Author and adventurer Alan Whelan on why you should get to Ghana ASAP
Alan Whelan's acclaimed first book, African Brew Ha-Ha, described his solo journey from Lancashire to Cape Town in search of the ultimate cup of tea. His second book, The Black Stars of Ghana, is a motorcycle adventure in West Africa.
Alan talks to Peter Moore about what makes Ghana such an enthralling – and under-appreciated – destination.
In your first book, African Brew Ha-Ha, you motorcycled the length of Africa in search of a decent cup of tea. What made you go back to Ghana?
I was very impressed by West Africa on my first overland journey. Even in African terms the people seemed to have less but make more of it. I loved the music, the optimistic attitude to life and can-do spirit that made my senses work overtime. I chose Ghana because it was the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence and I wanted to see what they had done with that freedom within my lifespan. When I heard that the Black Stars [Ghana's national football team] had qualified for the World Cup finals, the decision was confirmed.
You also decided to buy a motorcycle there rather than take your own. Why?
For African Brew Ha-Ha I rode through the Sahara. It was a terrific experience, but one motorcycle trip through the desert is enough for any man! On a more practical note, it would have taken me about a month to ride to Ghana from the UK and I only have so much time to devote to my adventures. I wanted to spend as much time as possible in Ghana, so I bought a small bike in Accra on the day I arrived.
When people think of Ghana they think of lush greenery and sweaty mango plantations. Is that what you found?
'Sweaty' is correct. Ghana is one of the hottest and most humid countries I've ever visited. But as in most West African countries, there are two sides to Ghana: the lush, sweaty coastline on the Gulf of Guinea and the dryer northern regions. Generally speaking, the south is planted with mango and banana plantations, is more Westernised and the people are more likely to speak English; the sandy north is dotted with tiny mud-and-stick mosques and mud compounds of extended families living in a land out of time. The locals from this sparsely populated and little-visited area seemed especially pleased to see me too.
How did you find the Ghanese in general?
One word: charming. Never have I visited a country where every single interaction made me feel as though the person was pleased I showed up that day – even though I was often asking for favours. They have a great sense of humour, terrific bars, dress like they're all going on a first date, and are generous to a fault. Do you get the feeling I liked the place?
Did you get a sense of Ghana's slave past?
It is impossible to visit Ghana and not come across the remnants of the country's history of slavery – you can follow the trail that slaves walked at the height of the slave trade. From the slave market in Paga on the Burkina Faso border to those at Saakpuli and Salaga in the centre of the country, then down to the hulking slave forts on the coast, there are poignant relics that bring home the extent of this trade in human misery.
Your book is named after the national football team, The Black Stars. Are they an integral part to understanding Ghana?
The way the country supports the national team gives an insight into the heart and soul of Ghana. I recommend watching a game in a local 'spot', a bar that usually has an electric atmosphere, an over-sized screen and sound pumped through Glastonbury-worthy speakers. It won't be long before you are shouting, screaming and booing at every tackle, foul, corner, free kick and referee decision – and then going insane with everybody else when the Black Stars score. When they played the World Cup quarter-final against Uruguay it felt as if the whole of Africa was watching and willing Ghana to win.
What were some of the highlights of your trip?
The big tourist draws on the coast are the forts at Elmina and Cape Coast, not far from the capital, Accra. They are imposing symbols of European wealth and power, and it is a sobering experience to visit the dungeons and creak open the 'door of no return'. But my favourites were some of the smaller coastal forts further west, where you can spend the night such as Fort Patience at Apam and Fort Gross-Friedrichsburg in Prince's Town. The accommodation is basic, but you'll never forget the night you spent alone in a monolithic fort with the Atlantic waves crashing below.
The Gambaga Escarpment seems to have made an impression on you too.
Yes. It's a 60-kilometre escarpment that rises hundreds of metres above the surrounding countryside, in the far north-east of Ghana. It feels like a lost world and, fleetingly, you believe that you can see the rest of Africa from up there. Riding was a challenge too, skipping across rocky outcrops poking through the broken up pavement, which brought an element of unpredictability to the journey.
I visited witches' (outcasts') camps in Gambaga and Gnani, which were both fascinating and troubling. The isolated villages were home to hundreds of innocent people wrongly accused of witchcraft (often for an unexplained illness or a crop failure, etc). They were banished from their home villages under threat of death. If they returned home they would be killed. It is a sad situation, but where else can they go?
What do you wish you'd known before your trip to Ghana?
I wish I'd known how narrow the seat was on my little bike – I'd have brought a cushion.
What's next? Do you have any more adventures planned?
I returned to Africa again this summer: I rode a boda boda (small motorcycle taxi) around Lake Victoria. The 9,000-kilometre trip took me through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. The trip was called Empire Road because I seemed to constantly find myself in the footsteps of European explorers and the artefacts of the colonial experience. The book, Empire Road, is expected in 2014.
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