Monday, 10 December 2012

Rastas

Kokrobite beach
Arriving from the calm of Barbara’s Village, Big Milly’s was a jolt to the senses. The drumming workshop could be heard before we entered the gates: no surprise, considering the large group of rastas banging away, surrounded by a crowd of white backpackers all playing at being a rasta. Dreadlocks, tie-die t-shirts and fisherman’s pants: the familiar uniform of the gap year student.     

The courtyard was overflowing with market stalls and sellers, people walking through to the beach, and 4x4s – evidence of its glowing reputation among expats. As we were shown to the reception, we passed a big screen showing the English Premier League. A big cheer went up as Man Utd scored a last-minute winner against City – I was beginning to think that Big Milly’s wasn’t my kind of place. 

Lobsters
Amid all the commotion, Hannah and I did what all sensible creatures do – we hid. Our small room in the gardens, set back from the action, had two chairs and a table outside, so we sat and read our books. I felt a little middle-aged for not embracing the vibe and whipping out the bongos, but I would have stood out like Prince Charles at a rave.

A stall at Big Milly's
As dusk fell, though, the weekend crowds drifted away and the attraction of the award-winning resort became clear. A terrace bar overlooks the beach, where the souvenirs stall owners were packing up while the fishermen tidied up their nets for the day. Peace descended, and as the candles lit up the resort’s restaurant, Big Milly’s assumed a renewed charm. It may not have been the ‘love at first sight’ that many reviews insist is unavoidable, but the place was growing on me.

The restaurant
The attraction became yet stronger that night when Hannah called from the outdoor shower: a large fruit bat, eating a banana just behind our hut. We watched her feast until she flew off into the night.

Early Monday morning, Kokrobite beach looked similar to any other fishing resort along Ghana’s coast, a gentle hum of activity as people began their days. I walked down to the water, which was remarkably free of litter for such a popular beach. I made my way to the rocks further on – despite being 35, I still can’t resist looking for crabs in rock pools.

Sunset
A man squatted on the rocks above me. I waved, and was surprised when he frowned at me; not a typically Ghanaian response. At that point I realised this part of the beach doubled as the al fresco toilet. I left him to it and headed for breakfast (after washing my hands very thoroughly).

While Big Milly’s dominates the beach scene in Kokrobite, there is a village just behind. That afternoon, we wandered up the steep track to explore. Tourism has certainly made its mark: every other building was a restaurant or guesthouse, in varying states of repair and completion, but they are all overshadowed by the glitz of the star attraction.

Thirsty in the afternoon heat, we called in at a small shack. The overpowering scent of dope should have warned us what to expect: a rasta bar, and we were the only ones without the ubiquitous dreads-and-vest look. The smiling owner took our drink orders, and a man wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt and smoking a massive joint stumbled over.

“Hi”, he drawled, sitting next to us. “I am the King of Tanzania, but have left my kingdom to see more of my homeland, Africaaah!”

I smiled and nodded awkwardly, the standard British response in such situations. By the time we had finished, he was asleep in the corner, joint still smoking away. It was a fitting image to take away from Kokrobite. 

Football on the beach

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Langma

Hannah birdwatching
After a fraught couple of days battling to get our passports back from the Ghana immigration office, Hannah and I needed some peace and quiet. And few places around Accra are quieter or more peaceful than Barbara’s Village, tucked away behind Langma beach. 

The ‘village’ is a circle of huts and stilt rooms modelled on Nzulezo village in western Ghana. On arrival, the resort was deserted apart from the eponymous Barbara and Moses, the barman/manager/handyman. The beach resorts in Langma probably lose many potential customers to the bright lights of Kokrobite, chiefly Big Milly’s, which are nearer Accra and better known. Barbara’s village also sits away from the beach, which is likely to put some off. But others’ loss was our gain; we dropped our bags in our hut and headed for the empty chairs around the bar.

Some sort of cactus
One of the many attributes of Barbara’s Village is the garden. The circular bar is surrounded by overhanging trees and an array of brightly coloured flowers and shrubs. These in turn attract the birds and I got out the binoculars to watch the weavers, shrikes and sparrows going about their business. Hannah joined in for once. “There’s a red one over there,” she nodded, barely looking up from her book as a Barbary shrike bounced about beneath the trees.

A barbary shrike

People head to the beaches around Accra to escape the city and enjoy some nature. So you cannot then complain if nature then surrounds you. But there are limits, even for ardent nature lovers like myself. The grass roofs of the huts match the traditional style for this part of Africa, but they also provide an ideal residence for mice. And the ones in our roof seemed to be indulging in a Led Zeppelin-style orgy, given the amount of banging and squeaking that went on.

A bronze mannekin

The rodents continued into the early hours, so with little chance of sleep I got up at dawn. The resort was louder at 6.00am than in the afternoon, with the birdlife in full song. I sat and watched the morning routines, as sparrows and bronze mannekins tended their nests in the rafters of the bar, and weavers flew across with more grass for their nests.

One of the legacies of the many foreign-owned beach bars along Ghana’s coast is the spread of proper coffee, in place of the filth that is Nescafe instant. When Moses appeared, I ordered a pot with which to enjoy the early morning activity. Barbara’s might be too quiet for some, but at that hour, it was perfect.

The bar

* Don't let the mice put you off visiting Barbara's Village. They have, according to Moses, been "dealt with".

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Aburi


Murder
Situated in the breezy Akapwem hills, Aburi is a popular day trip from Accra – an increasingly easy trip as the road-building project at Madina reaches its conclusion. And the usual target is the botanical gardens.

The gardens were created by the British in 1890, who decided the best thing to do was chop down all the native plants and put in foreign ones. I travelled there with Guy, a colleague visiting from the UK. Our first encounter with nature was a little unexpected. A luminous green spider scurried across the path where it was soon chased down by some ants. The battle was swift and ruthless; the ants quickly ripped a leg off, then overpowered the unfortunate arachnid and dragged him away to meet his fate. It was a gruesome sight so early on a Sunday morning; I loved it.

Strangler Fig
The garden’s star aboreal attraction is the Strangler Fig tree. This is a parasite that, over a period of 30 years, fed off its host tree and eventually killed it. The dead tree rotted away, leaving the Ficus standing with a hollow trunk where the host once was. For botanists, it’s a fascinating specimen that demonstrates parasitism. For everyone else, it’s a chance to stand inside a tree and stick your head out of the little holes.

A butterfly (somewhere)
But Guy was here for the butterflies, not trees. And the botanical gardens are full of them, so he spent an hour chasing them about, trying to get good photos with which to identify them later. This quickly wore us out and we headed to the restaurant for a drink and a snack. We enjoyed kelewele (spicy fried plantain) and yam chips (yams cut into chips). A bee-eater and a pied hornbill flew past as we ate; I was proud that my new birdwatching skills enabled quick identification without flapping through the field guide.

A flower (a red one)
A student from Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew founded these gardens, but they bear little resemblance to their neatly organised UK cousin. From the restaurant, a steep path led into what was nominally the citrus section, but essentially an overgrown jungle. An army of soldier ants paraded in line along the path. I gave them a wide berth, having already seen what they were capable of.

Guy enjoyed the multitude of butterflies in the forest, while I simply appreciated being out of Accra – one of Aburi’s key selling points. Eventually the mosquitoes drove us back to the main gardens and as it was approaching midday, the gardens were filling with picnicking families and noisy church groups. Another key tip to enjoying Aburi – arrive early.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Cabbages and cannabis


Yasao
Walking in the hills around Accra is an opportunity to get some fresh air, enjoy some exercise, maybe see a bit of nature. And of course a chance to get high.

Having battled with the ants to climb two of the four hills around Nsawam, a large group of Ghana Mountaineers returned to see what the other two were like. The Kevin-made route led us steeply uphill through farms, thick undergrowth, a short and slippery rock climb … and right into a clearing full of small cannabis plants.

Climbing
Anyone familiar with the ‘The Beach’ will understand our sense of unease. Discovering secret cannabis farms in the tropics is not always a good thing…would armed guards burst out of the bushes and gun us down? Fortunately this is Ghana, not Thailand, and the only farmer nearby simply smiled, waved and pointed us in the right direction to get down.

Breakfast
As the temperature began to reach its ludicrous midday pinnacle, we were grateful for the relative simplicity of the second climb of the day - Bomofore.* We soon reached its breezy summit. No illegal activity here, just a convenient rocky perch for breakfast, with impressive views of the three other tops. Yasao, the first peak we climbed in the area; Mamidi, with its ferocious ants; and the rasta’s favourite Botosure just to the west.

The fire tree
Below, a clear path led back through farms to where our cars were parked. After walking past a striking, bright-red fire tree, then navigating the edge of a quarry, we headed along the track, thankful for the shade provided by the trees.

Cabbages
On the way, Lucy, Alice and Vivienne greeted a farmer and were rewarded with some organically grown cabbages. It was a typically generous Ghanaian gesture; a poor villager only too pleased to share his produce with strangers (who insisted on paying). 

As no one had thought to be so friendly to the cannabis farmer, we had to make do with beer instead, and quickly made our way to Nsawam in search of a spot to quench our thirst.

 
* This is what I think they were called when I asked a man in the village. Severe heatstroke may have affected my memory.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Rice


Compared to its neighbours, Ghana gets good press. It’s widely praised for its solid economic growth, stable democracy and rapidly developing infrastructure. As Barack Obama said on his recent visit, ‘Ghana continues to be a good-news story’.

Rice
Living in the capital, and sticking mainly to the well-polished tourist trails, it’s easy to get an overwhelmingly positive view of this friendly country. But delve a little deeper and the familiar African themes of poverty, injustice and inequality persist.

Land acquisitions in Africa have rightly attracted considerable controversy. In many countries, land is taken away from local people and sold or leased to investors from rich countries who speculate on it on global markets; or to foreign companies who use African land to grow food for their own populations, or even biofuels for their cars.

Prairie Volta Rice Ltd.
I travelled to Mafi Dove district, on the south side of the Volta River, to research an article about a large land acquisition project for rice production. Quaysie, a friend who comes from the Volta region, offered to drive and translate from Ewe, the local language.

Prairie Volta Rice Ltd, the US-backed company behind the project, leases around 3,000 hectares near the river, which is used to irrigate the rice. But I had read that the crop is not for exporting; rather, it is for sale on the local market, in an effort to reduce the country’s massive dependence on imports (which cost around $450million a year). This sounds more positive than schemes; I tried to keep an open mind as we arrived at their office and processing plant in Aveyime.

Richard, the manager showed us around and openly talked about the controversial start to the project. The company rents the land from the Ghanaian government, who ‘acquired’ the land in the 1970s without paying local landowners any compensation – still a source of much anger in the villages surrounding the rice farm.

The company’s position is that compensation is not their responsibility; Richard was keen to talk instead about how they were donating computers and equipment to nearby schools and hospitals. And how they were employing local people and providing farming machinery for local use at reduced rates. Maybe this land scheme was being done differently; it was hard not to be impressed.

Quaysie with the rice farmers
Until we met the rice farmers who work for the company: they told a very different story. No pay for two months. No fuel to power the shiny tractors that stood idle in the fields. I asked them about the donations made to local schools and hospitals: “That is a lie. It is not happening.”

They suggested we went to meet the land-owning villagers, so we drove along the dirt road to the village of Bakpa-Kebenu. As we pulled up, I was surprised to see the villagers all sat in a circle on plastic chairs. 

“Do they always sit about like this?” I asked Quaysie.
“No, the farmers called ahead that we were coming,” he replied. “They have called a village meeting.”

Mobile phones really do reach every corner of the continent; I blushed at my patronising ignorance.

Village meeting
With Quaysie translating, the village chief told me the catalogue of woes his people have endured. There has been government corruption – only those who voted for the incumbent party got compensation for their land; the rest got nothing. Many subsistence farmers from his village have had their crops damaged by the chemicals the company sprays by plane on the rice fields. And they have little way of fighting back. “When the government is involved, who do we complain to?”
 
We spent half an hour in the village, listening to their stories and the way they had been treated. The circle of faces all focused on me, unsmiling, almost accusing. And as I got up to say goodbye, the chief asked: what would I do to help? I apologetically promised to deliver copies of the magazine when the article was published, knowing it would have little if any impact.

But as we left, the stern expressions gave way instantly to warm smiles, waves and an insistence on photos with the chief and the elders. Despite the hardships faced and my nosing about, looking for a story rather than a way to help, the people were as friendly as Ghanaians always are to strangers.

Meeting the chief
Having chased some stray chickens out from under the car, we set off along the road once more. We passed the rice farmers again, still sat with nothing to do. Alongside them sat the armed soldier who spends each day with there, chatting and smoking. He’s there to make sure no one steals the rice from the fields – a clear example of the warped priorities of the rice company. As one of the farmers said: “They pay him to guard the rice; why can’t they just pay us for our land?”

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Boti Falls


Campaigning in Koforidua
Some itches just need to be scratched. The Ghana Mountaineers' first river hike was fun, but a thunderstorm prevented us making it all the way from Akaa Falls to Boti Falls. This was a wrong that needed righting; we set off once more on the road to Koforidua.

Street marches are a common sight in Ghana at present, as people pledge allegiance to one party or another ahead of December’s election. They are noisy, colourful spectacles and are a welcome sign of the country’s stable democracy: there are few countries in this part of the world where opposing supporters could march peacefully in the same town. But when you are trying to make progress, they are a pain; having been delayed, we opted to start halfway through the previous route and head straight for the River Pom-pom.
Stephen in the water

After dropping quickly to the riverside, it became clear who was here last time. Those in the know pulled sandals or trainers from backpacks; the rest stared at the water. “Do we actually walk in the river?” Did you not see the pictures from last time, people? Yes, in the river. And for quite a long way.

And so we recommenced with the fun and games: slipping on rocks; watching butterflies; juggling to prevent cameras falling into the murky water; and trying not to think about all the water-borne tropical diseases that fill the health section of the Bradt guide to Ghana.

A snake
We ploughed on past our escape point from the last walk, certain that the falls must be somewhere up ahead but unsure exactly how far. In a deeper section of the river, Elena spotted a snake curled around a branch overhead. After some careful backpack shuffling, I managed to take a picture. Waist-deep in water, with a snake less than a metre above me – surely my most adventurous photo yet in Ghana.

After 2.5 hours of wading, and with wet shorts chafing and exposed ankles bruised by the rocks, the novelty had nearly worn off. Maybe those absent mountaineers with “prior engagements” had been right all along – where’s the fun in river hiking? And then we saw it through the trees – the twin drops of Boti Falls, crashing down ahead.  

We sped along the final few metres – past the rubbish dump that is obligatory at every beauty spot in Ghana – to reach our destination. Despite being soaked already, the cold water in the falls’ plunge pool was a welcome respite from the midday heat. Over two attempts, we had coped with thunderstorms, drunk guides, local kids latching onto us, ripped toenails, myriad cuts, bangs and bruises, and even snakes;* ours was surely the most well-earned dip ever in Boti Falls.

Done it!
* O.K., maybe just one snake. But there could have been others.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Kingfishers

Malachite kingfisher
It’s tough being a pied kingfisher in Ghana. These striking black and white birds were the first sighting on our morning bird walk. But the ten or so perched proudly on a wooden frame were quickly usurped by a showier relative. A burst of brilliant blue, with a flash of bright orange from its beak: a malachite kingfisher, darting across the water, quickly drew the focus of cameras and binoculars.

Sorting the morning catch
Samuel and David, our guides from Birdlife International and the Ghana Wildlife Society respectively, had arranged permission to explore the private grounds of Pambros salt ponds, in Accra’s western suburbs. Security was still tight, though, leading to the unusual sight of a birdwatching group having an armed guard.

Even this failed to perturb the women who were sorting and gutting fish caught in the salt ponds. They smiled as we walked past, with the familiar Ghanaian expression of amusement at what these foreigners think passes for fun at 7.00am on a Saturday.

As we headed slowly along the path, discussions typical of a birdwatching group took place. A debate on the different Dutch and English names for the whimbrel; a bit of lens-envy at some of the impressive camera equipment on show; a discussion of whether that hornbill was actually a cormorant.
Fishing on the delta

The salt ponds have undoubtedly changed the landscape here, with vast areas of the wetland bordered off and cleared of vegetation. But this has apparently had little impact on the populations or diversity of birds. Behind the salt ponds lies the Densu Delta, which enters the sea near Bojo Beach, and this provides a rich source of food and shelter.

The day’s tick-list filled quickly as we neared the end of the path. Reef herons sat in the delta bushes, while cormorants dried their wings in the sun. Black-winged stilts waded gracefully through the shallow water, fishing alongside sandpipers and redshanks. And on the sandbank just before us, the pied kingfishers dived back and forth, hoping to finally get their moment of glory.

Pambros salt ponds

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Bats

Wildlife lovers visiting Ghana are likely to head for the elephants at Mole, one of the monkey sanctuaries, or perhaps along the coast to try and spot a turtle. But every night, an amazing natural spectacle takes place right in the centre of Accra. And most people, locals and visitors alike, are oblivious to it.
Bats

Actually, scratch that; most people must be simply indifferent. The traders selling snacks at the ‘37’ military hospital cannot fail to notice the straw-coloured fruit bats roosting in the trees above them. The animals’ chattering is loud enough to drown out the traffic at this busy intersection. And at 6.00pm every evening, as the sun sets, they fly off in their thousands to feed in the fruit trees north of the city.

Bats at sunset (you can just make them out)
The question is: why do they live along one of Accra’s noisiest, most polluted roads, and not among the trees where they feed each night? I asked a woman selling fruit outside the hospital gates. 

She told me that the bats were the chosen guards of a great Akyem chief from the Eastern region. When he fell ill and was taken to the hospital, these loyal guards followed him there. Alas, the poor chap didn’t make it, so never left the hospital – and the bats have remained at ‘37’ ever since.

Now there are clearly a few flaws in this story. Firstly, if he really was a ‘great chief’, then why did he choose bats as his guards? And if these bats were clever enough to be guards, then would one of them not have worked out what had happened and broken it gently to the others?

Roosting bats
Still, the Lonely Planet says it’s important to respect other people’s beliefs, so I smiled, nodded and left her to her business. She seemed neither bothered nor interested in the bats. And although there have been some efforts to remove them, most people seem happy to let them be.

But I know at least one other person who appreciates them: for Ethan, the 4-year-old son of two friends in Accra, bats overhead means “it’s time for bed”. Swap ‘bed’ for ‘beer’ and I am with him; the Accra bats provide a spectacular reminder to clock off for the day. 

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Birds

Legon botanical gardens
In a city with few green spaces, the University of Legon’s botanical gardens are a haven for those needing some fresh air. Wandering around the disorganised collection of trees and shrubs quickly takes you away from the noise and fumes of Accra’s busy streets. On any given weekend, you will find many of the city’s dog walkers and joggers treading the brick-red paths, and students reading quietly underneath trees. 

The gardens also attract much of the city’s wildlife, particularly the avian kind. And so at 7.00am I took a taxi to the northern end of the campus to join the birdwatching walk run by BirdlifeInternational and the GhanaWildlife Society.

A shikra
Confession time: I am something of a reluctant birdwatcher. Despite being a nature lover, I always considered watching tiny specks in the distance and making notes on them a rather geeky pastime, only one or two steps up from trainspotting. But before we moved to Ghana, a friend from TCV told me about the diversity of birds in West Africa (he had lived in Nigeria) and recommended a good field guide.

And I have become hooked. Sort of. I don’t take notes or make lists: no recording of the overhead conditions, or numbers of males and females. I am also a bit of snob. I have no interest in all the little brown ones, or pigeons or crows – I can see them back in the UK. Luckily Ghana many brightly coloured species with suitably tropical names; more than enough to occupy a fledgling twitcher.

Samuel, the walk leader, set us off at a lazy pace. Within a few steps we had found our first specimens: a couple of grey hornbills calling to each other. I had seen them before hopping between the trees in Accra, but this was a chance to admire them more closely. We stopped to watch their routine, some in the group taking notes, others photos.

A grey hornbill
Further along we saw green wood hoopoes, two handsome shikras, glossy purple starlings and a blue-bellied roller – brightly coloured, easy to spot and exotic-sounding, so instantly one of my favourites. I was impressed by the number of different species Samuel was picking out – far more than I had managed on my solo efforts here.

While he set up the telescope – or ‘scope’ to us birdwatchers (I was learning the lingo fast) – a bird moved through the trees further away. “Tim, can you have a look at what that was?”

The pressure was on – would my identification skills pass the test? I could sense a dozen pencils poised, waiting for my expert opinion. Sweat dribbled into my eyes, and the binoculars (or ‘bins’) trembled as my fingers fumbled on the focus.

“Er, I think it was another hornbill” I said, trying to sound authoritative.
“Great, thanks, mark that one down.”

Relief; I had passed the test. (I think the sage nodding of the head helped to convince people I was an old hand.)

A cattle egret
The highlight of the walk near the pond on the northern edge of the park. I already knew this place well for its large colony of cattle egrets, noisy white birds that nest in the trees, and whose toxic droppings make area fairly pungent. But ‘Uncle’, a senior member of the group, had spotted something far more exotic – a yellow-fronted tinkerbird, high up in the tree.

We took turns looking through the lens at this beautiful little creature, while Uncle smiled proudly at our admiration. I asked him how he had spotted such a small bird, so high up. “I heard its call, and knowing they like to sit high up, I managed to find it,” he replied.

His skills put my clumsy, ‘play it safe’ guess at a hornbill into perspective; I have a long way to go as a birdwatcher. Luckily the botanical gardens provide the perfect training ground.

Photos by Rene Mayorga