Bull elephants don’t do light breakfasts. Long before we saw the enthusiastic diner we heard the enthusiastic dining; Osman Suluman heard it even earlier. “Listen,” he whispered, gesturing towards a copse of anogeissus trees. He adjusted his safety rifle. “Now we must be hushed.” The rest of us strained our eyes and ears into the early morning woods. A minute passed as we stepped through knee-high grass. Two kob antelopes pricked up and turned tail.
And then we could hear it. The crunching of boughs, the tearing of vines and branches. A muted trumpet shuddered from the undergrowth. That the source of the messy rumpus remained camouflaged added to the thrill. Another minute, a splintering crash, and then it appeared: five tons of savannah elephant, breathtakingly close and performing the pachyderm equivalent of flinging its toast and eggs around the kitchen table.
Mole National Park (pronounced Mo-lay) is renowned for its small-group foot safaris, and with reason. Our 6.30am walk had already led us down from a 40m-high plateau, past mint-covered hillsides, around well-snuffled salt licks and into riverine forest. Bushbucks had stood and gazed, baby-bearing baboons had tripped along in the sunshine and families of warthogs – the savannah’s unwitting comic turns – had tottered around us on dainty heels, gruffling at herbs.
By the time we’d got back to the park’s sole hotel for the freshest mint tea I’m ever likely to taste, we’d tracked hyena prints, chanced upon a pair of rare Abyssinian ground-hornbills and almost toppled into an aardvark’s den, before spending a breathless half-hour barely fifteen metres away from our noisily breakfasting friend. And the cost of this skin-tingling, sensurround experience? Six Ghanaian cedis for two hours. Just a shade more than £2.50.
Mole sits in the north of Ghana, a country often bracketed “Africa for beginners”. The label comes by virtue of a low-hassle travellers’ circuit, a remarkable diversity and a readily bestowed smile. There’s a stable democracy in place, poverty levels are among the most controlled in the sub-Sahara and the nation has been proudly independent since 1957 (before which it existed as the rather more troubled Gold Coast). It’s hardly devoid of social ills, of course, but it’s difficult to overlook the prevalent mood of easy goodwill.
A legacy of the colonial period is that English is an official language, but around 50 African dialects are spoken among the six main ethnic groups. As a model of peaceful co-existence, then, it’s a success story. And as I was reminded daily, the destination’s regional credentials were boosted still further over the summer, when its football team came within a crossbar’s width of becoming the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final. Red-green-and-gold patriotism can rarely have been higher. “Africa loves Ghana,” one beaming taxi driver told me. “We carried its dreams. And wait until next time…”
Back up in Mole, the elephants were clearly in favourable mood too. The literally unrivalled Mole Motel (£28 a night for a top-whack ‘chalet’ complete with balcony, breakfast and, when fate is so inclined, running water) is on an escarpment overlooking endless miles of green savannah. A large watering-hole spreads over the foreground. I sat and watched one midday as two dust-brown elephants submerged themselves, reappearing on the surface in their natural black before conducting a long watery slow-dance, trunks entwined and boulder-sized heads bobbing in the pool. Two nearby crocodiles, visible only as snouts and eyes, shared counsel and kept their distance. It was a moment that felt almost voyeuristic to witness.
A safari in Mole can’t be compared to a safari in an East African game park – nor should it be. The range of big game is, for a start, more limited. There are buffalo, leopards, even lions, but they tend to restrict themselves to the vast expanses of park away from the visitors’ centre. (“I’ve been here for 17 years and seen a lion three times,” one ranger explained.) It stands as the largest national park in Ghana, but only a relatively tiny portion of its 4,577km² is readily accessible to tourists, making poaching and unfulfilled potential the two main problems it currently faces. There’s also the small matter of access. The only road leading to the park is a classic rib-rattler: imagine driving over a cattle-grid for four hours and you’ll have the general idea.
In certain ways, however, this lack of slickness only added to Mole’s rough-around-the-edges appeal. While the park’s unlikely to threaten the continent’s glossy-brochure safaris, it has very real charms of its own, and not just in terms of cost. It still felt like a well-guarded secret. The setting is the kind you could sit in for days, binoculars in hand, while with guides as distinguished as Osman and birding expert Zachariah Ware, there’s the very real likelihood of an enriching, educative encounter with nature.
“We need development funds,” Zachariah told me on our birdlife walk, during which he pointed out a rainbow-hued profusion of striped swallows, woolly-necked storks, red-throated bee-eaters and – an astonishing sight – exclamatory paradise whydahs. “The government keeps promising to pave the road to the park. We keep hoping.”
In the days I spent at Mole, I joined three walking safaris, all of which were laden with bushbuck, waterbuck, kob, warthogs, green monkeys and guinea fowl. I also took a gloriously serene canoe safari (part of a community initiative to raise money for a local village) and arranged a jeep drive (otherwise known as “hopping onto a Nissan roof-rack and holding tight”), during which Osman located a far-off wandering herd of six elephants with the omniscient eye of a born tourist-pleaser.
The region directly around the park is an attraction in itself. The town of Larabanga is typical of the mud-and-thatch settlements in Ghana’s Islamic north, and plays home to what is West Africa’s oldest mosque. Experts disagree on exactly how old it is – I was told 1421 by the local eager to pocket a few cedis by showing me round the outside – but the main attraction lay in its simple domed architecture, spiked at regular intervals by wooden ruts.
On a neighbouring street, a young boy rushed up to me with a bowl of what looked like clotted cream. “Shea butter,” he said. Shea trees grow readily in the area. The butter is a workaday cooking essential in Ghana, but transforms into a cosmetic luxury by the time it reaches the UK. There’s probably a lesson there somewhere.
Further east, the minaret-studded city of Tamale – the hub for reaching and departing Mole – was an absorbing base. I wandered red-dust streets to echoes of “Hello obruni!” (Hello white man!), talked football with just about everybody who found out I was English and made repeat visits to – I’ll go out on a limb – the best jollof rice stand in town.
With its ankle-length robes, warm vibe and striped prayer-ablution teapots, the city felt a world away from the capital, Accra, where I’d first arrived. The Muslim influence in Tamale was rife, although on the weekend I was there a vast Catholic celebration was taking place in a showground. “Oh! Christian, Muslim, we are all very peaceful,” one nattily dressed devotee informed me. “In Ghana we marry, we share our houses, we are friends. Everyone don’t worry about everyone. No problem!”
If Tamale was calm, the city of Kumasi six hours to the south was the opposite, an exhilarating punch to the senses. Its crazed heart was the immense Kejetia Market, home to some 10,000 vendors punting their wares. The soundtrack was an unhinged orchestra of highlife music, evangelists and taxi-honk. Among the chattering labyrinth of yams, beads, rugs, fish, bras, drums and hens, there was barely room to walk. Soap scents swirled with the meaty pongs of the butcher stalls. Vividly coloured kente cloth was being hawked from floors, racks, shelves, ceilings and head-perched baskets. It was hot. I got lost in the jewellery lanes for what felt like two hours. It was wonderful.
Kumasi forms the centre of the once-mighty Ashanti Region. Ashanti culture is still very much alive, and has its roots in what was one of the most powerful kingdoms in West Africa. Legend has it that in the 17th century, a golden stool descended from the sky, appointing the first king of the Ashanti. The ethnic group, effectively a federation of different clans, went on to dominate much of present-day Ghana and the Ivory Coast, controlling European trade and developing a reputation for warfare.
Today, a visit to the Prempreh II Jubilee Museum gives an insight into the culture’s continuing importance. “Most residents of Kumasi are still Ashanti,” explained merry guide Yaa Agyapomaa Addai. “The current king is the most powerful man in Ghana after the president. In fact we probably listen to him more.” She showed me a fake golden stool that had been presented to the British after they demanded its surrender. “The real golden stool is with the king at his palace here in the city.” She pointed to several photos of a noble-looking man in fantastic off-the-shoulder robes. Does he wear these day to day, I asked? “Yes. Tradition is extremely important.” A pause. “But he likes playing golf, so he has different clothes for that.”
The final leg of my trip carried me down to the coastal region, where history still hangs heavy. Ghana’s centuries under colonial influence, as the Gold Coast, saw it first become a base for gold and ivory, then later a main terminus for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The towns of Cape Coast and Elmina – both so visceral and alive today, with swarming harbours full of brightly painted pirogues – still have their slave-era castles. To visit them, and to hear the facts and figures spoken baldly, and to see the scratched dungeon walls, is a desperately chastening experience. At the foot of the courtyard in Cape Coast Castle is a barred double gate. Above the portal it reads “The Door of No Return”. When it was opened for me, all that was visible was the sea.
Such sadness seemed deeply incongruous with the view from the ramparts, a late-afternoon hubbub of fishermen and laughing schoolyard footballers, with the smell of grilling seafood on the air. Today’s Ghana is a welcoming, humbling and auspicious country for independent discovery – there are any number of different north-south itineraries to explore – and one of its most salutary gifts is that it showcases three sides of West Africa: its past, its present, its hopeful future.
It’s an attitude that imbues every aspect of life. On my long road journeys from the coast to Mole and back, the music-pumping buses plying the roads were regularly – and extensively – given to lengthy delays. But then that’s Ghana all over. Even the timetables are optimistic.