Mole National Park, Ghana- Africa’s Cheapest Safari
By Adam Black
I am resting in my motel room at Mole National Park in Ghana when a frightened shriek pierces the air. Racing outside I find a scattering of baboons along the park escarpment and two of my travel companions looking flustered.
‘What happened?’ I ask.
‘A baboon just tried to steal my book!’
You may not fancy getting quite so intimate with African animals, but Mole National Park, in north-west Ghana, definitely offers one of the best wildlife watching opportunities in the country.
And at less than US$5 for a two-hour safari, it could be the cheapest in all of Africa.
The long hard road…
The somewhat arduous journey to Mole (pronounced molay) appears to be the biggest reason why the park is yet to become a tourist Mecca on par with Africa’s more renowned safaris.
When my partner Amanda and I traveled to Mole with four other local volunteers we factored in two days for travel. (It can be done in one from Kumasi but it’s recommended only for true masochists).
There was a six-hour bus ride from Kumasi to the city of Tamale, then another three and a half hour bus at 4:30 the following morning to the tiny, wonderfully-named town of Larabanga, situated about 6kms from the park. Before I get to the wonders of Mole, I must first make a digression on public transport in Ghana for the uninitiated.
Basically, unless you travel VIP, it’s not great. Any Westerners coming to Africa with their highfalutin ideas about timetables, reservations, and personal space need to leave that nonsense behind or risk being severely frustrate, and uncomfortable. In Ghana no-one ever seems to know when a bus will arrive or leave. They just leave when they’re full.
On our first bus, two of my friends found themselves squished behind a precarious mountain of barrels and kitchen utensils in the backstairs.
There were only standing tickets left for the second bus, and we were packed in so tight I could feel the stubble on the face of the man behind me through my shirt as we lurched slowly along the uneven dirt road.
The buses frequently slow down at checkpoints along the way, and street hawkers use those precious few moments to conduct window trade with passengers.
Running over with their merchandise balanced on their heads, trying to grab the money and hand the product over before the bus moves off again.
At one checkpoint a woman selling bananas took a passenger’s money just as the bus began rolling away. She started running, faster and faster as the bus accelerated.
I was watching the top of her head fall behind as she yelled, ‘Heeeey! Driver!’, and in a final desperate attempt to complete the transaction, threw the bananas for the narrow window space. They hit the side of the bus and fell in the dirt, moments before the bus stopped again a few meters ahead. I had to admire her dedication to the customer.
North to south, church to a Mosque
The confusion and horror of the transport system were assuaged by the wondrous things we saw along the way. We were flanked by lush green jungle in the south, turning into savannah woodlands in the north.
Occasionally we would pass a tiny ramshackle village – some shanty towns with hot tin roofs, others collections of cylindrical mud-brick houses with pointed roofs made of thatched straw. Moving north from the south the dominant religion changes from Christianity to Islam.
We started to see many modest but pretty concrete mosques – pastel colors and curved archways, crescents, and moons carved up their minarets. In the late afternoon, we saw groups of men in robes and taqiyahs congregating in the shade of trees to pray.
The women’s’ fashion also changed from the bold prints and vibrant colors of kente cloth to sequined headscarves. Everywhere goats, cows, and sheep roamed, apparently freely.
Upon arrival in Larabanga, we called reception at Mole Motel to pick us up. (I’d recommend this, the local taxi drivers will significantly overcharge you). After a short bumpy ride, we arrived at a modest but adequate hotel situated on the edge of an escarpment overlooking the park.
The view of the endless green woodlands stretched out to the horizon. Skittish lizards fled our footsteps as we walked to our rooms, and warthogs huffed about in the grass. I was happy to discover that warthogs, which I assumed would be repulsive animals, are actually quite adorable in person.
The park offers jeep tours of the park, and two-hour-long safari walks with a ranger. They leave at 7 am and 3.30 pm daily and cost just 10 cedis (about US$5). Most of the meals at the motel restaurant cost more.
Our first walk was in the late afternoon. Antelopes bounced away from us through the bush as clambered down the shale path from the escarpment to the savannah. We would see two types of antelope – the larger, impressively solid waterbuck, and the petite, Bambi-like kob.
After our descent, we wandered casually through bush and wetlands. It was lush but easy to traverse. Abundant wild mint crushed underfoot, giving the air a lovely, fresh scent.
We soon came upon a group of olive baboons, who appeared indifferent to humans, if not fearless. They can hang out in groups of up to 60, and we would go on to see them many times, including at the motel, where they gather en masse at the escarpment on dusk, and in the early mornings, when they test for unlocked rooms to steal food from.
The red, raw, grotesquely swollen ass of a baboon in heat is a confronting sight at the best of times, but first thing in the morning, stealing all your crackers? Nightmare.
On dusk, we came to a small village where children were playing amongst baboons, warthogs, and patas monkeys as casually as if they were cats and dogs.
Where can an elephant hide?
The following morning we arose early for another safari walk – hoping to see an elephant. Although Mole is home to about 800 of them, we knew our chances were slim.
In the dry season (January – March) the elephants are forced to congregate at a single waterhole near the motel, but during the wet season water is plentiful throughout the park, and they are free to roam. (If seeing an elephant is your main priority then time your trip accordingly).
The guides apologized frequently for the lack of elephants, suggesting that people must complain if they don’t see one, but keep in mind you see about 3 km2 of the vast wilderness they have to explore.
What would you do if you were a wild elephant with unlimited water supplies? Wander freely through your pristine natural habitat? Or hang around a motel so sunburnt tourists can snap photos of you all day?
So there seemed to be a general air of discontent amongst our group of sunburned tourists because we failed to see an elephant. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience even without elephants.
The bush was fresh with morning dew, and tranquil until we came across a group of around 30 baboons bashing through the forest.
Our informative guide pointed out several types of bird, including the dazzling colors of the red-throated bee-eater, and showed us termite mounds that towered over a person. It was magical until we rose at 4:30 the following morning to catch another bus.
Destination Mole National Park, Ghana
It represents the best bird watching, and wildlife-spotting opportunity in Ghana, for ridiculously cheap prices.
When to Go
The dry season (January – March) is definitely the best time to visit Mole as there’s a much higher concentration of animals around the main waterhole, which is visible from the Motel. You may even see an elephant visiting an even closer waterhole – the motel pool!
Getting there and around
Metro Mass buses from Kumasi to Tamale leave sporadically daily (ask one of the orange-vested station employees when you arrive) and cost 20 cedis (US$10).
From Tamale, you can catch a second bus in the direction of Bolgatanga or Wa (8 cedis/3-4 hours). These will pass through Larabanga, from which it’s a short jeep ride to Mole Motel. Return buses to Tamale leave the motel daily at 4.30 am.
Elephants, baboons, and warthogs literally at your doorstep.
Best Activity or Tour
There are jeep tours cover more of the park, but the walking tours really allow you to get up close to the animals.
At the moment Mole Motel is really the only option within the park, (a second more luxurious motel is currently under construction). But it’s a pleasant place to stay, with a decent restaurant, spacious rooms and a pool overlooking the park. Book well ahead in the dry season, and a few weeks ahead in the off-season.
Prices – Dorm – 30 cedis (US$15) /Double – 80 cedis (US$40) /Triple – 90 cedis (US$45) /Chalet – 105 cedis (US$55)
Due to its remote location, your only convenient eating option is the restaurant at Mole Motel. They serve a mixture of Ghanaian and international cuisine that’s expensive by Ghanaian standards but still decent (about $7 – $12 for most mains). I’d recommend the omelets (cheese, ham, and mushrooms are rare outside of Accra, so enjoy them when you can!), the chicken curry, and the spaghetti with vegetable sauce.
Adam Black is an Australian freelance journalist currently volunteering in Ghana with his girlfriend Amanda.