I used to spend Sunday afternoons watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. It wasn’t just that Sunday afternoons were slow. I was also entranced by The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and I loved it when we’d watch wildlife films at school. I think I was in fourth grade when we all went to the library to watch the National Geographic’s Secrets of the Gobi Desert and I still remember specific scenes.
Given that context, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that, despite the fact that West Africa in general and Ghana specifically are not known as safari destinations, there is a national park in the north of the country where a variety of wildlife – most famously, elephants – can be seen. Mole National Park is not truly difficult to reach or terribly far away by U.S. standards (408 miles from my house to the lodge where we stayed, according to Google maps), but it’s certainly the most complicated Ghanaian trip we’ve taken. We had initially hoped to drive there over spring break last year, taking a few days to get there and a few days to get back and visiting some other destinations along the way. Unfortunately, consular section activity doesn’t slow down for spring break and since several officers have kids at the same school, in the end the leave time had to be split between them and Andres could only take half the week off. We postponed the trip.
I can hardly whine about the fact that we’ve used our larger blocks of Andres’ vacation time to attend a wedding in Poland and to spend Christmas with treasured friends in Saudi Arabia. But that did leave us with a shorter timeframe for the trip up north, and necessitated flying. The folks at Zaina Lodge, which bills itself as “the only luxury safari lodge in West Africa,” know that in order to get visitors from Accra to their lodge they have to make it (relatively) easy, so they offer to book flights for guests and provide transportation from the airport to the lodge (a 2.5- to 3-hour drive) as part of their various safari packages. Thus we found ourselves at the Accra airport at 8:30 on Friday morning waiting for our 11:00 am PassionAir flight to Tamale (which, I had to be taught, is pronounced TA-ma-lay), where we were to be picked up and driven to Zaina.
The harrowing stories we’d heard of domestic flights being overbooked and tickets being sold out from under people who weren’t standing ready to check in during a very narrow window of time mercifully proved to be quite unlike our own experience. We ended up twiddling our thumbs at the airport for a few hours waiting for the orderly, timely boarding and departure of our smooth-as-silk flight. I was not initially thrilled that we were booked on a brand-new airline (Ghana only has two domestic airlines—Africa World Airlines and PassionAir—and PassionAir just began operations in October of last year), but I guess the upstart is especially eager to impress at this point, and that certainly worked to our advantage.
One tremendous disappointment for me about flying the bulk of the way to Mole National Park was that I would miss my chance to see more of Ghana. The road trips we take are partly about the destination and partly about the journey. The nature of our life here doesn’t afford me the opportunity to experience what life is like for most Ghanaians, but at least on road trips I can see more than I generally see in my daily travels between an all-embassy-affiliated housing compound and the embassy itself and various shops in this neighborhood populated entirely by expats and wealthy Ghanaians. At least the drive from the Tamale airport gave me a small opportunity to see northern villages and towns, albeit all through the window of a van.
The first day at Zaina we didn’t really do much other than settle in. We arrived just minutes before a group (including some Accra friends we hadn’t known would be there! Bonus!) set out for a safari drive, so we missed that chance. And we’d just missed lunch. So we got situated in our room and checked out the property, which was quite impressive. And even without any wildlife on display the view from our deck was incredible. The photos really don’t do it justice. It was lush green as far as the eye could see.
The next day the first drive left at 7:30 and we were there. Our guides, Daniel and Adam, spent two hours taking us through the park. Every safari walk, every safari drive, they explained, is a gamble. Sometimes you see a lot. Sometimes not much of anything. It’s park that measures over 4000 square kilometers, it’s not fenced, and the animals aren’t tracked in any formal way. You get what you get. Lucky for us, that first day we got plenty. We met an elephant the rangers have named People’s Friend (actually, he’s People’s Friend 2, as the original People’s Friend passed away some years ago). I’m sure the rangers find his presence especially friendly, since his preference to hang around near human beings probably takes a bit of the pressure off. As much as everyone acknowledges that they understand these are wild animals and that there are no guarantees, I’m guessing guests are much happier—and tips are far better—when they get to see elephants.
That first morning we saw elephants, baboons (another easy sighting, as they love the easy food they can get hanging around the rangers’ barracks), warthogs (I love how these two are snuggling), three varieties of antelope, and an array of birds. While it’s not really known for safaris, Ghana is known (among people who are into this kind of thing) for its birds, and there are over 300 species at Mole.
We stopped about midway through the drive for a breakfast picnic. I think Marisela enjoyed the Milo (something like Ovaltine) as much as she enjoyed seeing the animals.
After the drive we returned to the lodge for breakfast and, we had thought, some down time before an afternoon drive. But then we learned that a van would be leaving shortly to visit the nearby town of Larabanga and its historic mosque. It was built in 1421 and is the oldest existing mosque in Ghana, and one of the oldest in West Africa. In addition to its age, though, it draws visitors because of its truly distinctive appearance. Andres and I had wanted to see this mosque since we first started learning about Ghana, so we weren’t going to let a quick turnaround time prevent us . . . we gulped down our (very tasty) breakfast and were soon on our way. Thankfully some kind fellow guests we had met on the morning drive offered to be Marisela’s backup if she needed anything in our absence. She has never been a huge fan of visiting historic sites of any kind, so we didn’t push it. The three of us enjoyed the visit, and we were even able to bring back a jar of shea butter we purchased in Larabanga (though not a fan of historic sites Marisela is an enthusiastic fan of shea butter). Shea butter production is one of the ways the women of the community earn money. There seems to be relatively harmonious coexistence between Muslim and Christian citizens of Ghana, but the young man who showed us the mosque did say that the government in Accra neglects the Muslim north.
We went on another two-hour safari drive that afternoon, and by the time we left yesterday we had been on three two-hour drives and two two-hour walks. We had seen about 12 different species of mammals, several Nile crocodiles, a Nile monitor lizard, and countless birds, among them several enormous Abyssian ground hornbills, Bateleur eagles (our guide, Adam, loves these birds and his affectionate enthusiasm for them was contagious), and many, many guinea fowl.
We also spent many happy hours enjoying the beautiful grounds of Zaina Lodge. The swimming pool overlooks a watering hole popular with the elephants. One afternoon nine of them were frolicking in there—spraying each other, dunking each other, and generally acting like vastly overgrown kids moving in slow-motion. The food was delicious, the company was great—both the friends we ran into there and the people we met made the experience even better—and there was even plenty of time to read (although how Isaiah finished a 1000-plus-page book is still beyond me).
I am often a save-the-best-for-last kind of person. But of course in the case of this experience there’s just no way of knowing what each foray into the park will bring. We were really lucky, then, to have a final outing we could not have topped if we’d been able to custom-order it. Andres and I opted to have our last safari on foot. The kids were safari’d out and opted to stay in the room. Andres and I met the guides at 7am and found that we were the only ones who had chosen a walking safari that morning. The drives definitely cover more ground, and if word goes around the guides that elephants are in a particular location, it’s much quicker and easier to get there in a car. They’re by far, I think, the more popular way to to see the park. But we’d really enjoyed our walk the morning before, and wanted to have a last walk before we left.
Not long after we started out one of the guides pointed out some elephant footprints Andres and I had to use our imagination to see. He showed us the outline, how to tell which way the elephant was going (look for the imprint of the toes . . . which again we only saw when he pointed them out), and then also showed us signs the elephants leave behind when they feed. That last part was a lot more obvious since they basically leave a path of destruction. We followed him on what seemed to be a meandering but very pleasant path through a stretch of the park we hadn’t yet seen. It was overcast and relatively cool (by which I mean we were only sweating lightly), and just a pleasant morning to be out hearing birds and seeing the occasional kob (antelope) or bush buck (another antelope). Then our guides both stopped and signaled us to do the same. We hadn’t been making much noise, but once we stopped we realized we could hear something ahead. “Elephants,” the elephant-footprint guide whispered. He pointed toward trees ahead. We could hear them, and could vaguely sense something large there, but couldn’t see them quite yet. The guides very deftly guided us forward to a point where we could see them well.
We stayed in the vicinity of five grazing elephants for about 15 minutes, the guides periodically directing us this way or that to get a better view or to be sure we weren’t keeping the elephants from going where they wanted to go. The elephants were definitely aware of our presence, but seemed mostly tolerant until finally the largest one took a few decisive steps through the green border between him and us and stared us down quite sternly. The message was clear: “Enough of you creatures!” We left them to their grazing.
In a manner similar to his tracking of the elephants our guide then tracked a buffalo, which we were able to follow for quite a while but never photograph (we were warned that buffalo are not at all friendly, so we kept our distance). We also saw warthogs, more guinea fowl, vultures, and the incredible, huge nest of the hamerkop (we didn’t see the hamerkop on this trip but we’d seen them earlier).
The last stop on our walk was the watering hole, and on our way there we saw yet another group of elephants. We were separated from them by an impassible little valley, but the guides assured us we would meet up with them at the watering hole—and that likely the elephants we’d seen at the beginning of the walk would be there as well. Apparently elephants can detect each other’s movements and actions over a range of about 12 kilometers, and it seems “Meet us at the watering hole” is a common message to send.
We saw a juvenile Nile crocodile and a crocodile nest on our way there (we’d seen a 15-foot crocodile the day before – thankfully on a drive and not on foot). And our timing turned out to be impeccable. We arrived at the watering hole just as the two groups of elephants arrived, and we were able to witness the incredible sight of these creatures climbing into the water one by one.
It was quite a let-down to then have to pack up and prepare to leave the park, but somehow we did it. And we rode back to the airport, checked in, and boarded our plane home (the ride back, and a general pictorial on my love for the Ghana I see from car windows, will feature in my next post). It was as smooth and uneventful as our trip north had been, and coming home always has a comfortable sense of peace to it, I suppose, though this time not without some wistfulness. We will surely have at least a few more quick trips in Ghana, but this was the last big adventure. It was big in every way, and an adventure in every way, and it was an experience the little girl hanging on Marlin Perkins’ every word back on those Sunday afternoons in Las Cruces could never have imagined actually having: my very own Wild Kingdom adventure.