Kumasi, Ghana * December 3, 2008
We fueled up in a small town called Jema in central Ghana. It was 4:30 p.m., and once again we were pushing the envelope of daylight. We were bound for the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, a small preserve in the rainforest with a large population of the small and sociable mona monkey, and the larger but reclusive black-and-white colubus.
Villagers there ran a simple guesthouse. We would be able to spend the night, and in the morning take a walking tour through the thick forest and feed the mona monkeys bananas or corned beef and observe the colubus primates in the trees. It sounded like great fun.
From Jema, we would ride a 35-mile piste to the monkey sanctuary. An attendant at the fuel station told us the road would be bad. So did a taxi driver. We did the math. Whatever its condition, we should be able to run 35 miles of dirt road within the hour of good daylight that we had left.
As we buttoned up from the fuel stop, Geoff looked to the east.
“That sounds like thunder,” he said. “Look over there -- are those thunderclouds?”
The sky did seem to be darkening in the east. That was the direction we were heading. Migo shook his head and put on his helmet.
“It doesn’t rain here,” he said. Off we rode.
Contrary to reports, the piste was fairly fast and easy. The setting sun was at my back, lavishing a golden tint on the red-dirt road and the gently rolling hills and the tall green grasses and the towering coconut trees. It was a lovely way to end the day. I motored along at 40 mph or so, thankful to not have to contend with corrugations and potholes and sand, and instead enjoying the exquisite emerald scenery.
Ahead, though, the sky continued to darken. And then a lightning bolt cracked from a gunmetal grey cloud. The air grew slightly cooler, and another lightning bolt struck. I felt a drop of rain on my face, and then another, and soon it was rat-a-tat-tatting on my helmet.
It’s always something in Africa, I thought.
What Migo meant when he said that it doesn’t rain here is that it doesn’t rain here now, not in early December. This is the dry season in central Ghana. Rains fall here heavily from March to June, and then more lightly in September and October.
But now the rain intensified, and I realized we were going to be in trouble. Rain would quickly make the piste more slippery than a congressman. Mud and adventure bikes don’t mix. I had struggled through the stuff for days on the rugged dirt roads of the Yungas jungle in Bolivia back in 2005, and was not eager to repeat the experience.
And I recalled another episode in Bolivia, riding a mud-slick dirt road in the rain at night. I was with my friends Joe Ortega and Vlad Sotoh of San Francisco. We had suffered a delay of nearly five hours because the Rio Grande, south of the Uyuni salt flats, was so swollen by heavy rains that it was impassable to most vehicles.
We finally made it across the river by paying construction workers to carry our motorbikes, one by one, in the business end of a bucket loader. By the time that was done, though, darkness was upon us. And the rain came, and strong wind, and the earthen road turned to snot, and Vlad crashed on the slick.
A few miles later, quite incredibly, we happened upon a fine hotel in an otherwise ramshackle town, not even on the map, and enjoyed delicious French onion soup and warm beers and dried our soaking motorcycle boots and riding pants around a raging fire.
Now it poured. I doubted that we would find a fine hotel with French onion soup and a raging fire a mile down this Ghana piste. Great sheets of rain fell hard and I pottered along, my visibility compromised by rain on my helmet faceshield. I tried riding with the faceshield up, but the rain was too hard on my bare face and unshielded eyes. A small village was ahead. I spotted Geoff’s and Migo’s motorbikes parked beneath a low, broad tree.
In the shelter of the tree, we shook our heads and rolled our eyes and laughed and marveled at the torrential storm. The wind ripped ferociously, tearing leaves from the trees and straining their limbs. The rain turned the red earth around our bikes into a swamp. Thunder boomed.
With a self-satisfied smirk, Geoff unfastened the large umbrella that he carries along a pannier rack on his Yamaha XT and opened it, protecting himself from the downpour. “Ha?” he asked. “Ha? What did you say about my umbrella, bub?”
When we met in Portugal in late September, I had chuckled at the thing and questioned why a motorcyclist would want an umbrella in Africa, particularly in the Sahara towards which we were headed. Now I laughed and flipped him off.
The adjacent building had an overhang, and I hustled up there with my tankbag to protect my passport and other paper materials from water damage. Geoff and Migo joined me. We watched the rain fall.
Migo said, “Geoff, you almost went down in the mud, huh?”
“Oh ho ho ho ho,” Geoff said. “Now that was close. The front tire slipped and then the back went out and I was going, ahhhhhhhhh, this bike is going down!”
We talked about mud riding. A thick, harder mud is doable, though still difficult on a loaded adventure bike. The thin, slick mud right after a heavy rain is something else entirely. It was a little after 5 p.m. The monkey sanctuary and its guesthouse were less than 10 miles away. Could we? Should we? If the rain persisted and we were relegated to paddling along at 5 mph, in the dark, and Migo’s KTM with an inoperable headlight, it could be a long journey.
The adjacent building, it turned out, was a school. A woman came out, and then another. They were teachers. They greeted us warmly. The town was tiny – about 600 people, I would later learn. I looked around. There were wooden shacks and mud buildings with corrugated tin roofs and goats and chickens and larger concrete buildings, in general disrepair. Rusty red rainwater coursed along dirt footpaths throughout the village.
Geoff asked one of the teachers if it would be possible for us to speak with the head of the village and inquire if there would be a place to stay.
As we talked, the rain eased. A patch of blue sky appeared. So did some children, bouncing and giggling and chattering at the uncommon sight of three white men and their outlandish motorbikes. We continued debating whether to press on to the monkey sanctuary and its guesthouse.
I was ambivalent, but began to lean in favor of staying in the village. It was called Bodom.
The experience, I figured, was bound to be rich.
Almost every experience in Africa is rich. The adventures unfold with a furious intensity. The sights and sounds are smells are forever changing, the people are warm and welcoming and curious, the dirt roads challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
From the Nazinga wildlife preserve in Burkina Faso, we’d made our way into Ghana, down a long, red, and dusty piste and a border crossing at Navrongo. Ghana is an English-speaking country – a welcome change from the Francophone nations through which we had journeyed.
Over nearly two months, we had grown accustomed to speaking French. Geoff had a clever idea. “First man who says something in French once we’re in Ghana buys a round of cold drinks, ay?” he said. “Merci, sil vous plait, après, whatever … deal?” Deal.
The Burkina Faso to Ghana border crossing was easy. Back in Ouagadougou, we had secured for about $10 USD visas to enter Ghana. As we began the passport and motorbike documentation process with the friendly Ghana border officials, I said the bet was now in effect.
Geoff was explaining our route to one of the Ghana officials.
“…through Burkina Faso, and après – um, after – Ghana we head to Togo and Benin,” Geoff said. Migo and I heard it and high-fived and once the border formalities were complete, we enjoyed cold Coca-Colas and orange Fanta, compliments of Mr. Geoffrey Shingleton.
But the French was quickly forgotten. Suddenly and happily, we were speaking English again. We lodged in the sizable town of Tamale, in a hotel with TVs in the rooms. A news channel reported in English on the upcoming Ghana elections. The nation was about to elect a new president, and the race was tight between two candidates, John Atta Mills and Nana Akufo-Addo, who with his chubby and cherubic face and spectacles and big white teeth has to be the world’s cutest politician.
We left the next morning for Ghana’s Mole National Park. The 3000-square mile park harbors elephants and water buffalos and baboons and dozens of other wild animals. To get there, we rode 60 miles of pavement and then 60 miles of piste – the definition of dual sport riding.
The earth is red. Dust is everywhere. Riding a relatively well-trafficked piste like the road to Mole means contending with other vehicles, either in front of you or oncoming, and the massive dust clouds they generate. I would tell my friends, “If a large truck or something is coming at me, I just hit the kill switch and stop the motor. I don’t want to ride through it and breathe all that dust, or have it sucked into the air filter.”
Geoff and Migo motored through the massive dust clouds. They gained ground on me as I stopped more often, but none of us went very fast. This piste had a little of everything – heavy corrugation, sizable rocks, loose dirt, huge potholes, gravel and sand.
A bit of construction work was under way to smooth out corrugations. The men laid a fine, loose dirt on the piste after grading it, which called for sand-riding techniques – sit back, keep your weight off the front, and let the front wheel dance over the soft stuff at 40 mph or so. Then there was real sand – one unexpected, wholly anomalous sand pond about 15 miles from Mole Park.
I spotted it ahead of me by about 50 yards, but there was no time to slow down. My first thought was, What’s that huge sand pond doing out here? The terrain was largely hardpack, but there it was, a massive sand pond across the width of the road. It was as if someone had dug a hole in the piste and deposited in it two dump trucks full of sand.
I hit the throttle. Vooooo-WOOOOOOMP! The motorbike dove into the depression, the front wheel buried itself in the soft stuff, and I hit the throttle again, driving the bike straight forward and then into a fishtail, and out. It was like riding a roller coaster. I found Geoff and Migo in a town called Larabanga, a few miles outside of Mole Park.
“Did you see that sand thing back there about six kilometers?” Migo asked. “I was riding along pretty fast and said, Whoooooaaaa! I really couldn’t slow down and just gunned on through it.”
It sits atop a tall, steep escarpment, and spread out gloriously below is Africa in a nutshell – a primeval landscape of towering palm trees and sprawling savannah and two enormous watering holes at which animals drink and swim. Beyond the watering holes, a dense green forest extends to the west as far as the eye can see.
Geoff was setting his tent up near the edge of the escarpment. The orange ball of the sun was setting over the forest, seeming to grow larger and it dropped towards the horizon. The twilight deepened. The aesthetic beauty of our motorbikes at rest punctuated the scene. I said, “Man, now this is living!”
He straightened up and took in the stunning view once more. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
We spent two nights at Mole Park. A few elephants could be seen near the watering holes, as could a large herd of antelope-like animals and stork-like birds and crocodiles. Warthogs wandered about the tent site, grinding their snouts into the red earth in search of ants. A baboon sat on Migo’s motorbike.
Migo is leery of baboons, owing to a frightening encounter with a mean-spirited one a number of years ago in Tanzania. And we had heard that a hostile baboon troop visited the restaurant area a day earlier, forcing a crowd of tourists to leap into the pool to keep the primates at bay.
We sat for dinner and beers and I said, “Y’know, I was just talking to one of the staff and he said the baboons like to come right up your tent at night. They even try to get in it.” Migo’s eyebrows arched and I let him worry for a minute before I laughed and speculated that an ideal piece of gear would have been a baboon costume, to scare the bejeepers out of Migo in the middle of the night.
The next day, we rode 100 miles of piste east from Mole, towards a mostly paved road that would take us to the crossroads town of Bamboi and the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary. Like the road to Mole, this piste had a little of everything – mostly potholes.
Huge, sharp-edged craters in the dirt obliged me to slow down. I ran fast for a while, but the front end of my DR650 kept bottoming out. Daaaa-DUNK! I could feel the fork springs compress fully, metal thunking on metal, and it dawned on me that something had changed in my motorbike’s performance.
I’d hit potholes of comparable depth a month earlier, and the front suspension took the punishment without complaint. I had been pleased with the performance of the industrial-strength Eibach front springs I had installed. Now the suspension seemed disturbingly soft. I caught up with Geoff and Migo at the end of the piste.
“Man, that was rough,” I told Geoff. “How many times did you bottom out on the front forks?”
“Maybe two, three times,” Geoff said.
“Damn, I bottomed out like 12 or 15! And you were running hard, right?”
“Pretty hard,” he said.
It was official. I had my first motorcycle problem of the journey.
The rain stopped entirely, and now half of Bodom came out to see the white men in their strange riding costumes and their big rugged motorbikes, parked conspicuously outside the school in the center of the village. We were led about to various homes and spoke with elders, with dozens of adults and children tagging delightedly along.
“Obruni! Obruni!” they hollered, at us and among themselves. White man! White man!
One boy grabbed my right hand as we walked down the main street. He was about 10. “I want to be your friend,” he said. “You are wonderful.” Another boy the same age grabbed my left hand, and I strolled along hand-in-hand with these two youngsters.
We told a village leader it would be very difficult to ride our big motorbikes through the mud to the monkey sanctuary. He said that we could sleep at the community center, which, contrary to what its name might suggest, was a small, broken-down concrete building. A room with a pit toilet was crammed with all sorts of junk, and men quickly removed it for our use.
With our entourage in tow, the kids jumping and yelling, we moved our bikes a quarter mile up the piste and down a muddy trail to the community center. A crowd of about 100 watched and jabbered as we began unloading our gear. The children were ebullient. Dozens of them, mostly boys with some girls, tugged and poked at us and implored us to give them gifts and take them to the monkey sanctuary in the morning and then take them to America.
Just about each of them wanted to shake my hand, and shake it more than once. “Shake me! Shake me! Shake me!” the children yelled. Their faces were marvelously bright and excitable and uninhibited.
When I got out my digital camera, the kids hammed it up and squealed with delight when I showed them the pictures on the LCD screen. Older people looked on with amusement and curiosity. It was dark by the time our gear was unpacked and inside the community center. Distant heat lightning flashed across the clouded sky.
Just 50 yards from the community center was a small thatch hut, indistinguishable from others in Bodom. There was no sign. This was the local bar, and we ducked our heads to enter and be served three large bottles of Castle Milk Stout. We sat at a small white plastic table was in the center of the hut.
Someone lit a candle and set it on the table. Bodom did have electricity, but the late afternoon rain had knocked it out.
Ordinarily in the evening, we’ll relive the day’s adventures over a couple of beers, flip through the day’s photos, and “talk business,” as Geoff puts it, among ourselves. We would not be by ourselves this evening. Villagers poked their heads curiously into the bar and entered, and within minutes the small hut was jam-packed with more than 50 teen-agers, adults, and children.
We were surrounded. They loomed over the little plastic table. Flesh pressed against flesh. A woman shoved her breasts against the back of Migo’s head. The air was hot and close and ripe with the smells of dozens of different bodies. The candlelight was dim. Everyone was jabbering, usually in the local language, which I was told was called Bono, of the Bonoahafo clan.
It was as marvelous as it was dizzying. The hut would fall quiet, however, when one of us obruni spoke. Everyone, except for the youngest children, understood English. They bore in to hear our every word – how we had ridden from America and England and Germany, through Morocco and Mali and Burkina Faso to Ghana. And we like Ghana very much!
“I like you!” one young man piped up. “We like you very much to be here, thank you!”
Another young man stood close to us. He was quiet and soft-spoken and handsome. Others pointed him out to be a science student at the university in Kumasi. His name was Baffoe and he was 19 and he was studying to become a doctor. He asked for our email addresses, which we provided. I volunteered the address to this blog and encouraged him to check in several weeks for my report from Bodom.
Then a bearded, middle-aged man named John elbowed his way into the center of the hut. He announced himself as Bodom’s “information officer” and launched into a speech. “The people of this community are very grateful to welcome you,” he said, loudly. “May God bless you!”
Someone began singing. It was an upbeat song in the local language. Then everyone began singing, and clapping and chanting Bono words unintelligible to me. Fifty or more villagers, chanting in claustrophobic cacophony, surrounding us in the dim light and closing in.
The din grew louder, hands slapping me now about my back and shoulders, the damp heat of the jam-packed hut and bodily smells more intense than ever. The surreal crescendo rose towards a furious climax. This is where, I thought to myself, if I was in a movie, the film fades to black.
The next morning was bright and sunny. I stood with my friends and the school’s headmaster and teachers before a crowd of more than 100 children, along with a number of adults on the periphery. Most of the children wore blue uniforms. They were assembled in neat, long phalanxes, the boys and girls separate.
The headmaster addressed them in the Bono language, and in unison the children recited in English the Lord’s Prayer and sang the Ghananian national anthem. Then it was our turn. Geoff explained a little of our adventure, how motorbikes enable us to better visit villages such as Bodom, and why we had stopped here.
Then I addressed the crowd. I thanked Bodom for its hospitality and said that we had greatly enjoyed our stay. I presented the headmaster with an English-language book I had bought in Dakar, called Chaka, about a Zulu king in what is now South Africa. The headmaster explained the gift in the local language.
Then I presented an Obama sticker, noting that a black man would soon become the president of America. Finally, we donated about $30 USD to the school, for books or pens or whatever needs it might have. At this, adults and children alike broke into long and loud applause.
It was heartwarming. It took 20 minutes to exchange farewell greetings with the teachers and adults and the children. I shook my head in amazement at the whole thing. We took a left at Bodom onto a poorly maintained track to the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, maneuvering through muddy ruts and around chocolate swamps.
The terrain was still slick from yesterday afternoon’s rains. It would have been a difficult ride.
We strolled through the rainforest monkey sanctuary with a guide named Edwin. I carried a large bag of bananas. Edwin led us to a grove and looked up into the canopied trees. He made a clucking sound and held out a banana and motioned for us to be still.
A little mona monkey watched him. Cautiously, it leapt and skittered down through trees, and hopped along towards Edwin to snatch the banana and peel it. The monkey ate. He was cute. Then we all took bananas and spent a half-hour among the monas, feeding them and watching them trapeze through the trees.
We walked deeper into the rainforest, past grand ficus trees, towards the village of Boabeng, “where human beings and monkeys live happily together,” as a sign put it. A large, mature tree lay fallen across the dirt footpath.
It had toppled yesterday afternoon, Edwin told us, in the fury of the torrential storm.