When I was a kid in primary school, I read one of those textbooks we used for English Language lessons. This wasn't one of the regular ones. Thinking back, I believe strongly that my sister Georgina might have brought it from Nigeria, where she lived and taught for many years in the eighties. Such textbooks had passages per chapter, which we were supposed to read and then answer questions on the stories. Comprehension, we called it then.
One of the passages made an impression on me. A father took his wife and kids in his car on a journey across his country, going from town to town, visiting interesting sites and teaching his children the history behind those towns and sites. They spent the night in selected towns and hotels. A bit like the novel, 'Around the World in Eighty Days' by French writer Jules Verne; this time the tour was within a country, Nigeria I think. Way back when I read that passage, I determined that I would do that with my family one day. I will come back to this story and what happened to this aspiration later in this article.
When I was with Unilever, I visited Cote d'Ivoire once for a meeting. In conversations with the Personal Assistant (PA) to the Supply Chain Director, she mentioned that she was starting her leave the next day after we arrived. There were a few issues we needed help on and we asked whether we could call her whilst she was on leave or if she could do us a favour and pass by the office to sort us out.
'I am sorry,' she replied, 'I am traveling to France.'
When I realised that not a few of my colleagues and friends in Lagos travelled to either UK or the States for their vacations, I remarked to a pal how different Ghanaians were amongst these three West African states with respect to how we spend our leave. Perhaps the trend where people travel abroad for vacation is going up and I may be an odd one out as it doesn't feature in my desires but main point is that most of my friends spend their leave in Accra or Tema. And time spent with the kids revolves around visiting the Accra Mall. The best one does out of the ordinary is to visit the village - for a weekend.
For the first time since I started my working life, I decided to take leave beyond fifteen working days, to spend some quality time with the family. And I latched on to my childhood desire to show my children a bit of Ghana on an excursion and not to leave it to the schools to do on my behalf.
It is not as if the kids haven't traversed the country; fortunately some of us are from 'faraway' so they have had the opportunity to go the village a few times, but usually the journey is focused on reaching the destinations.
With the help of my friend, the award-winning tourism and culture writer Kofi Akpabli and Kwaku Passah Snr, Chief Executive Officer of Galaxy Tours, we designed a tour of a part of the Volta region to cover two days, with a sleepover at Hohoe. Kwaku warned that if I wanted the best of it, two nights would be ideal. But we work with the real world, not so? Half a loaf is better 'than no bread'.
The plan was as follows, as advised by Kwaku:
DAY 1: TEMA - ATIMPOKU - HO - VANE - TAFI - HOHOE ->WLI
7.00am: Depart Tema for Atimpoku where you may permit family to walk across Adomi bridge. Continue to Ho. Use the Ho - Dzolokpuita - Vane road to join the main Accra Hohoe trunk road. Continue to Hohoe and Wli. Visit the waterfalls before you check-in at WLI WATERHEIGHTSHOTEL.
DAY 2: WLI - HOHOE - TAFI – ACCRA
Depart Wli for Tafi - Atome monkey sanctuary - continue to Accra.
Kofi had suggested a slight addition or change: that we had lunch at Ho and slept over rather at Hohoe. To book accommodation, I asked my friend Nii Aryee of Unilever who linked me up with a sales colleague in Hohoe, who booked Granslodge for us.
As for my kids, they are the epitome of impatience when you want to take them out. So the strategy Vivian and I use is to tell them of such plans a few hours before time! When we told them we were going on an excursion the night before the travel, they started packing, each of them using a school bag! We had to talk and talk before they agreed not to pack their entire wardrobe. The excitement reached fever pitch when we informed them that we were going with two of their friends, children of our close family friends.
Quite early on the day of travel, the kids were up and needed no prodding to take their bath, and their breakfast and to get ready. By 9 a.m. we were off and passed through Dawhenya to pick their friends. We then connected from the Aflao road to the Afienya road via Mitchell Camp and turned towards Akosombo.
Our first point of call was the Shai Hills Forest Reserve where the forest guard spent a few minutes telling us about the history of the area. He then indicated that a tour would take a couple of hours and it was best to do it early in the morning or in the evening. We thanked him and promised to come back later - the focus was on the Volta region for the two days.
Just in front of the forest reserve, we sighted the baboons. Some of females had babies who were being carried under their bellies. The red bum of the baboons was the main talking point amongst the kids. They agreed that the baboons were nice but their bums were not!
Later in the day when I asked my eldest son, Nana Kwame, what he enjoyed about the first day, he told me it was the traveling. In addition to that, I enjoyed the conversations at the back of the car between Nana Kwame, Nana Yaw, Maame Esi, Laila and Jona. Kids do have the nicest of conversations - never underestimate their intelligence and the inquisitive turns their mind take in their perambulations.
Finally, my best moments in the car where the opportunities to tell the kids some history.
As we approached Atimpoku, I asked them if they knew about the longest bridge in Ghana. None of them did. I told them it was the Adomi Bridge and that we were going to drive over it. Nana Kwame and Jona went into an argument about how long it could possibly be. The winning length was 500 meters! I had no idea till then that they knew about meters, much more to estimate them! Nana Kwame was afraid that it would be so long that it would frighten him. Later when we passed on it and took pictures by it, without any fears from him, it was a good point to teach him a lesson that most times, our fears are bigger in our imaginations than in reality.
I told them about the story of J J Rawlings flying a jet under the Adomi bridge. They were fascinated.
'Does a plane fly under water too?' 'Oh J J Rawlings, I remember him. When Atta Mills died, he went to pay his last respects.'
After crossing the bridge, we stopped to take pictures and also discuss how the lake is used to generate electricity for the entire country. A trip to the dam will be a worthy follow-up. Our next target was Ho where we were to have lunch.
Traveling with kids, one is reminded yet again that we hardly have places of convenience by our highways and byways - a fearful thing in Sikaman if nature should call at the wrong time. Around Asikuma Junction, I called my friend Kofi Gbedemah; I call him the Mayor of Ho. He knows the region like his fetridetsi. I wanted to know where I could get the tastiest jollof rice in Ho. This was for the sake of my son Nana Yaw - he eats nothing else in restaurants! Kofi assured me that the best jollof rice in Ho was at Woezor Hotel. And he was right. But one had to wait for about an hour; the food was worth it. Fried rice also featured on our table, with grilled chicken and grilled tilapia.
We left Ho around 4.20 p.m. having belched 'akpe' - with satisfaction.
Our drive took us up the hills and descended to Kpeve - lovely scenery, the kids loving the climb up and the view of the terrain below. We turned right as we descended into Kpeve and drove on to Hohoe, arriving just before 8 p.m. and sighting the Granslodge just at the outskirts of Hohoe. For GHC50 per room without meals, it was a good bargain. For the kids, the hotel experience was a great ending to a fantastic day.
The kids eventually slept the previous day. The last to sleep were Nana Yaw and Jona who drifted off playing games on their little tablet.
They were up early, and soon we were coordinating the bathing and dressing up of five children, with the attendant noise, complaints and delay tactics.
Because Granslodge didn't serve meals, we had to find a place to have breakfast before setting off for Tafi Atome, our first intended point of call, to see the monkeys. Tina, the receptionist, directed me to Boondocks Restaurant on the roof-top and we left the lodge around 8 a.m. to find the restaurant. Jollof (for Nana Yaw, of course), banku and okro stew fortified with tilapia and okro (how can you visit the squirrel and not partake in a feast of nuts!), French fries and grilled chicken featured on our table. Since we weren't sure of where we could get lunch for the children during the trip, we decided also that we ate well in the morning. The meal was good and we all enjoyed it.
After buying some snacks - fruit juice in paper packs, biscuits - and filling up the tank with fuel, we were off to Tafi. On our way, we stopped intermittently to take pictures of the scenery.
Maame Esi asked us to buy bananas, she loves them. If you thought she was going to eat them, then you were mistaken. Soon I heard her crying behind me. Her complaint was that Laila wanted to eat the bananas that she was sending to the monkeys!
Tafi was a wonderful experience. We stopped first at the reception centre, registered and paid - GHC1 each for the kids and GHC6 for Vivian and me, Ghanaian adults. We had to buy more bananas as the guide indicated that what we brought wasn't enough.
Maame Esi, the monkey advocate, wouldn't let go of me, and I had to carry her throughout. Nana Kwame was the boldest, reaching out with bananas. The monkeys jumped onto his outstretched arm and ate out of his hands! Laila and Jona also tried, and enjoyed it. Nana Yaw just vanished! Eventually, he surfaced and threw the banana on the ground! We did not stay for the forest trail walk as we had to get to Liati Wote, to view Afadjato.
The drive to Afadjato brought in us the first sadness about how the nation is not working towards creating easy access to these lovely monuments. Narrow roads, which will surely be difficult to traverse in rainy seasons, led to the famous town that hosts Afadjato and Tagbo Falls. On the way, I had a conversation with the kids that 'to' means 'mountain' so one should not say 'Mount Afadjato'. Unfortunately, the main signage in Wote indicated 'Mt Afadjato'!
We met a guide at the Visitors' centre who took us to the foot of the mountain and gave us some history of the area. We took some pictures at the directional signs to the mountain and the falls and went back to the car, to go to Wli.
The trip to Wli was long. It took us about 1 hour to get to Wli Falls from Wote, arriving around 3 p.m. At the visitors' centre, I was informed that it would take about 45 minutes to climb up to the falls. Since we were on our way to Accra, we decided to watch the water falling from afar. We left Wli but 10 minutes later, on the way, Nana Kwame who was asleep got up and complained that he hadn't seen the falls! I had to return to Wli for him to see it. Same happened an hour or so later when Nana Yaw also woke up! This time, there was no way I was returning!
A long drive through Kpeve and Asikuma brought us back over the Adomi bridge and towards Tema, with a last stopover at Kpong to buy tilapia. The second day ended with our getting home around 9 p.m. A great second day as well.
As indicated earlier, I was blown by the sheer variety of sights and sounds of the Volta region. I remarked to my wife that perhaps the strong adherence to cultural and traditional norms in the region has helped preserve some of these troves of nature.
Many times when non-Ghanaian friends ask where they can visit when in Ghana, I ask them to go to Cape Coast or Elmina. I am changing that. The Volta region is, for me, the best kept secret in natural reserves and sight-seeing. Lots of options. Scenery, landscape, hills, mountains, wildlife, historical sites, food, waterfalls, history and culture.
But my friend Isaac Neequaye asks and comments, "Of what value are best kept secrets? Unless the aim is to let those locations remain secrets then I fail to see what the point is. No marketing, no easily available maps or directions etc. How does one locate and engage a tour guide if needed? So many questions and unfortunately a dearth of answers."
I agree with Isaac. I have had the opportunity to experience tourism in Kenya and South Africa. In Kenya, tourism hits you right from the airport. There is congruence in the efforts to let you experience the sights and sounds of Kenya. In Israel, I made a decision to visit Jerusalem just because there was a tour brochure at the hotel reception with clear instructions. I called, paid and joined the bus to Jerusalem. They even dropped me at the airport at Tel Aviv to catch my flight. This is what a nation that is serious about tourism does.
We have to do more to develop these tourism sites to improve presentation and the total experience. My friend Elsie Dickson captured it succinctly when she added that “without proper commitment to preserving, protecting and promotion of our natural heritage sites, I fear that our children may not be able to take their kids on these road trips.”
The nature of the road network to these sites leaves much to be desired. Quoting Isaac Neequaye again, "our road information system is non-existent, so it takes the really determined person to ask around for directions before finding the way to a place." There are no websites to showcase all the places one can visit in Ghana, perhaps apart from Cape Coast and Elmina castles.
When I did one safari in Samburu land in Kenya, our tour guide had a degree and was a qualified guide. He had Kenyan and traditional history at his fingertips. In most of the sites I visited, the guides were local folks, with absolutely no training.
It was a great experience in domestic tourism for my family and I, and I intend to do more. But if one is not determined and doesn't have a network of friends with expertise in such areas and for hotel bookings, it is not an easy prospect.
As a nation, we have to do more to build our tourism industry and there is much we can enjoy and see as citizens when we do local tourism. The bonus in doing it with the family is immense.
Richard Laryea’s comment concludes it most appropriately: “Thanks for sharing Nana. We have such wonderful and beautiful natural creations in this country, but there's mediocrity written all over them, in their presentation. These are the things that require a step change in gear and must occupy the minds and hearts of all those within the circle of influence.”