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Western Africa

Morockin' the oases till I'm ghana!

I enjoy pretty much all types of travel, save for the all-inclusive variety and/or the staying-put kind.
But if I had to chose, the unexpected, the seldom trodded, the sparsely populated, the wilderness-y versions would be my top picks.
I have a feeling Western Africa can fulfill my curiousity in that regard, so....
I'm going to Western Africa!

Trois petits cochons

Ghana Posted on Tue, January 30, 2018 10:15:43

Between Kumasi and the coast lies Kakum National Park. A rainforest with many of the usual suspects, including, but not limited to, trees, insects, forest elephants, monkeys, snakes and leopards. The thing with jungles, as opposed to, say, the open savannah, is that there are trees and other vegetation pretty much everywhere. The consequence for the non-human inhabitants is that they tend to be smaller than their open-air cousins (for example, the jungle elephant might as well be called pygmy elephant, but don’t say that to their trunks). The consequence for the human visitors is that the other animals are difficult, if not impossible, to see, what with all the vegetation and pygmy-ism and all. Therefore, a cool* experience in Kakum is a canopy walk. Rickety, but perfectly safe, rope bridges are suspended 15-40 metres in the air, making for a fun walk just above the foliage.

The goal of the day, however, was to reach the coast. That we did, but unfortunately the place we stayed was a fair bit out of the way. As I had to get to Accra before the truck did, and the local bus would leave Cape Coast (at least an hour taxi drive away) at early o’clock, I did some quick rearranging of my itinerary. Both Elmina, the closest town, and Cape Coast, the next town over, are coastal towns with an important historical affiliation with the slave trade of colonial times, and definitely worth a visit.

And so it was that I packed all my stuff**, said my good byes to the people who stayed at the campsite, and shared a taxi to Elmina with some who didn’t.

Elmina Castle, sometimes called St George’s Castle, is presumably the oldest European-built building in West Africa and marks the starting point of any visit to the former Portuguese colonial town. But rather than focusing on the slave fort, we took a town walk with a local guide. Noticing the three major sources of income (salt mining, fishing, and tourism) we perused the streets, the forts, the convents and the markets in the 40 degree heat. After a well-earned cold beer, I said even more goodbyes and took a taxi with my diving-buddy co-traveller for a tour of Cape Coast Castle.

Built by the Swedes in the 1600’s, the Castle served as a slave fort and waystation before they were shipped away to unknown destinations. It was later claimed by the Danes, then the Dutch, and finally the British. The cells in which they kept their slaves were devastating to see, the solitary cell even moreso. The stories about, especially, the female slaves went straight to the heart. The impact made by learning about the horrible, unimaginable conditions these people had to endure was strengthened by the stark contrast of the luxury of the governor’s quarters.

After one more goodbye, I went to my hotel, getting ready for next morning’s early bus ride. Although crowded and a bit late, the bus ride itself offered luxuries I had forgotten existed. The seats were comfy, there was plenty of legroom, the headrest cushion was so soft it could have served The Spanish inquisition***, and there was aircon.

The inclusion of air conditioning was even more obvious as I stepped out of the coach in Accra, walking right into what felt like a wall of hot steam.

The capital of Ghana is a city in the usual sense of the word. There are streets and avenues, parking lots, high-rises, museums, asphalt, nightclubs, bars and restaurants, and even a shopping mall****. There are also, of course, the wrong side of the tracks, shady areas, bustling markets and people trying to scam and/or sell you goods and/or services.

Armed with my inconspicuous small camera, I put on my walking shoes and set off to explore this my last destination of this odyssey.

Kristiansborg, a former Danish slave fort marks the Eastern end of the city along the coast, which stretches westwards towards Ussher Fort and Jamestown lighthouse to indicate the Western border of the city proper (although the metropolitan area does continue to the west, starting with a sewage treatment plant). In between lies Independence Square and Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park & Mausoleum. The square was empty and the park was closed due to a wedding, though. The activity tracker on my sports watch had a couple of field days (quite literally) as I perused the streets of Accra, including the poor fishing district of Jamestown and the perfectly non-hectic market quarters.

Passing through the cozy neighbourhood of Osu, I found myself at the, according to TripAdvisor, second best eatery in town: Burger & Relish. And with an item on their menu named Three Little Piggies (named so due to the burger being endorsed with chorizo, bacon and bacon jam), who am I to disagree?

Time flew, and soon I had to, as well. Rearranging my luggage, throwing away what I not needed and optimising the rest, I eventually got in the taxi to the airport. The adventure was drawing to an end, and as I spent my last cedis at the duty free (for reasons unknown, there’s no bureau de change after the security check at Kotoka International Airport, so one would have to repeat the tiring procedure or simply spending the remaining moneys buying goodies at the duty free or trinket shops), this African Adventure was over.

*) Though not in the literal sense; the temperature was close enough to 40 degrees, and humidity felt like it was in three digits

**) Except, as I noticed later, the lower parts of my zip-off trousers; they were unfortunately left on the truck.

***) The Pythonesque one, of course; the one nobody expects

****) Though no cinema, as far as I could tell, so Star Wars ep VIII: The Last Jedi would have to wait

Le roi de les quis?

Ghana Posted on Sun, January 21, 2018 11:36:41

In Central Ghana lies the cradle of the Ashanti (sometimes spelled Asante) kingdom, and nowhere is Ashanti influence more obvious than in the regional capital Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city.

In a rare, or actually unique, instance, we camped in town rather than a 15-60 minute taxi ride away. An almost as rare instance was that dinner wasn’t cooked on open fire on a tight budget, but rather free of choice. Guidebooks and websites all agreed that the best restaurant in Kumasi is The View Bar and grill, so half of us went* there.

Fitting name, the place offered spacious dining with a 270 view of the city and the best steak in 2018. Quite a difference from the fufu (a cassava/plantain flour porridge or dough) I had for lunch.

Guidebooks and websites all agreed that the number one thing to do in Kumasi is a visit to Kejetia market, the largest in West Africa. 11.000 stalls and four times as many people working there, the market covers the ground of an entire neighborhood. One could get lost in the maze** for hours, and what you can’t find here in hand-me-downs simply hasn’t been handed-me-down yet.

Obviously I tried to avoid that literal hell as much as possible, but the thing infects its surroundings, swelling into the actual streets, and I found myself all but stuck in a noisy, crowded, suffocating place with no apparent route of escape. Frantically clutching my wallet and my mobile I struggled through, and eventually found myself in relatively open air again, took some deep breaths, getting my bearings, and making it to the National Cultural Centre. There was an opening to a different world. Open space, air, peace and quiet, with streets lined by arts and craft shops, cafés, jazz clubs, museums. There were people there, yes, but they weren’t yelling and they weren’t everywhere.

There were the selling of stuff, yes, but they didn’t nag you and harass you and not even once shouted ‘Hey white man!’.

There were vehicles, yes, but they were few and far between, and neither honked, nor spewed exhaust fumes on idle.

A nice oasis in a city that, other than the market, is busy, but not overly hectic.

The museum of Prembeh II Jubilee is situated here, which for a very affordable fee will provide you with a personal guide to show and tell a brief history of the Ashanti kingdom.

Another place where the Ashanti heritage is presented is Komko Anokye Sword site. That is the place where, in the 17th century, the local clans gathered, agreed to join forces with each other and thereby forming the Ashanti kingdom.

A kingdom needs a king, of course, and since all the chiefs aspired for the throne, the obvious solution, according to the high priest, was to pray to the gods for a sign. And so, after a night of praying, and definitely not making any shady deals, treason and backstabbing, the priest gathered the chiefs anew, whereupon a golden throne appeared in midair, gently dropping down to one of the present chief’s lap, thereby declaring him king***.

The priest then stuck a sword in the ground, and it has never been removed since. Many have tried, yes, but neither bulldozers nor Muhammad Ali could pull it from the earth, and so the Ashanti kingdom remains. True story.

*) With 5 km away from where we were staying, we figured it’d be smoother and quicker taking a taxi rather than walk. Not necessarily so; the adress given is not the same as the actual place, and Google maps disagree on the location (though not by much) and for being touted as the best restaurant in Kumasi, neither the locals, nor the taxi drivers have any idea of where it is. Thus we stepped out of the taxi somewhere between where the adress indicated and where Google did, and walked the last bit, eventually finding it, just 30 minutes after our reservation.

**) Or possibly labyrinth

***) Strange invisible gods hanging in midair, distributing thrones, is no basis for a system of government.
Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aerial ceremony.

Regardez, monsieur Frodo: Des olyphaunts!

Ghana Posted on Sat, January 20, 2018 10:08:52

Note: the pix below are now hi-res (exept, I suppose, for the croc one) and clickable.

With three blank pages still available in my passport, I was now in country number 70* on my globetrotting CV. Ghana is sometimes described as West Africa for beginners, and I could get behind that sentiment. The roads are decent, electricity is available almost 24 hours a day and many places sell ice and meat. At the same time it has some of the attributes of the region, such as villages of huts with thatched roofs, waving children, busy markets and elephants.

The elephants dwell mostly in the rural areas, though. Mostly. A nice place to see the largest land animal in the world is Mole** National Park, which also hosts warthogs, crocodiles, a bunch of antelope species and a particularly nasty type of ant.

Taking a game drive in the afternoon, we saw a ton of some of the above, a decent amount of some, and about two dozen per sock of the last, burrowed into them, biding their time until I would let my guard down for a full frontal attack on my groin. I didn’t let my guard down, though, and ruthlessly showed some 50 ants who’s the boss, and also 25 million times larger.

I went to bed straight after dinner, for I, along with a co-traveller, was booked for a night drive at 3:30. Apparently there’s a 3:30 in the morning now, but nobody seemed to have told neither the driver, nor the guide. The night drive was a no-show, and I went back to bed, hoping to catch two hours of sleep before the morning’s walk. The morning walk went on as planned, though. Similar sights, and this time even crocodiles.

We left Mole with full memory cards and mosied on, desperately trying to find a decent bushcamp not too far from our next destination. As luck would have it, Mr Charles, the proprietor of a cocoa plantation, welcomed us with open arms to camp in his backyard and letting us use his outhouse. While the pots were boiling, we ventured into the hamlet and actually found a rooftop bar called The Rooftop Bar. It was closed though, but below lied an establishment called The Roofdown Bar, were we got to sample the local spirit (booze spiced with different herbs and sugar, not completely dissimilar to Jägermeister) and its premixed counterpart, Orijin. Next morning Mr Charles took us to see the plantation. A government run facility, they grow and care for cocoa seedlings, which the farmers of the region can collect, free of charge, thereby helping struggling farmers to get enough crops to make a decent living, while at the same time ensuring the highest possible level of quality for the Ghanaian chocolate.

*) Depending on how you count, of course. It’s a country if it was recognized as such by the UN or IOC at the time of visit, and it counts as a visit if you’ve been outside any points of entry (airports, harbours, train stations etc), stayed at least a night and sampled the local food and/or beer (if they have any). The staying a night is not necessary for mini or micro nations such as Monaco, and the sampling is not necessary for nano nations such as the Vatican or places without permanent population, such as Antarctica.

**) Not pronounced like the burrowing, almost blind animal, but rather Moll-e