The route from Burkina Faso to Ghana reveals a variety of landscapes and cuisines.
Gastronomic delights in Ghana
Something amazing just happened in Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city. For the first time since I don't know when, I experienced rain. Days ago in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, about 800km to the north, I'd heard a rumour that water had briefly fallen from the sky, a notable event during the dry season of the Sahel, but I'd been in my hotel room at the time, and when I next ventured out, everything was bone dry as usual and the taxis were again kicking up clouds of red Sahelian dust.
My overland route bent southward towards the sea in Ouagadougou, and I'm heading for a rendezvous with the ocean in Cape Coast, Ghana, where I fancy a hammock waiting for me. Moving south through Ghana, the atmosphere literally changes somewhere between the dry savannah of Tamale - where, sadly, a side excursion to Mole National Park yielded no sightings of the elephants for which the park is mainly known - and Kumasi, a hilly city overgrown with roadside weeds and banana trees.
The cultural heart of Ghana and once the capital of the powerful Ashanti kingdom, Kumasi is still home to the politically influential Ashanti king and a vast Central Market, said to be one of Africa's largest, with close to 10,000 stalls. Two travellers I met at the national park have the phone number of a local guide, a woman named Comfort, who takes us around the crowded market for a few hours for less than $4 (Dh15) a head - here's the bag lane, there are the sellers of traditional kente patterned fabric - one of my best excursions in Ghana.
Reaching the Burkina Faso-Ghana border had seemed to represent the crossing of a major frontier. It wasn't just the sealed Ghanaian road: on the Burkina side, the bus had crawled to the border on a rugged dirt path beside never-ending roadworks but, to be fair, on my overland journey through West Africa, with the exception of this and two side trips to Timbuktu and Dogon country, I've been surprised to find myself travelling mainly on asphalt, albeit often with lake-sized potholes, ever since Tangier.
Ghana is known to be more developed than its neighbours, and the traveller notices this first in superficial things, like the fact that women - even those evidently less well-off, like the hawkers in Kumasi market stalls - can afford to paint their nails. The younger and more well-to-do hit the town after dark in classy little dresses and glossy straightened tresses straight out of the 1950s.
English is spoken almost universally here. In Tamale, my first overnight stop, I walked into a guest house called TICCS (run by the Tamale Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies) and announced to the receptionist: "I need a place to sleep." Something in my tone made her laugh. The exchange of understated humour is something I've missed in Francophone countries. Sadly, I'm soon to learn that people in the coastal south of Ghana tend to be gruffer and less friendly than those here in the north, but that's another story.
The food, even the street food, goes up several notches. Ghana is blessed with a small but noticeable population of expat Indians, and I'll wear my biases on my sleeve and say that apart from Senegal's national dish, thiéboudieune, the cuisine of French West Africa - or what I've experienced of it so far, anyway - has little in the way of good, cheap grub to compare to the book-length menu at the Indian-owned Swad Fast Food in Tamale, where I almost fainted with delight at the choices: everything from tasty Ghanaian dishes like spicy jollof rice to mutter paneer and samosas.
The staples of Mali and Burkina Faso, by contrast, consist mainly of greasy fried fish and pounded grains and starches like tô, a gloopy dough of millet or sorghum served mainly in Burkina Faso with sauce and a few bits of gristly meat. I'm sorry, but as much as I love you, Burkina Faso, your street food is awful.
To the never-ending delight of foreign tourists, Ghana also has the most curiously named collection of small shops and food stalls. Most have over-the-top Christian names, such as Blood of Jesus Phone Repair Store or My Redeemer Liveth Enterprises, but from the window of a moving bus I swear I spotted a roadside food stall called Don't Mind Your Wife Chop Shop. In Kumasi, I see goods here for sale that I haven't yet seen in Africa: Wellington boots, standing upright in a neat row in a pavement display in front of the Chinese Woman Agri Chemical Store.
I sit over breakfast in my guest house the day after the evening downpour, noticing how oppressive the humidity is here compared to just a few hours north. Is that a gnat on my forehead, or a bead of sweat having difficulty evaporating? Where's the harsh desert wind and the red Sahelian dust I've grown to abhor? I don't exactly miss those, but a dry savannah breeze would do nicely right about now. I've entered the tropical rainforest, though, and it's a jungle for the foreseeable future. The desert is a world away and the coast so near.
Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com