Thursday, September 13, 2007

From the "Great Ghanaian Border Expedition final report" dept.

[ events from Sunday, July 15, 2007 ]

The last day of the Great African (or Ghanaian) Border Expedition started at early. Our driver, Smiler, picked Jesper and me up in Takoradi around 7:30 a.m. The itinerary had a single entry: New Town, a small village in the extreme southwestern corner of Ghana.

The drive west was uneventful except for a couple of roadblocks, which provided "opportunities" to "contribute" to various police benevolent funds.

By 11 a.m. we'd reached Half Assini and, thanks to an uncharted fork in the road, faced a major decision. One branch continued straight, but was not paved. The other branch was paved, but headed north.

We decided to take the paved road, thinking that it would lead to the border. About 15 minutes later we discovered we were wrong. We had arrived at a dead end: Jaway Wharf.

Still, there were some interesting things here: A long fishing pier, a customs office and an arch with giant letters spelling the word akwaaba ("welcome" in the local language).

We asked a snoozing official if we could walk to the end of the pier. He grunted in the affirmative but asked us to surrender our passports and promise not to take any pictures.

Some of our research indicated that the Ghanaian boundary with Cote d'Ivoire was the high water line on the eastern edge of this part of Eby Lagoon. If true, it would mean that the pier was actually Ivorian while the shore remained Ghana. Unfortunately, we'd also seen maps that put the boundary in the middle of the lagoon.

The area is as beautiful as it is serene. Standing at the end of the pier I felt like I was back in Deep Cove, B.C. The feeling lasted until I realized there were no mountains, million dollar homes or yachts anywhere to be seen.

We asked some fishermen if they knew the location the border. They didn't have a clue. We asked the border official if he knew. He wasn't positive, but he seemed to think that the boundary was out in the middle of the water. Aargh!

After retrieving our passports, we jumped back into the Land Cruiser. Smiler headed back towards the junction.

The road to New Town is unbelievably bad and ranks as one of the worst roads I have ever driven on. It is rutted and pockmarked with huge potholes, with water obscuring the their potential depth and danger.

We were tossed to and fro as if in a small ship on the high seas. The distance wasn't far, but the going was unbelievably slow. Even with our super-plush Toyota suspension it felt taking a few spins in a laundromat dryer.

The scenery was stunning. The road to New Town parallels the Atlantic Ocean with a buffer of coconut trees separating the road from the beach. On the north side of the road there is nothing but lush emerald-coloured rain forest.

As we rattled along we noted that that the national electric grid had stopped several villages back. About half an hour later came the sign we'd been anxious to see: New Town.

Dotted with palapa huts on a sandy peninsula, the village of New Town marks the end (or beginning) of Ghana. Just beyond the group of Ghanaian huts we could see a cluster of Ivorian huts.

The official crossing to Cote d'Ivoire was little more than sand track that passes through a stand of coconut and palm trees. Nestled amongst the trees were the Ghanaian customs and immigration house, a few tiny shops and a bar.

Jesper and I walked into the small office to ask permission to wander around. After explaining our mission several times to several people, we were told that the commander had left for Jaway Wharf, the spot where we'd just come from.

Permission could not be given, we were told, unless the commander approved it. And there was no way to contact him, because there was no mobile coverage.

For a moment it looked like we'd have to be content with staring towards Cote d'Ivoire from the parking lot. Then, thankfully, a middle aged chap came to our rescue. He worked for CEPS -- Customs, Excise and Preventative Services and, as it turned out, was a bit of a geography freak.

He said we could walk up to the frontier, which was marked with blue CEPS signs. He wouldn't tell us where the border markers were, but hinted cryptically that they were near the CEPS signs.

With that, we were off. Smiler took the lead having finally understood our bizarre quest. We walked west through the cluster of trees, passing goats, chickens, sheep and a family making palm nut oil. A few hundred metres from the customs house we could see a line of CEPS signs in the middle of a clearing. The frontier!

We aimed for the sign closest to the water, which is the both the southwestern corner of Ghana and the southeastern corner of Cote d'Ivoire. At the base of the sign we discovered a wee border marker. Victory!

For the next hour we explored the area with our CEPS friend, walking in and out of Cote d'Ivoire. No one seemed to care.

After taking dozens of pictures, it was time to escape the heat. We decided a toast was required to mark the end of our Ghana-Cote d'Ivoire-Togo-Benin border expedition.

We stopped in at the tiny watering hole on the Ghanaian side of the boundary and found it served little more than warm beer. There were a couple of other people at the bar: A friendly mix of lubricated Ghanaians and Ivorians. I struggled to speak with the Ivorians, but failed miserably thanks to my complete lack of French skills. Even Jesper, the Dane, was more fluent in my second official language. Shameful!

And then, at that little bar in the middle of nowhere, the CEPS man, the Dane, the Canadian, the Ghanaians and the Ivorians hoisted their pints aloft, toasting international friendship and the conclusion of another successful border expedition.

Up Next: The Black Sea. (2008)


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