With excitement of reaching our next country, Ghana, a place we have had happy memories from years back, we had our last coffee stop in Côte d’Ivoire, served by a warm friendly colourful lady at the all too familiar distressed blue painted coffee shack with high benches surrounding the central counter, we pushed on towards the frontier.
Another quiet border crossing, not as remote as some we have crossed, but still very little cross border traffic. It seems in West Africa people stay in their own countries, unlike Asia where borders tend to be busy, bustling and chaotic. The Côte d’Ivoire tarmac stopped exactly on the line on the map that marked the border, and the red dust road led into Ghana, country number seven of this trip.
Our first night was spent at a little visited national park. A slightly sorry place, like so many of these projects. Quite a bit invested in concrete buildings at the headquarters, but the forest lacked animals which meant no one visited it. It worked for us as they had a simple guest house and it was on our route. Dominic, the Tourism Officer, not a bad job with a nice house provided and barely ever a tourist, took us on an hour and a half walk in the forest, which was impressive and pristine. Tall mahogany trees stood high above the dense broad leafed jungle. The trail was quite dark with the canopy of trees and foliage providing a lot of shade. Massive insects buzzed about as we cooked our supper over our temperamental petrol cooker. Some moth creatures were like large dead leaves, perfectly camouflaged on the forest floor, and when they took off their large wings flapped slowly as they struggled to gain height.
On a mixture of tarmac and rough red roads we headed deeper into Ghana. The traffic was a lot more than we had been used to. Many private cars and taxis, all in pretty good condition and some were fancy large new pickups and 4x4s. It was a lot more wealthy. Nearly all the buildings are concrete, and there are ostentatious mansions too.
Youths shout out loudly at us, on their motorbikes. It’s all a lot busier and noisier here, and some of the African softness we have been used to has gone. Drinking among men is a problem here. People pop into shops for a shot of spirits from early in the morning. It’s a quick silent affair, hand over the money to the shopkeeper behind the wire cage and a clear liquid is measured into a glass, knocked back in one and then they are on their way.
The music isn’t traditional, it is brash, loud and with a heavy beat, dominating the place it is coming from. You expect to see a huge party, but it’s just a couple of people sitting in plastic chairs with the noise pulsating out over the neighbourhood.
With the countryside remaining quite similar, plantations and areas of scrubby farming, or just abandoned land that had returned to tall grass with the odd tree, our journey was becoming slightly bland. Some of the colour and adventures were missing. It had been a long haul across Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana with fairly unchanging scenery . We were feeling fatigued, lacking enthusiasm to wave and say greetings to everyone in the heat and humidity. Had we been cycling for too long? Had Africa got to us? Why weren’t we enthused? We felt grumpy, this was not good.
About halfway across the country we eventually found ourselves on a narrow red track in a remote countryside. Great this was more like it. Silence again away from the busy roads. The track went up and down through the green verdant land. We passed very few villages, although most of the land was cultivated with cocoa plantations, it felt quite isolated. Then suddenly there was a crack and the gear shift on the bike went loose. Oh no the gears have broken. This was a serious failure as the hub gear system is not a straightforward repair. We were far from anywhere and barely any transport was passing. We tried to fashion a rough repair but it failed so had to contend with cycling in one gear and pulling on the remaining end of the cable to change down for the numerous hills. This was hard work and a set back when morale had only recently been lifted. Was this the end of the trip? We were annoyed and irritable. With some reception on the phone later in the day we managed to work out a repair, but didn’t have a small enough Allen key. Where were we to find one in this part of rural Africa? As always happens with this sort of travel, when you are at your lowest and it’s all doom and gloom, a miracle happens, a friendly bike repair man in a village has a surprisingly well stocked tool kit, which included the tiny Allen key. We couldn’t believe it. Such a nice relaxed guy, who seemed to know what tools we wanted to borrow before we asked. He also insisted that we keep his tiny Allen key and he would buy another one for witch he refused any money. So often you get this amazing generosity. We had recently bought a new tin of coffee and a pack of Lipton’s tea which we gave to him. He was heart warmingly delighted with the gift. We set up under the shade of the tree where he was working, threading new spokes into a damaged wheel, and managed to replace the damaged cables, referring to instructions on the Rolhof website. Thank goodness for the internet!
Off we went feeling uplifted by such a positive experience. Oh no! we have another puncture. Back under his tree to fix it. So many punctures we have had on this trip, along with snapped chains it’s added to the burden of the days cycling particularly through the hot part of the day. The other kit antagonism has been the petrol cooker, relentlessly it has blocked and failed, probably due to the dirty fuel we buy in whisky bottles by the roadside. We have needed to cook nearly every day because access to food can take a long time and not that great when it arrives. Tired and hungry, we have to fiddle around, stripping down, unblocking jets and fuel lines every day, but it always gets there in the end.
From right back to the beginning of our journey in Senegal we have seen clusters of upside down birds nests, clinging to tall grass or at the end of palm fronds. They blow around in the wind and seem to defy gravity remaining attached to the spindly grass or palm leaves. These are weaver birds and the knot of plant fibres and strands that make up there nest, hang with the entrance at the bottom. We watch the birds, fluttering around the tall grass, darting into the nests or carrying out construction and repair work as they sing away filling the air with tuneful birdsong. We wonder how the inside of these round structures is arranged to cope with an upside down world.
There are so many huge churches in every little town. It can’t be possible for there to be enough people to fill them. Probably financed by America as they are mainly evangelical churches like the Pentecostal, and some one told us it’s poor people that donate their money and some of the mansions are funded this way. Don’t know if it’s true, but something is going on. There’s a lot of talk and posters about preachers, promises and miracles. Fanatical religious rants blast out over tannoy systems in small towns. The religion here has a sinister feel. Coffin builders display their goods by the roadside. This is a country where Christianity is very obviously pushed and in your face, death is clearly a big thing too with posters up everywhere displaying the dead peoples picture and age, which seemed to be exaggerated when they were very old, like 130 years old! On Saturday there were elaborate funerals everywhere. People dressed in black and red robes, modern music, that didn’t seem to fit with the occasion, blasted from large sound systems like at a concert. People danced round the coffin, while others sat, the deep beat of the music, piercing their ears. The occasion sometimes goes on for two or three days. A really entertaining chap we met, Nana, who was from Chicago, back in Ghana for his brother’s funeral, said what a racket these occasions are. “A waste of time and money” he said, “and we have had to keep my brother in the fridge for 3 months so everyone has time to travel here for the funeral”. Nana, a kindly unassuming man, his black and red funeral robe falling off his shoulder, invited us to have a cold drink at his house. We had a nice chat, and he told us how he had sold his taxi business in Chicago and had set up an orphanage in his village for 150 children. He wasn’t a religious man, he just wanted to put something back as he too had been an orphan from the age of eight. We waved goodbye to Nana and continued on our way.
Things work much better in Ghana, it has developed beyond the other countries by far.
The plantations and farming look really good and productive . There’s lots of cocoa processing going on, along with factories and all sorts of commerce. Things are made here and not just imported like in the other countries. It’s busier because things are getting done, this is progress and it must feel like a positive and vibrant outlook for the youth of the country.
From the day when the gears broke our journey became reinvigorated. We met good kind people and and the route became varied again. As we approached the Kwawu Plateau the steep rocky escarpment came into view towering above the green rolling land of plantations. The road twisted its way steeply upwards climbing through tropical forest and craggy cliffs.
This part of our route, crossing the Kwahu Plateau, lake Volta, and the Afram Plains, we had done before with Becky and Katy 15 years ago, when they were only just 6 and 8 years old. It was a great trip back then, finding waterfalls in the jungle and heading off in canoes across lake Volta to remote villages. We were excited to retrace the route.
Once up on the Plateau the road climbed and dropped through a verdant tropical hilly landscape. Large mansions, second homes to wealthy people from Accra, were perched on hillsides overlooking the beautiful lush countryside. They had disconcerting electrified fences on top of their high perimeter walls. Certainly a change from 15 years ago.
Once we started to drop off the Plateau towards lake Volta the scenery changed dramatically. It was arid, rocky, only supporting small trees, and the ground lacked greenness. There were initially no villages in this harsh landscape, that we guessed was in the rain shadow of the jungle clad escarpment we had climbed up. Once at the Afram river arm of lake Volta the villages returned and it was great to see the familiar timber long boats with religious captions painted on, that were pulled up on the foreshore. At the port there was a lot of excitement, lovely jovial people, and comings and goings of boats from the lake, made for a busy scene that we remembered all so well from our previous trip with the girls.
We headed across the lake to the Afram Plains. This was all feeling so much more like the adventurous trip that we had been having, and with renewed enthusiasm we pushed on and felt good. The villages were more basic and poorer on the Plains, just a scattering of mud huts under grass roofs. It’s something of a backwater, slightly forgotten by the rest of Ghana, and cut off by any connecting roads, relying purely on ferries. This area was a great choice when we came before to give the girls an insight to West Africa, and it’s still just as good a place, and we are really enjoying this section and thinking back to how intrepid it was with two little children.
Gradually the greenness returned as we crossed the Plains. The villages were quiet once more, just friendly calling out greetings, smiles, and looks of astonishment. We stopped for lunch at a bench positioned under the shade of a large tree in a village. We sat down next to a colourful lady who was having her lunch too. A row of ladies with tables were serving fermented maize meal, a fibrous mashed affair that tastes slightly acidic. They love it.
The orange mud landscape passed us by, dotted with occasional villages that blended into the landscape, being built from the same mud, under grass roofs. People sat about the communal areas, waved and called out. Eventually we arrive at the ferry that would take us over the larger eastern arm of lake Volta to the bustling market town of Kpandu. A steep, very hot climb up from the foreshore brought us into the town. Market stalls with the all too familiar neat piles of tomatoes, onions, garden eggs, and okra, laid out to represent certain denominations of money, made up the stalls. There were large heaps of pineapples, plantains, and papaya. It was a welcoming site and we always love a market with all the life going on.
The next day we headed off towards the mountains that make up the Togolese border. The road narrowed and began to twist. The scenery was stunning. Tall mahogany trees and lush verdant forest made for stunning views as we climbed our way to the border on the very quiet road.