Accra port is 30km down the coast towards the Benin frontier in a separate town called Tema. We arrive early morning at the fish market, which we walk through to the main fishing boat quay wall. Here a guard stops us. Some vigorous pointing at a large fishing vessel with a few smiles gets us past the gates.
Most of the docked vessels have little or no deck room to carry a vehicle. Half way up the quayside I spot a potential victim. It’s a stern trawler with its fishing Company office across the road painted in blue and white fittingly named the Six miles deep Limited Company. After a short wait we are shown into an office. An hour later we have established “Yes we do fish off the Skeleton coast ““You will have to talk to the Nana Prawn”
That evening Nana Barclay Bank has sent us an invitation to join him at his home. He is throwing a large garden party. It is to be the beginning of one of the worst headless chicken run about I have ever play a part in. On arrival we are allocated a table well removed from the all in sundry. It is our first taste of ethnic group snobbery. Across the swimming pool and the manicured lawn Mr Nana Barclay’s Bank is installed under a canopy on a large throne type chair greeting the arrival of his quests one by one. To our right under the eves of the main house a few Merc’s are parked. In the middle of the lawn Ghana’s number one band named the High Life are pumping out their latest hits.
Feeling every much on the fringes we watch the proceedings from our distance table. I notice that the Barclay fat cat Nana has a bottle of whiskey under his chair and that when there is a lull in the homage parade he slyly tops up his glass.
I chose my time before venturing over to introduce myself. A fat gold ringed hand firmly welcomes me with a broad smile. I request a glass of decent malt.
“Yes Nana Shrimp is here.” “I will arrange a meeting.” One hour later I am called over again. Nana Shrimp has arrived. Smartly dressed with perfect polished English he listens to our travels so far and our problem re continuing. Revelling in the surrounding company he broadcast for all in hearing distance that the fleet will be returning in a few days, and he saw no problem in bring us down to Walvis Bay. “Ring me in a few days.” Our host retired, we taking our leave some hours later with renewed hope.
Five days later we have heard no word. A visit to Tema the port offices ensures us that the fleet is to arrive any day. “Ring us.”
After handbag bashing one evening from Rosetta and two of her cronies for wearing a Rawlings tee-shirt Coco Beach resort is rapidly loosing it appeal. It is time to move.
On the grapevine we learn of a small camping site, which is only reachable by 4×4 or on foot. It is right out on the end of a sandy peninsular on the mouth of the Volta. A grand council is called. All those interested in waiting for a lift to Walvis Bay are to move to Ada popular with the Ghanaians.
The next morning the Dutch family endears themselves to all by doing a runner. The rest of us set off in convoy one hundred kilometres as the crow’s flies to Ada. The three Musketeers set the pace. It’s not long before Bob the electrician comes to a halt. His old girl is overheating and he has pulled a ligament in this shoulder from battling with the play in the steering wheel.
On we go at a more sober pace arriving late evening at Big Ada a smart Hotel set on the riverbank run by a German. The campsite is another hour down the river by canoe or drive along the seashore. We arrive at a small village at the start of the narrow peninsular. There is no sign of the three Musketeers we can only presume they are either lost or have decided to cross into Togo. Much to our relief there is also no sign of Dutch.
The first obstacle blocking our way onto the beach is a large marshy pound. Leading the way we all make the beach. The sand is depth. The beach lies at an acute angle to the sea with the sand forming a high ridge some meters above the high water mark. With no exit on to the beach there is no way of driving down the beach to reach the campsite other than driving along the soft sand ridge. With all the gear a walk job is totally out of the question. There is nothing for it but the big deflation of the tyres.
(Top TIP: Soft sand driving requires the highest gear possible to avoid wheel spin. Low range third, fourth. Watch the colour of the sand it can tell you a lot. Practice double-declutching for smooth gear changes.)
We all make it to the end with very hot engines. A small piece of Paradise unwraps itself before us. Crystal clear blue water creeps over golden turd free sands in a small half-moon shaped lagoon that is tucked into the peninsular side of a wide estuary.
Our campsite Pitch No 62 is o natural. Under large Palm trees snuggle protected from the braking surf on the seaside by a high bank of sand we have the place to ourselves. After a long soothing swim we set up home. Sleeping that night on the roof platform under our nets the stars with all our anxieties are washed away by the tender lapping of the incoming tide.
Long before we awake to our first day daybreak is well up in this little spot of Ghana heaven. A fleet of ten to fifteen traditional brightly painted fishing boats each with its own mottos stencilled down the side are gathered at the river mouth. On a given signal invisible from the shore they run the gauntlet of the sandbars and braking surf to the open sea. With the wonderful feeling of warm soft sand between our toes we spend the day exploring the lagoon.
The seaward side reveals turtle nests. A night visit will hopefully capture an arriving flipper friend in the act of coming ashore from its distant travels. The lagoon side has a small island dividing the rivers entrance to the sea, which could also be worth a visit.
One day merges into another with my early morning attempts to hitch a lift on one of the fishing boats drawing a blank.
On a visit to Ada post office to find out if there is any progress in getting a lift to Walvis bay we learn that the Dutch rather than pay the local chief a few pittance for assistance spent the night in the marshy pool up to their axel and are now residing in a house at Ada. The phone call confirms that there is still no sign of Nana Shrimp making good on this word. “Yes the fleet is arriving, no the fleet is not arriving.” “Ring again in a day or so.” It’s the Ghana run around big time.
That evening with the help of some local wacky tobacco Josh and I discover one of the great ecology mistakes of the world. It’s not turtles that are arriving up on the beach but Connochaetes taurinus better known as Wildebeest’s. On the other hand it’s Turtles that are grazing on the open Savannah.
Day five I awake to the grinding sound of sand. It sounds like a whale has beached itself. A young face looks up at the platform where I stand naked rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “Come, Come pointing at the beached boat.” My early morning silent signals have paid off twenty black curious faces are waiting my arrival with anticipation. I whip on a pair of trunks and luckily grab a hat. The note say’s gone to sea.
I clamber aboard: to broad smiles > a hush mummer of excited chat. We rejoin the fleet at the mouth of the river. The outboard bursts into life and I am directed to sit down as we are commencing our seawards run. Except for a bowmen the whole crew has congregated aft. There are no guard rails. With the whole crew standing up right the smooth water of the lagoon flashes by. Ignoring their anxious hand signals to sit I decide to stand like my fellow seamen. The bow meets the first breaker head on. Thank God for my sea legs. We plunge down the trough to rise sharply in a buck and bronco movement to meet the next growler. The spray brings me fully awake.
The propeller leave the water to bite again as the long narrow vessel turns hard a starboard to take cover behind one of the many sand banks. The throttle is now full open and all eyes remain firmly fixed on the bow as the helm goes over to hard a port. Two more spectacular Aussie lifeboat type surf clearances we turn once more to run along the sea ward side of the last sand barrier to the open sea and smooth waters. All eyes are now turning in my direction. Face splitting smiles all around tell me that I am judged worthy of my fellow seafarers. I have held my deck footing without going overboard. The rest of the fleet joined us on a vast blueness that reflects a cloudless sky.
We commence a large circle. Diving bird are the tell tail signal. The net is paid out over the stern. The circle completed the crew splits in two teams taking their places on the synthetic rope for the long hand over hand haul in.
Akin to two tug war teams one facing the bow and the other the stern we strain back and forth till the net mouth closes. Two youth dive overboard and swim to the mouth of the net where they slap the surface in an attempt to frighten any escapees back into the net. With the net closed both ends are then walked to amidships. The whole net is then heaved with pure physical strength on to the gunnels pouring its contents directly into the hold.
The entire operation taking well over two hours is played out to a background of roysting song.
Before it is time to turn homeward bound a second casting of the net does not produces as good a yield as our first.
The fleet arrives back at the mouth of the river. A large wooden oar is slipped over the side just forward of the stern. It is indicated to me that this time in no uncertain terms that I should sit. From the hand language is evident that many a boat has not made it back without capsizing. Each vessel picks its wave for the rolling coaster ride to the calm water of the lagoon. Our turn comes. A wave picks up the stern. To get the boat up on a plane the throttle is opened wide. We surge forward. So does the catch in the hold due to the lack of bulkheads. The bow begins to dig in. The oar men arm mussel’s strain to braking point to keep her on an even keel. It’s all over in a flash. The boiling surf is left behind. We shoot out of the frothing surf into the river estuary.
I am expecting to be left ashore where they had picked me up but there is no sign off that happening. We swept pass the island in the estuary I am hoping to visit. It is obvious that the priority is to get the catch of white bait to the market on time.
I am handed a banana leaf, which I unwrap to find smoked fish. We eat as the fleet makes it way up river. A half an hour later each boat is met by a group of woman standing waist deep with large enamel basins on their heads. The catch is unloaded basin by basin into squares marked out on the sandy rivers edge. One hundred squares of mounded white bait are then auctioned off square by square. Late that evening with a lifetime experience that will be hard to forget I am poled back down river to the campsite.
Several hours later into the evening a young man arrives and hands me my wages. The jester is flabbergasting. He has walked the fifteen miles down the river to deliver my share of the proceeds from the caught. I refuse the money to be rewarded next morning with an early call to go to sea again.
I return from this second trip exhausted with very sore hands. At the auction I learn that the proceeds of the catch is shared out in agreed percentages between the owner of the vessel, the owner of the engine, the owner of the net, the supplier of the fuel, the skipper and lastly the crew in order of rank. I once more turn down my share.
In the morning I am rewarded with the presentation of a freshwater barracuda. A round of very painful farewell handshakes and my new-found friends slide back into river to run the break water gauntlet once more.
I make another trip up river to ring Nana Shrimp. The news is not great. The fleet is not going to sea for another ten days. However there is a Russian Cargo ship due to arrive the captain of which is a friend of his. For a small greasing of the hand he is sure that he will take us on board. I have my doubts but as the saying goes ‘nothing ventured anything gained.’
Thanks to my fishermen friends I return down river with two pirogues for a visit to the estuary island. While I was up river a pit in the sand has been dug. Filled with rocks, coconuts shells, Palm tree branches and set alight to heat the stones. Our beautiful fish is dressed with garlic wrapped in tinfoil and buried in the pit. To night will be a feast on barracuda cooked O natural.
There is nothing more Safaris like than setting of in a pirogue to cross an African River. The island is about four miles away from our camping site. Four miles of unadulterated turquoise, translucent blue water. To the silver drips of our paddles we set off. The silent smooth blue waters of the lagoon slip by in our own reflections and that of the hull and paddles. The island approached in slow motion. A ball of blue the green itched into the surrounding blueness, its palm trees outline its shore in infertile motionless detail. It seemed to grow taller as we approach. A small mango inlet is our landing point. A stone-carved face that makes our goose pimple tingle welcomes us.
Expecting a challenge by some dark face of a tribe yet to be discovered we start-up a small track. Instead we come upon a deserted village in a small clearing. There is a heavy feeling of being watched by some guarding sprites or painted faces. No humanoids appeared.
Following each other we pass around the southern end of the island returning to our dugout canoes. Our footprint on the virgin sand will mark our visit till the lapping tide washes all trace of our presence into invisible time.
The north of the island is impenetrable by land. It is full of a solid thick dead kind of stillness with echoes of ancient ferocity. Even the birds seem utterly silent. Beneath the island canopy we slip by silently gaping at the vegetation struggle to reach the limitless blueness. Cloak of the forbidden enmeshed any thoughts of going ashore. Hidden eyes are everywhere. It belongs to another world. The cooking fish calls us home.
Sitting around a dining table set in the blue water of the lagoon we are disappointed not to see the odd wildebeest arrive from its distance sea travels. No matter it is an odd feeling eating while one toe’s are being nibbled. Our full stomachs complement the overflowing injection of mother earth beauty. We are all sorry to be leaving in the morning.
The whole group arrives back in Tema minus the Dutch and the three musketeers whom we assume are by now hacking their way south if not already hacked to death. Our base is the Tema is a run down joint with an open-air squash court still in use and a cracked waterless swimming pool. It is the Social club that was built to entertain the harbour builders. Pitch No 63 in the car park does have one thing going for it a night watch man.
Another day of it “The ship arrives tomorrow.” “The Ship arrives to-morrow.” “To Morrow.” has our sultan turning grey and our petulance red. We start to look at the possibilities of shipping the vehicles and flying to South Africa.
Josh and I do the rounds of the shipping companies. “Don’t touch that wanking shipping company. “You will never see you jeep again” “Yes we have a ship next month.” “Fuck me we did not come down in the last shower.” “Not every white man has a fat wallet.”
Day four: Nana shrimp informs us that “The Russian captain ship has arrived.” “It is docked in the container section of the port.” “You must go and negotiate a passage with the captain.”
The maximum bribe agreed Josh and I set out for the docks one more. We park at the container yard gates. A ten-buck dash gets us past the security guard. Emerging from a labyrinth of containers there she is moored to the dockside. The biggest rust bucket I have ever seen. A Davy Jones’s locker if I had ever seen one with all the potential of showing us the raptures of the deep long before she reaches Walvis bay or the scrap yard awaiting her arrival in South Africa.
Up the gangway we go to be met by one of her skeleton crew who shows us the way to the skipper cabin. A strong Russian face dressed in spanking white shorts and shirt extends a hand. He is totally out-of-place with his rusting surroundings. For the next hour over a few large Vodkas I explain our dilemma. There is no visible acceptance of our proposition till I remove the envelope from my pocket. Running my thumb across the enclosed wad we hear music to our ears. “Ok, Ok we leave to-morrow, five hundred-dollar a vehicle to Walvis Bay.”
Early next morning we park the three vehicles outside the dock gates for customs clearance. I go aboard to inform Captain Rusty of our arrival to be informed that his shipping company in Russia has contacted him with instructions that he is under no circumstances to give us passage.
According to him Nana Shrimp had put a spanner in the works by talking with his company. Descending the gangway I hope that Nana Shrimp ends up in shrimp cocktail with king prawn the Banker. The anti climax is almost insufferable. It’s back to the drawing board.
Two more days of slogging around the shipping companies eventually produces a container big enough for all three vehicles at a price we can muster. The decision is taken that we will all fly to Joe Bourg spend a few days there and then train it down to Cape Town in time to pick our beloved land rovers. Easier said then done.
The first problem presents itself at the door of the container. Williwaw tent platform is too high to fit in. A big deflation of tyres does the trick. In she goes with a few centimetres to spare. All is made secure to the floor of the container with straps. With a large sigh of relief the doors are closed and sealed.
The next problem is Curt the racist terrier. To fly he has to have his rabies injection topped up. Off we troop to the veterinary college where Curt has a large thermometer rammed up his ass by Ghana’s chief vet. It is decided that the best plan is to tranquillize the little bastard an hour before the flight just in case he sinks his ivories into half a dozen baggage handlers.
The following morning with Curt out of his head in a shoulder bag we all clear customs with no problems. Every thing runs smoothly till he is discovered by one of the cabin crew. Only in Africa would a doped terrier manage to hold up a Boeing 707 for a full hour. By the time it has being decided that the little blighter can travel in the baggage department African patience has worn somewhat thin aboard the plane.
A cardboard box is brought to the end of the stairs. Surrounded by armed security guards Curt is stuffed into the box. His whaling mother mum is lead back up the steps to a round of applauds from the passengers. The engines come to life its good-bye Ghana.
( To be Continued)
Still to brake Zero.
R Dillon. Account No 62259189. Ulster Bank 33 College Green Dublin 2.
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