Head to Ghana's Mole National Park for Ashanti legends and close elephant encounters
Bull elephants don’t do light breakfasts. Long before we saw the enthusiastic diner we heard the enthusiastic dining. Osman Suluman heard it even earlier.
“Listen,” he whispered, gesturing towards a thick copse of anogeissus trees, and adjusted his rifle. “Now we must be hushed.”
The rest of us strained our eyes and ears, peering into the woods, dim in the early morning. A minute passed as we stepped through knee-high grass. Two kob antelopes pricked up and turned tail.
And then we heard it: the crunching of boughs, the tearing of vines and the loud ripping of branches. A muted trumpet shuddered from the undergrowth. That the source of the messy rumpus remained camouflaged added to the thrill. Another minute, a splintering crash, and then it appeared: five tonnes of savannah elephant, breathtakingly close and performing the pachyderm equivalent of flinging its toast and eggs around the kitchen table.
Mole (pronounced Mo-lay) National Park is known for its small-group foot safaris, and with reason. Our 6.30am walk had already led us down from a 40m-high plateau, past mint-covered hillsides, around well-snuffled salt licks and into riverine forest. Bushbucks had stood and gazed, baby-bearing baboons had tripped along in the sunshine and families of warthogs – the savannah’s comic turns – had tottered around us on dainty heels, gruffling at herbs.
By the time we’d got back to the park’s sole hotel for the freshest mint tea I’d ever tasted, we’d tracked hyena prints, chanced upon a pair of rare Abyssinian ground hornbills and almost toppled into an aardvark’s den, before spending a breathless half-hour barely 15m away from our noisily breakfasting friend. And the cost of this skin-tingling, sensurround experience? Six Ghanaian cedis for two hours. Just over £2.50.
Mole sits in the north of Ghana, a country often described as ‘Africa for beginners’. The label comes by virtue of a low-hassle travellers’ circuit, a remarkable diversity and a readily bestowed smile. There’s a stable democracy in place, poverty levels are among the most controlled in the sub-Sahara and the nation has been proudly independent since 1957 (before which it existed as the rather more troubled Gold Coast). It’s hardly devoid of social ills, of course, but it’s difficult to overlook the prevalent mood of easy goodwill. And with recently launched direct flights on Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow, it’s a breeze to reach.
A legacy of the colonial period is that English remains the official language, but around 50 African dialects are spoken among the six main ethnic groups; today it’s a model of peaceful co-existence in Africa. And as I was reminded daily, the destination’s regional credentials were boosted still further over the summer, when its football team came within a crossbar’s width of becoming the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Red-green-and-gold patriotism can rarely have been higher. “Africa loves Ghana,” one beaming taxi driver told me. “We carried its dreams. Wait till next time...”
Back up in Mole, the elephants were clearly in a favourable mood, too. The Mole Motel (£28 a night for a top-whack ‘chalet’ complete with balcony, breakfast and, when fate is so inclined, running water) is the only walled accommodation in the park. Fortunate, then, that its location is so special – perched on an escarpment overlooking endless swathes of green savannah.
At midday I sat overlooking the large watering-hole that spreads over the foreground in front of the motel. As I watched, two dust-brown elephants submerged themselves, reappearing on the surface in their natural black before conducting a long, watery slow-dance, trunks entwined and boulder-sized heads bobbing in the pool. Two nearby crocodiles, visible only as snouts and eyes, shared counsel and kept their distance. It was a moment that felt almost voyeuristic to witness.
A safari in Mole can’t be compared to a safari in an East African game park – nor should it be. The range of big game is, for a start, more limited; there are buffalo, leopards, even lions, but they tend to restrict themselves to the vast expanses of park away from the visitor centre. (“I’ve been here for 17 years and seen a lion only three times,” one ranger admitted.) But it does host plentiful birdlife – well over 300 species – as well as more visible large mammals.
Mole is Ghana’s largest national park, but only a relatively tiny portion of its 4,840 sq km is readily accessible to tourists; hence, poaching and unfulfilled potential are two main problems it currently faces. There’s also the small matter of access. The only road to the park is a classic rib-rattler: imagine driving over a cattle grid for four hours and you get the general idea.
In many ways, though, this lack of slickness only adds to Mole’s rough-around-the-edges appeal. Although it’s unlikely to threaten the continent’s glossy-brochure safaris for business, it has very real charms of its own, and not just in terms of cost. It still feels like a well-guarded secret. The setting is the kind you could sit in and admire for days, binoculars in hand, and with guides as distinguished as Osman and birding expert Zachariah Ware, there’s the very real likelihood of an enriching encounter with nature.
“We need development funds,” Zachariah told me on our birdlife walk, during which he pointed out a rainbow-hued profusion of striped swallows, woolly-necked storks, red-throated bee-eaters and – an astonishing sight – exclamatory paradise whydahs trailing their extraordinarily long tails. “The government keeps promising to pave the road to the park. We keep hoping.”
In the days I spent at Mole, I joined three walking safaris, all of which were dense with bushbuck, waterbuck, kob, warthogs, green monkeys and guinea fowl. I also took a gloriously serene canoe safari – part of a community initiative raising funds for a local village – and arranged a 4WD safari (otherwise known as ‘hopping onto a Nissan roof-rack and holding tight’), during which Osman, with the omniscient eye of a born tourist-pleaser, located a far-off herd of six elephants.
The region around the park has its own appeal. Larabanga, the nearest town, is typical of the mud-and-thatch settlements in Ghana’s Islamic north, and is the site of what locals claim is West Africa’s oldest mosque. Experts disagree on exactly when it was first constructed – 1421, I was told by an affable local. He was eager to pocket a few cedis by showing me round the outside (non-Muslims aren’t permitted to enter), but the main attraction lay in its simple domed architecture, spiked at regular intervals by wooden struts.
On a neighbouring street a young boy rushed up to me with a bowl of what looked like clotted cream. “Shea butter,” he said. Shea trees grow readily in the area; the butter is a workaday cooking essential in Ghana, but is transformed into a cosmetic luxury by the time it reaches the UK. There’s probably a lesson there somewhere.
To the east, the minaret-studded city of Tamale – hub for accessing Mole – is an absorbing base. I wandered red-dust streets to echoes of “Hello obruni!” (white man), talked football with just about everybody who found out I was English, and made repeat visits to – I’ll go out on a limb – the best jollof (spicy rice) stand in town. The Muslim influence was everywhere, though I encountered a Catholic celebration, too.
“Oh! Christian, Muslim, we are all very peaceful,” one well-dressed devotee told me. “In Ghana we marry, we share our houses, we are friends. Everyone don’t worry about everyone. No problem!”
If Tamale was calm, the city of Kumasi, six hours to the south, was the opposite – an exhilarating punch to the senses. Its crazed heart was the immense Kejetia Market, home to some 10,000 vendors punting their wares to a unique soundtrack: an unhinged orchestra of highlife music, evangelists and taxi-honk. Among the chattering labyrinth of yams, beads, rugs, fish, bras, drums and hens, there was barely room to walk. Soap scents swirled with the meaty pongs of the butcher stalls. Vividly coloured kente cloth was being hawked from floors, racks, shelves, ceilings and head-perched baskets. It was hot. I got lost in the jewellery lanes for what felt like two days. And it was wonderful.
Kumasi is the epicentre of what was the once-mighty Ashanti Empire. Ashanti culture is still very much alive, and has its roots in what was one of the most powerful kingdoms in West Africa. Legend has it that in the 17th century a golden stool descended from the sky, appointing the first king of the Ashanti; this ethnic group, effectively a federation of different clans, went on to dominate much of present-day Ghana and the Ivory Coast, controlling European trade and developing a reputation for warfare.
Today, a visit to the Prempreh II Jubilee Museum gives an insight into the culture’s continuing importance. “Most residents of Kumasi are still Ashanti,” explained my merry guide, Yaa Agyapomaa Addai. “The current king is the second-most powerful man in Ghana, after the president. In fact, we probably listen to him more.”
She showed me a fake golden stool that had been presented to the British, who had demanded its surrender. “The real golden stool is with the king at his palace here in the city,” he said, pointing to photos of a noble-looking man in off-the-shoulder robes. Does he wear these robes day-to-day, I asked? “Yes – tradition is very important.” A pause. “But he likes playing golf, so he has different clothes for that.”
The final leg of my trip carried me down to the coastal region, where history still hangs heavy. Ghana’s centuries under colonial influence, when it was known as the Gold Coast, saw it become first a base for gold and ivory, then later an important terminus for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The vibrant towns of Cape Coast and Elmina still host slave-era castles.
To visit the forts, and to hear the facts and figures spoken baldly, and to see the scratched dungeon walls, is a desperately chastening experience. At the foot of the courtyard in Cape Coast Castle is a barred double gate. Above the portal a sign reads ‘The Door of No Return’. When it was opened for me, all that was visible was the sea. Such sadness seemed deeply incongruous with the view from the ramparts, a late-afternoon hubbub of fishermen and laughing schoolyard footballers, and the smell of grilling seafood tickling my nostrils.
Today’s Ghana is a welcoming, humbling and auspicious country for independent discovery – there are any number of itineraries traversing the country north to south – and one of its most salutary gifts is that it showcases three facets of West Africa: its past, its present, its hopeful future.
It’s an attitude that imbues every aspect of life, as I’d discovered. On my long road journeys from the coast to Mole and back, the music-pumping buses plying the roads were regularly – and extensively – delayed. But then that’s Ghana all over. Even the timetables are optimistic.