“You can touch it. You can even sit on it.”
“Who me?” I gulped nervously.
I had only just arrived in Ghana. I had only just met my guide Nana. Her beaming Colgate smile was warm and welcoming and yet she was trying to persuade me to touch a three metre crocodile - so much for Ghana’s reputation as one of Africa’s friendliest nations.
I’m not sure why, whether it was out of extreme politeness or not wishing to lose face, but I duly obliged and, for what seemed like an age, held the tail of the thankfully docile crocodile. I cannot say that I enjoyed the experience but it did make for an unusual holiday snap (no pun intended).
In truth I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the crocodiles of Paga. Worshipped for centuries by the local population, they now suffer the indignity of being lured out of their ponds by someone slapping a scrawny chicken on the water. Having swallowed the unlucky bird in a couple of gulps, the crocodile is prodded with a familiarity that might lead a more cynical onlooker than myself to feel it is all staged. The fact that they are then sat upon by tourists smiling awkwardly at the camera leads the sceptic in me to feel that the crocodiles of Paga are now revered for the money they generate.
Thankfully Ghana has more to offer than Paga. Admittedly it does not have a world renowned draw card such as Kilimanjaro or the mountain gorillas but it does have many little gems the sum of which make an attractive and very interesting whole. Yet despite this and that it is one of the few English speaking countries in West Africa, Ghana is yet to make it on to the tourist map. All the more reason to go there. Or so I thought until I arrived in Paga, in the far north of the country, and was forced to cuddle a crocodile.
From Paga I travelled south to Mole National Park, an area of savannah with a gallery of forest that has over 90 mammals and over 300 hundred bird species. Yet such guidebook statistics hide the jewel in Mole’s headdress: its walking safaris.
Walking in the bush is a wonderful pleasure and privilege at the best of times but Mole’s charm is that you can get close to elephants, within metres and much closer than I ever have in Africa. At such close quarters every footfall, every movement of an elephant is so much more closely observed and felt.
Elsewhere in Africa, Southern and Eastern Africa, such an experience would be discussed in detail back at camp over a sundowner. Mole’s one camp is wonderfully located with a waterhole below it but there the comparison with its African counterparts ends. Stuck in a sixties time warp of concrete and size, it is devoid of character and sadly indicative of Ghana’s accommodation outside of Accra and with the exception of Axim Beach resort. Ghana has much to recommend it but good lodges are not part of its make up and hence, possibly, the country has not become the tourist attraction it has the potential to be.
Further south the land transforms into the Ghana of school geography lessons. Green and forested, the afternoon downpours breathe life into the rich red soil, which is brimming with produce. Pineapples, cassava, palms, mangoes, pawpaws and of course cocoa are all grown in abundance. As too the yam, which fried and fluffy like our chip is the staple of market stalls.
The change in the environment is not just limited to physical geography. The influence of Islam wanes giving way to an evangelical and pervasive Christianity that is not afraid to tell me about the omnipresence and omnipotence of God. Signs boldly proclaim that salvation is at hand, others quote from the scriptures, some are simply endearing and amusing: “Thy Will Be Done Licensed Chemical Works” and “Gods plumbing works”.
It certainly was when we arrived at Kakum National Park, one of Ghana’s most extensive and certainly its most famous rainforest area with over 250 bird species and 600 species of butterfly.
“You cannot enter the park,” barked the jumped up official at the park entrance.
“Sorry?” I said in disbelief.
“The park is closed.”
“But why? Why is that?”
“Because it is raining.”
“But Kakum National Park is a rainforest.” I said in even greater disbelief.
My thoughts ranged from frustration at this “jobsworth”, disbelief that Ghana was becoming as much of a nanny state as the UK to resignation that this was sadly symptomatic of Ghana and its nascent tourist industry.
Eventually the rain relented as did the official who allowed me into the forest. Its flora and fauna aside, the main feature of Kakum is its 40 metre high and 350 metre long canopy walkway. I must admit that I was a little nervous about the walkway. Not so much due to vertigo but rather fearful of the number of visitors who flock to Ghana’s most popular tourist site. Thankfully I need not have worried – I had the walkway pretty much to myself and as I peered down into luscious creepers and the humming, rustling greenery below, I was highly impressed.
I was equally struck by the coast, which is picture postcard material with palm-lined golden beaches and the roar of crashing surf. But it was the fishermen, who ply their trade to ancient songs as the morning hauling-in of the nets is accompanied by deep rhythmic chanting, that really delighted me. In a more flippant moment, I have no doubt that if tug-of-war were to become an Olympic sport, the Ghanaians would most certainly be strong medal contenders.
Seeking a change of scene from the swaying palms and surf, I headed out in a flat bottomed canoe to the stilted village of Nzulezo. Supporting a population of 450 to 500, Nzulezo is one solid construction raised above the water consisting of a central wooden walkway with a number of houses on both sides. There is a small school and also a small Catholic church.
The people initially came from Mali some four hundred years ago. Some 20% of the population are Catholic whilst the rest are animist worshipping a god called Amansuri (named after the river and housed in a shrine just away from the village in the water) who is symbolised by a snail – a metaphorical expression of their journey south from Mali to where they have now settled.
The village is interesting but the lack of activity makes it far from gripping. Thankfully the journey was a real highlight. Nzulezo is on a lagoon in the Amansuri wetland, a large and beautiful area of swamp forest of some 8,000 hectares. We followed the Amansuri River through areas of marsh and open pools fringed by raffia palm thickets and lush jungle. The stillness and quiet was soothing and peaceful and the setting beautiful. The water, stained the colour of tea by decomposing leaves, added a reflective beauty.