Friday, December 10, 2010

Mole National Park: The journey there

First road trip of my stay in Ghana: off to Mole (pronounced “mo-lay”) National Park and Tamale (“tah-muh-lay”) with the GSK group: Nela, Dorella, Steffi and Markus (GSK by marriage).  According to an article on The Statesman (“Ghana’s oldest mainstream newspaper, founded in 1949”), the first Farmers Day was celebrated in 1985 to reward the agricultural sector for rebuilding after some devastating droughts.  It’s celebrated every year on the first Friday of December.  Like American holidays that create long weekends, much of the meaning of the event is lost in rush to leave town on holiday, but we did see signs about Farmers Day celebrations in the little villages we passed through on our way up north.

Starting Wednesday night, Kumasi suffered city-wide blackouts, with parts of the city—including ours—not having power restored until late Thursday or Friday.  According to one of the teachers, the ongoing power issues were on the local news—which means that it’s a really big deal, since it seems that the electricity goes out for a few minutes every day somewhere in the city.  After a long, hot, sleepless night (since no power means no A/C in the bedroom), I was pretty happy that we would be taking a long road-trip in a nice, air-conditioned SUV.  Nela’s driver, Owusu, came to get us around 2:30 on Thursday afternoon in his company’s Nissan Patrol, the same car he uses when driving Nela around in “the jungle”. 
Side note: Nela’s assignment is to build a working lab to analyze patient samples in a village cluster called Bonsaaso, a couple hours southwest of Kumasi.  In case you’re interested in the experience of a volunteer in rural Africa, the translator on Google Toolbar does a good job with turning her Spanish blog into passable English
We loaded up the car with people and stuff and headed north…into the teeth of typical Kumasi traffic.

A word about Kumasi traffic: I wouldn’t use the phrase “traffic jam” as that implies that the traffic sometimes goes away.  No, Kumasi traffic deserves to be put into the same category as death and taxes.  During my daily commute to various schools, one of the best parts of Akmed’s driving skills is his knowledge of the back routes that allow him to avoid the worst of the traffic.  Either Owusu doesn’t know those Kumasi routes or they don’t exist for the trip we were making, because it took us about 45 minutes to get from our house to the north edge of Kumasi.  But after that, we left most of the traffic behind and started making good time.

Most of the road north is decent blacktop, with a wide shoulder that allows for easy passing, even when there’s oncoming traffic.  I’ve heard that it was upgraded for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, which Ghana hosted.  The stretch between Techiman and Kintampo was the exception to this well-made road.  As soon as we left Techiman, the blacktop became a crumbling, pothole-ridden mess where drivers typically chose the single lane that was pothole free, which might or might not be on their side of the road.  It felt a little bit like off-road racing, a feeling that was only magnified when we hit the 4-lane dirt road that was still being (re)built.  The dustclouds generated by the cars were so thick that we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us.  The closest I’ve ever come before to driving this blind was a trip to the NC mountains when we ended up driving through the clouds to get to the peaks.  This dusty portion felt like it lasted an eternity but it was probably only 20 minutes.  Then we returned to broken blacktop until we reached Kintampo.  Right after Kintampo, we made a stop at the obruni-approved rest-stop where the better pavement made it seem that we would have smooth sailing.

That is, until the A/C broke.  Owusu had been fiddling with the A/C throughout the trip and as the sun was setting, the A/C stopped getting as cold.  Unfortunately, this was a prelude to it completely breaking the next day, meaning that we were then stuck with no A/C for the rest of our trip to the hot, dry north.

Long after dark (which falls like a blanket over the land at 6:30), we reached the turn-off to Mole National Park.  After making the turn, we had to drive 80-odd kilometers on a rutted, washboarded dirt road.  Luckily the A/C was still struggling along enough that we didn’t have to open the windows through the dust-storm.  In a couple places, fresh pavement was laid down through a small village only to return to the dirt road afterwards.  We were jostled about at speeds averaging 60 km, with periods of time where we were barely moving mixed with flatter sections (relatively speaking) where Owusu drove 100-120 km.  Since he’s done this trip many times before, I wasn’t all that concerned about how fast he was driving on this road.  Steffi was curled up in the third row seat next to the luggage and somehow slept through all this bouncing around.  (And I thought I could sleep anywhere…)

When we reached Damongo, Owusu had us call the park motel to make sure that we could still get food at the restaurant.  Based on reviews of the Mole Motel, I had already called them multiple times in the previous week to confirm our reservation, with the last confirmation call occurring that afternoon as we were leaving Kumasi.  They were still expecting us and said the restaurant would be open until 10 that night.  We continued our uneventful, bouncy journey and reached the park a little after 9 that night.

At the gate, we had to pay the meager sum of 49 cedis to cover the entry fee for the five of us tourists.  Since Owusu was “rented” along with the car, he got in free.  Normally the locals have to pay two cedis a person.  That has to be the least amount of money I’ve ever spent for any country’s national park entry fees.

We drove the few kilometers from the gate to the Mole Motel and checked into our rooms.  At the restaurant, we were given a choice of chicken with rice… or rice with chicken (a nod to Nela’s food options at her hotel in “the jungle”).  After unloading our stuff into our rooms and saying good-bye to Owusu, who was staying down in Damongo, we headed back to the restaurant to polish off our heaping plates of rice with a grilled chicken leg.  We walked back to our rather spacious but spartan triple rooms and headed to bed to try to get enough sleep before our Safari Walk at 6:30 am the next morning.

Which is where I leave this story for now….

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