Ghana: South from Burkina Faso
27th November - 10th December 2000
After leaving Ouagadougou at around 09.00 on Monday morning, it only took a couple of hours to reach the border with Ghana. The frontier is between the towns of Po, on the Burkina Faso side and Bolgatanga on the Ghanaian side. Immigration formalities at the Burkina checkpoint were very relaxed. Of course I was being chased around by moneychangers wanting to relieve me of my last CFA's in exchange for a bundle of Ghanaian cedis. I didn't have that much cash left on me so I didn't worry too much about the exchange rate; I was just happy to get rid of the remaining cash, as it would now be useless for the rest of my journey.
As always, when crossing a border on a bus with fifty or so other passengers, it took time for everyone to go through immigration. I seemed to be spending a lot of time just wandering around the bus watching the activity across the border. Eventually there was a roar from the buses engine followed by a cloud of smoke; we were ready to leave for Ghana. The journey didn't last long and we were soon at the Ghanaian checkpoint. The Ghanaian officials ran the border post like a military camp. We were almost marched off the bus to the immigration office where a large stocky man in military uniform sat behind an old wooden desk. It was chaos as we all squeezed into the office. The official shouted and barked orders to us as though he was a sergeant major and we were his new recruits. Passports were being thrown across the desk; if anyone had completed their immigration papers incorrectly they very soon had their passport thrown back at them. He continued to shout out names and throw passports around the desk until eventually I heard my name badly pronounced. I picked up my passport and found that it had been stamped. I was in Ghana.
At the door I was directed to another building, the heath checkpoint, to have my yellow fever certificate inspected. Outside this building, and generally wandering around, were a large crowd of moneychangers. They were far more aggressive than their Burkina counterparts. Still, I did not have a clue as to what the exchange rate was for the Ghanaian cedi. I soon wished I had made some enquiries before embarking on this trip. I sat down and changed a twenty-pound sterling note and in return received a huge bundle of notes totalling a staggering 120,000 cedi. I only needed enough money to see me through for the next day or so as I still hadn't decided where I was going today. My bus ticket was good for travel all the way to Kumasi, towards the south of the country; I originally planned to travel as far as Bolgatanga but Tamale, in the centre of the country began to seem more practicable. Before I could even stuff my new found wealth into a money belt, pockets, backpack etc. another moneychanger thrust a bundle of notes in my hand, another 120,000 cedi. What's this I thought, my mind becoming suspicious. The moneychanger said that some larger notes would be useful, all for twenty-pound sterling. I gave the man a twenty note and quickly left after attracting far too much attention to myself, every moneychanger on the border was making a beeline towards me.
I walked back to our bus to find that the customs officials had unloaded every ones luggage and thrown it into another building. We had to go and collect our bags, have them inspected, or in other words one of the officials looked in the top, and then leave them back by the bus to be reloaded. I had made it through all these formalities fairly quickly and so I went to sit down outside a nearby café for a cold drink. It was the middle of the day and the sun beat down relentlessly. I sat under a tree with a cold soft drink. A group of local people sat next to me speaking English; at last I could understand what people were saying after spending the last three weeks travelling through French speaking West Africa. We chatted for a while and they bought me another drink as we waited for our bus to depart.
The whole border crossing, from arriving at the first Burkina checkpoint to finally boarding the bus at the Ghanaian side took just over two hours. As the bus continued its journey south from the border I began reading my guidebook to decide where I would be going today. As I read, the countryside rolled by the window. We were still in the savannah grasslands, which stretched out as far as the eye could see across the plains. Every now and then the bus would slow as we passed through a small village; in the distance huge plumes of smoke rose from grass fires. As we reached Bolgatanga I decided I would travel as far as Tamale today and spend the night there. I could then sit down with a beer in the evening and work out what I would do with my two weeks in Ghana.
We had a break at the bus station in Bolgatanga while the bus went to be refuelled; we were ordered not leave the station as no one would come looking for us when we were ready to depart. I sat on a wooden bench in the waiting area where a television was caged to the wall. Cartoons were showing this afternoon, Scooby Doo had just started. I sat intently watching the adventures of the gang with a few local children. Nobody else seemed that interested in the television; I guess most Africans don't share the same love of the adventures of Scooby, Shaggy and the gang as I do. It was a welcome break, a little reminder of home, before the bus arrived just as the villain was unmasked by those pesky kids and the end credits played. Perfect timing.
A few hours later, after snoozing on the bus as we continued to hurtle south, we arrived in Tamale as the sun began to set. The sun just seemed to hang effortlessly above the horizon as I walked from the bus station through the centre of town to find a hotel for the night. It seemed a perfect time to break my journey south in this town after spending a long, hot day travelling from Ouagadougou. Tamale is no cultural centre, but is the regional capital in the north with a population of 250,000; to me though, the town looked a lot smaller. You could best describe the town as a transport hub; anyone travelling to the north of the country would pass through this town. The area around the bus station was frenetic with activity, the market was just along the road and everyone seemed to be on a mission to try and get somewhere. This was my first experience of Ghana and the people. I was immediately surprised at how I managed to walk unnoticed along the street. I expected to be hassled by taxi drivers and the usual touts as soon as I walked out of the bus station, but to my amazement no-one took any notice of me as I strolled up the road with my backpack slung on my back.
These were my first impressions of Ghanaians, I don't count the people I met at the border, they always seem to be a race to themselves preying on unsuspecting travellers crossing into an unfamiliar country. Everyone went about their business and I almost felt invisible walking through the town. I smiled to myself and thought that I'm going to enjoy my stay in this country. I walked to the Tohazie hotel near to the east of the town centre. A Dutch family I had met in Bobo-Dioulasso had recommended the place to me and said that they had stayed there in a bungalow for about US$4 a night, compared to their advertised rates starting at US$10 a night. The hotel was situated along a quiet tree-lined street, just past a roundabout by the police station; the trees looked like eucalyptus. Dusk didn't last long and by the time I reached the hotel the streets had become fairly dark. The hotel was more like a holiday camp; chalets and bungalows were dotted around the large compound. I collapsed into a large leather sofa at reception, sweat pouring from me after my hike from the bus station; it was then that I wished I had taken a taxi.
My negotiating for a night's accommodation was not going well. They would not drop their rates below about US$10. I persevered but it got me nowhere. Admitting defeat and beginning to curse the Dutchman, I ordered a bottle of water in preparation for my walk back into town to find alternative accommodation. I picked up my bag to walk out saying I had been given wrong information about the place when suddenly they found a chalet for US$2 a night. With a sigh of relief I was led through the compound to a dilapidated building that would be my home for the night.
My guidebook described the hotel as recently privatised. I imagine this meant that it used to be run as a state enterprise; it had the feel of a communist run holiday camp you might find on the shores of the Black Sea. There was an air of neglect to the place, as though the staff knew that whatever happened they would always have a job, so they did not have to try hard. Saying that the staff were very helpful and polite. They definitely seemed to outnumber the guests, which again gave the place that communist holiday camp feel. There was no running water in my chalet; instead a large barrel of water and a bucket. I made myself at home, 'showered', did some laundry and then chucked the bucket of dirty water into the basin, only to find that the waste was not plumbed in and I soaked my feet instead. Well, I thought to myself, that's African plumbing for you.
I decided to eat at a restaurant in the town centre. The Giddipass restaurant had been recommended to me by another traveller and also had a good mention in the guidebook. I found myself to be the only diner and sat back to enjoy my stir-fried beef in black-bean sauce and a large bottle of cold beer. The menu was very international, largely due to the Chinese chef working in the kitchen. The bar on the roof of the restaurant had a bit more life to it; I guess most places in the world are a bit quiet on a Monday night.
That evening I came up with a plan for my trip through the country to Accra, to catch my return flight home in just under two weeks time. It was a tough decision whether to go to Mole national park in the north, or to continue south to Kumasi and spend time on the coast. I read in my guidebook about a resort at the mouth of the river Volta on a sandbar that was only accessible by boat. This sounded like the ideal place to relax and unwind at the end of my six-week trip through West Africa, before flying back home. The beach, sand, sea and palm trees won. Just the thought of this place began to bring back memories of deserted tropical beaches in South East Asia, in particular the Perhentian Islands off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.
Before returning to the hotel I walked back to the bus station and booked a seat on the following mornings STC bus to Kumasi. Strolling through town that evening kids tagged along with me, not the annoying kind wanting pens, money etc, they just wanted to practice their English and find out what I was doing all these miles from home in their town. I fell asleep that night easily, happy that I had arrived in such a friendly, easygoing country.
Continue reading this journey: Kumasi