x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Africa Issues: Navigating around hairy war zones

Minor misadventures and plenty of excitement on the road from Ghana to Togo.

A boy sells oranges on the beach outside Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, a former slaving depot and now a tourist site.
A boy sells oranges on the beach outside Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, a former slaving depot and now a tourist site.

"An overpass, street lights, smooth roads," says Roger, naming the odd things - odd for us, anyway - zipping past in the taxi. "And an entire windscreen," he adds, looking straight ahead. "One that isn't cracked."

Welcome to central Accra, Ghana's capital and the most city-like city we've visited since Dakar, more likely Marrakech. Our respective routes have brought some minor misadventure: for me, sleeping on the floor of a Western Sahara petrol station, the encounter with the Senegalese pickpocket, a stolen iPod and a failed bag-snatching in Ouagadougou, to name but a few. But nothing, so far, has made me clutch my noggin in woe and despair.

Disaster is never far from one's mind, though. Roger and I met weeks ago in Timbuktu, two solo travellers attempting the same thing: traversing Africa's western flank to Cape Town entirely on public transport. Neither of us have read an account of anyone actually doing this, but Roger has a plausible-sounding plan for navigating the continent's hairy armpit, the recent war zones between the southern Gabon border and Angola, where transport options are spotty at best. There's an area west of Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo we're particularly keen to avoid, where "security" on the train has been turned over to rebels-turned-bandits who call themselves Ninjas.

I reach the ocean in Cape Coast, Ghana, where Roger and I had agreed to rendezvous before proceeding down the coast together. I'd imagined a beach paradise complete with hammocks and fruity cocktails, but Cape Coast is no Koh Phagnan. The town's fort has been turned into a stirring memorial to the thousands of slaves who once languished in its dungeons, but overcast skies and humidity combined with the stench from the town's open sewers make for a stultifying atmosphere. Plus, there is little of the warmth in human interactions I'd found in northern Ghana. Roger is nowhere to be found, but I finally track him down at a resort in nearby Elmina.

Approaching Accra as though it's the last outpost of civilisation before the woolly yonder, we gorge on two-for-one pizzas at Accra Mall while waiting for our Benin visas. We meet up with two Danish women volunteering in Ghana, enjoying drinks and Lebanese food (almost passable) in Osu, the nearest thing central Accra has to a fashionable neighbourhood.

This is still Africa, though. There's a man washing himself from a bucket on the side of the motorway near our hotel - covered in suds, naked as the day he was born, his whole nature exposed to the passing traffic on the capital's main ring road. Later, less than 100 kilometres outside Accra, we pass a body lying face down on the shoulder of the road - yes, a body, though dead or merely sleeping we never learn, for the mini-bus passes without slowing, as though it were the most normal sight in the world.

Our plan is to head to Togo, the sliver of a country between here and Benin, taking in Akosombo Dam and Wli Falls before crossing the nearby frontier. The dam is - well, a huge dam, a pile of earth and rock creating the world's largest artificial reservoir, Lake Volta. The 40-metre cascade in the frontier village of Wli, billed as the highest in West Africa, is powerful enough to make you scream if you stand right under it, but not actually dangerous. That's the whole region in a nutshell, actually.

Here on the edge of Ghana, Roger and I hit our first snag. We've been told that tiny Togo offered visas at the border. Not at this border, says the staff at our German-owned guest house in Wli. We don't believe them, so we check with the young Ghana border guards. They say the same thing. We don't believe them either and insist on asking Togo immigration in person. Leaving our passports at the Ghana post as collateral - for these were single-entry Ghana visas, and getting stamped out would leave us in one of the world's most remote immigration limbos - we walk down a trail through forested hills, one of the loveliest stretches of no-man's-land I've seen.

We soon reach a single bar blocking the path. An old man snoozes in a chair outside a shack. Welcome to Togo.

The old man stirs. An entry visa? C'est pas possible at any price, he says. We're allowed a poke around the Togo village before heading back to Ghana, where the guards hand our passports back with a told-you-so shake of the head.

Hardly a catastrophe. It means an extra day travelling down to the coastal border, crossing into Lome, the sleepy Togo capital, only to head back north for a day of hiking in these same hills. But given the amount of time we've spent going over border crossings, alternative routes and imagining worst-case scenarios in Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, it's a small irony that our plans have gone awry so soon.

Roger talks to me of conserving our nine lives. To the best of my knowledge, I haven't died yet, but given the number of near misses, I'm starting to wonder how many I have to spare.

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com