GHANA, my first ever tropical trip, this one organised by Mike Williams and led by Safi in the esteemed company of Torben Larsen in October & November 2008
Sunday 26 October: to Accra
Once airside at Heathrow we took a bit of breakfast before catching our first flight to Amsterdam where a transfer wait of a couple of hours soon passed prior to the long leg to Accra. The 6½ hour flight to Ghana got us into Accra at 7.40pm local time (same as in UK) where we were met by the ebullient Safi and a waiting bus. The temperature was 80º with high humidity. We eventually arrived at the Shai Hills Hotel near Dodowa to the north-east of Accra around 10pm and wasted no time in finding a cold Castle beer! In the dark a crepuscular Danaus chrysippus paid us a visit attracted by the dim light of our outside table. Climbed into bed at midnight in the cool air from the conditioning unit.
Monday 27 October: Shai Hills
Up at 6.30am feeling unrefreshed, disturbed by a/c being too cold in the small hours. Breakfast was taken at 7am in one of the thatched units in the hotel grounds where porridge was a pleasant and unexpected surprise! Our bus departed at 8.15 for the short journey effectively ‘across the road’ into the Shai Hills reserve. Several baboons idled about just inside the gates, kept an eye on them 'just in case'. The bus followed the unmetalled track some distance through the savannah running parallel with the scarp, every now and again needing to take a couple of attempts through soft and muddy ground. Eventually we parked near an ancient and revered baobab tree and dismounted. Here we go! Immediately the netters, including Torben Larsen, dashed about taking everything in sight. I was dismayed to see him pinching and papering several specimens. The first Euphaedra harpalyce sitting conveniently for us on the woodland track. This led to a not very interesting twittering bat cave smelling of ammonia.
Back at the bus location, we scoured the grassland and around 10.30 the plan was to walk steadily back to the entrance with the bus following on behind. The netters set off in one direction and Torben was already out on his own along the track. It was not long before I was on my own as well, on the track, with Torben out of sight. An aptly-named Guinea-fowl butterfly (Hamanumida daedalus) led the way. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the sun disappeared. I decided to turn around and intercept the others/bus and soon met Simon Spencer. We decided to follow instructions and head for the entrance. Then the rain came. Warm and torrential. Cleverly, my rucksack with waterproofs was in the bus! Simon let me put my camera in his rucksack. There was no sign of the bus, or everybody else, so we sheltered under a tree waiting for them to pass. By now it was clear that the bus would be stuck somewhere. We tagged onto the back of the peleton as it came past but we became quickly isolated again. At last, we made the entrance and were reunited with the others, all thoroughly soaked. Transport was arranged to get us back to the hotel, namely a pick-up truck, where we arrived around 1pm. Rain had somehow found its way into my Sigma macro lens through the screw-thread of the filter and I was worried that the camera would be ruined: fortunately, no damage had been done.
Sadly, the feeble shower was cold, as was the beer but that was ok. Food arrived by 3pm. In fading light at 5pm we ventured into the mouth of the reserve to set-up a moth trap and where, naturally, very little else was happening. Dinner was a repeat of last night’s – a peppery vegetable soup, chicken and rice, and a fruit salad. Torben did a day list (pretty meaningless as the scientific names required some pictorial elaboration). Today hadn’t been great, and bed beckoned by 9.30pm.
Tuesday 28 October: Aburi Botanical Gardens
My clothes had dried surprisingly well overnight in the bathroom draped over the shower curtain frame. Breakfast at 7am again and away in the bus before 8 for the c 1 hour drive to Aburi located in a remnant of rain forest and boasting 140 species of butterfly in a single day! Safi took us to a crematogaster ant tree and showed us liptenid larvae happily co-existing with the hordes. Took some good photos. The group has split into two camps – the netters, and David and me. I find the former to be a real pain and we operate away from them – shame as we’re missing out on seeing many species being identified by Safi and Torben. During the morning Torben got mugged by a guy who made a grab for his shirt pocket but, in falling over, managed to thwart his attacker who ran off – in all his travels, this was the first time anything like this had happened to him. Fortunately, he was unhurt and appeared unruffled too. We spent 3½ hours in the grounds until stopping for a beer at 1pm, followed by a picnic lunch on the grass in the shade of some trees.
David and I followed the netters into the forest where Simon joined us. We skirted the forest boundary photographing as we went but then Simon wanted to locate the bus although I wanted to get into the forest proper. David supported Simon and as we’d already agreed not to go off singly I had little choice but to go with the other two. The three of us found Torben having a beer and the others turned up some time later around 5pm. Then it was back to the hotel arriving c6.15pm. Dinner at 7pm after which Torben did another day list this time enhanced by my copy of his book. To the room by 9.30pm to pack after a good day in the field.
Wednesday 29 October: to Atewa
As usual, up at 6.30am for breakfast at 7. A Charaxes tiridates had visited one of the banana traps and allowed itself to be man-handled and photographed – a tremendous butterfly. This morning we would leave the hotel at 8am for the long drive north to the Atewa range and the forest reserve. (A ‘reserve’ doesn’t mean that it has protected conservation status – just that the timber has been reserved for exploitation at some future date). In addition to this, exploratory drillings for bauxite extraction have devalued the status of this superb remnant habitat to be evidenced by our encounters with illegal loggers.
We reached our next hotel – the single-storey central courtyarded Alexco hotel in the small town of Kibi. A quick lunch was taken at the nearby Linda Dor restaurant (roast chicken and chips) before we dismounted on a muddy track leading into the forest. The sound of a chainsaw met our ears and occasionally a second could be heard in the distance. A steady procession of heavily muscled men trooped down the track carrying illegal cut timber on their shoulders to be loaded into a pale blue transit-type van. Not much was on the wing and, if it was, it was failing to stop. Thunder rumbled again. Now experienced trekkers we headed back for the bus and although the rain hit us it was not as heavy as Monday’s. So, back to the hotel for 2.30 to change into dry clothes etc as the heavens opened but only for a short while.
I ventured out alone through the edge of the town until the path was blocked by an unbridged stream. A small group of children seemed to regard me with curiosity – wonder why?! – but they were happy to get a biro each. I showed them some of my photos on the camera. A bit later, around 4.30pm Safi and a few others joined me in a re-run but this time we took off our shoes, rolled up our trousers, and waded the stream (deeper than we thought, so wet trousers again!). The forest on the other side was fairly quiet as the day was almost over but some interesting stuff was still on the wing.
The hotel room was small with a ceiling fan and a shower that produced a mere cold trickle with no towel provided. One was requested but it never came. The bus took us again to Linda Dor for dinner getting back to the hotel by 9.45pm.
Thursday 30 October: Atewa
Off at 7am for breakfast at Linda Dor, feeling just about ‘normal’ for the first time this trip. Despite them knowing our plans in advance it took half an hour for the tea to arrive and my omelette 1hr 20! From the hotel David and I, Peter and the lads, and Simon squeezed into a 4x4 for the journey deep into the forest, through the locked gate (young Andy showed us how to make the key work in the lock having struggled for some time to get it open), and up to the ‘plateau’ parking circle. This immediately struck me as being a special place – butterflies everywhere, just dropping in – including acraeas, euphaedras and hypolycaena blues. This explosion of butterflies blew me away - utterly fantastic experience, so much happening that I literally didn't know which one to pursue for some time. All of us peed on the path at a particular spot to create a future butterfly attraction! We wandered down the track, snapping as we went. Pursuit of a female Cymothoe sangaris deep into the trackside vegetation distracted me from the ant trail that I didn't realise I was standing in, only becoming aware of the problem when the first ant bit me at the waist. My feet, legs, and back were covered in the bastards and for a while I was close to panic. Removing a damp t-shirt ain't easy, not to mention the rest of my clothes, leaving me standing on the track in only my underpants, much to everyone else's amusement. Fortunately, the bites were no more than pin pricks with no formic acid after-burn – some consolation! Our pee spot was productive with a Hypolimnas salmacis engrossed with our salts. Atewa is a wonderful habitat but with a very uncertain future – it would be a tragedy to lose it. Lunch back at the 4x4. Thunder had started distantly and the sun had now gone so the first batch took no chances and were taken back to the road where we waited for the next load to arrive: David had gone off with Simon to the nearby town.
Back at the hotel by 5pm we found ourselves in the midst of an election rally or, more accurately, a big noisy party! David and Simon had found themselves in the midst of one in their town and had been introduced to the Elder and roped into dancing – my decision not to go with them massively vindicated!
However, our hotel had run out of beer so a few of us walked into the town in search of some bottles. Chaos and curiosity surrounded us in the fading light. The first shop could only spare us 3 beers and some enterprising and noisy girls said they’d take us to another bar if we bought them a beer as well. Like pied pipers they led us to another small hut where David masterfully announced that the only free beers would be bought for our pathfinders, as promised. With this announcement, the shop emptied! Later we returned the empties, as requested.
We dined, once again, at Linda’s accompanied by Isaac (the local political leader and conservation ally) and his friend Joshua returning to the hotel by 9.30pm. Once again I avoided the boozing session outside my window and turned-in by 10pm.
Friday 31 October: transit to Bobiri
Made a pre-breakfast trip with David, Mike, and Peter to explore a small overgrown cocoa plantation at the bottom of the village by the stream and found a few roosters. Breakfast followed at 8.15 at Linda Dor and within the hour we were underway to Bobiri. We reached the lovely lodge setting a couple of hours later and inspected our basic accommodation – mosquito net over the bed, and for David and I shared shower and toilet. Being right in the forest, the walk from the lodge was immediately fruitful and we wandered the track detouring past the large flooded area in the dip until returning for a late lunch at 4pm. Red-red was served, the first truly ethnic meal of the trip, along with roasted plantain – superb! We went out again straight after the meal but by now things had quietened down. The several banana traps hoisted by Safi might be interesting in the morning. The real treat of the day, for me, was the stunning green charaxid, Charaxes eupale, feasting on the juices of a large dead millipede. Back for a cold shower (but this time with towel provided) at 6pm prior to a beer half an hour later with David and others followed by an excellent ‘typical’ dinner on the verandah in weak lighting. Found that there was no mobile phone coverage here. Went through the day’s photos with Torben who always has time, encouragement, and boundless knowledge to share with everyone.
Inspired, I went to the room at 9.30pm to make a first attempt to catalogue the photos and slogged away for an hour until the generator suddenly stopped and the room was plunged into the deepest blackness I think I’ve ever experienced! I managed to locate the head torch that was a Christmas present last year from Liz and, without it, I don’t know how I’d have managed to negotiate the mosquito net! So then, to bed.
Saturday 1 November: Bobiri
Another pre-breakfast sortie at 6.20am straggled out down the track before returning at 7.30. After breakfast all of us explored the gardens with Safi finding several elusive lycaenids that I’d have passed-by on my own. Safi attached a butterfly net to a 15’ bamboo cane in order to catch the high-flying liptenids, and other, species. He wielded this contraption with great skill all day! The netters went off with Torben to inspect a nearby oil palm distillery whilst the rump, including me, were content to see what was stirring in the woodland across from the lodge, and then back down the track. The sun remained hidden until 10.30. At one point four different species of charaxes were feeding intently on the remains of a large facies at the side of the track, a juxtaposition of the dramatic with the disgusting. A man carrying a rifle accompanied by a woman produced a dead bushbaby from a black plastic bag and proudly stood over it like a big game hunter only to be assertively, and bravely, challenged by Safi. He wanted me to take a photo but I declined. This was a perfect example of how the subsistence needs of local people doesn’t mesh with the more esoteric concepts of conservation.
Lunch at 1pm on the veranda was another helping of red-red, just as delicious. We retraced our route back down the track a couple of hours later and were rewarded again with some superb butterflies. On the way back around 5pm I joined Tony to watch a stream of termites taking to the air causing a frenzy of bird-feeding, the most bizarre being the pied hornbills taking the insects quite high up. They were clearly not designed to catch insects on the wing!
After another cold shower, a beer, some photo identification, chat on the veranda, roast chicken and rice for dinner, I returned to the room around 8.30pm to continue identifying. Almost two hours later, mentally exhausted, I turned-in for the night.
Sunday 2 November: transit to Kakum
Awoke at 5.20am after the best straight-through sleep so far. Packed. Decided not to do another pre-breakfast as overcast again. Enjoyed excellent pancakes with honey and an omelette for breakfast. The long drive south got underway before 9am with only a pit stop at the Hans Cottage Hotel on the outskirts of Cape Coast at 1pm. This hotel is famed for its mugger crocodiles kept in an artificial lake. We had lunch here and had a chance to surf the net afterwards. Photos were taken of three species of small blues. The short drive to the newly finished Guesthouse located just inside the Kakum reserve completed the journey by 4.15pm. The rooms were of the best spec yet but without any storage or hanging space.
David and I set off with cameras at the ready straight away but being overcast after heavy rain there was very little on the move or visibly roosting. After an early dinner – 6pm – in the main reception area I was back in the room by 8pm to do some more identification and an hour later my day was over.
Monday 3 November: Kakum
Up early for a 5.15am guided trip across the canopy walkway. The misty morning was atmospheric in the high trees but things generally were pretty quiet save for some monkeys and the occasional flight of parrots.
Breakfast was at 8am with food served promptly. The bus departed two hours later for the 30 minute drive to the forest boundary where the dual habitats were apparently butterfly-rich. A hot and sunny walk produced some good species including a specimen of Euphaedra francina. I dispensed my last immodium capsules and some bog roll to poor young Steve who was clearly in some trouble! We got back to the centre for lunch at 1pm returning to the room by 2.30 as lightning and thunder threatened. During the rain I managed to get up to date with my photos though it took me until 4pm. David and I ventured out again but hardly anything was moving. Our walk took us to the giant bamboo grove which had an almost cathedral quality.
Dinner was served at 6.30pm (and left to go cold if one was late) consisting of yams, very chewy goat meat, and a vegetable sauce. A pristine Oleander Hawkmoth (Daphnis nerii) came to light and allowed itself to be photographed by all and sundry. I didn’t attend the moth trap behind the accommodation block but chose to go to bed by 9pm.
Tuesday 4 November: private grounds adjacent to Kakum forest
After the last couple of days, a 6.30 reveille for a 7am breakfast seemed quite leisurely. An 8am departure in the bus ensured that we arrived early at the private estate of some youngish Australian who is re-establishing partially cleared forest and will soon build an eco-tourist hotel complex on this beautiful site only 10km from Kakum’s main entrance.
The first hour or so was pretty dull as we trudged in single file through fairly dense undergrowth with netters at the ready. At one point we followed in the recently made footprints of a forest elephant although we never saw it. A pile of dung, so often a magnet for butterflies, was devoid of any insect life. Our walk took us down to the man-made lake where a couple of small blue species occupied a disproportionate amount of time. The Large African Skipper (Pyrrhochalcia iphis) wouldn’t pose for me being on the go just like a Hummingbird Hawk.
We lunched by the coach amongst a youngish citrus plantation in dappled shade, very civilised. I managed to get my skipper in the end, and also some great shots of a Cymothoe pair in cop. The afternoon seemed to be over by mid-afternoon and by 4pm we were back at the guesthouse. Fortunately the rain had held off so our washing was well on the way to being dry. Today hadn’t been all that great. As usual, I spent 90 minutes identifying, took a cold shower, had dinner at 6pm, back to the room just after 7 for another bout of ‘guess the butterfly’ and, once again, was in bed by 9pm having already packed.
Wednesday 5 November: long transit to Ankasa
Away around 8am for the long drive to Ankasa where we duly arrived at noon in sunshine via a downpour en route. Stopping at the reception centre, already being reclaimed by the forest, we strolled around before lunch with very little going on. The thunder and sudden wind told us to leg it back to the reception hut arriving just as the heavens opened. Our bread and sardine/jam sandwiches were eaten to an accompaniment of cascading rain and rumbling thunder. A respite an hour later tempted us out again but it wasn’t long before we were all dashing for cover again. Time to go! Some doubted that the bus would get through the softer patches on the track, now resembling a river more than a road.
Cutting the afternoon visit short, the next destination was our final hotel, the Axim Beach Resort where we arrived by 5.30pm. Built on a hut model this was by far the most ‘quality’ accommodation we’d had (and reminded me a little of Marari Beach in Kerala). The ocean rolled in below onto a palm fringed and deserted beach. David and I had a beer and were joined by Torben and Safi. Torben kindly signed my copy of his book.
Dinner was taken down at the beach restaurant – langoustines all round. The chat around the table was good until folks began to drift away. I had 10 minutes on the internet and was in bed by 10pm. Still no connection with Otley. Drifted off to a surf lullaby.
Thursday 6 November: Ankasa
Up at 6.20am to find that the power was off. The shower was a feeble trickle and, of course, cold. Breakfast was good and speedy though being our first buffet style offering. We were away by 8am bound for Ankasa again keeping fingers crossed that the rain would hold-off. The semi-derelict reception building was reached by 9.20 and we initially located the beautifully simple Pseudopontia paradoxa and then walked down the track into the forest for about an hour until the bus came along and picked us up. Thus far, the butterflying had been very quiet, disappointingly so. Safi’s plan had been for the bus to take us to the Ankasa Exploration Centre from where we could walk ever deeper into the forest but on arrival we discovered that the path northwards had been bulldozed to hell, apparently for a further 6km. Safi was livid but Torben relaxed – he said it was part of the development plan to link up with the National park and in a couple of years would be fine. Not deterred, I plodded up the muddy track and was rewarded with a lovely Acraea neobule.
Lunch was taken in subdued fashion after a visit to the adjacent ‘bamboo cathedral’. In the afternoon we walked back south to be collected by the bus at the junction with the track leading off to the forest HQ. This junction was quite productive though the day overall had been disappointing again. The slow walk south continued until the bus collected us around 3pm, butterfly activity again having gone quiet. The final stop was at the Reception area where Tony saw and photographed the stunning orange Euphaedra eleus but although David and I also saw it we were unable to get a shot.
On the way back the bus stopped briefly on the outskirts of Kakum so that David could get off to photograph the ‘Butterfly Shop’. Back at Axim Beach at 5.30pm David and I just had time to order our beers before the rain came, lashing down and squally. Torben and Safi joined us. Dinner was served again at the beach restaurant and I hit the sack at 10pm.
Friday 6 November: to Accra for the flight home
Up at 5.45am to pack before breakfast at 7am. After paying the bill we were on our way by 8am on the long journey east along the coast road to Accra. Our lunch stop was at the Elmina Fort where two worlds collided. First, the dynamism of the fishing port with fantastic movement and colour was a photographer’s paradise but the white fort on the headland told a different story. Soberingly, we were given a guided tour of this slave fort by a young local man who spared no details of the atrocities inflicted there by people with skin the same colour as ours. The women’s ‘quarters’ hit me hard – 200 women, naked, with no sanitation packed like sardines into a vaulted cell. And the guide told us with deep irony that the phrase ‘buy one get one free’ originated here, at the gate of no return, where the next woman was chucked in with the next male slave about to board the boat to Europe, to North America to pick cotton or the West Indies sugar plantations. Time then for lunch? Who’s hungry? But eat we did, somewhat subdued. I could now see the argument for Britain (and Portugal and the Netherlands) to make a modern-day apology for the misdeeds of our ancestors.
The sprawling shanty town outskirts of Accra were reached as rush hour started, or perhaps it’s always like this. Petrol vehicles were the norm giving a glimpse of what awaits much of developing Africa and Asia. The airport was reached with some 5 hours to spare but nobody had any problem with that. The KLM flight left promptly and the airport processes were good, including the transfer at Schipol.
Saturday 7 November: Heathrow and home
Landed at 7.40am into Heathrow T4, bags were fast, taxi driver waiting to take us back to David's, and Gubblecote reached by 9.45am.