18 – 13th June 2005 – Accra, Ghana

Distance Cycled : 13,517km

Piles of pineapples, baskets of bananas, mounds of melons and, erm, oodles of oranges.  Southern Ghana is just one big fruit salad.  More about food later…  We’re now a few days from the Togolese border, picking up visas in Accra and re-activating our dusty French after almost six weeks in an Anglophone country.

From Kumasi we headed south through incredibly lush and jungly hills, stopping off at various places before reaching the coast on 29th May.  First stop was Lake Bosumtwi, spectacularly set in a crater formed by the impact of a meteor..  It must have been a whopping big meteor!  Then it was on along a rather damp forest road, which turned into squelchy piste sporadically, through the gold-mining and cocoa-producing regions of central Ghana.  We stopped overnight in a mining town called Tarkwa which looked like a one-horse town from the Wild West, complete with colonial-era railway buildings, liquor stores and probably a bar with a spitoon if you hunted for it…  It’s home to a technical college specialising in mining too, which has just been awarded university status – we were informed by an evidently proud lecturer.  It’s the only institute of its kind in sub-saharan Africa so attracts foreign students from all over the continent.  Gold-mining is lucrative for Ghana in more ways than one, then.

The same can’t be said for chocolate.  Cocoa (our guidebooks tell us) was introduced to Ghana in 1879 when a man called Tetteh Quarshie introduced some seedlings from the island of Fernando Po off the coast of modern-day Gabon.  They grew and in time Ghana came to supply half the world’s cocoa.  It’s still a significant earner for the country but production is small-scale and farmers’ livelihoods are at the mercy of disease and internationally-determined prices for the crop.  The processing of the beans seems to be a smelly, hot and dirty business judging by the cocoa yards we passed in all the little towns lining the road south.  It seems to be women who do this rather disagreeable graft.  Ironically, although a small bar of chocolate costs about 25p, it’s much too expensive for most Ghanaians.

When we last updated you perhaps we were a bit disparaging about Ghanaian food.  Soft, sweet, white bread and cold baked beans, neon-pink “strawberry” jam and endless bowls of eau-de-fish rice and sauce were getting us down a bit.  Our survival strategy when our insides rumble at the thought of roast dinner and apple crumble is usually this – seek out an overpriced Western restaurant!  Hardly what you’d call cultural integration but there are some gastronomic crises that just can’t be overcome by eating a pile of the dreaded fufu.  So, with Anna’s birthday as an excuse and a wad of dinner money from friends at home – thanks Julie! – we had a fantastic curry with all the trimmings one night and pizza the next!  That kept us well-fuelled for the next leg, 340km of hills and jungle from Kumasi to the coast.  And since we reached the coast the food just keeps getting better!  Obviously Anna has done something that finds favour with the god of travelling vegetarians and has been feasting on red-red – spicy black-eyed bean stew with fried plantain – yam balls, fried bean cakes, spring rolls and more.  For pud there are coconut-flavoured doughnuts and plump little pineapples, heavy as lead because they’re so juicy.  The smallest ones will set you back 1500 cedis (just under 10p), but if you pay double that you’ll get a deliciously juice-packed fruit that weighs close to a kilo!  Just as fruit-sellers in Bamako groaned under the weight of a bowlful of mangoes, Ghanaian women seem totally at ease with a basinful of twenty pineapples on their heads.  We never cease to be amazed by what people carry around on their noggin throughout Africa.  We have seen cargoes of water, fruit and vegetables that defy belief and that’s before you get on to bundles of firewood.  The other week Luke helped a girl hoist a bucket of water onto her head, and said he could have barely lifted it unaided, yet she strolled off with it on her head without so much as a grimace.  After months of “research” we think the most coveted job in the market must surely be that of the popcorn seller… you can almost hear her vertebrae breathing a sigh of relief!  Maybe Maltesers would be a hit in Ghana if someone could figure out a way to stop the chocolate melting…

One way to keep things cool is by installing a solar-powered fridge.  This is precisely what Tom and Jo, who run Green Turtle Lodge, have done.  With lights and fans also powered by the sun and self-composting toilets it’s something of an eco-haven and, after four days, we had a hard time tearing ourselves away from the location and the company – not to mention the breakfast of french toast with roasted bananas and honey!  Huge thanks to Tom and Jo for putting us up and for driving Anna to the top of a nearby hill in the drizzle one night so she could get good enough reception to talk to her mum by mobile phone!  The marvels of modern technology…

Our reaction to birds – or more precisely Anna’s as she is the closet twitcher – is probably indicative of how long we have been on the road.  Bunch of mean-looking forked tails?  Just another dozen black kites.  Flash of russet and black and cream?  Just another coucal.  Funny fluting noise?  Just another hornbill.  And so on…  Somehow hammerkops and vultures, weaver birds and rollers and bee-eaters have become as run-of-the-mill as a sparrow or a robin back home.  That’s not to say we ignore them, merely that they no longer elicit that “oh wow, did you see it?” or “what was THAT?” reaction.  This is probably just as well given the number of potholes in the roads – craning to birdwatch means you can’t hole-in-the-road watch so closely, which can be rather dangerous.  But all this makes the new sightings and species all the more exciting, if anything.  The other day a crazy little bird, scarlet-beaked but otherwise crisply black-and-white, fluttered across the road in hot pursuit of a rather drably-plumaged female.  This tiny thing had four ludicrous tail feathers, streaming out underneath him for 20cm or more, and seemed, unsurprisingly, to be having a hard time staying airborne.  We were pretty chuffed, then, to find that the Green Turtle Lodge had a huge book about feathered things – a field guide to West African birds – and that the bird in question was called a whydah!  We can’t wait for East Africa, where the birdwatching promises to be even finer.

We saw plenty of butterflies but not so many birds at Kakum National Park, a rainforest reserve just inland from Cape Coast, where an aerial walkway has been built allowing you to see the canopy close-up.  We spent an enjoyable morning wandering from tree to tree – hoping that the engineering was sound.  This is not somewhere for vertigo sufferers!  Having got up at 4.30am to cycle out there (a 35km ride – on our day off no less!), we arrived at the gates just as they opened, and were the first visitors of the day.  Luke’s gear cable had snapped about 5km before the park, and since the detour wasn’t really part of the journey we chickened out of the hilly ride back stuck in one gear and jumped on a bus.  It was somewhat depressing how quickly we were back in Cape Coast!  Still, it meant we had time to replace the dodgy cable (cue extensive reference to our “idiot’s guide to bikes”) and fit in a visit to the castle in the afternoon.

After six weeks in an English-speaking country, we can’t shake off the feeling that communication was easier in the francophone countries.  This seems bizarre at first, but then French seems to be spoken relatively well by most people in the old French colonies and our French is probably slower, clearer and less sprinkled with idiom and colloquialisms than our English!  The English spoken here in Ghana can be rather special!  Locals have a slightly off-putting habit of shouting “where are you going?”, “what is your name?” and even “who are you?” as we cycle by…and we seem rarely to be out of earshot of some kid hollering the local word for white man – obruni, obruni, obroooooooni!.  Listening to the radio can be funny, usually not because you have tuned in to a comedy show, though…  A few weeks ago we heard the “business bulletin” being broadcast on a local station.  Expecting news of stocks, shares and deals made we were amused to hear instead “the price of one crate of yams is 30000 cedis in Kumasi, 27000 cedis in Bolgatanga and 31000 cedis in Accra.  In Kumasi, one sack of rice is retailing for 100000 cedis, while in Accra…”  Shop names and signs are also good for a laugh, often with a religious theme – favourites include:

  • Trust in God Electrical Outfitters
  • In Him Is Life Pure Water
  • Friends Today Enemies Tomorrow Bar & Restaurant

All along the coast we’ve been spotting, exploring, photographing and occasionally staying in some of the forts that still stand along what was once “The Slave Coast”.  Portuguese ships first began to explore the coastline of West Africa in the early 15th century, and over the following centuries various European powers vied for supremacy in the region.  Although at first gold was sought, soon an infamous and more lucrative cargo was being shipped from the Bight of Benin – slaves.  We’ve been reading a fantastic book called Africa – A Biography of the Continent which spares no detail about the horrors of this trade in humans, which reached a peak in the 1700s, when demand for labour in Carribean plantations

was at an all-time high.   In Cape Coast Castle, the little museum paints a pretty grim picture of the trade, with architectural plans of ship’s holds depicting rows of shackled bodies, top to tail, descriptions of and statistics about the number who died during the atrocious “middle passage”.  The dungeons, complete with iron shackles in some cases, are as dank and dismal as you might imagine – but it’s not all confined to the history books.  One castle, in Anomabu (between Cape Coast and Accra) was pressed into service as a prison until as recently as 2000, with seriously overcrowded cells and pretty rudimentary facilities.  It’s hard to decide whether it is entirely ethical to redevelop some of these buildings as tourist accommodation but there is no denying the spectacular setting of the one we stayed in at Princestown, near the Ivorian border.  With evening sunlight on the stone ramparts and swallows flitting in and out of our room, it seemed a peaceful spot, hard to imagine the horrors that were once perpetrated there.

Togo and Benin, reaching inland like slim ribbons with a coastline of no more than 150km between them, lie between Ghana and the next major chunk of a country – Nigeria.  Given the unrest which followed the end-of-April presidential elections in Togo, we think it’s probably wise to zip across in a couple of days.  Even at our slow, pedal-powered rates that should be possible so we hope to be in Benin in under a week and entering Nigeria at the very end of June.  Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe described his country as “among the most unpleasant places on earth” so, well, we’re hoping he was having a bad day.  We’re hoping also that Nigerian bureaucracy and corruption are over-hyped and looking forward instead to the hospitality and hidden treasures that seem to lurk in every country on this vast continent if you look and are lucky.  We had a small taste of this officialdom this afternoon, when the consul at the Nigerian High Commission vented her frustration on us – unfortunately the UK High Commission in Nigeria has recently come up with the somewhat dubious policy of automatically refusing all visa applications from 18-30 year old Africans…  It took some negotiations and much consumption of humble pie to persuade the lady that this was not entirely our fault… Let’s hope the visa is there when we go back tomorrow!


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