.

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Reinforcements – Nala, left, and the other truck at Big Milly’s

Big Milly herself – who is far from big and is called Wendy – even hopped on one of the trucks for a brief stint a few years ago.

Her backyard – a beachfront bar surrounded by huts, room for tents, a restaurant, a few other stalls and space for bands and entertainment when it gets busy on weekend evenings – also provided a first proper bed for many of us since we left the UK more than two months ago.

The draw of that bed (and the adjoining, open to the elements, bathroom) meant at least one of us (OK, me) stretched out a three-day stay in a hut to the full eight-night duration of our initial stay. It may be difficult to resist a repeat when we return to complete our visas before heading out of Ghana and pressing on towards Cape Town.*

Big Milly’s has also been notable for us crossing paths with our fellow Oasis truck heading to Cape Town for the first time since Fes in the opening Moroccan skirmishes and we acquired several of its inhabitants for our quick scamper back down the coast for the weekend.

And two new arrivals have countered bidding farewell to four of our original group.

Joanne was always scheduled to finish her trip in Accra (and her departure increases my chances of winning a game of cards), but Sam and David have been forced to head home (hopefully only temporarily) for personal reasons and Derrick made the same journey back to the UK due to illness.

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Tired and Emotional – Not an uncommon sight at the bar in Big Milly’s. Or elsewhere to be honest

With four gone, two new faces and five refugees from the other truck, it all made for an unfamiliar look to the back of the truck as we headed a couple of hours out of Accra to Abandze Beach Resort, which had been our final, brief port of call before heading to Big Milly’s.

We had made it back to the sea after leaving Kumasi after a last-ditch, early-morning run around the Presbyterian Guesthouse to collect our damp laundry off washing lines – despite proud assurances that it was ready and done in dryers the day before – and heading to Cape Coast.

The castle which played a key role in the slave trade which scarred this stretch of coast makes for an interesting visit as another entry into the places where tour guides are able to use the word British with no shortage of contempt.

Halfway round the museum, a large tour group descended on a small room and, for a few slightly unsettling moments, the only white face in an exhibition on slavery suddenly became the centre of attention.

Totally at odds with the welcome we have had across Ghana, but unnerving. Still not sure if they guy who exclaimed “what are my eyes seeing?” was looking at me or the pictures behind.

The welcome at the bar just down the road from our overnight halt was certainly warm. They had no power and they did not have the promised meat on sticks. But they had beer and as we sat drinking by the lights of the passing cars on the adjacent road, one of them stopped and out jumped the guy despatched in a taxi to get the much-valued snack.

A gentle start the next morning and we were rolling towards Accra, before turning off down the bumpy roads to the beachside community of Kokrobite and its beating heart Big Milly’s to bring down the curtain on the opening leg of this African adventure.

To varying degrees, we spent the week or so exploring the city itself – a good hour or more away by taxi and tro-tro — heading out into the shops, bars and food places in the village (especially once we had discovered the internet cafe), wandering along the beach (heeding the warning to take nothing valuable) or merely making the most of having a bed (be it in a hut or in a shared house which had up to a dozen crammed in at one stage) and hanging around the bar.

Checkout was difficult, not just because of bidding farewell to the bed, but it provided the moment of truth with my bar bill.

But with large beers at 4.5 cedes a pop (just over £1) and cokes about half of that, it would have taken some serious drinking to run up anything too alarming.

Not that some of us didn’t try a few times (breakfast attendance was sporadic across the week), particularly on the Friday and Saturday when the place comes alive to the sound of ethnic drummers, a reggae band who really kicked into gear after midnight (and even had me up dancing barefoot on the sand) and some excellent, eye-watering local acrobats, plus the influx of new faces to chat to – a bit of a novelty to us as we usually make up the bulk of the residents at most places we stay.

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Switching Beaches – Abandze, our home away from Big Milly’s. Meat on sticks not pictured

The bar also hosts any number of locals keen for a chat and most of us struggled to walk too far without someone calling our name or engaging us in an elaborate handshake. Have just about mastered the one that ends with a click of the fingers, but not without a bruised middle finger.

Away from Big Milly’s, much of our time has been spent at one of two new malls which show the growing prosperity of Accra or sorting out visas.

Joe has been running around the embassies sorting out forms, payments, photocopies, printing and a wide range of differing requirements, most notably how much each one costs and in what currency.

Having collected the cash for two sets of visas, he took Kris and myself along as hired muscle (our cost: a bottle of water and share of a pizza each) to visit an embassy and deposit a payment at a bank.

Not sure how much use we actually were, considering we were both falling asleep in the bank by the time Joe emerged after being stuck behind a guy paying in 48,000 cedes in cash.

It should have been a simple job – walk into bank, fill in a form, hand over money – but this is Africa. And even in booming Accra, there is no escaping that.

There are times it appears somebody has drawn up a list of the most efficient way to do things, crossed out all the best options and opted for the one that involves the most amount of people who can stand around and look totally bemused when you ask them something to do with what you think their job might actually be.

And when you do get something done, it’s time to sit back in one of those traffic jams.

* For difficult, read impossible.

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