Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mole National Park

We officially arrived at Mole Park at 7:20, just before the first guided safari. After the journey there, it seemed kind of crazy to continue on without sleep and a shower, but the hotel told us that they had way overbooked and we were unlikely to get a room. I was skeptical, but didn’t have much of a choice to leave our bags behind the desk and head out on the tour. This actually ended up being quite fortuitous, because as we walked out of the reception room and toward the beginning of the tour we came across an adult elephant. He was right there, in between the lodges and on the main dirt road. A Land Rover had to come to a stop to let the elephant pass. I was close enough that I could have walked over and touched him, but I figured he probably preferred that I stay back. Everyone around was quite taken with the elephant. He was fascinating to watch as he slowly meandered around eating leaves and swinging his trunk. We joined up with a group that had just started. Immediately I got a sense that the group might be trouble. There always seems to be one odd person in a tour group that dominates questions and comments. I think we had about four of these people, but it started with the question of whether the park named the elephants. The park ranger responded that the park named them initially but then opted against it because “they are wild animals, not people.” Maybe that question wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been followed with a persistent line of questions related to the elephants’ names including “will we see the elephants with names?” and “do they like their names?” We spent altogether too much time on this inane subject, but the good part was that we were in fact seeing elephants or at least the one who was walking around near us.

The big guy ended up deciding to head toward the waterhole so we all made a quick motion to get out of his way. He had no difficulty getting down the steep, muddy path we were descending. In the distance you could see other elephants relaxing in the water. There were about eight full size elephants in the water up to their trunks. Once we arrived at the small lake, the guide pointed out a crocodile who was sitting on the shore with his mouth open. He was not near us, but his wide mouth and sharp teeth were apparent even from a distance. We watched the elephant from the beginning of the tour enter the lake. He made giant, muddy footprints as he walked into the lake and sucked up water into his trunks before spraying it into his mouth. The elephants seemed pretty content to cool off in the water. Several groups were dotted around the lake watching them. Although they weren’t very active, it was still amazing to be so close to a large animal in its natural habitat. They were free to move around and could come over to us at any point. The guide did carry a rifle on the tour. There are lions in parts of the park, so he has to be prepared. He said though, that he would never have to shoot an animal. Firing the gun in the air is enough to scare the animals to run away. The park houses nearly 600 elephants and they have been growing in numbers since the park started taking conservation seriously. Poaching still exists in northern parts of the park that are rarely traveled by park rangers or tourists.

The group walked over to a waterhole lookout platform. One of the guys with the elephant-name woman made clever jokes about seeing obrunis in the park. It probably wouldn’t have seemed so irritating at the time, but since I had been on a bus, a taxi, and a truck for the past 25 hours I didn’t have a tremendous amount of patience. The other problem with this fellow is that as soon as we saw a monkey, he decided to make monkey noises at it. The poor animal was terrified and sprinted away from us. It might have been a good time for the ranger to use his rifle. The platform elevated our perspective of the lake by about 15 feet and was a great way to look out at the African landscape. It felt like I was in the Serengeti spying on all of this wild activity. We definitely lucked out on the tour and saw several types of monkeys, antelope and deer. The guide pointed out plants that are used for traditional medicine. The flowers on one small tree apparently are the plant world’s Viagra. The monkey noise man had a field day with that one. Interestingly, the Viagra tree has a symbiotic relationship with another flowering tree that is said to cure female issues. Speaking of symbiotic relationships, because I find them generally quite fascinating, there is a small white bird that follows the elephants around. It likes to eat ticks off of the elephants’ backs. We saw quite a few little birds waddling slowly behind the elephants. They waited on the side of the lake for the elephants to emerge.

The tour ended after about an hour when the ranger got a call on his cell phone that he needed to go somewhere for another job. We walked back up to the lodge on a different path and could see quite a way across the park. The elephants hadn’t moved much during the hour of our tour. It seemed very lucky that we were able to catch the one on his way to the lake. In other lucky news, the Mole Motel managed to find a room for me, Graham and Fanny (and they were willing to share the room with me). We dropped our things in the room and headed to the restaurant for some much needed breakfast. After eating and showering, we opted to return to Larabanga, the little town that we had driven through around 6:00 that morning. Larabanga is known for one of the best examples of the Sahel-style mud and pole mosques.

We negotiated with a driver of an SUV who takes guests from the motel to Larabanga. Northern Ghanaians who work in tourist related jobs are the most aggressive negotiators I have seen in the country. I had assumed that these people worked for the motel and provided the service for a fee. It seems that there are independent and are in competition with the Land Rovers owned by the motel. It was sort of confusing and frustrating to deal with these people who were clearly trying to rip us off – they kept saying how far it is and how much time it would take in a whiny voice for us to feel sorry for them because they had to cart us around even though we were paying. They wanted to know exactly how long we would be in the city and finally we agreed on a fare and an amount of time. It made for a rather unpleasant and seemingly unnecessary experience, since this was clearly a great opportunity for the motel to make more money and provide a less stressful way for tourists to see the neighboring towns. We arrived in Larabanga and the driver showed us to the “tourist office.” I walked into the one room structure and was confronted by a completely empty room. There wasn’t a desk or any pamphlets. In walked a man saying he worked for the tourist office and could connect us with a guide to the town. It is quite a small town without a lot of attractions so we figured that we could probably find our way on our own. Plus, people of all ages had been persistently asking to be our tour guides to the town. This, combined with people asking us for money, made me just want to walk around on my own. I had had enough of people asking me for more money on this trip. We walked in between mudbrick homes to get to the mosque. A few had fences with interesting designs that I learned was a calendar.

The Larabanga mosque was different from any building I had ever seen. White conical shapes create much of the building structure and they seem to be supported by substantial wooden poles. The door into the mosque is very low and those looking to pray needed to bend low at the waist to enter. We were not welcome in the mosque, but we could peek in to see everyone praying on their mats. Kids surrounded us excited to tell us more about their mosque and to walk with us around the town. We wondered around a bit looking at the tranquil town with its myriad mud homes and then went back to the designated meeting spot so as not to be late for the testy SUV driver. We waited there along with many of the town’s children. They really enjoyed watching us and holding our hands. At one point I had two children hanging onto my right arm and one on my left. Fanny was similarly surrounded. They were all very sweet and didn’t ask for money. They seemed rather starved for attention and stimulation. We provided some entertainment just by standing around. After the driver finished all of his errands, he came over to pick us up and we enthusiastically waved goodbye to the children.

Back at Mole, Fanny opted to take a nap and Graham and I went on the second and final tour of the day. Despite our lethargy, it was definitely a good thing that we went in the morning. By the afternoon, the elephants had all moved away from the lake and we nowhere to be found. We did however see some fun other wildlife. 3pm seems to be the time that warthogs like to come out and feed. One had been grazing by a tree outside of our motel room. Throughout the tour we saw warthogs with the babies walking around and eating. They get down on their knees and scooch around to eat. I guess their necks don’t allow them to bend far enough down to eat on their feet. The little ones were very jumpy and skittish around the tour group, but the mothers didn’t seem phased by us. We also saw more species of deer, but only in the distance. Kop, a smaller deer species is prevalent in the park. After unsuccessfully finding elephants after about an hour, the tour guide thought we should head back.

Graham and Fanny headed back to the restaurant and I showered again. As I was emerging from the room to meet them, Fanny yelled to me that a baboon was headed my way. I peaked around the corner right as a baboon looked at me and crossed my path nearly 4 feet in front of me. I let him get a good head start and saw that he was walking over to join a few other baboons who were hanging out near the front of the reception area. There were a few in a tree looking out at the sunset. I realized how crazy it is that this motel is literally in the middle of the park. As the hotel guests are doing their own thing, the animals do their own thing near the guests. We went for a quick swim before dinner, ate our palatable food and then headed to bed early. I was awoken in the middle of the night by constant thunder and lightning. The thunder was so loud I thought the glass was going to break. The lightning too was so close and so constant that in my sleep deliriousness I was nervous about sleeping so close to the window.

Fanny and Graham had the fun task of waking up at 4am to catch the bus back to Tamale. They wanted to head back early and opted not to continue with me to the hippo sanctuary. I had to be up at 6:00am and get the only vehicle available to me as a single traveler, a motorbike. I had mentioned to the driver the day before that I had luggage and wanted a helmet. He showed up late with no helmet for me and threw my bag with War and Peace over his neck. I had my backpack on and then hopped aboard the bike. One of the rules of this internship is “Do not ride on motorcycles.” I tried! The hotel refused to take me alone to Larabanga to catch the bus to Wa. So, there I was on a bumpy dirt road riding a motorbike trying to stay both as close and as far away from him as possible. The air felt fresh though and it was pretty fun and felt very adventurous to be on the motorbike breaking the rules. The park was quiet and serene for 6 in the morning and I hoped to see a few more animals as a reward for being up that early. No luck though.

The driver dropped me off at a breakfast place that was inundated with flies. It took a lot of willpower not to freak about flies landing on my legs and buzzing around my face. I got out the Sudoku, but was quickly involved in conversation with a very articulate local. I commented on his excellent English and he told me that schools in the north have to use English as their teaching language because there are so many local dialects. Children in the north, thus receive far greater exposure to English than do children in other parts of the country. This is especially true in areas where Twi is spoken because, with its dominance as a local language, most teachers do not teach in English. Another young man was very curious about what I was doing in Larabanga and wanted to know if I had seen many of the animals. Apparently, elephants sometimes wander into the town. He offered to help me get on the bus and I was delightedly surprised that he was willing to help me for free. After meeting so many people asking for money in the town the day before, it was a nice contrast to meet locals who were polite and interesting and not interested in me for my money. I was pretty lucky that the young guy was willing to help me because as soon as the bus arrived, people swarmed around the doors. This is the only bus out of Laranbanga toward Wa each day, so if I didn’t make it I would going to have to head back to the park. Not that that was a terrible option, but when you are ready to leave a destination, you want it to happen as quickly and easily as possible. He helped me navigate my way through the crowd and pay my fee. A religious man and another young boy moved over so that I could sit with them. I was alone again, heading to a new place.

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