Lazing in paradise for a couple of weeks is all very well if you can switch your brain off, kick back and do nothing without going stir crazy. I've never been very good at relaxing on the beach, though; there's a constant danger of me becoming bored, and being bored is the worst affliction I can think of outside of being employed, so when Lukas started planning an overnight trip along the coast with Susie, a friendly German girl whom I'd met in Kumasi and who turned up at Big Milly's for the festive season, I was all ears.
Unfortunately, planning when you're lazing is a challenging process and procrastination is the order of the day, so it was no surprise to find ourselves sitting round after breakfast on Saturday, 28 December, totally unable to decide on what we should do. The broad plan was to head west along the coast to the town of Cape Coast, from where we could take a bus north to Kakum National Park, home to Ghana's biggest remaining tract of tropical rainforest. The problem was deciding when to go, and it was only the fact that Susie had to visit somewhere else on Monday that persuaded us to get off our backsides and head out that very day.
Ideally, when trying to get around West Africa, it's a good idea to leave early in the morning; because it gets so hot in the middle of the day, things tend to slow down a bit as the day wears on, and catching transport is slightly harder. Still, after over a week of inactivity I figured that any movement was a good idea, so I booked out of Big Milly's for the night, shoved some essentials in my daypack, and met up with the other two at Kokrobite tro-tro station at one o'clock, ready to head back into the reality of Ghana.
Ghanaian transport falls into three categories: taxis, big buses, and tro-tros, the latter encapsulating everything that isn't a taxi or a big bus, from minibuses to the kinds of back-breaking nightmares that I grew to loathe in Mali. Catching a tro-tro from Kokrobite to the main coastal road was no problem, but standing by the side of the road, yelling 'Cape Coast' at every passing tro-tro, yielded nothing but shakes of the head; I don't know whether it was because we were too late in the day, or whether tro-tros that go that far along the coast are few and far between or always full, but we ended up having to take one tro-tro to a halfway point which didn't appear on any of my maps, and then another one to Cape Coast. I'd been dreading this decision; in Mali and Senegal, things always went horribly wrong when I had to break my journeys up, as sitting round waiting for buses to fill in the Sahel is one of the staple occupations of the public transport traveller, but to my delight Ghana proved to be far more suited to the policy of leaving when full.
For a start, once we'd given up looking for direct tro-tros to Cape Coast, we simply hopped on the next one that came along, which took a wait of five minutes. Once that bus dropped us off in wherever-it-was and we found our way to the tro-tro park for Cape Coast, it was only another ten minutes before the next one came along and filled up, and we were off within a few minutes. This was too easy; indeed, the only irritation was the way everyone rushed at the tro-tro in one huge crush when it pulled in, necessitating scrum tactics I didn't have to use in the Sahel. Sure, our late departure meant that we arrived in Cape Coast after the last tro-tro to Kakum had departed, but taxis in Ghana are relatively cheap, so we simply took one straight to Abrafo, the little village that lies 1km outside the park gates.
Incredibly we'd gone from dithering round the late-morning breakfast table to supper in Kakum, and it hadn't been a strain. Even the tro-tros had been relatively comfortable; OK, you still have to wedge yourself in, but compared to the wooden benches of the north, it's child's play. It's no wonder they call Ghana a perfect introduction to Africa; if getting round is always this much easier than in the Sahel, I'm in for a treat.
A Walk in the Park
The tourist rest house in which we found ourselves was, I presume, rather pleasant, but as we arrived after dark and the rest house had no electricity (it had light switches, yes, but no lights), I couldn't really tell. There was, however, a little girl whose business sense was truly staggering to behold, and as she showed us to our room and explained the dinner and drink options, I found myself once again thinking just how wonderful it is to be able to talk to the Ghanaians, not only because English is the official language, but because they are such delightful people. Her charm worked; we decided to eat there and then, and settled down outside in the flicker of a kerosene lantern.
Here we met Ama, a Canadian aid worker who was also here to explore the park, and sitting next to her was a guide from the park itself. We'd been recommended to do an early morning walk through the forest to beat the rush of tourists; Kakum is open from 8am, but by prior arrangement you can enter the park earlier in the company of a guide, and that's supposed to be the best time to search for animals. All four of us wanted to do such a walk, and our guide explained that a two-hour walk would be best; this would give us enough time to track down some wildlife, and afterwards we could head off to the park's world-famous canopy walkway for sunrise. This all sounded excellent.
Or it did until we sat down to work out the logistics. If we wanted to be at the walkway for 6am, then we'd have to start walking at 4am, which meant leaving the rest house at 3.30am, which would mean getting up at about 3.15am. As this was the kind of time I'd been going to bed since slipping into the hedonism of Kokrobite I was a little nervous that I'd end up getting no sleep at all, but you don't trek along the coast just to sleep through the experience, so we went for it. A 3.15am wake-up call it was, then.
I hate mornings; I think I always have, though in reality it probably only started kicking in when I became a teenager and discovered the delicious feeling of waking up early and rolling right back to sleep again, safe in the knowledge that you don't have to get up if you don't want to. Mornings physically hurt my head and it takes at least an hour for me to gain any semblance of civility, so when we got up at 3.15am, I still had quite a few hours to go before I could be called human. Luckily I wasn't alone; we were uniformly silent as we trudged the half-hour road to the park entrance.
Despite the sludge of missed sleep clogging up my mind, I loved that little walk. Under a half-crescent moon we padded our way through the village, avoiding chickens and enjoying the solitude, and as we left civilisation behind and the road entered the forest, it felt beautiful. It was humid – Kakum has 90 per cent humidity for most of the year – but it wasn't hot, and the slight chill in the air was beautifully refreshing after the sun-baked journey of the day before. It was almost a shame to arrive at the rainforest proper; the breeze died, the humidity shot up even further and we lost sight of the moon and stars, but we'd come to see Kakum, and see it we would.
Or that's what I'd assumed would happen. In reality our trek through Kakum National Park was a complete waste of time, and although it's arguable that my morning head would have made a walk through the Garden of Eden a miserable experience, I was pretty damn disappointed by the two-hour trudge through the rainforest. It wasn't helped by the fact that the guide's torch gave up the ghost after an hour and he had to borrow Susie's much smaller torch, but the real problem was the lack of animals and the profusion of less pleasant forest life. Here's what we saw in our two hours:
A Mouse. Our first taste of the wildlife of Kakum was a tiny three-inch mouse that sat on a branch over the path. The guide shone his torch on it just before it scampered off, and Lukas noted, 'Well, if we don't see anything else, at least we've seen something.' He didn't mean to be prophetic; this was only ten minutes into the trek, and our hopes were still high.
A Blur. This we got to see quite early on. Our guide stopped in his tracks, shone his torch into the bush where some leaves were rattling, and said, 'Can you see the bush baby?' None of us could; by the time we looked there was nothing but the blur of moving branches, but it got our hopes up. Unfortunately, this was the last animal activity we would see for two hours...
Ants. The way you search for wildlife in the dark – or the way our guide did it, anyway – is to walk for a bit, stop, and cast your torch around you, searching the trees for the reflective eyes of bush babies and monkeys. About half an hour into our walk we stopped for the umpteenth time, and ten seconds later we all started slapping our legs in unison. It took a while for our addled brains to register what was going on, but it went something like this:
'Damn mosquitoes are biting through my socks. Ouch!'
'Shit, there are millions of them. Ow!'
'Bloody hell, they're running up my leg. Bugger, that hurts!'
'Shit, they're in my pants. How the hell...'
'Oh my god! They're ants!'
It would have been amusing if these ants hadn't been so vicious.
We'd obviously stepped into a whole jamboree of evil biting ants, and it felt as if someone was stabbing hypodermic needles into my feet, legs and, worryingly, my groin. We jumped around like an accident in a drawing-pin factory, no longer caring about being quiet, and instead slapping away at the armies in our clothes. We staggered along the path and away from the nest, but it took ages to kill off the attackers, and even then individual ants found refuge in the folds of my trousers, poised to give me painful bites every few minutes for the next half-an-hour or so. Poor Ama was nearly in tears; she had an ant phobia, and suddenly exploring the rainforest in the dark didn't feel like such a fun adventure.
Moths. There was one more flurry of activity on the walk, when we walked into a bunch of moths, resting on the bushes by the path. Attracted by our torches they fluttered into us, banging off our foreheads and generally scaring the shit out of us, but luckily moths don't bite. They were big buggers, though, with four-inch wingspans and sullen, brown fur coats, and I was less than delighted by the thought of head-butting moths the size of small birds in a pitch-black rainforest. Still, it was activity, so I shouldn't complain.
On our way through the rest of the forest we got attacked by ants again, and from that moment things started to really scrape the bottom of the barrel (though, luckily, we avoided a third bout of bites when the guide spotted a huge two-inch-thick line of ants marching across the path; we'd obviously trodden on similar lines before, and it was easy to see how a simple footfall could produce a hundred or so irate ants swarming up your legs). There were no animals to be seen, we all itched like crazy and we were tired, so it was a definite pleasure to get to six o'clock, when our guide plonked himself down on a bench and said, 'That was terrible. No animals.' This was pretty much the only thing he'd said on the entire trek – apart from 'Look, a mouse,' 'Can you see the bush baby?' 'They're ants,' and 'Ah, moths' – and although I couldn't fault his accuracy, it would have helped if at least one of our party had been enthusiastic about the walk, especially the one who was being paid. But never mind; we'd reached the canopy walkway, and things were about to get a whole lot better.
In the Canopy
Kakum's canopy walkway is famous throughout Ghana, and for good reason. Constructed with overseas help in 1995, this 350m-long string of seven suspended rope-ways through the rainforest canopy is unique in Africa, and is a great way to see the rainforest from above. I've walked through a lot of rainforests in my time, from temperate to tropical, but I've never walked through the canopy, and it's a wonderful way to view the greenery. It's also a good way to appreciate just how high the tallest trees are; the walkway is around 30 to 40m high and the trees still tower above you, and although it seems pretty safe as you bounce along high above the ground (which you can't see for rainforest canopy), it's definitely no place for those with vertigo or suicidal tendencies.
As we'd hoped, the sun rose while we were on the walkway, appearing gradually some distance above the horizon, peeping through the haze that envelops southern Ghana at this time of year (the haze is drummed up by the harmattan, a strong seasonal wind that blows down from the north, bringing with it copious amounts of dust from the Sahara). There was some frenetic activity in the trees some distance ahead of us, but by the time we got there, we found another group of visitors who'd managed to scare whatever it was away; it had been a troupe of monkeys swinging through the trees, according to the other group, who by a strange twist of fate turned out to be the inhabitants of the big red truck that had visited Big Milly's before Christmas. Ghana is a small place; or, more accurately, Ghana has a small number of well-visited tourist traps, and the canopy walk at Kakum is one of them.
But it's easy to see why. Perhaps it was just a reaction to the two hours of ant-ridden hell, but I loved the canopy walk. It must be a totally different experience in the middle of the day, when it's crammed with the 250 to 300 visitors it attracts on an average day, but at 6am it's a delightful place, and being that high up in a rainforest canopy is a real treat.
But by 7am it was all over, and Kakum's unwritten policy of getting 'em in quick and getting 'em out again kicked in. Because the park is very much focussed on herding people round the walkway quickly, they charge you on a per hour basis for both the canopy and the walks, and this fee system doesn't encourage relaxed exploration of the forest. With this in mind we set off on the return journey to Big Milly's for rest, recuperation, and – after a very long sleep – New Year's Eve on the beach.