"Africa For Beginners"
West Africa: ubiquitous checkpoints, traffic with a death wish, rampant corruption, omnipresent litter, and general chaos.
Considered by understated observers as 'somewhat challenging' for independent travellers.
So how does Ghana gain the nickname 'Africa for Beginners'?
And is that why we chose it as a start point for our 300-mile cycle to Nigeria?
Honestly, no. But it's true. And you notice it the minute you arrive.
Landing in Accra, the typical surly squall of taxi drivers is absent. Running this gauntlet - while downplaying your resemblance to a walking, talking ATM - is always the worst introduction to a new country. Here however, the crowd of yellow cabs are significantly more sedate and strangely take no for an answer, without the usual recourse to swearing, begging, or hucksterism.
We wander the streets at 1.30am, feeling remarkably safe despite the drunkenness. The main nightlife centre is Oxford Street, sharing nothing with its namesake, save people and cement. It's a shambolic, typically African main street of blaring music, people drinking in lawn furniture, and ruined shop facades that hide untold mysteries. The bars close at “around 3 or 4am, depending.” - as does the popcorn seller feeding the drunken revellers around us. Though a novelty, people want nothing from us, but to know our story.
So what is our story? Why are we here? In yet another seldom-visited, off-the-map location joining the dots on a world scratch map, and lamenting our lack of frequent flyer miles?
Our apparent mission is to cycle from Accra to Lagos, 500km plus change. Or at least it’s Will’s - he’s the cyclist.
I’m just along for the journey, the booze, the people, and the occasional downhill when the hangover’s subsided.
In lieu of actual training, I’ve invested solely in The Merch:
Ass-protecting luchadore bike shorts, skin-tight bike jersey, permethrin-lined head buff, apple crumble flavoured isotonic gels, powdered re-hydration supplements, and dignity-testing chamois cream. Supplanted by a gaudy blue helmet that brings out my eyes.
All the accoutrements a touring cyclist could need - except for fitness, maps or bike repair skills.
Day 1 - It's searingly hot (32°C with 85% humidity).
We're using the rehydration salts to assuage our hungover and breaking a sweat eating breakfast.
The perfect time for a 60km cycle.
Having bought our bikes from a suspiciously well-stocked open-air ‘store’, we’ve packed and given ourselves sufficient motivation.
And the people of Ghana seemed determined to chime in.
Every 2nd person we pass on the street smiles, waves, or shouts words of encouragement.
I nearly fall off my bike trying to return the high-fives. If we stop, we're asked for selfies or to be friends on Facebook.
Groups of children sing jaunty songs about the ‘yavo’ (white man) and run alongside our bikes. Policemen ask for selfies, not bribes.
Being a white tourist in rural Ghana is unique enough, but a white guy on a bike?
You feel like a TV personality or a sweaty Martian in a charity triathlon. Has no-one seen a Lance Armstrong documentary?
As friendly as they are, most of our friendly locals don't offer much help with navigation.
Forlornly pushing our punctured bikes by the roadside, we search for our hostel in Dzita, on the coast of Eastern Ghana.
We’re told simultaneously - by seemingly knowledgeable sources (the police, elderly locals) - that the place is “5 minutes on foot”, “30km from here”, and “20 minutes by bike”. Being helpful is usually more important than being right.
We arrive broke and exhausted at Meet Me There guesthouse, and rest up on the lagoon. The hostel helps to fund an NGO developing sanitation, for the local communities of Dzita and Abledomi, and we get a tour of the learning centre being built.
We spend a long night eating and drinking with the British owner, listening to the lagoon lap at the deck and the ocean waves crash outside. Our nightcap is shots of Amarula, a South African spirit that inexplicably fuses Baileys cream and fruit. I still don't know if it was generosity or sadism.
We go further east up the coast and encounter the most scenic part of our entire trip. A flat bar of land a kilometre wide, lagoon on one side and raging Atlantic on the other. The lush jungle invokes elements of Thailand, without the gap-year hedonism.
David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’ provide motivation from a tiny speaker attached to our panniers.
A taxi driver pulls up next to us and waves hello with his passenger's giant python.
We cycle to Keta, our last major settlement before crossing into Togo.
The town's alive with a festival of death. Giant billboards hang all over the town proclaiming the death of 80-year old Joy, whose funeral dominates the weekend's cultural calendar. We follow a trail of loud, joyous Afrobeat to find her lying in state in the town centre, music screaming out from the speakers above. Like everything else here, from traffic to football games - funeral celebrations are loud and chaotic, imbued with a special irrepressible charm and a hint of joyous levity. We’re casually accepted as outsiders, and do our best to respect the whole occasion. Will dances with the mourners while I try to quietly blend in (as much as a lycra-wearing white alien can at a local African funeral).
That night is our last in Ghana, and we'll miss the people the most.
Entering Francophile Togo and Benin, we’ll miss the prevalence of English and the ease of communication. (My French consists mainly of counting, and explaining that I can’t understand). The people are sure to be as friendly, but a common lingua franca means a chance to converse on more than just the price of a taxi.
So, back to 'Africa for Intermediates' then?