Ghana: Five Nature Experiences
Experiencing Nature Five Ways in Ghana
By Jessica Festa
When taking a vacation, Ghana, Africa, isn’t often at the top of everyone’s lists. In reality, the country has a lot to offer in terms of history, culture, art, and, most of all, nature.
Lush forests filled with fresh fruits ripe for picking, wild, playful monkeys that will plant themselves on your back for a bite of your banana, high waterfalls that require hours to reach the top, but are worth the hike–these exist all over Ghana. You’ve just got to know where to find them.
Looking out my window as the taxi driver leaves the airport terminal in the capital city of Accra, I am hit with a bit of culture shock. I have just arrived in Ghana, and am not sure what to expect. The traffic is unbearable and the odor of diesel permeates through the closed windows.
Hawkers selling everything from nuts to belts to plungers to children’s toys bang on the window and shout, trying to get my companion, Stephanie, and I to purchase their goods. It is loud and chaotic, a rural community stuffed into an overcrowded city.
We explore the city a bit, getting a feel for the culture and learning some key phrases. Once we feel we have a handle on the tro-tro, the local transport system which is basically a packed out minivan, we decide to leave Accra in search of the more natural side of Ghana.
Walking Above the Trees in Kakum National Park
We catch a tro-tro from Tema Station and make the two hour journey to Cape Coast. We choose to stay at the relaxed Oasis Beach Resort, which provides us with the perfect beach setting to enjoy in our down time. In the morning, we nibble on toast and strawberry jam while watching fisherman pull in their nets, singing and chanting while they work.
From the property, Stephanie and I are able to hire a cab to take us to Kakum National Park, wait for us while we explore, and drive us home. While the park itself draws many visitors from around Africa and the world, once inside this untouched virgin rainforest you will find peace and nature.
Birds sing as we attempt to spot the more than 500 species of butterflies that inhabit the park. The trails remind me of a “Goosebumps” book where you get to choose from different endings; there are so many paths to pick from, each one containing its own adventure.
The real thrill at Kakum National Park is undoubtedly the Canopy Walkway. As I wait in line to traverse over the 131-feet high swinging bridge, my heart pounds. I feel both sweaty and chilly as fear causes me to clam up. Once on the bridge, my fears are only heightened. With each footstep of the people ahead of me the canopy walkway jerks and swings, not smoothly, but rough and jagged. With one awkward foot placement or weight distribution, I honestly feel like I might be flung over the edge.
Once I begin to get used to the discomfort I decide to take a peak over the edge. While the height creates butterflies in my stomach, I realize that I am being given an aerial view of one of the most famous and diverse natural habitats in Ghana.
Although the people behind me keep urging me to continue walking, I halt and take out my camera to snap some photos. When else am I going to get literally be on top of nature like this?
Straddling Crocodiles at Hans Cottage Botel
A local friend had told Stephanie and I about a crocodile pond in Cape Coast where people actually sat on the crocodiles.
“The people don’t get eaten?” I asked, confused.
“With a completely straight face, he replied, “It depends if the crocodile is hungry.”
While I didn’t plan on testing out if the carnivorous wild crocs had eaten lunch or not, I did want to see them for myself. The pond is located at the Hans Cottage Botel, another popular accommodation in Cape Coast. The area surrounding the botel is rural, filled with farms and hiking trails where you can get lost for hours among the palm trees and banana leaves.
Stephanie and I start our day of crocodile hunting by walking along the edge of the water. Swarms of white birds fly chaotically overhead, squawking maniacally. The mood is almost ominous, the perfect setting for a curious traveler to get eaten by a famished crocodile.
I squint, trying to see through the murky water. Nothing, just a bunch of rocks and logs.
“Aren’t there supposed to be hundreds of crocodiles?” I ask, frustrated.
It isn’t until I stop squinting that I am able to see clearly. Hard, bumping masses protrude from the water, an eye here, a nostril there, with the rest of the croc’s body submerged under the brown-tinted pond.
That’s when I hear a young girl to my left begin to squeal, “Look at me!”
While she is talking to her family, I want to see what is going on. Her right arm is lazily placed on the back of the crocodile, while her other hand is stretched up in the air in a “superstar” kind of poise.
Scary, but not terrifying. I mean, apparently other people actually…
She is sitting on it. The girl is sitting on the back of the crocodile. And, it isn’t eating her. How is that possible?
Still, I can’t erase what grade school and my parents have drilled into my head: “Don’t touch wild crocodiles”. Okay, so maybe it hasn’t been a major lesson in my life, like “don’t play with matches” or “look both ways before crossing the street”, but it is probably still just as important.
Although I do not personally touch the crocodiles, I am amazed how big and beautiful they are up close. Seeing them in their natural habitat, and not at a zoo, makes me realize I am really experiencing nature in Ghana.
A Peaceful Lake with a Mountainous Backdrop
Stephanie and I decide that the next stop on our itinerary will be the Volta Region. Known for its hiking, lakes, and mountains this is a nature-lovers paradise in Ghana. We take the tro-tro to HoHoe, and then grab a taxi to the nearby village of Wli-Afegame, which is very peaceful and quiet. Our accommodation here is the Wli Water Heights Hotel.
While you can explore the Volta Region by tro-tro (inconvenient) or taxi (expensive), the best way is to head down the road to Ras Madesko’s place and have Ras, whose real name is Stephan, take you around in his Rastafarian-inspired truck.
For 40 Ghana Cedis (about $25), Stephan took a group of four of us to the Volta Lake, Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary, Mount Afadjato, and various villages, which was a four hour day.
Stephan is a friendly Rastafarian who dresses in traditional clothing and seems to know everyone in town. The truck appears like it is about to break down any second, and I am not surprised when it has to be
hot-wired to start or when rain begins pouring through the roof of the vehicle. However, it somehow seems to get us where we want to go.
When we get to Volta Lake, the body of water that the entire Volta Region is named for, it is alive with activity. Inside the perimeters of the shoreline is a bustling market, and the smell of freshly caught fish permeates the air.
“Plantain chips! Fan ice! Meat pies!” shout the hawkers as we walk through the myriad stalls.
Once we pass the salespeople and are able to get an unobstructed view of the lake, I am in awe. Although the marketplace is noisy and alive, Volta Lake, which is only a few yards away, is peaceful and majestic. Small fishing boats line the shore as the mountains provide a natural backdrop. I feel as though I am standing inside a live Bob Ross masterpiece.
Stephanie and I don’t say a word as we take in the still water and silent mountains. We are so lost in our peaceful mind, we can no longer even hear the shouting locals behind us.
Feeding Wild Monkeys at Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary
“Hold the banana tight, and only let the very tip of it show,” explains Ajingo, our guide at the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary in the Volta Region. We have been walking through the jungle for about twenty minutes, searching for a monkey to feed, when all of a sudden an entire pack of them begin swinging from the trees right in front of us.
“They travel in groups,” says Ajingo. “The big monkey is the leader, and warns the others when danger is near.
I guess they don’t view our group as dangerous, because they don’t run away as we approach. Then again we are a group of ten each holding two bananas, so that might be helping. Slowly, I hold out my hand to a nearby monkey and shake the sweet fruit. The animal stares but doesn’t advance.
As I lock eyes with George, as I have now named him, trying to will him to eat my banana, a different primate makes a diving leap from behind me, latching onto my back.
“Holy sh*t!” I scream in surprise, although the animal is actually extremely gentle and light. He crawls from my back, down my arm, and rips off a piece of banana. My shock turns to adoration as the animal perches on my limb, relaxing and enjoying his afternoon snack. As soon as he decides he is full, he leaps with the grace of a professional ballerina back up into the tree branches.
It isn’t more than a minute later that George decides he actually is hungry, hurling himself full force at my body. At least this time I know what to expect and give the monkey an affectionate stroke on the back.
I can’t get enough of watching these hyperactive animals as they swing playfully from branch to branch, climbing to the tree tips just like I have always seen on television. Except now, I am experiencing it for myself.
A Steep Hike Up the Wli Falls
“You have two options if you want to hike the Wli Falls,” explains Michael, the man in charge of visitors at the waterfalls. “If you want to see jus the lower falls you can hike forty minutes on flat ground. If you would like to see the upper falls, you will hike two to three hours up a very steep hill.”
“We’ll do the upper falls!” I blurt, forgetting to consult Stephanie.
She laughs, knowing how excited I am to complete this hike. We pay the fee (no matter what you do in Ghana, whether natural or man-made activities, you will have to pay), and are linked up with a tour guide named Eric.
As we make our way to the site of the hike, we pass various local fruits and vegetables. Most of them I recognized, like maize, yam, and cassava, however, there were some that looked completely foreign.
“What’s that weird purple thing hanging from that springy branch?” I asked, spying something that looks like it could be from Dr. Seuss.
Eric explains to us that it’s a bushel of bananas. Apparently, bananas begin forming in a big purple bulb, until the “spring” get lower and the bananas are ready to pop out.
When we reach the bottom of the mountain we are going to hike, we are given walking sticks.
Eric states, “You will need these. It is very steep.”
He isn’t kidding. There doesn’t seem to be a level area to the entire hike. Jagged rocks and thick mud create rough terrain as Stephanie and I huff and puff out way to the top. After about an hour, Eric stops us.
“We’re here!” he shouts, excitedly.
I collapse to the group in joyful exhaustion. We did it. We made it to the top!
“We’re at lookout point number one,” Eric continues. “Let’s see if we can make it to lookout point number two.”
Okay, so apparently we weren’t “here”, but at the first lookout point. My disappointment is quickly forgotten however as I am able to see the falls from within a lush forest border. Hearing its roar and seeing its power, I can’t wait to make to the top.
We continue, the path somehow becoming steeper. It feels almost like climbing up a wall. At times, we have to
drop our walking sticks and literally hoist ourselves up onto massive rocks, crawling over them.
When we finally reach the top, two and a half hours later, I realize why we had ventured on such a tough journey. Not only do we have a prime view of the falls as they gush from the mountain peak, connecting the cliff tops with the water below, we are also able to see many of the natural sites of the Volta Region from our lookout point.
Tall mountain ranges covered with a hazy mist give the scene an almost mystical feeling. I can make out the tops of of fruit trees, and spot of color where exotic flowers have grown. Mount Afedjato, the highest mountain in Ghana, seems to glow with pride in the distance.
As I stand at the top of the mountain, so close to the Wli Falls, I really feel like I am one with nature in Ghana.
Jessica Festa is a New York-based travel with a serious case of the travel bug. She has traveled all over the world, including backpacking Europe, hiking her way through China, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, and studying in Sydney. She writes about travel for various publications, including Gadling, Matador, Fodor’s, Europe a la Carte, and her own site, Jessie on a Journey.
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