Ghana: Around Kumasi
27th November - 10th December 2000
There are many places around Kumasi worth visiting and all possible as day trips using local transport. Four villages to the northeast of Kumasi are famous for their craftwork, in particular Bonwire, which is famous for weaving kente cloth. The villages had become very popular with tourists, which I had heard, had changed the character of the places somewhat. I could not confirm this, as I did not visit any of these villages. Instead I wanted to see some of the natural attractions in the area and with Kjell went to visit the Bobiri Forest Reserve about 35km from Kumasi. The reserve is a small patch of virgin forest that had escaped the attention of the loggers. From the road it was a 3km walk to the reserve. We hadn't been walking that far when a passing vehicle offered us a ride along the dirt track to the forest. We were dropped outside the guesthouse in the reserve where there was also a small visitors centre. There were no maps or guides to the reserve and we were free to wander along the many trails that led through the forest. The local people used these trails to go about the forest to collect palm wine from the palm trees dotted about the forest. We spent a couple of hours following a trail deep into the forest. The humidity was very high under the large green canopy above us; it was nice though to escape the hectic activity of Kumasi and to be in such peaceful surroundings.
Another day we went to Lake Bosumtwi, a crater lake 38km southeast of Kumasi. It is one of the few lakes that it is safe to swim in. Bilharzia is widespread across Africa and is found in rivers and lakes. It is a minute worm that enters your body through your skin. The worms attach themselves to your intestines or bladder and there they remain. Often you will not feel any symptoms for months or even years. By then it is too late and irreversible damage has been done to your internal organs. It's a disease well worth avoiding, which also means avoiding swimming in lakes and rivers. The chance to be able to swim in a cool, refreshing, bilharzia free lake in this hot and humid climate was one I wasn't going to pass.
The lake is surrounded by jagged hills rising to 400m and covered in lush green forests. The road winds its way down through the hills to a small town on the lakeshore. We walked from the taxi park to the shore and on the way were accosted by some locals demanding payment from us for 'tourist tax'. There ensued a long discussion, I wouldn't call it an argument, as I was trying to keep my cool and see if the locals had a logical explanation for their 'tourist tax'. It really was the last thing I wanted to do, haggle with locals over payment for arriving in their small town. I had come here to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. In the end we asked to see one of the elders of the town. He was a nice man and explained the situation to us. The upshot of it all was that they needed money to build facilities for tourists on the lakeshore but the central government wouldn't help them. Finally after over twenty minutes of negotiating we paid their 'tourist tax' of 10,000 cedi, about US$1.50, and asked for a written receipt from the town elder.
If I was accounting for this trip I would of filed that payment under conned. After we had parted with our cash we left the town. We didn't end up spending our money in the local shops or restaurants so in some way I feel their tax was a bit of an own goal. We didn't feel welcome in the town and the whole incident just made us want to leave as soon as possible. We walked along the track anticlockwise that followed the lakeshore. The track follows the whole 30km circumference of the lake passing through some 30 villages on the way. We walked for a few kilometres until we arrived in a small village where we stopped at the village shop to buy a drink. The heat from the sun was intense and the humidity was sucking me dry with every step we took.
Just past the village we found a quiet spot by the shore. It was a beautiful location, a backdrop of forest, and the smooth, crystal clear lake stretching out before us all surrounded by green hills. There we spent the afternoon lying in the grass in the shade of a tree relaxing and swimming in the lake to cool off. Even in the shade it was hot but the lake was the perfect tonic to the heat. The lake is also sacred to the Ashanti people. They believe that when they die their souls come to the lake to say goodbye to their god Twi. Dugout canoes are taboo on the lake, as they believe they alienate the lake spirit; instead fisherman use carefully carved planks, which they kneel on, and paddle with their palms. While we sat on a log on the beach a fisherman came past on one of these solid canoes on his way back to his village from a fishing trip. Time slipped by until we checked a watch and saw that it was getting late into the afternoon. We hiked back to town to find transport to Kumasi. We had booked tickets on the overnight train tonight from Kumasi to Takoradi that was due to depart from Kumasi at 20.30 this evening.
The train is not the fastest mode of transport around Ghana. The network is fairly small, the tracks forming a triangle linking Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi in the south of the country. The journey we were undertaking tonight would only take about three hours by bus; the train though took eight hours travelling overnight to reach the same destination. We had booked ourselves a first-class, two berth sleeping compartment for the fare of 15,000 cedi, about US$2. All of the rolling stock is second-hand, most of it from Germany. We took a taxi to the station; even after the sun had set it was too hot and humid to walk any distance with our entire luggage. Our train was waiting at the station with the usual frenetic activity you would expect to find, passengers, luggage and vendors everywhere. A guard showed us to our compartment in the first-class carriage towards the rear of the train. We didn't have to wait long before the train departed exactly on time at 20.30 and began its slow journey south, twisting and rattling its way through the lush forests.
As we crept slowly out of Kumasi a guard came past with a crate of cold beer for sale. This was just perfect; I sat there with the warm evening breeze blowing through the window, sweat still dripping off me as though I was in a sauna and a large bottle of cold Star beer in my hand. Travelling doesn't get any better than this. I sat back and appreciated the moment with an uncontrollable grin on my face; it was one of those travel moments that end up ingrained on your memory. I have always had a fondness for travelling by train whenever I can. It is far more relaxing than going by road, you have more space, and you can go for a walk to stretch your legs or just sit back like now with a drink, while the country passes by your window. The guard told us to close the window before we go to sleep, as it had been known for people to climb through the windows during the night while the train had stopped. The compartment had a ceiling fan to re-circulate the air; I finally fell asleep as the train lurched dangerously down the track and the fan buzzed in my ears like a really pissed off mosquito.
I slept better than I thought I would do, especially considering the rough track we were travelling down causing the train to bounce and lurch in every direction possible. As the sun rose and the light began to stream into our compartment I was surprised that we hadn't derailed overnight. Looking out the window all I could see were trees and every now and then a track where occasionally there would be some people standing waiting for the train to pass. I didn't feel too well this morning; my digestive system felt like it had taken a good beating overnight; I quickly retired to the toilet. I felt feverish too and popped some paracetomol to try and control my temperature. This is not how I wanted the trip to end after what had been an enjoyable train ride. I could only blame my sudden bout of illness on my swim in the lake yesterday; maybe I had swallowed some water while diving in the lake. My last meal was at Baboo's cafe and I didn't think for one moment that I could of picked up a bug there over dinner.
Finally after what seemed like a trip of thousands of miles, in reality it was only a few hundred, the train pulled in at the terminus at Takoradi. Our final destination for this trip would be Cape Coast, about 75km east along the coast. The way I was feeling I wasn't in the mood for walking across town and finding a bus to take us along the coast I felt too feverish and the weather too hot for any sort of physical activity. Instead Kjell and I agreed to take a private taxi from the station. We didn't have to bargain hard before we got the fare reduced to an acceptable 55,000 cedi, just over US$8, which worked out at US$4 each. I now had the whole backseat of the taxi to myself to stretch out on and relax for the hour and a half drive along the coast.
At home I live by the sea, so it was a welcome sight after the thousands of miles I had travelled from Banjul in The Gambia, to once again see and smell the ocean. It is the one thing I find I miss when travelling through landlocked countries. The road meandered along the coast, at first just giving us glimpses of the vast blue ocean, before running parallel with the beach, the waves crashing beside us. It was almost like returning home, back to a familiar environment. Something though was wrong; the palm trees were dying. All along the coast great swathes of palm trees had died, due to a virus infection; their frondless trunks stood as monuments like headstones in a graveyard marking where once was a tree. This gave the coastal stretch an eerie feel; it wasn't the green, tropical coastline I expected with beaches flanked by palm trees. Yes there were still palm trees around, but the vast majority in places were dead.
Continue reading this journey: Cape Coast