We leave Mike and Hannah in Tamale to drive to Mole National Park in a taxi. Mike has arranged the expedition with the driver, Fuseini, who frequently drives taxi for Mike. We understand the trip will take about 3 hours and that the road is one of the worst in Ghana.
For the first hour and a half, we think the road is in poor condition, some potholes so deep that Fuseini drives on the shoulder to avoid them, but not too bad. It’s early in the morning and the windows are open so the breeze cools us. Then we turn off the ‘main’ road onto a red dirt road (all the dirt in Ghana is red) which has little resenblance to any road I’ve travelled before. Potholes are sometimes 2 feet deep, in places the road has simply fallen away. It is like corduroy, rutted and bone-shatteringly bumpy. Fuseini, despite being only 19, is a very good driver: he winds in and out among the potholes and often veers down a 2′-3′ incline to drive in the ditch, which is smoother than the road.It gets hotter; the breeze still cools us a little but also continuously blows red dust in on us.
Three hours pass, three and a half. We are now in deep country, hardly any shacks or people. For long stretches no other vehicles. We pass innumerable communities of round mud huts with thatched roofs. People close to the road look up to watch us pass, their expressions hostile. But if we wave, they break into huge smiles and wave back; the children leap about and shout, grinning. We wave at everyone we see, because it’s a thrill to get this response. I start to feel like the Queen.
Finally, four hours after departure, at noon, we enter the national park. We are coated in rusty dust, my hair is stiff with it. The sun is beating down; it’s horrendously hot, but the park is lovely – silent, completely free of the ubiquitous Ghanaian rubbish. This feels like the Africa of literature. And the sky does seem larger here than at home. It’s savannah, grass and brush and intermitent tall trees, watering holes and lots of red earth.
The Mole motel, the only accommodation inside the park, is an unimpressive structure: white-plastered single storey blocks, some with ‘chalets’, some with double or shared rooms, a couple of dormitories. Given the intense heat we are glad we have booked an air-conditioned chalet with a view. Of course it isn’t ready for us, so we’re ushered into the outdoor restaurant, which is a few steps up from the pool. Beyong the pool the land drops away and we look out over the park and two large watering holes where the animals are said to some early morning and late evening.The view is breathtaking. The air shimmers with heat. While we’re waiting a young man sitting poolside jumps up and calls over to us.: “An elephant”. We hurry down to watch the animal swinging its way across the grass. We’ve arrived.
The next morning at 6:45 we set off on a walking safari, in groups of 7-8, all taking different routes. Our guard/guide Christopher carries a rifle and stays in touch with the other guides by cell phone. As everyone wants to see elephants (the only really big animals seen with any frequency in the park), if one guide sees any, he lets the other guides know so all groups can head in the same direction. Some days there are no elephants to be seen. “It’s not a zoo,” says Christopher. He sets a reasonable but steady pace. Immediately we start to see wildlife. Warthogs are less visible here than they were around the hotel, but we get quite close to a family/community of baboons.
We also see, at greater distance several varieties of antelope, thought they leap away if they catch wind of us. Still there is something thrilling about seeing wild animals so near.
An hour into the walk we are gasping and drenched in sweat despite the early hour. Unfortunately the wildlife thins. No sign of elephants. Jay grumbles that it seems to be a lot more about walking than viewing. Then the guide starts to note signs of an elephant’s passage, an uprooted tree (elephants eat leaves, bark and roots) a spoor. He says, “If the elephants are in this part of the park they will come to the watering hole. They are here, we will see them.” This gives us renewed motivation to keep up, although I never wanted to lose sight of the man with the gun. There aren’t many dangerous animals in the park (no lions or cheetahs, leopards almost never seen by day, crocdiles stay in the water, but still – they carry guns for a reason, right?)
The call comes through around 9:45, when we are on our way back. The elephants have been sighted.And then, there they are: two immense majestic beasts lumbering slowly across the grass toward the watering hole. We all turn into camera nuts, madly snapping. A third elephant appears. We’re probably 100 yards from them. Amazing.
In the late afternoon we go on a driving safari. Young Fuseini comes with us (he’s been hanging out in a nearby village where he knows people, but he’s never seen elephants either.) Our group of 8 travels in a jeep. Not your luxurious Kenyan-style never-open-the-windows air-conditioned safari landrover but a rattly old windows-down jeep. Half the group sits on slats on top of the jeep, the rest are inside (we switch halfway through the safari). We’re on top to start and it is lovely and cool. Plus we have a fantastic view. We drive deep into the park, stopping whenever anyone spots anything. We see herds of waterbuck and Kob and bushbuck. Then the guide sights 6 elephants: two adult females and 4 youngsters. Apparently young elephants and the females stay together until the young males are fully mature (8-12 years). Then the males go off together, the females stay with the young (although I’m guessing there is some interaction to produce the young…) As they disappear into the trees the guide says “We can’t follow them. Either they will run away or charge us.” I see his point.
On the way back another safari jeep pulls over ahead of us. “Elephants” says the guide. They are close by, in the trees, three of them, possibly the same three we saw in the morning. We stop, get out of the jeeps and enter the woods, getting within 50 yards of them. The sound of them tearing off branches and moving through the brush is somehow elemental. The lead elephant flaps his ears and raises his trunk. “Come back” says the guard. I scuttle to do so. It is getting late, the guard wants to leave. Then we realize the elephants are going to cross the road. We wait and capture shots of them against the open red dirt of the road.
1.5 km from the motel our jeep breaks down. Hmm. The mosquitoes are out, dusk is falling. Even if leopards are rarely seen, I don’t want to be marooned in the park after dark. The other jeep stops, drives on as our driver fiddles under the hood. Eventually we push the jeep to the side of the road, the other jeep returns to collect us. By the time we get to the motel it is dark.
When I wake the next day at 6am for the trip back to Tamale, I step out onto our little balcony and see, right below us, an elephant at the watering hole. It is somehow more special to sight it unexpectedly, with no guide to point it out. We leave feeling we’ve had a precious taste of wild Africa.