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Touring Volta

Heading through the highlands of east to the riverside communities of the Volta, Daniel Neilson takes an unforgettable tour of the real Ghana

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It’s the sound of the ceiling fan flapping the mosquito net against the bedhead; it’s the refreshing temperature of the river water you wash with in the morning; it’s the early morning light highlighting the stuttering stream of families filling water in buckets, pans, bowls and jugs, loading them on their head and getting ready to start their day. It’s the little things that have stayed with me – the minutiae of daily life in Atsiekpoe, a small riverside community in Ghana’s Volta Region. The deep clunk of a blacksmith’s hammer striking through red hot metal onto an English-made anvil; the second basket an 11-year-old Moses made for us, determinedly making another after he deemed the first not good enough; my slightly embarrassing attempt on goal from a perfect cross on a dusty pitch. I spent 24 hours among the beautiful people of Atsiekpoe, and it became one of my top five Ghanaian memories. It may even be my favourite.

From our hotel in Accra, we (me and my mum) jumped into a 1992 Nissan Safari with bull bars and a roof rack. At the wheel was James Amusu, an affable, kind-hearted man with beads on his wrist, an easy smile and a ready supply of jokes. He would be our driver and guide for the next three days, on behalf of Jolinaiko Eco Tours, a Ghanaian-Dutch-run tour company with a passion for eco-tourism and community development, such as in villages including Atsiekpoe. The itinerary ahead of us included a stay at Ghana’s highest village, an ascent of the country’s second tallest mountain and a couple of days in Atsiekpoe.

East we headed, away from the busy streets of the capital and past Ghana’s industrial belt of Tema, steering around a convoy of trucks coming down from landlocked Burkina Faso. At busy junctions, hawkers sold water in bags, mobile phone top-ups, fried plantain crisps (delicious) and boiled maize (not so tasty). Further east, the traffic became sporadic and the hills became clearer and more common through the humid mist. We passed the Shia Hills and saw a family of baboons feasting under a mango tree by the side of the road. A baby was feeding on its mother’s breast as its parent chomped on a ripe mango.

James pointed out the mahogany trees that line some of the roads by small villages, planted largely for shade but also because the bark can help with malaria. At a young teak tree, he showed us how paint is made from the young leaves. The ‘watermelon tree’, meanwhile, turned out to be something else (I said James likes a joke). We
 saw mango orchards, banana plantations and paddy fields. Occasional hawks dipped into the thick bush.

Back in the car and onward. We stopped to look at the wonder that is Akosombo Dam, which holds back the world’s largest manmade lake. It was built just after independence, completed in 1963 with help from the US government, who took cocoa in return. The low water levels of Lake Volta means the dam can no longer support the full energy needs of Ghana, Togo and Benin – natural gas in the south and solar in the north is now helping.

East and east. The road rose and began to wind. The vegetation here, only a couple of weeks after the first rains of the season, was even greener and thicker. The trees were taller. It also seemed, if at all possible, even more humid. Butterflies swarmed across the roads and into the flower-filled bush. In one village we passed through, the roadside stalls were all selling cushions. “There’s lots of kapok trees around here,” explained James. We stopped to opened a seed, and found it filled with soft, spongy material.

Later that day we arrived in Ho, the regional capital, and bought some fruit: mango, and the most delicious pineapple I’ve ever tasted. It’s a pleasant little town, and on that day it was buzzing in anticipation of the arrival of the president, John Dramani Mahama, who was on a three-day tour of the Volta region to drum up support in his heartland for the upcoming election on December 7, 2016.

From Ho, we set off north and headed higher still, towards the Avatime Mountain Range with its seven communities surrounding Mount Gemi, Ghana’s second highest peak. The presidential motorcade sped past – we waved, he beeped (well, his driver did) – and we arrived as all the village chiefs of the area were leaving with their musical entourage. 

After our lunch of pineapple (did I mention how good it was?) in the village of Biakpa, we joined local guide Frances Setrot who led us through the dense, sweltering tropical forest up to Amedzofe, Ghana’s highest village. As we trekked along the narrow, sometimes steep path, Frances pointed out cocoa and medicinal plants as he described mountain life in these villages. “Before the roads came, these were the paths we used,” he explained. In a puddle of sweat, we met the people at the Eco-Tourism Centre in Amedzofe, a lovely, breezy, relaxed mountain-top village. We paid GHc10 to climb the final half-hour to the cross at the peak of Mount Gemi. It was a friendly community, and everyone greeted us with a smile. A turned-up calabash outside a house, I was told, signifies that the potent Ghanaian moonshine, palm wine, is sold here. It didn’t seem a good idea in this heat, so we continued, across what must be the most scenic football pitch on earth, with 360-degree views over the mountain ridges, and up to Mount Gemi’s peak. No one seems to know its exact height (answers on a postcard?) – only that it is just over 800 metres.

Despite the heat, the views from the top were expansive. Lake Volta shimmered in the west, and the hills that surround Mount Gemi faded into the evening haze. The cross at the top was installed by German missionaries, in the Alpine style. We took pictures then returned to our guesthouse to watch the sunset over the mountains, cold beers in hand.

After a brief breakfast (omelette of course), we were back in the car, driving south to Atsiekpoe, a village clinging to the side of the Volta River. A couple of hours later we arrived at the water’s edge, parked the Nissan and threw our bags in a wooden canoe – the taxis of the Volta. With us were two children returning from a shop on the other side of the river. There was a motor on this canoe about twice the length of a car, although not all vessels we see on the brief crossing have them – the outboard motor hasn’t been around long in Atsiekpoe. Through reeds and lilies, we landed at the village to be met by a group of kids. It was the school holidays here and they were in playful mood, showing their moves as they jumped into the river. The appearance of my camera only encouraged them.

Cashew Village is a handful of little rooms around a leafy courtyard. We took both lunch and dinner under a shady roof overlooking the river – an incredibly relaxing setting. The little complex, owned and built by Jolinaiko Eco Tours themselves, with the aim of bringing livelihood and development through tourism. For example, tourism money goes to the community development fund in turn helping the building of a clinic and ensuring the power stays on. In one hut, a machine was making a real racket – inside, people were queueing to mill produce, having come from surrounding villages specifically for the purpose. Walking around the village, our guide Godwin introduced us to the lovely people who make Atsiekpoe their home. Time and time again, we were met with a big smile and a handshake.

We were shown shrines, and a blacksmith at full throttle. We chatted to the village wise man, who at 101 regaled us with stories about the changes in the area, and the appearance of Christianity. An ill-advised football knockabout was thankfully over soon, and we moved on to explore the museum – another project helped by Jolinaiko Eco Tours – where old photos and farming equipment helped us learn about the natural resources. As the sun continued to blaze in the afternoon, we took a cooling boat ride along the riverbanks. Fishermen dived into the deep as ferries purposefully crossed the river back and forth. 

As the sun descended – which happens early in these parts – children played in the shallows against the riverbank. 

It had been an eye-opening trip that had showed a more tranquil, peaceful side to Ghana’s often frantic day-to-day life. Back at Cashew Village, we sat under a mango tree and made baskets with Moses and his brother, hoping that, out here by the river, the day might never end.

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The tour was organised by Jolinaiko Eco Tours (www.joli-ecotours.com). It has personally-tailored tours across Ghana, Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso. 

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