The drive from Cape Coast to Accra was hot, dusty and as full of traffic as it was devoid of scenery. To keep myself entertained I began spotting churches. Ghana has found God in a BIG way. In the small towns we passed every second building seemed to be a church; it was a wonder there was anywhere left for people to live. There were all the churches I had heard of; The Catholic Church, The Presbyterian Church, The Methodist Church, The Pentecostal Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints, and many more that were new to me; The Church of Seventh Day Adventist, The Church of the Apostles Revelation Society, The Glorious Church, Christ Embassy, The Mega Church, Jericho Miracle Church, The Ministry of Fire, Faith Divine Ministry and my own personal favourite, ‘Fresh Oil Power Church.’ But it didn’t stop there, there were also the posters advertising ‘prayer camps,’ ‘prayer meetings,’ ‘revival meetings,’ ‘waterfall prayers’ (whatever they are) ‘fasting and prayers,’ ‘spiritual healing’ and ‘power packed crusades.’ Then there were the giant billboards advertising the tour dates of charismatic preachers. Invariably featuring a heavily airbrushed photo of the preacher in his shiny suit, clutching his microphone and gazing intensely out at his audience, the overall effect was very 90’s era boyband. Then there were the shop names which, as we continued our drive through the country, provided me with hours of entertainment. It seemed that no business, no matter how small or insignificant was going to miss out on an opportunity to declare their love of the good Lord. The names went from the sublime to the ridiculous, ‘Clap for Jesus Motors’ ‘No Jesus No Life, Fresh Pork and Poultry Products’, ‘God is a Blessing Hairdressing’, ‘God is an Almighty Fire Restaurant’, ‘Fear God Aluminium Works’, ‘Ablaze for God Dreadlocks.’ Occasionally they veered into the downright unwise, as in the case of ‘Trust God Tyre Clinic,’ ‘In God I Trust Legal Counsel’ and ‘Amen Scientific Herbal Research Hospital’ (the latter, a sign declared, specialised in everything from erectile dysfunction to Tuberculosis).
Accra (like many African capitals) is two very different cities merged in one; arty cafe’s serving up expensive flat whites, gleaming, air conditioned shopping malls, accessed by a complex system of ring-roads and flyovers, billboards revealing all the same obsessions as the Western word; protein shakes and slimming teas, super foods and all natural beauty products. Co-existing with this (and in the case of the flyovers, directly beneath it) is a city made of tin shacks and open sewers, where cows and goats wonder nonchalantly down sandy, potholed streets, Muslim areas, where afternoon prayers spill out of the mosques and on to the streets, stopping the traffic, chaotic side streets where hole in the wall restaurants dish up plates of foo foo and pepper soup and roadside bars serve cheap beer to the sound of ‘high life’ music played at deafening volumes. We had gone to Accra to try and source some new tyres as ours were almost bare. The search took up most of our time (and took us to some interesting places), but in-between we managed to fit in a visit to the ‘fantasy coffin workshops’ in Teshie district, Accra. The coffins are a tradition of the Ga people, designed as a way of securing their social status in the afterlife they make quite the statement.
Our search for tyres was to prove fruitless, after two days of driving around and being shown ‘new tyres’ which had even less tread than the ones we were trying to change, we finally admitted defeat and decided to head North. It was a Sunday morning when we departed Accra and gospel singing spilled from every open window; the sound of hundreds of informal church meetings held in living rooms, above shop floors, in disused garages. We headed to Lake Bosomtwe, a beautiful, circular lake, formed by a meteorite and surrounded by lush green hills, some 40km kilometres from Kumasi. The last stretch of the road down to the lake was tough going, bumpy, with deep, sandy trenches. Unfortunately I had instead on stocking up on groceries for our stay and since in Africa it is impossible to buy a single item of fruit or veg, I ended up trying to balance 2 kilos of avocados and mangos and a kilo each of tomatoes and bananas precariously in my lap. As soon as we hit the first bump the cheap plastic bag split, sending fruit and veg flying everywhere, reminding me once again of the occasional downsides to motorbike travel. We did eventually make it (minus a few mangos) and set up camp on the lake shore. It was a beautiful spot, the lake was perfect for swimming and at night the grassy lawn along it’s banks came alive with dozens of brightly glowing fireflies. The only downside was the manager of the nearby hotel who, presumably for our benefit, insisted on played a compilation album of ‘white people music’ (in which West Life and Dido featured heavily) at full volume and on repeat, from 7am to 10pm each day. She was however so ridiculously sweet, neither Leon nor I had the heart to tell her her much we hated it.
From Lake Busomtwe we drove into Kumasi, Ghana’s second biggest city and the once capital of the Ashanti Kingdom. Kumasi has a very different feel to Accra; it is the pulsing heart to Accra’s business minded brain, the centre of Ashanti culture and traditions, where belief in magic is as common as belief in God. It is home to Kejetia market, the largest covered market in Africa, where more than 11,000 stalls sell everything from brightly coloured kente cloth, to fake designer trainers and fetish charms. The highlight for us was visiting the museum devoted to the Ashanti King Prempeh II. Although small (a guided tour lasts under 20 minutes) the items on display were fascinating and included war drums (beaten as soldiers ran into battle to give them power), a drum which sounds like a lion’s roar and was used to frighten away enemies and a vast selection of battle armour. The armour was not as one may expect made of metal, but was rather a long tunic hung with dozens of different protective amulets and looked a bit like something a Morris dancer would wear (I found the image of thousands of Morris dancers storming into battle most amusing). My favourite item however was a replica golden stool used to trick to the British. Our guide told us that in response to a rebellion people against British rule, the then British governor demanded the Ashanti people turn over to him their sacred golden stool so that it could be presented as a gift to the queen of England. The stool golden is the symbol of the Ashanti people, said to have descended from the sky, it is the embodiment of the soul of the nation and even the King is not allowed to sit on it. Understandably therefore, Ashanti were not to keen to hand it over and instead cleverly created the fake which now sits in the museum.
We had hoped to visit Northern Ghana but time constraints and concerns about putting hundreds of additional kilometres on already worn tyres put paid to this plan. Instead, after consulting the map, we decided to take a small road circumnavigating the Southern shores of Lake Volta. It ended up being one of the most memorable drives yet, taking us through a stunning, yet little explored region of Ghana. At the town of Nkawkaw we left the busy Accra – Kumasi highway, the road taking us through a series of small villages. Belief in the supernatural was evident here, every few kilometres we spotted signs for ‘spiritual centres,’ ‘herbal centres’ guru’s with ‘black and white’ powers. In one town a billboard advertised a 4 day revival, the theme ‘the forces of witchcraft’ (Ghana is the only country in the world which still has witch camps). It wasn’t long before Lake Volta came into view and the road began a long, winding decent down to it’s shores. The deep blue of the sky merged almost imperceptibly with the blue of the lake, broken only by a ribbon of green fields. It was late afternoon when we reached Adawso, a tiny village which marked the end of the tarmac road. From here the route along the lake shore was a soft sandy piste. Tiny, fluorescent orange birds flitted in and out of the long grasses which bordered the piste and which, as sunset approached, became tinged with gold.
Whilst I was busy taking in our beautiful surroundings, Leon was struggling to keep us upright on almost bald tyres. We had our most serious fall yet in the soft sand. As road began to climb up into the hills, we were presented with a new set of challenges; loose gravel and stones, interspersed with sections of sheer rock face, covered with a thin layer of sand which offered about as much grip as glass. The landscape was amazing, lush, green and hilly, dotted with strange prehistoric looking boulders. By this point night was falling and it did not seem like the sort of track we wanted to tackle in the dark. Unfortunately we were completely unprepared for camping, having seriously underestimated the difficultly of the road, we thought we would make it about 100km further to where there was a cheap hotel. We had instant noodles (carried for emergencies such as this) but no water to cook them with. We checked the map, the nearest settlement was Adawso, around 30km back the way we came. If we continued in the direction we were going, it could be hours before we reached a village big enough to have a shop. Faced with these options we decided we would make do with a dinner of ginger nut biscuits and found a quite spot away from the road to set up camp for the night.
We set off early the following morning, the scenery was less wild, though still very beautiful, a patchwork of different coloured fields reaching down to the lake shores. We drove for well over an hour without seeing anyone apart from a boy herding cattle. Just when our thirst was starting to become unbearable we came to a small village. No one spoke any English (a sign of how remote we were, as almost everyone speaks English in Ghana) but with the aid of mime we managed to convey that we wanted to fill our water bottles in their well. Thirst sated and having done our bit to entertain the village children, we continued on. It was great riding, challenging but fun and in stunning surroundings. I was almost disappointed to reach the Western side of Lake Volta which, whilst still very pretty, in comparison felt much busier.
We camped in the grounds of ‘Mountain Paradise’ guest house, high up in the Avatime Hills. It was a beautiful spot, with (as the name would suggest) lovely views out over the mountains, though the illusion of remoteness was destroyed somewhat when I woke in the early hours to the rousing sounds of gospel singing, accompanied enthusiastically by tambourines and what I thought must be a vuvuzela. In Ghana it seems peace and quiet is hard to come by! At breakfast the owner shrugged apologetically, ‘it’s the evangelical church down the road, they are having a 24 hour prayer revival. I’ve tried to ask them to keep the noise down but they don’t listen.’ Other than a short break around 10am for tea (or perhaps amphetamines judging by the renewed vigour which which the recommenced their prayers) the revivalists continued unabated throughout the morning. I couldn’t help thinking Jesus said we should ‘love thy neighbour’ not make a bloody racket and keep them up all night!
We spent the day visiting Wli waterfalls. Set amidst a beautiful landscape of rolling green hills and forests, they are the tallest waterfalls in Ghana. Approaching them from the bottom and watching the water thundering down from a height of 80 meters, creating rainbows in the spray was quite a sight! When we returned in the evening, I was both impressed and dismayed to find the revival was still going strong, if anything the volume had increased. I did eventually manage to get to sleep but woke again around 2am. The prayers had reached fervent new heights. Almost 24 hours of continuous singing and praying appeared to have induced some kind of mania, tambourines were being beaten with a furious zeal, feet were stamping, horns were blaring, the pastor had abandoned the use of language altogether and was just making noises, ‘hyrrrrrrrrrrrr-ah!’ hyrrrrrrrrrr-ah!’ he screamed over the deafening crescendo of the music. Somehow it felt like a fitting end to our time in Ghana. I could have happily have stayed much longer in this friendly, fascinating and just a little crazy country, but with our visa expiry date approaching, Nigeria beckoned. First though we would cross Togo and Benin.