December 12, 2017 – As December grew closer we started thinking about our next trip. We tossed around ideas like India, Bangladesh, or Borneo, but every time we talked about where to travel next, we kept coming back to West Africa….and so that’s exactly what we did.
Deciding on Africa was simple enough, but the really big question was where to begin? Visas are not always so easy to come by for the countries in this part of the world. Just like our previous trips, we needed an ‘in’ – a place to start. So we set our sights on Ghana: we could quite easily obtain the visa in Europe, catch cheap flights down, and get the visas we needed for the neighboring countries there.
Reading up on Ghana, we noticed a recurring theme: an English-speaking, stable and fairly prosperous democracy, boasting nice hotels, smooth roads, tourist amenities and built-up beaches, Ghana is popularly known as ‘Africa for Beginners’. We were concerned. Tourist amenities? Like what….bed sheets? Busses with only one or two passengers per seat? No imminent threat of a military coup? ‘What kind of a vacation is that??’ we asked ourselves.
But we needed to start somewhere, so we decided to start at the beginning.
Less than two months later, we climbed wearily out of a cab in a dark crumbling street in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. It was late at night and we were at the Sleepy Hippo hotel (first indication of a popular destination: there’s a place called the Sleepy Hippo, or similar). We got a dimly lit but comfortable little double room with an ensuite, although I think the owner is playing fast and loose with the term ensuite considering that the walls don’t go all the way up. Here’s Oyv, brushing his teeth:
We aren’t the first beginners here in Ghana, either. This whole country is actually an experiment in new beginnings: it was the first nation in Africa to obtain independence. The Portugese arrived in 1471 and named their landing point ‘Da Costa de el Mina de Ouro’ – or, the Coast of Gold Mines. They built a lot of fortresses which became centres not only for mining and shipping gold, but for the slave trade. Known as the Gold Coast, the region changed hands between European powers quite a few times before eventually ending up as a British colony in the 1890s. In 1957 in cooperation with England the Gold Coast achieved independence and the first elected president, Kwame Nkrumah, changed its name to Ghana.
After a good night’s rest at the Sleepy Hippo we got up early and set off for a walk around Accra.
It was Sunday and the streets were quiet: the churches on the other hand, were not. Everyone in Accra, it seemed, was in one church or another (and there are many) enthusiastically and loudly praising the Lord. According to survey Ghana is the most religious country in the world with 96% of its citizens declaring themselves religious, and around 60% of them are Christians. Whether we’re riding in a cab, lingering in an embassy waiting on a visa, doing a little shopping, or hanging out at a beer stand, there is bound to be someone listening to a sermon on the radio or blasting praise music from speakers parked out in front. Funerals are no small thing either – anybody who’s somebody should have at least five pastors presiding over their funeral. An expat we met at a hill station later in the week summed it up nicely: in Ghana, your funeral is the best day of your life.
On Monday, having visited the embassies of Burkina Faso and Togo in pursuit of our next visas we were ready to leave Accra and its general sprawling hot mess behind. Although the city – the entire country actually – is new to us, the bus station was a familiar sight. To the uninitiated visitor it might look like a total disaster, but there is order in the chaos.
We threaded our way through the heaving throng of hawkers, touts, vendors and potential passengers til we eventually found the tro-tro (mini bus) we wanted. We were bound for Ghana’s highest settlement, Amedzofe, situated in the hills at a rather less-than-lofty height of 750 metres. The directions we’d read had delightfully indicated we should take a tro-tro to Ho, and then another tro-tro to Hohoe. Entertaining names aside, we piled ourselves and our gear into the correct vehicle, waited for about an hour til it filled up with passengers, and off we went – but not before a vendor tried to sell us each a copy of a ‘storybook’ upliftingly entitled ‘The Result of Disobedience’.
Once free of the city’s unspeakable traffic, we zoomed down a fairly smooth road bristling with billboards, passing rusted overturned wreckages and troops of baboons. My favourite billboard, a biscuit advert, encouraged us to ‘Go the extra yard’. I can sympathise. In this kind of heat and humidity going the extra mile does seem daunting.
We checked into Mountain Paradise Lodge, a quiet retreat in the hills a few kilometers outside of Amedzofe. There’s a pretty garden and even a rickety weight bench.
This was good news for Øyv, whose arms have been drawing attention since we got here. It’s not every day the wait staff at lunch squeeze your biceps as you eat, after all.
At Moutain Paradise, there’s a big round pavillion perched right on the edge of a hill.
It offers stunning views out over the hills surrounding us on all sides. Or it would…but we’re travelling here during Harmattan. That’s not a religious festival. It’s a weather phenomenon where winds coming down from the Sahara carrying massive amounts of dust and sand can turn the sky a misty white and at times almost blot out the landscape. It’s still a good time of year to travel though, as temperatures – although more than hot enough for us – are moderate, the forests are still cool and green, and it doesn’t rain.
Comfortably settled, we caught a ride into the village to do some hiking. Our friendly and knowledgeable guide Daniel took us up the side of Mt. Gemi to the iron cross at the top. It was set there in 1839 by the German missionaries the moutain is named for – the German Evangelical Missionary Institute.
We carried on down a slippery descent into the leafy chill of the forest to Ote Falls, where we relaxed in the spray after the sticky heat of the climb.
Then we walked through the village passing groups of women doing laundry in the stream and kids fetching water, and all the way back to our lodge – despite persistent offers of a lift from friendly locals driving by.
After 17 kilometers of this we were wiped out – and glad of the cold showers and other tourist amenties available at our comfortable perch on the hillside. We ate big bowls of red-red – rice, onions and beans swimming in palm oil – and piles of fried plantains beside, all washed down with cold local beer.
This morning we sat around in the pavillion with our coffee and omelettes, looking out into the hills. The border with Togo is out there somewhere, less than 25 kilometers away. We’ll pack up and leave soon and find out what awaits us in this next land, but we know one or two things for sure: Togo is a poorer and less-developed country, and from now on we’ll be immersed in French. It’s been easy for us to travel, meet people, and talk with them here in English-speaking Ghana. Who knows, we just might miss these laid-back days in ‘Africa for Beginners’.