Karl’s Chronicles, article 4 Varied Shades of Green
Less than 40km, one hour north of Cape Coast in Ghana as the crow flies (3 days if it walks) is Kakum National Park. Exchanging the churning Atlantic for the shadowy tropical geography of lowland rain forest. A pleasant step back in to nature depending on the time and day you visit. The forest, over 360 square kilometres in total is criss-crossed with trails and the genuinely awe inspiring 350 metre long canopy walkway which constitutes, to most, the greatest reason for visiting.
I decided to stay a few days at Kakum, making use of the campsite which would offer numerous chances if the initial plans were undermined by clement weather or too many visitors. Staying on site allowed you to explore the aerial walkway before the park officially opened and early mornings always increased the chances of spotting wildlife. The campsite, situated fifteen minutes in by a slim path that skirted past a banana and cassava plot (for the staff), came to a series of small isolated wooden platforms for pitching your tent under. Cocooned by the symphony of nature that pecked, clicked, hummed, whirred, whistled, and sung up in the high spaces. Whilst flitting along like confetti caught in a passing breeze were hundreds of turquoise butterflies. The area, distant from the noisy buzz of the synthetic world offered a soothing alternative. Further a long the path were two circular open air stone showers and a twenty metre high tree house that could accommodate nearly thirty people. Popular with school groups whose loud excitement would encourage every bird, animal and insect to instigate a heavy exodus out. Weekdays were the best time to visit.
By park rules, visitors were prohibited from navigating the trails without a guide. Supposedly there were leopards and forest elephants but no one had sited them for years. The varied species of primates: the black and white colobus, the lesser spotted nose monkey and Lowe’s mona monkey could regularly be heard in the distant gloom above but rarely seen. Too shy and weary of human presence, though if you remained still, silent and ahead of them you strengthened your success of seeing the troupe. One particular walk centred on the cultural and traditional side of Ghanaian life. The common utensils and implements obtained from certain trees for their specific benefits. The Pestle and Mortar women used to pound fufu and banku came from one very specific hardwood. Their were trees that bled white and a blood red sap used as a local glue. Exposed roots that relinquished pure drinking water when severed were often used by forest hunters. Another claim was the concoction of certain plants that could permanently cure asthma in three doses. Even one plant, with deep green heart shaped leaves had been labelled forest viagra. Taken orally as a paste mixed with water for its potent benefits towards virility. I wondered if side effects rendered you with a stiff upper lip beforehand. The guides spoke of the locals greater knowledge here, of its biodiversity that cured ailments still baffling the Western world with its science and conventional medicines.
Richard, 26, soft but well spoken guided me up to the canopy walkway a few minutes before 7am. I was the first visitor of the day and blessed to watch the forest turn gold as sunrise sailed above the canopy. Setting forth on the first of 11 roped gang planks that shuffled under your footfall, each one linked by an island tree. The walkway had been constructed in 1994 by a Canadian company who had trained and handed over the project to seven Ghanaians. 2019 would be its 25th year and Richard proudly declared that “not a single accident had ever happened.” Visitor figures were exceptional from the few thousand per annum when it first opened to hundreds of thousands in 2018. The highest sections hung 40 metres above the forest floor. As the ground rapidly fell away you edged alongside sporadic trees rising beside you. Everything was pulled back at such a height, Nothing hindered your eye line as you looked several kilometres out to the softened horizon. The scene was enlivened by a musical score of birds, flying insects, cicadas, the creak of both branches and the ropes at your sides. Though it wasn’t offered, I could imagine the aerial walkway taking on a magical realm if conducted under a full moon. Surprisingly, nothing had been attempted and in all his years here, Richard had never crossed it beyond dusk.
Ankassa & Nini-Suhien Reserves.
The forgotten sister to Kakum National Park receives so few visitors that for anyone who does make it you feel proud and privileged. The park gates, located down a six kilometre dirt road from the main coastal highway stood one side of a brackish river forming the reserves natural border. Looking across the adjacent bridge the track disappeared into a mammoth wall of wavering green composed of ferns, trees and creepers. The entrance possessed a strong adventurous lure. But by its very denseness there weaved a growing sense of dread, as if the gate was taking you into Jurassic Park.
The differences are immediate in respect to Kakum. The grand ideas to boost Ankasa’s appeal have floundered through neglect, gradually being reclaimed by the patient tentacles of nature. The reception block stands empty, void both of furniture and natural history exhibits that heighten the curiosity and importance of such an environment. A short path meanders back down towards the river to a wooden bridge, once popular with day trippers taking a picnic. Placards depicting illustrations of the wildlife and the biodiversity are rendered unintelligible by the intrusion of a malignant fungus. Though one, closest to the reception has a beautiful illustration of a leopard stretched out across a branch, its tail hanging like a pendulum as a pair of amber eyes shrewdly look back at you.
Obtaining transport here had worked out so well that I arrived before any of the staff. Ken, one of the guides who I had been liaising with through Kakum turns up an hour later. He is rather hesitant initially to allow me to hike along the track to Nkhwata camp eight kilometres away. It appears, whether in a reserve or a museum in Ghana, the default procedure is to either be placed into a tour or be guided around. National Parks such as those in East Africa generally have predators so the risk is much greater. The majority of wildlife spotting is done from a safari vehicle and if your bush walking you would be accompanied by an armed ranger, a guide and possibly trackers. The campsites themselves are generally safe but little exists between your tent and the wildlife nearby. Though Ankasa has none of the big game aside from bush elephants that roam in the far north it more than makes up in its sheer numbers of birds, butterflies, monkeys, and plant life, easily surpassing Kakum NP.
Ken, who as yet to see any of his other colleagues has to man the gates inadvertently giving me permission to head off. As there is no one else down here he scrawls out a quick introductory letter for me to hand over to the staff up at Nkhwata. The journey takes about two hours to complete, there is no hurry and the sheer majesty of the forest gradually encases you much like a mist. Close to the tracks are large brackish pools, beautified by flowering lilies and fallen trees. Silence resumes the hurried work of small red birds who seem to know the trees better than the monkeys. It’s finally with contented fatigue that I enter Nkhwata and neglect is evident here as well. A compound of huts backed by pit toilets, an open kitchen and store rooms down the far end. A broken solar panel stands in the middle. But the campsite proper is located down a curving flight of stone steps, heavily masked by fallen leaves, into the aptly named Bamboo Cathedral. Two dozen pillars of bamboo have grown up then over, interceding like clasped fingers to form dramatic arches much like the roof of a cathedral. A small stream passes through, providing the camp its drinking water. The air is refreshingly cool here and the soft carpet of bamboo leaves boosts the desirability of being in a tent. No sooner is the tent up and coffee on the stove then I meet the mighty but warm spirited presence of ‘Eagleman’ who manages the area up here. The letter is passed and read with some growing amusement and I expect this must be a signature way of making introductions. Following an energetic welcome I’m left to my own devices. Having secured his services in undertaking a night walk later on. The cathedral resumes back to its casual chatter, occasionally interrupted by the galleon creaks of the bamboo.
Wearing a threadbare t-shirt, tracksuit trousers tucked into white Wellington boots, and by way of light, a torch fastened to his head by a band of rubber, Eagleman looked more like Eddie the Eagle. With a gun slung over his shoulder and clasping a machete in his right hand we set boldly forth. Literally a few seconds later and we have out first sighting. The torch, sweeping across a tree in front reflects a small red pair of eyes. A tiny civet sitting on a branch. Further on, statuesque in a moist patch of forest floor sits a silver bellied frog. Like the civet, its eyes betrayed its presence as soon as the torch swept the landscape. Easily the best discovery lay thirty metres on, a red duiker, the smallest of the antelope family. Instead of bolting it remained transfixed by the light, partially submerged in the undergrowth. Duikers were quite a trophy for the poachers who sold them on the roadside to passing traffic. Unlike most antelope, they didn’t always flee from predators but continued to forage, shortening their chances of survival. The beam slashed across the forest, illuminating snake sized roots to the dense network of branches above. Exposing a giant scorpion looking spider that sat central in its web stretched like a hammock between two trees. Gradually a ballet of white moths came to dance and twine in the headlight, staying with us for much of the walk. After the duiker the forest refused to relinquish any more of its inhabitants. Gradually fatigue out placed enthusiasm, exasperated by getting temporarily lost. Eagleman had confused an old elephant track with the path but he always knew in which direction camp lay. At one point I was told to stay put while he headed off to retrace a point. I turned off my own light for just a minute and allowed the extreme blackness of night to evade again, imposing like a mountainous fog. The screeching noise of cicadas, the calling of forest doves and the crash of a falling branch all added to the forests myriad voice. Eagleman soon returned, the mistake now rectified we entered back into the divine splendour of the cathedral.
Ankasa for all its difficulties is certainly worth the extra effort. The charm of the forest retains its wonderful and wise allure. Kept free from the traffic that visits Kakum. It can be a benefit sometimes, too be forgotten.
Kakum National Park and Ankasa Reserve are owned by the Forestry Commission.
Kakum National Park: 033-2130265. www. entry fee: 2cd. The Canopy walkway: 60cd. A guided walk on the trails starts at 45cd for the first hour then 10cd for each subsequent hour. Early morning and late afternoon are best. The campsite is 50cd per night. There are showers, pit toilets and a water tap but you will need to have a tent. However it is possible to ask for a mattress from the tree house and sleep on it under the platform. Carry a mosquito net and hope it doesn’t rain! Kakum does have a cafe which closes around 3.30pm. Avoid weekends when the walkway is extremely busy. The noise will dilute the experience. Early morning weekdays are better. The park opens from 8am – 5pm. Can be reached from Cape Coast either by chartered taxi, roughly 45cd and minivans for 7cd pass directly out front from Ciodu station.
Ankassa Forest Reserve: Try phoning Kakum to obtain the private mobile numbers of the Ankassa guides though signal coverage is poor in Ankassa. Entry 10cd. The Nkwanta campsite is 8km inside the reserve reached along a jeep track. You can go on foot. Camping is 40cd per night. You will need to be totally self sufficient here with a tent, mattress, sleeping bag, stove and food. Water can be taken directly from the nearby stream. It was safe though worth boiling (5 mins vigorously) before consuming. Guide fees were not listed but I went on the same system as Kakum. As a reward the campsite is set within the spectacular Bamboo Cathedral. You will need your own vehicle if your entering as a day trip. A guide accompanies you in the vehicle. There are a couple of trails that begin from the campsite. A further one along the main jeep track tumbles down into the forest to locate an old viewing platform and hide. Now neglected it really does resemble a holding pen from Jurassic Park.