Tuesday, July 31, 2007

from the "Ghana border expedition part 2 - chapter 1" dept.

[ from July 14, 2007 ]

After a few days rest in Takoradi, Jesper and I ready to begin the western leg of our tour of Ghana's borders. If you've ever wondered we go to these odd places, the answer is simple: Some people collect stamps. Others snow globes. We collect borders. And before you snicker, think about this: We travel to some of the remotest parts of the world and get to meet some of the most amazing people as we add to our geo-collections. Yes, it's weird. But it is also a hell of a lot of fun!

The border between Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana basically runs north from the Atlantic Ocean. We planned to visit two crossing main crossing points and hoped to visit a couple of other places that looked darn interesting on our 1:50,000 scale maps.

The second part of the expedition would take place over two days.

DAY 1: SATURDAY, JULY 14, 2007

After crunching the numbers and estimating the remoteness of our destinations, Jesper and I decided to once again engage the services of Smiler, our driver from the Togo and Benin border visits. He had preformed marvelously, taking us to distant and far-flung destinations in complete safety and comfort. Smiler and I had a history as well; he was the main driver on Freedom Flame "adventure" earlier this year.

The price was right: US$115 per day, which included a Toyota Land Cruiser, Smiler's skills plus his meals and hotel. We still had to pay for petrol, but because the vehicle was staying inside Ghana, the rate was much cheaper than the US$160 per day we had paid while exploring Togo.

We arranged for Smiler, who lives in Accra, to pick us up in Takoradi. This meant he had to leave the capital at 6 a.m. in order fetch us at my house around 9 a.m.

Jesper and I drank some fine Togolese coffee and poured over topographic maps while we waited. We planned a simple visit to the main Cote d'Ivoire crossing at Elubo, about 120 km west of Takoradi. Earlier in the week I had contacted an acquaintance with the national immigration service about setting up a visit at the crossing. I was told that the duty officer would be expecting us.

Smiler arrived around 10 a.m. We had minimal luggage to load as we planned to spend the night back at my place in Takoradi. The drive to the border was effortless. The road to the border was in good condition and we sailed through the far-too-numerous police and customs roadblocks along the way.


Elubo is a small but extremely chaotic border town. The main road leading to the crossing was reduced to a single lane thanks to lines of parked cars, all bearing Cote d'Ivoire license plates, on each side. Traders selling all kinds of things, especially booze, also competed for the pavement.

After parking at Ghanaian customs, we went off in search of our contact. He wasn't exactly happy to see us. He told us that we needed permission from the immigration department's head office -- and he wondered why we didn't have it.

With our tails between our legs, we explained that we were just kooky tourists and had had no problems with his colleagues on the eastern border with Togo. After dropping several names, he relented. Like a change in weather, suddenly we were granted unfettered access to the boundary.

"Walk over there," he said, pointing to the road that leads to Cote d'Ivoire. "Go as far as you like."

That meant we would wander past all the official guff and head directly to the Tano River, which forms the boundary. A bridge connects the two countries.

The road to the bridge was in terrible shape, with massive car-eating potholes camouflaged by large pools of muddy water. This didn't slow anyone down. Taxis and private cars sped along at breakneck speeds forcing us to hop out of the way of impending death several times.

It was quite a hike to the severely rusted bridge. The railings were barely able to support their own weight and looked like they would likely turn to dust in the slightest wind.

A marking near the middle of the bridge was the likely indicator of the actual boundary. The letters GPS and a small white cross were painted on the north side of the span. As there were no officials anywhere to be seen, we started taking pictures.

A disheveled looking fellow strolled up and asked if we had authorization to take pictures. We knew he was looking to make a few quick Cedis, so we replied that we actually did have permission. He immediately backed off, switching to tour guide mode. For 1,000 Cedis he confirmed the painted cross on the bridge marked the exact borderline. We were certain that he would have confirmed that we were standing on the Brooklyn Bridge for the same amount.

On the Cote d'Ivoire side of the river, the road lead through large metal gates and eventually to the customs post. There were no "Welcome to Cote d'Ivoire" signs to be seen and knowing that we needed visas to enter, we decided to go no further than the gates. We were still on Cote d'Ivoire soil, but thought it would be better to try entering the country at a smaller crossing where local officials would be more flexible to a non-Visa entry.

We turned around and walked back to Ghana.

After thanking the man in charge, we asked Smiler to take us to someplace good to eat. It wasn't far: A small restaurant on the second floor of a bar overlooking the main road/parking lot through Elubo.

We both ate spaghetti and tomato sauce with fish. It was cheap and tasty and, after washing it down with a large Stone lager, we were on our way to another crossing.

However, we needed to find the way.


We drove east in search of the road that would take us north to a second crossing near Fawomang.

We tried one road, but due to it's route through a quarry, we bailed thinking it was a driveway. Continuing east, we stopped at a small roadside stand where a man wearing a Chicago Blackhawks Jersey told us that the road running through the quarry was the right route. By this time we were well practiced at u-turns.

The road did indeed continue through the quarry and lead us north. Our quest was a border stone marking the Cote d'Ivoire boundary with Ghana.

The gravel road was rough and the going was slow. We later learned the road was built in 1995 and, by the looks of it, there had been no maintenance over the past 12 years.


After an hour or so, we arrived at Fawomang, where the road crosses the Tano River. The signage was poor so we stopped to ask some locals for the location of the border.

Moments later we were talking to the former-district assemblyman, John Amponsah, who seemed to know exactly the spot we were searching for. He told us the only way to access the boundary was by water and, before we knew it, we were led to the river's edge where a 40 HP outboard was being attached to a colourful fishing boat. I pondered the importance of Psalm 23, which was stenciled on the stern, as several fishermen bailed water out of our vessel.

We climbed in the boat with about half-a-dozen new friends, several clutching machetes. We were told we'd travel upstream a few kilometres to the point where the Tano becomes the boundary between Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. John explained that the stone we were looking for was located at the point where the border left the land and entered the water.

The journey was stunning. We motored slowly down the wide silt-filled river, lush green jungle towering on both sides. John pointed to a ridge where he said customs officials used to keep watch years many years ago. We saw nothing but green.

Suddenly the boat swung starboard to the bank on the right. A steep path rose from the water's edge. It was quite muddy, and every few feet sticks had been driven into the ground to provide climbing support.

All but a few of the guys in the boat clambered up the bank. As we made our way through the thick jungle, we heard the boat leave. We hoped that we'd meet up with them again. Otherwise, this was a brilliant start to a teenage-slasher flick. Except none of us were teens.


The machete guys and John took the lead. Jesper and I followed, trying not to slip on the muddy trail that cut through a cocoa plantation. At a clearing, John stopped and pointed to two exceedingly tall trees. "This is the border," he said, explaining that we were standing in the boundary vista.

Unsure of the actual location of the borderline, it was hard to say in which country we stood. However, as we continued down the trail we knew, if John was right, that we had definitely entered Ivorian territory. No visas required!

The trail curved back towards the water's edge and we could see that the remaining men from the boat were waiting for us down the steep bank.

John said the border stone had to be around somewhere, and instructed the machete-wielding fishermen to hack away at the thick undergrowth. Jesper poked around, avoiding the swinging blades as he looked for the marker. Suddenly he yelled -- he had found it.

But it turned out to be a red herring. It was actually a Ghana forestry marker. John said the border marker was close by -- and seconds later, one of the fishermen had made the discovery of the Holy Grail.

After clearing heaps of plant matter from around the square marker, we pounced on it -- taking pictures and trying to read the inscription. The locals were amused at the bizarreness of our quest. Who travels thousands of kilometres to photograph a small cement cairn? Border Freaks, that's who.

The pillar is the last one marking this part of the boundary before it leaves land and enters the water. According to the markings, it was placed here in 1973. One side is marked CI for Cote d'Ivoire, the opposite side GH for Ghana. Instead of a number, the marker was labeled BP Tano.

We headed down to the water's edge after taking notes and a group picture. The riverbank was even steeper and muddier that where we had disembarked. In seconds the treads of my shoes were clogged with gooey muck and thus provided as much traction as a snowboard on Everest.

As I attempted to lift one leg into the boat, the other went slaloming downhill, leaving me grasping for anything to keep from falling into the murky waters of the mighty Tano. Luckily, I was able to grab onto a tree. Unfortunately it was the African Prickle Bush and the branch was covered with sharp barbs.

I didn't fall in the water, but the blood from the Jesus-like wounds on my palm flowed nearly as fast as the river. I slid into the boat, fishermen in awe at the lack coordination I so proudly exhibited.

Chugging down the river the boat became quiet. Everybody seemed tuned in to the beauty of the jungle and calmness of the river.


Back at Fawomang, we thanked everyone for their assistance in our odd little expedition. We gave John the assemblyman about $20 to show our appreciation and invited everyone for a drink at a nearby watering hole.

John, Jesper, Smiler and I sat at a table in the corner of the bar. Jesper and I told stories and passed around pictures from previous border expeditions. We ordered warm beer for us and a bottle of local "gin" for the fishermen. Toasting another successful journey, I was thankful that I collected geographical places and not snow globes.

Soon we were back in the Land Cruiser and headed back to Takoradi. We had seen much more than we had expected to, and the river ride was a bonus.

By the time we reached my house it was dark and we were beat. We made plans with Smiler for the next adventure: back to the Cote d'Ivoire boundary at a remote beach crossing on the edge of the Atlantic. We would start first thing in the morning.

Ghana-Cote d'Ivoire part 2 [and images] to come...


1 comment:

Hugh said...

Thanks for this Doug. Looking forward to part 2 (and the pics)