Karl’s Chronicles; Article 8. Across the Volta, (well almost!)
Standing at the muddy shore of the milky brown waters of Lake Volta it became glaringly obvious, that any pretence of catching the Yapei Queen south to Akosombo was clearly off the mark. Obtaining information on her schedule had at best been vague and contradictory. Old articles mentioned a weekly service heading north on Mondays; then there was Tuesdays and Wednesdays, bi-monthly and long expanses of ‘out of action’. Crippled by engine failure, steering problems and emotional reports of anything between 30 to 60 hours travel time. I waved it aside with the same dismissal as a pestering mosquito. In Yeji, the small town positioned two-thirds up the Lake and the ‘about turn’ for the ferry route, it paid to find someone in the know. A captain from another vessel stood looking across the rippling waters, he dropped his mobile phone back into his jeans and confirmed, that on September 24th, she would next set sail from Akosombo, arriving a day later into Yeji. That was more than 16 days away! But with a little re-arranging of a nebulous itinerary, I could navigate my course south, twisting like the river and arrive in Akosombo a few days before. I just hoped his information was nearer the mark.
Primarily the Yapei Queen was a cargo vessel, transporting dozens of wooden crates of yams when they came into season. Passengers were a secondary, an auxiliary measure towards revenue. The Volta Lake Transport Company operated bulk haulage of petroleum products, cement and cross lake shuttles as well. The Black and White Volta rivers that feed into the Lake were used by the early Portuguese gold traders in Ghana. They offered easier access than land and propelled them further in the extent of their explorations before they returned. The Portuguese word: Volta means to twist or turn which could either refer, to where boats turned around and headed home or about the river itself, the twists and turns of its curved course. Voltar is Portuguese for ‘return‘. The Lake, created in the 1960s, was an ambitious project under Kwame Nkrumah’s government to build the Akosombo Dam. Providing hydro-electricity power to all of Ghana and a surplus sold onto neighbouring countries. Now, almost 60 years on, with an increase in population and economy, the electricity no longer provides for all, leading to levels of power rationing. At 8,502 km2, Lake Volta is the worlds largest artificial Lake, consuming 3.6% of Ghana’s area mass. Seventy-five metres deep and aside from generating electricity and water transportation, she also provides for the large fishing industry and irrigation. Noticeable, are the endless lines of yellow containers, marked with individual symbols. Allowing easier identification to the ownership of the nets stretched out below. For there are scores of fishermen out attending their catch for Nile perch and catfish at any one time.
An enquiry two days before the 24th at Akosombo gives the date from the Yeji based captain more significant ballast. Though I’ll have to wait until the very day of departure to discover if the green light will be given, I’m advised to arrive early, around 8 am to secure a ticket.
Tuesday comes, I take a seat in the empty open-sided waiting hall congratulating myself for being the first. The hours slowly drum by, until three hours later when the ticket clerk finally appears. I hold back a scoff towards punctuality and communication, checking myself for lack of patience. I opt for second-class, which will be a wooden bench — heralding an aim to nosey around the first-class cabins once onboard. There are only three available, a case of first come first served. Surveying the hall, only a young mother and daughter have arrived. I had expected, like past boat journeys, to see dozens of locals sauntering in. Noisy and cackling in eager conversations with luggage strewn all over the floor, of heavy sacks, squawking hens, crying babies and discarded husks of corn. Nothing- the place is silent aside from the metallic buzz of a distant forklift truck at the water’s edge. I have a few hours to return to town, stock up on food, check-out, collect my luggage and find a collective taxi back.
Spread across the remaining benches are a travelling choir of a dozen adolescents and a few adults. Occasionally they break into song, wiling away the time while praising Christ to a podium of clapping. Perhaps, from a little divine intervention, the gates down to the ferry are opened. The paramount chief with his wife and entourage roll up in a shiny land-cruiser. Wearing fine fugu (tunic) and plenty of gold bling, they plod upstairs to first-class like a colonial expedition. But its a further three hours, just as the sun is falling behind a hill that the Yapei Queen whisks up the Lake and sets forth, purring like a well-fed cat. Travelling by water becomes a refreshing alternative to the general rigours of the road. One is catapulted around as the vehicle copes with the ruts and grooves of a disintegrating road made more annoying by the torrential rains. Here, caught in a happy languor, one watches the smaller boats and shoreline villages drift along. Knowing that there are toilets, food and cold beer onboard accentuates the pleasure of comfort. You are not governed by short rest breaks to seek convenience as it is realistically, one long rest break.
The romanticism of the journey has been knocked off course early the following morning. Literally so, as an hour before reaching Keta – Krachi, the Yapei Queen loses steering and heads off to the other side of the Lake, ending up confronting large boulders and the rising lay of the land. The crew immediately respond, working effortlessly to rectify the problem, but it becomes painfully clear that a crucial part must be replaced. Nothing can be accomplished until we receive help from the cross ferry at Keta-Krachi. The captain phones Akosombo to despatch the right part, but this will take hours by road. The majority of the day is seen alternating between decks, in search of cooler air as the temperature quickly ascends. Eight hours beyond the original arrival time of reaching Keta-Krachi, the ferry ‘Freedom & Justice’ comes to our rescue. She is performing the miraculous challenge of bringing us back and then lining us up against the concrete ramp. There is no port, just a crescent of mud, and the ‘Freedom & Justice’, running parallel to the Yapei Queen must spin her around, bringing her in line. Nudging her along which is exceptionally difficult as the Yapei, loaded with crates is the heavier of the two. She misses the clearing on the first attempt, performing a delicate manoeuvre to retake her right round. She can not be towed like land transport, front to back, as she needs to dock first. Eventually, watched by a great crowd of locals who have been waiting since 9 am this morning, the ferries ramp makes a precise connection with the concrete strip.
The landing releases the immediate stress, but it’s highly unlikely she will be moving any time soon. I sleep another night on board, hoping by morning there will be more detailed information. The captain and his crew are already up an hour before sunrise. The frank update puts the situation into clearer perspective. The steering part has yet to arrive from Akosombo when it does it will require installation. All the crates need to filling with yams before being brought back onboard. The captain, considering this, shakes his head that any chance of travel today will be slim. He is even forming the strong impression of terminating the journey to Yeji, re-routing back to Akosombo as the delay and the importance of the cargo dictates the matter.
Instead of waiting it out, I decided to vacate to the only alternative available, the road down to Dambai and take a wooden ferry from there. It will be a long day of multiple stages to getting south again, but it will feel progressive. As I vacate the vessel, I can hear the choir performing a morning hymn, drifting out of the windows from second-class. As they are bound for Yeji, I wonder what decision they will finally make, quietly asking myself if they will sing a prayer for guidance.
Next stop : Togo.
The Yapei Queen operates between Akosombo and Yeji in the North of Lake Volta. Stopping off at Keta-Krachi just beyond the half waypoint.
Currently, the ferry departs every second Tuesday at 16:00. Tickets go on sale around 11:00 am. (After the September 24th it would follow 8th Oct/22nd Oct/5th Nov.
First Class: 120 cedi (£18.09) ( $21.42) (Euro 19.35)
Second Class: 25 cedis (£3.77) ($5) (Euro 4.16)
On schedule, she would arrive at Keta Krachi around 12 hours later and then Yeji around 18:00 the same evening.
Harbour-master in Yeji: +233 02 01 54 53 88
Keta-Krachi: +233 02 46 98 88 75
Akosombo: +233 02 05 48 38 43 / 02 42 58 94 45
While waiting for the ferry, there is accommodation in all three towns.
Zito Guesthouse – room with fan and attached shower room start at 70 cedis. 100 cedi with air-con and fridge. Breakfast included. Shared taxis to the port leave from the main market. 3.5cedi in a shared taxi. A private hire will cost around 20cedi – one way.
Lake View Guesthouse – rooms with air-con and attached shower room are 180 cedis. There is an open-sided restaurant and bar with great views to the Lake and the ferry terminal. Set in a compound for extra security. You will need a taxi or rickshaw to reach the hotel, roughly a kilometre and a half from the terminal.
The Joffe Guesthouse – rooms with fan and attached shower room start at 60/70/80 cedi. Clean and comfortable in a secured compound with the owner’s house incorporated as well. A kilometre along the main road from the port.