Kpando lies close to the vast Volta Lake. Leaving the orphanage behind we began our journey one day, into the Bush…
You see I’d heard a whisper that beyond the lake lay a huge area of protected and untouched ‘original Bush’ where nobody usually goes. There are no group tours, buses, organised trails or even proper roads leading to the place… naturally I was very determined to go…
Ghana is just one of those countries where its most beautiful places are a little ‘lesser known’… it’s very fabric and people have a certain art, and so does the way they live, breathe and praise. There’s always a chance you might just uncover something you didn’t expect…
Yet nobody seemed to know about ‘Digya’ on the eastern shore of the lake where I was staying, at the Missahoe Orphanage or in the town. As we went round trying to find information from locals, policemen etc. we could barely get a breath of knowledge, no hints or tips from anyone that had been there, no one that had relatives there or even knew how to get across the lake.
But still, we made our way to the shores of the lake one morning, asked the fisherman we found how to get across, with no knowledge of where to go once we got the other side or where we would stay for the night…
With the help of the fisherman down on the beach we found a local passenger ferry, paid the cheap ticket price and climbed on. It was a bit hectic as everybody seemed desperate to get across the water to the market town that lay the other side.
I found the journey across the lake very disappointing.
The little ferry had to be balanced out with people so as not to tip over so we had to stay in our seats the entire time… I considered jumping out onto the front to have myself a little titanic moment but every time I tried surreptitiously standing up the conductor starting barking at me to sit, sit, sit…. boring!
This definitely wasn’t the adventure in a little wooden boat that I was hoping for… well, all I can say is be careful what you wish for…
Walking around in rural parts of Ghana, and in fact any African country I’ve been to, you have to get used to a lot of attention from local people, wanting to talk, take photos with you, following you around for ages, sometimes just touch you (sounds weird, but skin colours have fascinated people since the dawn of time). I have this little game where I make people guess where I am from – people always ask you where you are from as a way of making conversation. People have guessed all sorts of places, which always amuses me. I have to confess, also, I often give people different nationalities when they ask, just to see their reaction. It’s hilarious! The amount of times people have said things like “I thoughts you were going to say that” is beyond count… no matter how random the place I said.
I just find when interacting with locals one has to be open, kind-faced and friendly, but also quite firm and to the point if you have to get somewhere. I’ve seen a lot of westerners make the mistake of thinking that everyone just wants to be your friend at all times and couldn’t possibly have a secret agenda. People have to survive, and if you’re travelling in an economically-poor country then you will realise pretty soon that most people think of all westerners as rich, which can be very tiresome.
The flip-side of course, is that people can be too suspicious, defensive and ultimately closed-off to interaction with locals, which can often be the best experience of a new country.
I nearly-always find being open the best way. I try to talk to people, explain to people how and why I am able to travel in their country, my reasons for being there and what I want to achieve. I have many memories of sitting with locals who I’d only just met and tourists walking by, seeing us and instead of joining in just walking past, looking back and probably wishing they could hang out too…
Imagine, you meet a guy whilst trekking through tropical jungle and after you’ve been talking for some time he invites you into his little secret garden amongst the trees. You sit and smoke together, he makes you jewelry from tiny beads, teaches you African drumming, gives you a tattoo in the tradition from his home tribe, with blade and earth, and then invites you to stay the night in his shack. It would be very easy not to trust someone like that… but I’m glad I did. Instinct is always your best guide. Logic will let you down. You have to know what does and doesn’t feel right and stick to it.
But on a slightly lighter note, I did use a bit of logic whilst in the jungle… found a really great way of not being bitten using my mosquito net…
So anyway, I’m walking round this town trying to find out from the locals if there’s a way to get to The Bush and if they know anything about the elephants that I’ve heard of. I’ve previously read that Ghana’s second largest herd of wild elephants lives in this difficult-to-access area of jungle somewhere behind this town we’re in… somewhere… across the lake.
Disturbingly locals seemed to think I was looking to buy into illegal ivory trade! I explained that was definitely not the case and eventually was directed to the home of the park warden. It was ridiculously difficult to find this man, Laurence, but once I did he agreed to give us a guide to take us to the Bush to look for the elephants. He explained it would be very difficult to see wildlife as it always is in the Jungle, but I knew this from experience anyway.
Back in the town we met a girl from Israel who worked for the Israeli Embassy on development projects who by chance also wanted to trek through the park. She had been living in Ghana for some years, backpacked solo across many parts of Africa, and delighted at any adventure ‘off the beaten track’. There was one little guesthouse in the town and we all agreed to bunk up and share a room for the night. After getting our supplies from the market for the next day we got some rest, ready for our 4am start… three in a bed and no aircon… I’m sure you can imagine what kind of night sleep it was!
“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”
– Don Williams, Jr.
Next morning before sunrise we are all up, bleary-eyed and ready…ish. Three rangers on motorbikes waiting outside the guesthouse. I just remember zooming through the countryside, occasionally dodging goat farmers herding their animals before the roads got busy, bobbing and weaving, my scarf blowing hurriedly in the wind behind me. It must have been quite a while before we stopped. It was still dark. The stream had flooded with the rains, blocking our path to the road the other side. In the pitch black we had to take off our shoes, roll up our trousers and wade across. Had no idea what we were standing on, couldn’t see… probably for the better. The rangers were amazing and between them managed to carry all the motorbikes across without getting water in the exhausts.
We carried on along the mud roads for a while. There were no signs of human life now, just green green country stretching far beyond eyesight. Eventually we reached a little village… it was the most rural place I’ve ever been. Couldn’t tell you the name of the place, and it doesn’t show up on google maps… I’ve searched.
There must have been between no more than 20 – 30 mud houses, with straw rooftops. In the middle of the village surrounded by little fires and old trees was the chief’s hut, which rose up taller than the others: an assertion of his superiority.
The people here had to walk for hours to get to the nearest town where they could buy commercial goods and clothing etc. The was of course no electricity or well. We met the village chief, a peaceful man who gave us his blessing to cross the river (where they fish and collect water) so we could enter The Bush beyond.
I was astonished and horrified when the local children came running up to me excitedly with something in their hands, trying to impress this wanderer from distant lands. I was taking pictures of the village and they wanted me to take a picture of this… It was a little tropical bird on a string that looked poorly-treated. They’d clearly been keeping it as a sort of pet. I tried to explain to them that I didn’t like it but they didn’t understand a word of course and kept laughing at me as I tried to explain that all birds should be free… to fly high in the sky. I took a quick picture in the hope they might get bored and at least put it down…
Can’t really blame the kids for lack of education. Still, I walked away very sad at man’s inherent inclination to imprison all beautiful things…
I think if I ever came back to this area I’d like to stay for some time in this village and see what me and the people there could learn from each other.
To get to the park we had to cross the fast-flowing river. It was difficult and dangerous. With bags on our backs (mine had cameras and lenses so I felt particularly nervous) we had to wade over barefoot across a shallow, rocky part – the only part you could cross. My mind was far away from crocodiles and snakes as we walked hand-in-hand, very carefully, in a line across the river. The rocks were extremely slippery and one false move would have you losing balance and being quickly swept away by the current. Luckily I’m very sure-footed and managed to get across the murky waters to the other side.
The local boys who were fishing in the shallows of the river below were as fascinated with us as we were with them. They were probably laughing at our nervous attempts at being African – they surely crossed the river with ease everyday.
I did manage to get a couple of pictures.
We entered the thickets of the Bush, the rangers ahead of us cutting a clear(ish) way through the overwhelming barrier of grasses and shrubs. We had to be very quiet, and the rangers had to carry guns in case we were attacked by any wild animals… Nesting birds would suddenly spring up from amongst the grasses. At times it was hard to see where we were or which direction we were travelling in; the sun often obscured by forest in all directions. Termite mounds would rise up many meters high. The air was thick, heavy and humid, the heat almost unbearable at points. There were thousands of flies and bugs absolutely everywhere. We had to be very careful where we stood. Sudden ditches would appear, streams we had to jump across, and we had to be mindful of potential wildlife at all times. Our guides would point out particular types of tree or plant and their significance among the tribes – certain plants for fertility, certain plants for good and bad omens etc. There was an odd hum of silence/constant noise. Rustling leaves. Strange little insects and grubs crawling across red earth and rock.
We trekked for hours, our legs heavy, feet cut and stung… no sign of elephants. No sign of anything – just endless grass, forest… and flies.
It was a very different experience to the ‘safaris’ I’ve experienced in other parts of the world, where pathways are cleared to wide roads and you zoom through the forest in a 4×4… this was the real African Bush… and it was hard. Even for the rangers who were experts. Some of our group (no names mentioned) kept suddenly disappearing amongst the grass, slipping over and then getting back up proudly and walking on as if nothing happened. The lead rangers seemed to find it all pretty hilarious… we were covered in flies, exhausted and falling about in the mud like a load of drunks… in the end I gave up trying to be ‘Indiana James’ and marched up the front laughing with the rest about how stupid we all looked.
Well… welcome to the jungle. Not a walk in the park after all…
So, once we were back in the town we found out the last passenger ferry was leaving in about five minutes. So we jump in some bus and zoom down to the edge of the vast lake and… yeah, it’s just gone… a jolly little white thing disappearing in the distance.
Between me, Nina and Israel we had just decided to camp on the beach when one of the local fisherman offered to take us across in his fishing boat. It was a long wooden thing with a motor attached onto the back that looked as though it would never make it to the other side with all four of us in it…
So naturally we agreed.
We had to barter for a price for some time as the fisherman was trying to charge us a small fortune for the journey.
Next minute we’re tugging along and I notice the boat seems to be filling up slowly with water. Nina and Israel are sat at the front having the time of their lives pretending to be Rose-effing-Dawson and I’m stuck at the back using a bucket to quite literally bail us out.
I can’t really complain though. We didn’t die in the end and it was an extraordinary journey.
As we were nearing the other side the sky became split by thick folds of black cloud. The rains hit in a torrential downpour as thunder roared in a majestic elemental display all around us.
The God of Sky hailed our journey across the lake, welcoming us back to the shore like returning royals from a successful day hunting.
So, yeah, maybe I didn’t get to see African elephants this time or the ‘usual’ things one travels for, but I did get that ‘adventure’ in a wooden boat I was hoping for… and there’s always next time… The Real African Bush had taught me a lesson though – that anything worth seeing is worth working real hard for. My days trekking in the remotest places are far from over. This journey has only invigorated my passion further…
I’ll remember those couple of days, as vividly as I’ll remember walking with lions or crossing the desert.
Always and forever.