There was a crunch, then the impact jolted me into the back of the seat in front. Paul, with faster reactions, braced himself as the coach slid forward on the greasy tarmac, stopping with its front wheel in the mud at the side of the road. In the growing gloom of the storm, the truck following behind clipped the rear bumper of the coach. Just the latest in the list of disasters that had beset our journey, and we hadn't even reached Kumasi, the half-way point yet.
We were travelling from Accra to Tamale, then onwards to Mole National Park to celebrate my birthday and see the elephants. It was Paul's first experience of Africa, and we'd planned it perfectly; 12 hours to Tamale, arriving in time for supper before bed, then the shorter trip to Mole the next morning. By the following afternoon, we'd be sitting by the pool with a couple of bottles of Star beer, looking forward to our safari.
Arriving early at the bus station, we queued for tickets for the 7am bus, but these had sold out yesterday. Places were available on the 9am bus, we were told, but the tickets couldn't be sold until 8am. Not a problem, we'd plan the later stages of our trip over a fried egg sandwich and beaker of milky-sweet Lipton tea from the street vendor outside, and watch the coming and going of other travellers.
Back in the queue, it was nearly 8.30 when we spoke to the ticket officer again. A delay, come back in an hour, she waved us away; once, twice. Paul, who thrives on order and punctuality, was a seething ball of rage by 11.45, when we were beckoned forward to buy tickets, then hustled past the scales to weigh our rucksacks and load them into the coach. With the bus crammed to sweaty capacity, and blaring out a Nollywood movie, it finally left the station a few minutes shy of noon.
And now at the roadside, as we watched the drivers of the vehicles argue, a flash of lightning sent passengers scurrying into doorways. I joined a group of women crushed into a tin-roofed shelter just as the heavens opened. We smiled to each other, but conversations were frustrated by the language barrier, then drowned out by the hammering rain and rolling thunder. I wiggled my fingers and grinned at a toddler in one woman's arms; he stared wide-eyed in horror, then shrieked as lightning ripped across the sky. The women dissolved in fits of laughter, and another little one was pressed in my arms to be terrified by my blue eyes and red hair.
The truck driver agreed to pull the bus back onto the road to continue our journey. Whilst we'd waited, passengers had taken advantage of the end of the day's trading at the nearby market to stock up on provisions. Paul and I clambered over bundles of firewood, sacks of yams and bunches of plantains that filled the aisle, muttering apologies, to get back to our seats. Wedged into our corner, we were off again.
An hour or so later the bus rolled into Kumasi, where the coach dropped the passengers at the bus station and went for repairs. While we waited, I chatted to some of the other passengers. William had just returned from studying in the UK, and the torrential rain reminded him of Bristol. He pointed out a man in military fatigues, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, the magazines taped back-to-back. I'd spotted him on the bus, but not the weapon, and presumed he'd been heading home on leave or returning to base. However, armed guards had been escorting buses on the route after several attempted armed robberies. But William was optimistic, a robber had been shot recently, and there had been no reported attempts since.
We were much less at ease for the next leg of the journey, especially as we would now be driving through the night. However, tiredness and the motion of the bus eventually got the better of me. I woke, cramped and sore in my seat, as the morning sun started to light up the sky. Thatch-roofed huts gave way to urban blocks. The morning call to prayer buzzed from loudspeakers on the mosque next to the bus station. We finally reached our destination, over 18 hours after starting, just in time to join the queue for our next set of bus tickets. TIA: This is Africa.