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).

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Under A Pitch Black Sky

NEW Year’s Day on the Ghanaian coast and, barring the surf hitting the beach just the other side of our tents and the occasional giggle from a small group chatting after dinner, all is quiet.

All is dark as well, considering The Stumble Inn at Elmina, our home for the last few nights, has no lights except the couple which make the bar useable after the fairly rapid sunset and a couple of small, unreliable ones in odd spots around camp.

The search for head torches has been as frantic as the ensuing nocturnal race to the facilities for those of us looking after the pet stomach bug, which has affected growing numbers to varying degrees.

So, with the arrival of 2015 and the onset of a fresh bout of clocking up some serious mileage after a week or so chilling out along the coast, time for a bit of a condition check.

Any lasting vestiges of a dodgy stomach apart – and while it has hung around longer than for others, it has never been as severe – all is pretty much fine.

Fine as it can be sat in a deserted bar on a night of, thankfully, reduced humidity with a cold drink (soft), one of the camp dogs curled up asleep on my sandals and the cat cleaning itself on the bench next to me.

Battle Scars – My feet show the signs of an ongoing contest with the insects

Admittedly, the backs of my legs do look as if one of the dogs has been chewing on them, but as long as you can avoid scratching them (easier said than done), the endless mosquito and insect bites are not that bad, even if they have forced me back into long trousers (and even, briefly, socks for the first time since Morocco) for the last couple of nights.

My reputation as a magnet for any irritating little buzzy, biting creature has been well justified, however much Deet gets sprayed around.

It even seems to follow me into the water with sea lice copping the blame for the latest crop of angry welts on my forearm and ankles after my first attempt at body boarding for about 30 years.

But despite all that, everything is pretty good. One bout of gout and one, mercifully just as short, flare-up of my back problem aside, the stomach issue has been the only health cloud on the horizon.

Welcome To Ghana – Our first stop after crossing the border at Beyin

And, whisper it quietly, that cloud may have a silver lining as it seems to have helped shift a few pounds – certainly the return to long trousers revealed the need for an extra hole in the belt.

There could be a potential laundry crisis looming somewhere on the horizon (really should have done some while we were in one place for three nights) with the speed with which T-shirts get drenched in sweat and the hammer my sole pair of shorts (accidentally dyed partly blue) is taking.

But even that could lead to a much-needed emptying of my locker on the truck to reorganise my bags, which was always planned for when we reach Accra.

There is, even with my bites staying relatively quiet (helped by the discovery of my tube of Savlon 51 days intp the trip), one itch that needs scratching.

And tomorrow we will start to scratch it as we turn north and get back on the road.

Shadowy Figures – The sun sets over a stroll along the beach

The last week or so chilling out along the coasts of Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana has been very nice and having, most of the time, access to showers and toilets (although not the great God of wi-fi, which we have been without since Mali until a raiding party descended on the rather posher resort up the beach and some of us actually managed to connect to the workable server) is always welcome.

But can’t help feeling we have been treading water a touch over the festive period and it is time to get back on the road again, especially with our first proper encounter with the African wildlife awaiting in Mole National Park as we turn back inland.

The desire to spend Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve somewhere with a few facilities has meant a couple of cracking days, but has meant spending maybe a bit longer in this neck of the woods than really necessary, rather than heading off to places with a purpose, which is when this trip really hits its stride.

After 10 days or so of having facilities, the prospect of a potential bush camp tomorrow is one to look forward to even if our cook group is up again to create our unique brand of Anglo-Japanese fusion food (with a touch of Aussie and African cuisine thrown in every so often, as it means we are striking out on the road again.

The surroundings, company and temperatures may be unfamiliar (not to mention the distinct lack of leftovers once the last bits of the Christmas pig were hoovered up in no time), but the week up to the new year has had a fairly traditional sense of not much happening, waiting for the turn of the clock to kick back into gear.

Not that we have sat still, chalking up four temporary homes and even a new country as we took a leisurely meander along the coast of Cote D’Ivoire and into Ghana.

New Year’s Day – The sun sets over Elmina

Sadly, our final stop in Cote D’Ivoire was in marked contrast with most of our time in the country as it was met with a not wholly welcoming reception.

While those who had nothing to offer us but a place to throw up our tents for the night and an unstintingly warm welcome offered exactly that without hesitation, our venture into the more salubrious surroundings of Assinie – replete, as it is, with holiday homes for the well to do from the big cities and further afield – saw us shunted into the far corner of our waterfront lodgings (once they had agreed to shunt us anywhere at all).

Far be it from us to mess up their pristine grass with our unsightly homes for the night.

We were made to feel far more at home in Beyin, our first stop after a pretty swift crossing into Ghana – well, first stop after the duty free shop opposite the immigration office which saw the spare locker on Nala filled with bottles to sit alongside the beer cans which were already there.

There was little need to break into the stocks on discovering the bar at the visitor centre housing us was selling cold beer at even lower prices (at least until we had cleaned out the fridge within minutes of arrival) which helped ease a night on cook group – complete with an almost naked chef – and make for a relaxing evening sat around a bonfire on the beach.

Our morning wake-up call was not quite so relaxing, coming as it did from well before dawn via the television in the bar tuned into a religious music station and turned up to full volume, as it was throughout our stay bar the rare moments we managed to seize control of the remote control and get the football on.

Religion, as we have discovered, plays a major role across Ghana, as shown by some of the business names we see dotted along the side of the road (God Will Provide Electricals being the pick so far, although it is perhaps not the best way to entice people to actually buy) and we had another close, at times fairly loud, encounter with the inhabitants of the mission bus from Kumasi which shared the car park and grounds with us on the second night.

Mysterious Ways – The driver of the Kumasi mission bus shows his appreciation from our two

Not that the bus was that loud the morning after, refusing to budge to let us get out until Steve managed to fashion a different way out and tug them out enough to get their engine going.

God does indeed move in mysterious ways.

Our wander down the beach continued through Akwidaa (although not at our scheduled stop, which has clearly not been open for a while), Busua (a couple of hours on the beach and in the surf which saw that return to body boarding for the first time since childhood holidays in Cornwall), Takoradi (for shopping purposes only) and our new year base at Elmina.

It was, at least in my case, a pretty quiet, chilled affair with the need to look after the pet stomach bug by missing the football match against German volunteers, taking a lengthy daytime nap on Nala – the coolest place in camp – and keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum.

Strangely, of course, the new year arrived overlooking the beach with all of us having a clear idea about what will dominate the rest of the year. At least the first seven and a bit months of it.

And that’s good enough reason to toast the change of year.


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