Monday, August 27, 2007

Adventures on the Bolga bus

The alarm, which I usually refer to as "Bastard!" went off at 3:45 a.m.

At the time I was enjoying a rare deep sleep in the Uplands Hotel, located in beautiful downtown Wa, capital of the Upper West Region. Wa is located in the extreme northwest corner of Ghana.

The annoying alert was a reminder that I had to travel to Bolgatanga, the capital of the Upper East Region. Bolgatanga is located in the extreme northeast corner of Ghana.

The road connecting the two towns can be best described as a narrow dirt track that even goats avoid.

It was still dark at 4:30 a.m. when we arrived at the dusty parking lot that served as the bus station. I was with Mark Legere, a JHR colleague, who was taking a different bus to Accra and Joseph, JHR's resident fixer, who was accompanying me.

We had attempted to purchase bus tickets the night before, but were repeatedly told that we could not buy them in advance. My pleas of customer service fell upon deaf ears. We were told to show up early and take our chances.

Even at 4:30 there was a large crowd hoping to get a seat on the only daily bus to Bolga. Departure time was fluid, but we were told the bus would leave around 5 or 6.

The vehicle was a standard issue beat-off collection of 1960's rust and even older tires. There were two seats on either side of the bus with a jump seat that folded down into the aisle, creating room for another dozen passengers at the expense of everyone else's comfort.

Joseph and I thought we had lucked out with our seats. We were located near the back door and there was a lot of free space. Suddenly a half-dozen people, clutching an astounding amount of luggage (including a sack of live parrots), entered through the rear door.

The free space vanished, leaving those sitting in the rear quite grumpy. Through the burlap the parrots squawked their displeasure as well.

As night slowly gave way to a cloudy daybreak, the bus driver coaxed the rusty beast to life. After the bus sputtered and shook for a few minutes, we were ready to depart. A flurry of last-minute commerce took place outside. Food was passed into the bus, money passed out.

We hit the road around 6 a.m. and headed east. After a few kilometres the road changed from asphalt to goat track. Outside, it had begun to rain. Inside, it was hot and humid, the windows thick with condensation.

The journey eastward was rough. The unlucky souls standing at the back of the bus discovered that holding onto my seat was the only way to stop from being launched into midair. I felt for them, of course, but secretly wished I had some underarm deodorant -- and not just for me.

As the kilometres slowly clicked by, the rain increased in intensity and large pools of water began to collect on the road. The driver was determined to make good time and floored it. His noble plan was doomed and the road went from bad to worse.

We rattled over one patch of washboard for at least half an hour. My back still aches.

The pools of water increased in size and depth. Of greater concern were the streams and rivers that now crossed over the road.

It was at one of the rivers where the bus stopped. Peering out the front window we could see the water was completely covering the highway. Several of us at the back of the bus got out to have a better look, take pictures and pee.

Suddenly the bus lurched into motion and barreled through quickly flowing water, leaving a group of us standing there, jaws dangling. The water came as high as the luggage compartments, which did not bode well for dry clothes at the end of the trip.

We screamed at the driver for leaving us behind and then looked at each other. How the hell were we going to get across? The answer was obvious: Wade.

I found both the depth and speed of the water to be mildly disconcerting. One woman nearly lost her footing and surely would have been carried all the to the Atlantic if not for a quick grab by another passenger.

I was wearing shorts, but because the water was more than knee-deep, they got wet. A number of cameras and mobiles phones captured my epic crossing [Stay tuned for the video post], and there was an uncomfortable amount of laughter.

Once we were all back on the bus, spontaneous applause broke out. It was just like when a pilot somehow saves a doomed plane. Or when you fly WestJet.

As we continued east, our bus navigated several similar wet spots, but everyone was smart enough to remain on the bus.

Seven hours later, exhausted, we pulled into the Bolgatanga bus stop. Everyone congratulated each other headed off into another downpour.

The next day we heard that the Wa-Bolga highway had been closed due to dangerously high water. I'm not sure what happened to the sack of parrots.


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