As we neared the center of dusty Tamale, I noticed that there was nowhere near as much new construction going on here as I’d seen in the rest of Ghana … but out of the three nearly-finished buildings I’d seen thus far, two were mosques. We neared the STC bus station and suddenly, the call to evening prayer erupted from a dozen minarets; some only steps away from our bus; some from distances too far to see. The same words, but sung/recited in different keys by a diverse set of voices, overlapping; slightly out of synch with one another: “Ashadu la illaha il’Allah.” And yet, far from dischordant, the rising crescendo of this chorus - “Wa Muhammadu Rasul il’llah” – created a compellingly beautiful music that seemed to rise, like the red dust lifted by the Harmattan wind all around us, from the earth itself. Some passersby outside our windows dutifully scurried along toward the nearest mosque; others went about their business, anxious like all of us passengers on the bus, to get to their destination before evening could finish painting the dark blue sky of dusk to velvet black.
As David and I alighted from the bus, we knew we didn’t have long to procure ourselves some reliable transport out to the park. We’d heard that Mole, even though only about 85 kilometers distant, was not an easy journey from here. The way there was all over very bad road, and it might take as long as four hours of rough travel to reach it. And we knew we’d already missed the only bus of the day that goes all the way. When we started asking cab drivers how much they’d charge to take us, some balked because of the condition of the road; others quoted us prices that were insane.
Frustrated, we went in search of a tourist bureau I’d read about in a guide book. But even if we found it, would it still be open at this late hour? Suddenly, a voice called David’s name from a nearby market stall. It was Mary, a distant relation from the old village. Up in this Dagomba and Gonja-speaking region, it was like music to David’s ears to hear someone warmly and familiarly address him in Ewe. After introducing me, and explaining our situation to Mary, she quickly made it clear we were in very good hands. Her husband, John, also an Ewe from the Volta region, is the accountant and de-facto station manager. She led us across the STC station to his office. After a brief strategy session, John and David decided it would be best to stash me out of sight behind the counter at Mary’s stall – too obviously a foreign tourist with my relatively nice luggage and my camera case – while they negotiated with a couple of drivers who owed John a favor or two. I chatted with Mary and her assistant, and bought bottled water for David and I while I waited.
After a couple of minutes, they returned with a surly driver who’d been talked into a price he wasn’t happy with. He had a very dubious looking cab, too. I couldn’t imagine this rust bucket, barely held together with spit, rubber bands and paper clips, had even one more 170 mile round trip in it, much less 170 hard miles. After only two weeks, I’d already traveled in far better looking cabs that broke down after just a few miles of challenging road. But I needn’t have worried. This driver and this car were true road warriors in the best west African tradition, and four hours later, we arrived. We’d been shaken as though tossed into a blender and whizzed for a while, and we were covered from head to toe in fine, red dust… and the hour was late. But we were there. I saluted and hugged both the car and the driver, and gave them the fattest tip I could manage, saving out just enough for the bus trip back to Tamale.
The hotel is nice; clean, sunny rooms, but no frills, and the water is only on for a few hours each day. But it’s safe to drink. And there’s a pool. And a decent restaurant with a bar. And just down from the pool, there’s an observation deck, perched in a perfect position for guests to sit and watch the action at the two watering holes on the wild, species-rich savannah below the escarpment on which the hotel sits.
That next morning, just after sunrise, David and I enjoyed a three hour hike with park ranger John, and a very pleasant retired German couple enjoying their second holiday of the year. Our “safari” didn’t disappoint. We saw herds of two different species of antelope; several species of birds; elephants and crocodiles. And later in the day, at very close quarters, we saw dozens of baboons, warthogs, and collubus monkeys. Great stuff. I shot a lot of photos and video.
But the most memorable part of our stay happened during the night hours, when all kinds of activity is going on in the park, invisible to all but those who have a great, hidden perch and night vision glasses. David and I lamented the fact that we didn’t have these. But fortunately for us, these are not necessary for night people watching.
Early that evening, a staff person made the announcement that at 6:30, there’d be a graduation ceremony just up the hill in the park rangers’ quarters for several new rangers, and that any guests who wanted to come were very welcome. As soon as we heard, David and I knew we were going. We wanted to support the new rangers, just out of principle. In a region where few good jobs are available, these are good jobs. And local guys like these new graduates are precisely the ones who have the best chance at convincing old friends, family and neighbors not to poach on park grounds; to participate in making this area safer for all the endangered animals and more tourist-friendly at the same time.
I had another reason for wanting to come. The music of this region has always spoken to me in a special way. My cd collection at home is full of the Islamic-flavored music of the sahel: Salif Keita, Thione Seck, Ba Cissoko, Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, Sekouba Bambino, and Issa Bagayoyo, among others. Wandering through the rangers’ quarters that afternoon, I’d heard intriguing bits and pieces of northern pop music in the air: the music kids were dancing to while they played, blaring from radios their mothers had placed in windows so they could listen while hanging laundry; wafting out from kitchen doorways while they began work on the evening meal. It was wonderful – melodic; complex; flute and voice driven, with rolling base lines and undulating percussion underneath, and I wanted to hear more. And since every African party is a dance party, I was pretty sure that tonight, at the graduation, I’d get my wish.