Distance Cycled : 12,816km
Well, it may be only a couple of weeks since our last update from Tamale but it feels like much longer. We have had an eventful fortnight, not altogether in the way we had planned…
Things started well enough, with a long but enjoyable day through woodland savannah from Tamale to Mole National Park. The transformation in the landscape since leaving Ouaga has really been quite incredible. Hard-baked earth and dried-up fields of rustling millet stalks have given way to reed-choked marshland and dense green swards. By 7am people have already been at work in the fields for a while, turning over the sticky red soil with hand held hoes. In places this millennia-old iron technology has been partially replaced by machinery – Ghana is one of the first countries since Morocco where we have seen tractors in use rather than just resting on wheel-less axles and rusting quietly in a field! Once off the main road the landscape became more forested, with the odd big herd of rather fat and glossy cows mooching across the “road” (in fact a gravelly piste). We arrived in the late afternoon at the National Park gates, and by the time we reached the Mole Motel (set just inside the park boundary) we’d already seen warthogs and a startled kob antelope a few metres from the road. We were glad to be installed in a room by the time a fantastic storm rumbled over the forested valleys and escarpments of the park, depositing quite incredible amounts of rain and lighting up the night sky.
The following morning we joined two American girls on a guided game walk in the park. Our diminutive ranger seemed to be in danger of tripping over his huge rifle – a precaution in case we should come face-to-face with a disgruntled elephant. We had an amazing 90-minute wander through the dew-soaked grass, seeing three bull elephants taking a morning bath, as well as numerous antelope – bushbuck, waterbuck and kob in case you want to know – another plethora of moustachioed warthogs, and green and patas monkeys. On the way back to the motel we took a short-cut through the workers quarters where a huge bull elephant was investigating the rubbish dump – apparently he is a regular visitor!
That afternoon we cycled a few kilometres to the little village of Larabanga, which lies at the junction of the roads leading to Tamale, the park and Bole, further West. It’s become something of a tourist attraction in its own right in recent years, due to the presence of a tiny but allegedly very old mosque. Though Ghana is predominantly Christian, the North has a high proportion of Muslims and in Larabanga itself virtually 100% of the population practise Islam. The mosque is a mud-and-stick building, rather like a small version of the Sudanic-style structures we saw at Djenne in Mali and in Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. It possibly dates from the 15th century though none of the village guides seemed to provide much information to back up the claim! What they were able to do was show us various snickets through family compounds, which gave a great insight into the domestic routine of Larabanga’s inhabitants. Cassava, resembling chunks of peeled parsnip, was drying on flat roofs, trios of girls were pounding yams to make fufu and piles of chillies were being pounded to a fiery paste using heavy querns of black stone.
The morning after our tour of Larabanga we were up just after 5am – with a long day ahead we thought we should make use of every minute of daylight. As we packed up in the dark, Anna remarked that it was Friday 13th. The superstitious among you might think we should have gone back to bed at that point! We ignored the feeling though, and after a quick breakfast at the “Rising Sun Restaurant” (more of a shack really, but with a very friendly owner who whipped up omelettes and hot chocolate for us) we headed down the road out of the village. A couple of kilometres out of the village, as the road climbed into the thick bush, a group of three men were walking down the road towards us. As we approached they waved to us to stop, but before we had a chance to slow down the leader swung the large stick he was carrying and Luke was knocked to the ground. Anna came running back down the road to see what was going on – which soon became clear… The leader, still brandishing his stick, demanded “Where is your money?” and, as of to emphasise his point, took a machete from his companion and brandished it in our direction. We had little choice but to run up the road, where we stopped about 50m away and watched as they ransacked our panniers and made off into the undergrowth with our money, cameras, passports, torches and whatever else they liked the look of.
Badly shaken but for the most part unhurt, we picked the bikes up and crammed things back into the panniers, before pedalling madly back to the village and safety. Within minutes, we were surrounded by a crowd of about 50 shocked and outraged villagers, who seemed to have a pretty good idea who was responsible. They sorted out drinks for us, and encouraged us to relax while they tried to track down our belongings. By lunchtime they said they were making “progress” and thought they might yet get our things back, so told us just to rest in the guesthouse and not to worry. Atiti, the guesthouse owner, gave us some money so we could get food if we wanted – £3 is a lot for a Ghanaian so this was a kind gesture indeed. By late afternoon we were worrying that the police were not yet involved – the nearest station is in Damongo, 20km away – but felt the local people knew what they were doing. At teatime Atiti asked Luke to go with him and took him to the house of the family of one of the men. The ringleader was a known criminal, only out of prison 6 weeks ago, while the two others were local boys co-opted to help with the robbery. The ringleader was in hiding (with money and phone) but the other men had agreed to hand over the other stolen goods, some of which had been buried in the bush en-route back to the village. Having a thief in the family is the worst shame that can befall someone in the community and so thankfully family pressure had prevailed on the men to return the things. By 7pm we had back the cameras (minus case), binoculars, one of the wallets with some things missing, and headtorches, though one of the actual lamps was gone. It was by then too dark to hope to find anything else so we went to sleep.
The next morning Atiti came at 6am with our passports, which we were incredibly relieved about. They then got word that the ringleader had been sighted walking towards Bole and so a group jumped on a bus in an attempt to trace him. They spent most of the day pursuing him, but eventually they learned he had found transport from a village towards Wa, a sizeable place where it would be hard to find him. We explained we thought it was important to involve the police and that we would need a statement for insurance purposes.
So it was that on Sunday morning (Anna’s birthday no less), we caught a lift in a construction lorry and headed for the police station in Damongo. Well, actually, to the CID officer’s house, to get him out of bed! After a frustrating morning, punctuated by thinly-veiled requests for bribes (which we ignored) and a time-consuming trip to the local hospital to be checked over (totally uneccessary as they didn’t even look at our injuries, but insisted on by the CID man), we emerged triumphant with a report for the insurers and a promise that the police would do their best to track down the thief. Luke had eventually explained to the officer that we didn’t have any money to “support the investigation”; that even if we did we wouldn’t be handing it over; and that we sincerely hoped there would be no requests in that direction to the inhabitants of Larabanga, who were a little worried that they would have to cough up… We think he got the message! Atiti then insisted on buying us lunch and more drinks, so we were glad to be able to change our last hidden stash of dollars so that we could pay him back for his generosity over the last few days. By the time we arrived back in Larabanga, it was time to pack up ready to take on that road again in the morning.
Undoubtedly the worst fall-out from the robbery is the suspicion and fear we now feel when encountering local people. Until last week our first instinct had been to trust people and assume their friendly enquiries to be genuine. Sure, we’ve had touts persistently trying to sell us carpets and slippers in Fes, boys asking us for help with school fees on the beach in Banjul, the theft of Luke’s camera gear in Bissau…but none of it has involved real unpleasantness or violence. For the last week we’ve hedged when asked where we are going, jumped at every hoe- or machete-carrying labourer emerging from a field and cast long glances over our shoulders when there have been other cyclists behind us on the road. No doubt it will take time for things to get back to normal!
A few days after the robbery we sought out another mud-and-stick mosque in the small town of Bole. The exterior had been freshly whitewashed and the woodwork gleamed with black gloss paint, giving it a strange resemblance to a Welsh cottage…or maybe Luke’s just feeling homesick! Here the mild-mannered and rather ancient Imam not only acquiesced when Luke asked if he might take a photograph of him, but said that he would be happy for us to look inside the mosque if we wanted to! You get used to major religious buildings in Europe being open to the public, but so far on our journey through Muslim regions the inside of a mosque has been unequivocally off-limits to “infidels”. The interior of Bole’s mosque was nothing exceptional – dark, low-ceilinged and slightly musty with frayed prayer mats aligned towards the mihrab, the prayer niche that points towards Mecca – but it was no less interesting for it.
South from Bole, the road returned to rough piste. We planned to try to reach Kumasi in three days from Larabanga, in order to catch up with some more of Link’s work here. It would have meant our longest day yet from Bole, over 175km, so we set off before dawn with our dynamos lighting the way for the first couple of kilometres. As the day wore on, the road became worse and worse – first terrible corrugations, then deep sand, then – what could be worse than sand or corrugations? – corrugations with sand in-between! Late in the afternoon, the road didn’t even return to tarmac where we’d been told it would, then just as we finally did reach the tarmac the heavens opened… It obviously wasn’t meant to be, so we spent the night in a half-built hotel, and resigned ourselves to arriving in Kumasi a day late. Annoyingly, one of the things taken in Larbanga was the slip of paper with our contact numbers for Link, so we couldn’t even call them to let them know we’d be late!
So, where next? From Kumasi we head South to the coast, hopefully arriving in about a week at a place called Green Turtle Lodge – http://www.greenturtlelodge.com. This eco-tourism project is run by an ex-employee of Link, and we’re looking forward to spending a few days on the beach there in relative luxury! Then it’s on along the coast to Accra, from where we should be able to update you again – let’s hope it will be all good news next time!