In the following story, you will not find neither tales of heroes and villains, nor fights with corrupted police, nor pictures of black kids with big eyes. Life is made of more ordinary moments; this not so brief reportage is all about them and the three full time African affairs experts who live them through: Franz, Walid and I.
The trip was designed to be a reinvigorating journey from Accra, on the coast, all the way up to the North, cruising the Volta Lake, the largest lake in the world, on a cargo ship/ferry: the legendary Yapei Queen
The ultimate goal was joining the elephants in the Mole National Park to check out if they really flap their ears like Dumbo.
The cargo moves her fat bum only once a week, on Monday at 3pm, and takes one day, sometimes two, to get to the northern shore of the lake. It takes off from Akosombo, a three hours bus drive from Accra. So we were left with no options. We had to wake up at dawn, jump on a bus to Akosombo as soon as possible, and catch that ferry.
But a dramatic emergency council took place in our base in Accra, first thing in the morning when woke up at 11am. We had underestimated the sleep deprivation produced by our funky week-end duties, which included being woken up on Sunday by the loudest Pentecostal Mass you can think of at 7:45am sharp.
With the logistic flexibility of a Viet-Cong, we re-adjusted the schedule:
- wake up when we feel like.
- going to the Rising Phoenix bar to have a beer and enjoy the view of the ocean
- get to Akosombo in the evening and sleep there.
- catch the Yapei Queen in its Kete-Krachi pit stop, the day after, in the afternoon
- find out how to arrive by road to Kete-Krachi from Akosombo.
- find out how to arrive by road to Kete-Krachi from Akosombo, in time.
STOP THAT BOAT
Off we went, rested and happy to Akosombo. We left Accra behind at 3ishpm; by 6pm we were due to arrive in Akosombo.
While, by 4:30pm, Walid had the idea of calling the Yapei Queen reservation man, and asked how were things going at the dock. The response was an encouraging “we are starting to move now”.
In many parts of the world, that would mean “the ferry is now moving, I see it becoming smaller and smaller. Screw you”.
In Africa, it often means hope for late-comers.
We kept calling every ten minutes; the boat kept leaving. Walid's reply was a defiant “we'll be there in 5 minutes, wait for us.”
Once off the bus, we still had a 15 minutes taxi ride to the port. It was already 5:30pm. On our way there, the lost of signals on our phone prevented us from reiterating our “5 minutes, wait for us” line. We lost faith. The last time we communicated with the reservation man, he told us “I will wait 5 minutes, not one minute more.” Instead, thanks to an incredible sprint, and by rolling our legs as fast as we could, we jumped on board at 6pm sharp. Only one hour before the ferry actually took off and started to become smaller and smaller at the eyes of the reservation man, God bless him.
FILM THAT BOAT
It was no time for celebration. Walid and I had a small assignment for a news agency: a package of pics and video about the transportation on the lake.
We immediately set up tripods, took out the cameras and started filming whatever the fading light of the sunset allowed us to film.
Our dedication to the work was not fully appreciated by the captain of the Yapei Queen. After twenty minutes of furious shooting, I was summoned to appear before him, in the control room.
I thought I would soon be pushed to the edge of a wooden boardwalk, tied hands, and eventually thrown to feed the tilapias in the lake. Instead, the captain just fumed a bit about him being da man, and you don't get into people's houses like this and so on.
Despite my kind explanation, I could see he was still pissed off.
That is why, the following morning I decided to fix the situation with a smooth move: bring four ice cold coke to the captain and his crew and tell “Hey man, you know what? We started with the wrong foot, please accept this humble gift in sign of reconciliation”.
Unsurprisingly he thought I was trying to bribe all of the top floor of the Yapei Queen with four small coke. Plus being Ramadan, it wasn't probably the best idea to offer him to drink, but after a bit, he kind of got my point.
Up to day, we don't really exchange daily messages on whatsapp, but at least we got green light to keep filming.
We spent two nights and one day on the ferry, a time long enough to squeeze in some work, drinking like pirates, smoking on top on the roof, and getting food poisoned with the local menu on board: banku, chicken and rice, fish and rice; that was it.
It was a pleasant time, especially for Franz, who drank half of the beer reserves on board and shouted unrepeatable insults to the poor German girls who happened to share the deck with us, whose only fault was to be slightly more organised than us with their endless supplies of crackers and fresh fruit.
Thing started to get rough from the second night. We arrived later than expected, around 10pm, when it was too dark and desolated in the sleepy village of Yeji to look for a place to stay. Plus, the following morning at 6 am, we were supposed to take a fisherman boat to cross to the other shore of the lake and jump on mini-buses.
So we just launched the Occupy Yapei Queen movement and stayed there. But after one day of cruising, the bloody hot engine underneath our deck turned the floor where we were supposed to sleep into a little baking surface. Not that you could fry eggs on it, but it wasn't pleasant.
Plus, we probably happened to be in the flies' mating season. As soon as we approached the land, approximately 65-66 billions of them took over the ferry.
To be fair, it was sufficient just to turn off any source of lights to get rid of them, but that prevented me from the pleasure of reading a book, writing a poem, practising a bit of sculpture, or engaging in any other activity that could distract me from the hunger that was still hunting me despite my food poisoned stomach.
I found some comfort when I realised that one of the cabin with two beds and a sink (the 1st class, baby) was left open after a couple of annoying Catalans left it in search of a hotel during the pitch black night. I jumped on it and my joy doubled when I found on the floor a half eaten, but still wrapped, loaf of so called tea-bread, which is basically sweet bread.
That helped me a bit on the hunger side of the struggle. Unfortunately, the cabin was airless so I joined the rest of the Occupiers on the deck and I comfortably sit on a bench, incapable of falling asleep till 3am for unknown reasons.
ON THE ROAD
After two hours of beauty sleep, we got all woken up by the powerful horn of the Yapei Queen, which was signalling his intention to go back South. We dismantled the Occupy operation, enjoyed the sunrise, bought more fresh tea bread, filmed a little family of pigs roaming around the beach for their morning jogging, and then jumped on board of the 6am fisherman boat.
I still don't understand why we didn't sink, considering how many people were squeezed inside there, but that looked absolutely normal to everybody.
It was a charming, ghostly cruising, with a misty morning air, and leafless trees emerging from the water; the wooden reminder of the artificial nature of the lake, created by a dam only in the early '60s to realise a huge hydroelectric power station.
After 20 minutes or so, we arrived to the other shore, in Makongo, and we found an iron reminder of a mini van. In Ghana they are called tro-tro, and they are the cheapest and most common form of transportation available.
Every mini-van can be turned into a tro-tro, but it needs to be at least 20 years old, its bodywork must be full of bumps, and the more pro-Jesus writings the better.
We didn't know it yet, but that day we were about to test nearly all the types of Ghanaian tro-tros and terrains on our trip to the Mole National Park. It was a good 8 hours drive ahead and we were firmly determined to do it in one go. We had enough tea bread to make it.
We were just skeptical about the chances of our tro-tro to make it. It was probably a bottom range one, also for the standard of Makongo. The europeans on board with us were excited about the exoticism of it all; the young Ghanaian man next to me was just fed up and kept tapping on his clothes to dust himself out like a cow-boy in a spaghetti western movie.
I would have done the same, but I didn't have enough room to move my arms. I only managed to flap my ears like an elephant in a symbolic attempt to increase the air circulation.
Against our skepticism, the tro-tro brought us to the village of Salaga, where we upgraded to another tro-tro with numbered seats and rainwater dropping inside. The white people around me at that stage gradually stopped finding everything exotically amusing and joined the sentiment of my previous dusted out travel companion.
I personally didn't mind it. Being a well-travelled man with 2 hours sleep in my pocket and, by that point, around 2 kg of tea bread in my stomach, I just slept all the way through the 3-4 hours trip to the city of Tamale.
Once there, we got shocked again by the African punctuality. We were hoping to wait for a couple of hours, just to get some food, stretch whatever was left of our legs, these sort of things. Instead, we arrived just in time for the departure of the last tro-tro of the day toward the Mole National Park. Little time to argue about the price - which Walid found of course unacceptable, because in Ouagadougou things are much cheaper - and off we went for another 3 hours trip.
This time the tro-tro was first class, I have to say. We even had a small lcd screen inside showing an evangelical preacher who explained that 50 Cent and Britney Spears are the gateways to Satan. I wouldn't put it exactly in these terms, but I can't say I disagree.
Eventually, around 6pm, we arrived in the village of Larabanga, at only 5 km from the park. Sadly, that was our last tro-tro of the day. It was then time for a tuc-tuc.
A tuc-tuc is a sort of 3 wheels scooter with a little cart attached that can fit between 5 and 150 hundred people, depending on how much you pay the driver.
At that point, I got worried for Walid when I saw him accepting with no resistance the outrageous price charged us by the Larabanga welcoming team. With that money, we would have done a sightseeing tour of Accra by cab, but that was it. We were tired like hell, Walid was dead, and we also finished the tea bread supplies.
There was no time to waste. Bring us there!
Few minutes after, the entrance of the Mole National Park loomed before our eyes. For me that was gonna be my first safari. While transported by the tuc-tuc, I couldn't help perceiving a bit of a Jurassic Park feeling as we started seeing baboons, warthogs (the farting animal of The Lion King), and other forms of unknown monkeys.
We looked so shit that the animals were throwing bananas and chocolate at us.
That was it. Our grande marche from Accra was completed. The dorm rooms we found were clean and well kept, the reception was kind and efficient, and the swimming pool was a swimming pool. Franz and I - who had not showered for two days, and also give up brushing our teeth in solidarity with our nauseating underarms - dived into the water like kids who enter the sea for the first bath of the summer season.
For dinner, the restaurant boasted a menu with plenty of options: grilled or roasted chickens, guinea fowls, tilapias, vegetable soups, green pepper steaks.
Being the self-proclaimed nutritionist of the group I immediately took control of the orders and requested three grilled tilapias - elephant-size if possible - french fries, fried yam, and three vegetable soups.
AN AFRICAN DRAMA
What happened after is a story of deception and broken feelings. We got three minuscule tilapias. Walid's one was actually half-missing (lost in the process, the waiter would later inform us). While the soup was nothing more than a chopped onion thrown into over-salty murky waters.
Even the fries were shockingly bad: they were just empty carcasses with some yellowish paste inside.
I won't bore you further with details about the cuisine, but it was an interesting experience: a big restaurant, with a 150 people seating capacity (so approximately one tuc-tuc load), in one of the most touristic spot of the most touristic country of West Africa. And the chief was somebody who clearly hated his job, didn't have any idea of how to do it and only 4 or 5 dishes out of the 30 you could read in the menu were available.
For two days, we battled with one delusion after the other. Our best choice turned out to be a chicken skewers with white rice. Had the chief stopped cooking the chicken 15-20 minutes before, it would have not been that bad and dry.
Unfortunately, we were not granted access to compliment the chief and give him/her our feedbacks.
Anyway, we were not there for the food. The first morning safari started at 7, so the first night we went to bed early and slept all the way through till 8, just not to look too anxious to see the animals. Walid stayed in bed till 10, something unprecedented in the life of the Mole National Park.
Franz and I went to the restaurant and enjoyed the breakfast, by far the best meal of the day, which was made even more pleasant by the kind visit of a healthy young man elephant. Maybe he misunderstood some conversation about the quality of the restaurant and came down to check things out, but it didn't take him long to realise that asking for a menu would be a waste of time and started eating from a little tree next to us.
He carried on till the gardener, who planted and nurtured the tree for years, threw a plough to it. The elephant trotted away on his tip-toes.
Judging by how he was flapping his ears, you could see he was legitimately disappointed with the service.
We spent the rest of the time at the Park recovering, chilling, watching from the viewpoint the elephants bathing in a pond, and doing a couple of safari which were not so Jurassic Park-like after all.
Many more things happened, but all you need to know, or rather all I have still the strength to write is, that we didn't beat up the chief; we came back by plane (Tamale-Accra £26, incredibly cheap and reliable, but less fun); and I am still recovering from all this.