On the Volta

Expedition to the Volta Dam

Weekend two: another outing

As the end of the week approaches, Liz again wangles the Friday off from work, and we borrowed the driver for a couple of days. Liz is leaving Ghana for a while on Saturday evening, so we don't have a lot of time. She’s stopping off in the UK to see her Mum, and we’ll reunite in California .

Once again our departure is delayed. Liz attempts to buy an electricity card on her way home on Thursday(that’s how you top up the meter), but there’s such a queue she decides to leave it until the morning. Unbeknown to us, an important figure has just died and all the shops will be closed in mourning for three days (that's why there was a queue).It was an important local priest, apparently. I’ve been trying to find more information on this, so far unsuccessfully.

On Saturday morning, Yelbert goes off to find somewhere open. He has to drive some way, but eventually is successful. When we leave, we see that most places are indeed closed until we get some considerable distance away.

Typical Ghanaian village

This time we headed East, to the Volta river, and the town of Akasumbo. The landscape was more interesting than much of the country, but the villages are the same mixture of dusty, often ramshackle, places with a plethora of churches. We pass an army base and a training barracks. At the training place is the motto Train Hard, Battle Easy, which I thought should be the title of the next Bond movie. We do see more street (or rather road) vendors than we’ve seen before. In one area, there are several miles of stalls (well, mainly benches) selling some basic, but good-looking pottery. All the vendors appear to be selling exactly the same range of goods. I can’t help but wonder why someone would stop and buy from the 36th stall, or the 78th, rather than the 3rd or 4th.

We pass a nature reserve, and the road is lined with troops of what I believe are some sort of baboon. They sit, idly, watching the traffic go by, and now and again there will be some small argument within a troop.

patiently waiting by the roadside

The people here look a little different to Accra, I think, somewhat lighter in skin tone and often taller.. The food being sold by the road side gradually changes too. The local “shrimp” are much in evidence. They are the size of langoustines, or bigger. Liz had some at one meal in a restaurant. I don’t think I’d like to try the street version, they’ve been carried around, maybe for hours, on these ladies’ heads . Shrimp and similar crustaceans are notoriously susceptible to salmonella and other gut-busting bacteria. Typhoid is fairly common here too, probably food-bourn.

Another local delicacy is the snail kebab. I’m not talking about delicate little escargots here, like you’d get in France (or in Cornwall). These chaps are the size of a clenched fist. They’re a big item in the local cuisine , and this seems to be where they come from. Again, there are dozens of people with a head full of these peculiar snacks. And again, who knows how long they’ve been sitting atop a vendor’s head in the hot sun?

On the subject of food, I have been forced to ditch my plan to try some of the local street food – I had decided to risk the slightly worrying fact that most of the guys have no water or refrigeration, but I had a slight but definite case of tourist tummy this week anyhow, and thought that upping the ante was a silly idea. Memories of staying close to the facilities for some days in Kenya many years ago surface.

As we approach Akasumbo, we are obviously in a seriously touristy area, at least for Ghana. There are more hotels and lodges, many of them actually completed, than I have seen before, Also more eating places, some looking pretty tempting. And casinos (though don’t imagine Las Vegas here, more a gambling den from the Wild West) - and, wonder of wonders! Public toilets!

We pass through the town itself, to a hotel right on the river. We didn’t choose it ourselves – this is Yelbert the driver’s recommendation. He spent his honeymoon here, and remembers it fondly. The room we take is not that amazing in itself, though it is a nice one, But it is literally right on the river. There is a little balcony outside. And beyond that a platform floating on the river itself. You can swim in the river here, they say, and I see people doing so – also using it for laundry. It is fast-flowing, and looks clean enough. Again, perhaps I’m too fussy, but I’m not sure what the sanitary arrangements are here, or where the sewage goes, so I’m a little wary. Nevertheless, I sit on the jetty with my socks and shoes off, and my feet dangling in the water.

On a hot day (and there’s no other sort in Ghana), it is heavenly.

View of the Volta riverfrom our room

Our hotel is a little way below the Volta dam, which produces hydro-electric power. Along with another Ghanaian dam, this produces most of the country's power, and electricity is also exported to neighboring countries. The lake is heavily fished, too heavily by all accounts, with stocks swindling. Much of the labor is provided by children, many of whom are virtually enslaved. It is the largest lake in Ghana, and the largest reservoir in the entire world. When it was built in the 1960's, about 80,000 people had to be relocated. Moves are afoot to harvest the forests which were drowned during its creation, which could become the biggest source of hardwood in the world, they say.

There has obviously been considerable rain recently, and the river is higher than normal – you can tell simply because some of the riverside pavilions where people can be served food looking out over the river are flooded to a depth of several inches. One guy takes advantage of this to cool off. He’s sitting in a chair, shoes and socks off, trousers rolled up, feet in the water and fast asleep.

Drums at Akasumbo

The hotel has considerable grounds, very nicely laid out. All the rooms are single-story affairs. The reception is also the bar and restaurant, and obviously used for entertainment and dancing too – I expect there’ll be a fair amount of that for the wedding. At the center of the thing is a remarkable set of drums, formed from single hollowed-out tree trunks. One is taken from the place where the trunk divides in two, and is adorned with a carving of a face.

the wedding preparations

Liz and I decide to hire a canoe for a paddle (is that the correct term technically?). It was fun, though harder work coming back against the current than it was going with it. It was a lot harder to steer too than I thought. I guess the only other times I’d been in one of these was in a lake or boating pond, with no current. They also had what we Brits call a pedallo, a pedal-boat, something I’ve loved since I was but a small person. I’m quite glad I didn’t have to pedal one of those against the current, or indeed attempt to steer it.

Paddling my own canoe

At the hotel preparations for a wedding are in progress. Tables and trees are bedecked with ribbons, a whole area is marked out for the celebration – there are lots of women busily engaged in preparing for the ceremony the next day. All are giggling and having a fine time as they make various decorations for tables trees and the whole area. Or maybe it’s the trees who are getting married- who can tell? We won’t be there for the ceremony, which takes place on Saturday afternoon. I’m rather sorry about that, I’d love to see it.

We eat at the hotel in the evening, another good but not remarkable meal. In the evening, a strange noise issues from right outside our room (thus directly in or over the water). At first I think it’s ducks, right outside the window. US readers will know what I mean if I say it sounded like an ongoing live “Afflac” advert. It was extremely loud (and this is a pretty deaf person saying so).But the noise doesn’t move., like a duck or goose would in the water. We guess it’s probably some variety of very noisy frog – and when we ask the next morning, this guess turns out to be right, though we haven't seen them.

While we’re here we do two other things: on the driver’s advice, we first go next door to another hotel, where they have local wildlife on display. We’re sorry we did this, they are not in good conditions. OK, so you can keep crocodiles in fairly basic conditions, they spend most of their lives just sitting still anyhow – the same goes for snakes. But there’s some kind of wildcat I’ve not seen before in a concrete room with no distractions, looking lonely and sad, and a pathetic monkey alone in a cage with only a stick to climb. It’s impossibly cramped, and the poor little chap seems very grateful for someone just stopping to chat with him. I wish they’d let these guys go. Nobody but us is here to look, the whole thing seems completely pointless.

Our other outing is more rewarding – a river trip in a powered boat to the hydro-electric dam. (See the picture at the top of the entry) Above the dam is Volga lake, Liz has seen this before from above, but now we approach it from below. It is an impressive sight, and along the way we see other things too. There are islands in the middle of the river which the little boy who still operates a lot of my psyche wants to get off and explore, especially if nobody lives there. We see enclosures in the river which I assume are some sort of “stews”, i.e., places where you raise fish in captivity. And the air is full, absolutely full, of some sort of pollen, or seed system. For a crazy moment I think it’s snowing. I don’t suppose any of the local languages even have a word for “snow”. There are puffballs of a feathery, cottony material – from snowflake size up to apple size, each of which (when I capture a few) have a single black dot in the middle. With the first one I assume it’s a speck of dirt. Soon I understand this is the actual seed, the reason for the whole shebang. In places the river is almost covered with these seed distributors.

Our room on the Volta as seen from the river

The air above is full of some sort of kites (the raptors, not the toys), who almost look to be guiding the rush of seedlings into the air -they both look as if they're issuing from a single source just out of sight. In reality, I guess that the birds and the seeds are riding the same thermals. The kites are hovering (or rather gliding and wandering around a fixed point– they don’t hover in one spot like a kestrel) and waiting for prey. Our boat guy stops to pick up a fish which an overambitious kite has tried to pick up, the weight proving too much so the raptor let it drop. Which would have been lucky for the fish (a tilapia? – but we’re pretty far up into freshwater territory here, so maybe not.), except the poor thing was already dead.

We ride out to the dam which supplies a huge percentage of Ghana’s electricity. It’s an impressive sight, though Liz says it looks even better from upriver. During this ride, we pass fishing boats, usually long kayak-like affairs with two fishermen in. They fish with small nets, and they seem to be out all day and all night.

This is a great spot, and I wish we could stay a little longer and spend some time in the town too, but I’m going home shortly and Liz is coming back for a while too, to celebrate her birthday, so it’s just a short visit.

On Saturday I order the "Full English Breakfast". It consists of frankfurters, a vegetable omelette and cold baked beans...

We drive back on Saturday, and make three stops. The first is to buy bananas. The second is to distribute them to the baboons. I don’t know if this is why they sit by the road, or if a lot of people do this, but the troop seem excited by the prospect, although not hugely surprised. They’re very organized, in a I’m-bigger-than-you-are sort of way. When a banana lands near several of them, the smallest one charges in desperately, and tries to eat it before someone bigger cuffs him, or just bares teeth and looms. If the smaller one is bold or desperate enough, it will run like hell with the ‘nana, eating all the time (“Never run while you’re eating”, my mother always told me. Well, she wasn’t gonna get lunch taken away by large and aggressive relatives, was she?).

A guy who is obviously Alpha-male, Big Boss, the Don, whatever you want to call it, turns up. He is a bad-tempered little dictator (well, not all THAT little actually – he’s far bigger than the others, probably because he gets to eat more). He’s stronger, meaner, and has some alarming-looking teeth. We throw the bananas in random directions, as far as we can. The others rush to get them and eat them practically in one bite, then run like hell as King Nasty bears down on them like an express train. He gets about half the bananas, no matter what we do.

I ate King Nasty's banana - time to go!

And no, we don’t leave the car while we’re doing this. I for one am not gonna argue with King Nasty.

The third stop is to eat – Liz will be leaving in the evening, and who knows if there’ll be power, gas, water?

We’re most of the way back before we stop at an intriguing place, which covers several acres and contains a number of different restaurants serving various cuisines – the most elaborate arrangement I’ve seen yet here. Not all are open right now. We eat outside which is very pleasant. The food is OK, except that I order a steak, and they don’t seem to realize in Ghana that some cuts of steak can be grilled or fried, others need to be stewed. When I first started cooking, I made this mistake too, and of course if you fry the tough one it might taste nice, but you need steel dentures to actually chew the darn thing. The driver has foofoo, which still doesn’t look very appetizing.

At one point a lady walks by with a very cute little girl, about two years old. She can’t help staring at me – I don’t think she’s seen a white guy before, except on TV. I give her a wave, and she breaks away from her momma and runs over to me to touch my arm and just stare at me with her huge eyes. It’s a very touching moment.

When we get home we have gas and power, but still no water. The standpipe outside is dry too.

Our driver promises to find some water for us, later. Meanwhile, Liz gets ready to leave, and we bid a fond farewell. I’m not fated to see her quite as soon as planned, because her mother is not well, and Liz stays on in the U.K. a few days. In the meantime, I’m in Accra on my own for about 36 hours. More about that next time.