A Travellerspoint blog

Gold Digging in the Wild West

What to do when a country – in this case, Burkina Faso – lacks obvious attractions to visit? Gold mining? Sure!

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Sissoko (middle)

Sissoko (middle)

West Africa could be described as ‘the Wild West’. Mostly known for civil wars, blood diamonds and Ebola; it’s not far from Indian wars, gold rush and dysentery. But I’m old school, so I went hunting for gold rather than diamonds.

Last time I was in Burkina I made some good friends in the north of the country. Not far from the border with Mali. One of those had told me that there are some pretty impressive gold mines a few hours north-west of the capital Ouagadougou. So why not visit a goldmine. I’ve certainly not done that before, and I was pretty sure my travel mate Bo hasn’t done either. My Burkinaian friend, Sissoko, even came down to show us around the mining area.

Legoland

Legoland

To be honest, I didn’t expect much. We knew it was so-called open-earth mining, meaning that the mining was done by hand and straight from the ground. Jokingly, I suggested that it would be a little like visiting Legoland’s western town, where kids can wash fake gold out of mud to get a shiny medallion. At most I expected a few fortune seekers were digging through the dirt. Was I in for a surprise!

Driver and red(?) car

Driver and red(?) car

Having arrived in the rather unimportant truck stop town of Yako, Bo and I met up with Sissoko, who had been hanging out with a friend of his, waiting for us. Once there, Sissoko was a champ and asked us to wait in the shade for a couple of minutes while he would organise a ride out to the mine. It wasn’t more than six or seven kilometres away, but he insisted that jumping on three taxi-motos would be too bumpy and too dirty. A little while later he came back with the only real taxi in town – a former red car, so old that all the paint had peeled off and it was now simply a white/rusty car.

The driver was the father of Sissoko’s friend, and both him and Sissoko insisted that he would drive us for free. That wouldn’t do for us, so we paid the gas for the ride (about 4€’s worth) secretly. Sissoko would later pay our driver another 4€ for the gas, in that way the driver did get a little for his troubles. We also bought both of them lunch at the finest restaurant in town after the visit to the mine, which isn’t saying much. We tried our best, but between the four of us, we still weren't able to eat and drink for more than 15€…

Women tracing ore

Women tracing ore

Driving along the dirt roads, we quickly arrived at the village that’s the centre of operation for the gold mining. As we drove into town, we spotted a few makeshift dredges. We thought we’d arrived and were impatient to get out and chat with the guys showering dirt. But we kept driving. Straight through the village. Only to do a short stop where our driver shouted our arrival to the village chief – and more importantly that our purpose there weren’t to steal people’s gold.

Gold mining

Gold mining

We soon found out why we didn’t stop in town. Just outside it, behind a ridge of red earth, lay the real mining site. And what a shock. It wasn’t just one mine. It was dozens. Hundreds of young men, working in shacks, around handfuls and handfuls of mine shafts, dug straight out of the flat ground. All of it – including the young men – were covered in a fine layer of white sand, which must have been dug up from under the red top soil.

Shaft

Shaft

We all headed for the nearest shaft. The guys working there were openly surprised to see white people, let alone tourists. But they also took pride in the work. In the hardship of it. And in the danger. This particular shaft was 70 metres deep. Less than half the depth of the deepest shaft we came by. They offered us to be lowered down to see it from the inside. But standing on a small plank of wood strapped to a rope, with 70 metres of darkness below, was a little more excitement than both Bo and I was looking for. It goes without saying that we hadn't gotten many kilometres out of town before I regretted not risking my life to get a closer look at those mines!

Teenager pulling up ore

Teenager pulling up ore

The work itself is back breaking. Once a day’s shift has been lowered down, they stay in the mine for 24 hours. Always digging, hacking and washing out the potential ore. Others haul the ore up – 50 kilos at a time. This then gets washed, wild west style. Larger rocks and stones get crushed into powder, which is then also washed. Everything, every gramme of dirt, is carefully examined for specs of gold and gold dust.

Only two steps in the process are electric driven. The machines crushing the rocks, and the pumps pumping water down into the mines for the workers to wash out the ore. It’s all dangerous work, and people die every month here. And it’s not only dangerous due to the risk of the mines collapsing. Shacks must count at last ten strong men; otherwise, they’ll risk getting jumped by other groups of miners, who are after the ore they have dug up.

The open mine

The open mine

It was an unbelievable sight. Like stepping back in time. To the American, rather than the African, west. Having talked with a few of the crews and gotten our photos, we headed back to the car. Away from the burning Sahel sun that made conditions horrific. We wanted to sit down and have a drink, but Sissoko – himself a retired miner – warned us. Every single drink available at the mines are spiked with drugs, natural or chemical, that energises the workers. So better wait until we’re back in Yako.

Kid washing for gold

Kid washing for gold

On the way back to the car we came past a couple of kids – around nine years old, I would think – who were busy washing gold out of the mud. Child labour if I any saw it. But not particularly more horrible than the kids working in the fields, markets or harbours all over the continent. But it still, somehow, struck a nerve.

One thing is certain. What Africa lacks in ordinary tourist sights, it more than makes up for in shocking, fascinating and crazy experiences!

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Posted by askgudmundsen 17:32 Archived in Burkina Faso Tagged travel wild africa western sights gold mining mine travelling west_africa burkina child_labour Comments (0)

Africa’s Cheapest Safari

No, I didn’t just see some zebras from the bus window… We did get chased by two elephants and pulled a crocodile by its tail, though.

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Bus to Mole

Bus to Mole

Having just barely made it off the Volta Ferry, Bo and I headed for Mole National Park. Its main attraction is its heads of elephants, which congregate at certain drinking holes here in the dry season. Little did we know, as we approached the park, that those same elephants would eventually chase us away from their drinking spots.

Getting from Yeji where the ferry left us, Bo and I used all day getting the 300 km to the park. Starting at 7:30 by crossing a river, onward with first a coach then a minibus, before making the final few kilometres in a taxi. We arrived twelve hours after we had taken off, just as the sun was setting over the bush.

Pool-side elephant spotting

Pool-side elephant spotting

Standing tall on the top of a cliff, Mole Motel have been the primary place of accommodation in the park since the 1960’s. I haven’t had too much luxury during my previous national park visits in West Africa, but lounging by the pool with a view of elephants on the plains below is pretty much a highlight. And the expense? 13 US$ a night for a dorm bed. Before this turns into a commercial for the Motel, I should probably note that it’s pretty rundown in that built-in-the-60’s kind of sense.

Getting close

Getting close

And while sitting by the pool and watching elephants from afar is all well and good, going out searching for the elephants on the plains is a lot more fun – and excitement. So, for 2.5 dollars per hour per person, we headed out on a safari walk to get a closer look at the elephants. The animals have mostly gotten used to visitors, and they are somewhat relaxed about us hanging around. To be honest, the group of elephants we found seem much more concerned about throwing the right amount of dirt on themselves and wash in the big waterhole were the congregate. It was easy getting within 20 meters them. Awesome!

Just before it charged

Just before it charged

Though not every elephant loved our hanging about. At the end of the walk, we came across two young male elephants, who did not like our presence one bit. I’d just managed to get a frontal photo of one of the two elephants when they made a small charge at us. It was more of a threat than a real charge, but it quickly sends us head over heels – running for dear life. The armed ranger who was with us, got so far shouldering his rifle, preparing a warning shot while we retreated before the elephants stood down. Not happy with the speed of our retreat, the did follow us for a while to make sure that we were leaving.

With that level of excitement, we wasted another afternoon at the pool…

Just walking a croc

Just walking a croc

The next day we left Mole, not so much because of the elephant chase, rather because Bo is running out of time before he needs to get back home. But our animals adventures in Ghana wasn’t over just yet. In the far, far north, on the border with Burkina Faso and another day’s journey from Mole is a small border town named Paga. The town is home to a couple of sacred crocodile pools. Somehow, the crocodiles have an unspoken agreement with the ponds’ caretakers that they get a chicken if they don’t eat the dumb tourists who come by, posing for photos with them.

Petting croc

Petting croc

Having paid the entrance fee (not getting eaten isn’t free) the caretaker zipped around the corner to a nearby market to buy the unlucky chicken that had to give up its life because Bo and I wanted some photos with a crocodile. The chicken was then waved in from of the croc, which then crawled onto dry land. Here, Bo and I was instructed in how to pet and hold the tale of the crocodile, while we were both nervous about the animals large teeth and felt pretty horrible because walking around, pulling the tails of poor crocodile falls well into the category of something bad tourists would do. The pictures turned out pretty bad-ass, though.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 14:58 Archived in Ghana Tagged animals travel elephants adventure africa safari pool crocodile ghana travelling west_africa Comments (1)

Sailing the Volta Lake in 30 Hours

Floating down the second-largest human-made lake in the world, sharing stories through the night.

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The Yapei Queen

The Yapei Queen

Slowly floating down the second-largest human-made lake in the world is a relatively lax affair. The bar is loaded with beers, the captain walks around to greet the passengers, and the big-shot yam trader is sleeping on a foam mattress on the upper deck. Africa is – as always – full of surprises. Also surprisingly, the ferry, MV Yapei Queen, had gotten a new engine. The 430 km used to take anywhere between 36 and 60 hours – now the journey takes 30 hours sharp. Dare I say; it’s not very African of them.

First Class

First Class

30 hours is still a lot longer than the 10 hours the same distance would take in the bus. But after months of road travel, the alternative of travelling by the Yapei Queen was an unmissable opportunity for covering some distance with comforts not found on even the best of roads here in West Africa. The buses don't have a bar. Nor does most of them have A/C. And none of them has two first class cabins with bunk beds, one of which Bo and I managed to secure by booking a few days ahead. Otherwise, we would have shared the upper deck with the yam-trader. I know, but after ten months here, I’m happy that I don’t have to rough it all the time.

Volta map

Volta map

I’ve always liked to travel slowly, and the fact that we ‘only’ used 30 hours was almost too short. We left Akosombo, on the lake’s southern extremity, at 7 pm. Monday and arrived a Yeji in the north at 1 am. Wednesday. Only having one full day to enjoy the ride seemed almost too short. Especially, because sailing down the lake, big as a small ocean, was peaceful bliss. No wind, no waves. Just a mirror-like surface. Just for the sake of giving you an idea I've made a rather primitive map showing the trip. anyone really interested in boats, timetables or geography will probably have to look up the lake... Then again, few probably are...

Bo on the Upper Deck

Bo on the Upper Deck

The Harmattan wind – a meteorological phenomenon where strong trade winds blow dust from the Sahara down over most of West Africa, for months at a time, between November and February – was lying like a blanket of foggy dust on the rugged shores. We almost felt like sailing through a thick soup, perfectly isolated from the rest of Africa. From the rest of the world.

Bo and I used the evenings sipping beers on the upper deck with a couple of other pale travellers. Sharing travel stories and comparing destinations long through the night. My 30 years of age and 88 countries travelled made me both the youngest and least travelled of our group. Let’s just say; the stories weren’t boring.

Sailing the Volta Lake

Sailing the Volta Lake

Arriving in the small port of Yeji at 1 am wasn’t optimal – to put it mildly. Certainly not because we needed to cross to the lake’s opposite shore 7:30 that morning to catch the one daily bus leaning from the even smaller Old Makongo on the other side. The captain was kind enough to let us stay in our cabin until 4 am, but didn’t tell us that the ferry would sail out at that exact time. So when a shipmate knocked on our door at 3:58, yelling, "we’re moving!" we weren’t ready at all. Five minutes later, we’re running off the boat, hoping we haven’t left anything behind. No matter now. Less than twenty seconds after our feet touched the harbour’s dirt, the Yapei Queen pulls off and leaves us in the dark.

Fishing at first light

Fishing at first light

The port – no more than a long pier made of dirt and rocks – is pitch black. A few stalls make a small harbour market, with a few traders sleeping on benches and a transistor radio playing reggae. A little wooden cart is standing off to one side. As we have been told that the small boat that makes the 5 km crossing to the other shore also leaves from here, we simply decided to nap on that wooden cart until daybreak woke us up a few hours later.

The bus to Tamale

The bus to Tamale

The short crossing only took an hour, and our bus showed up at 9.00 but didn’t leave town until a little past 11 because of no particular reason. From there we had a four-hour dusty and bumpy ride on Ghana’s northern roads until we arrived in Tamale, the main city of the north. To be honest, we quickly began to miss the tranquil life onboard the Yapei Queen...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:22 Archived in Ghana Tagged boats travel ferries sailing ghana ferry travelling west_africa volta yapei_queen lake_volta Comments (0)

Funeral of a Queen Mother

Because when are you ever again getting the chance to attend a African Queens funeral?

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Line to see the Queen

Line to see the Queen

As we’re walking past the corpse of the queen mother, an official’s angry hiss gets my attention. "Remove your glasses!" Apparently, it’s not allowed to wear glasses as you pay the queen her last respect. Just another cultural difference and traditional taboo that’s impossible to predict for an outside like me.

My family have returned to Denmark. I’ve instead been join by Bo – the founder of Globespots.com, for which I sometimes do some writing – who’ll bee travelling with me for about a month. Together with a couple of German travellers, we’re attending the funeral ceremony of the Ashanti, Queen mother. The second most important position in the ancient Ashanti culture, after the King of the Ashanti.

Bo to my right

Bo to my right

If you don’t know the Ashanti, here’s the ultra short background. Ashanti means "because of wars" and the kingdom offered the toughest resistance against the British in Ghana during the early colonisation period. So great was this kingdom that their former territory now forms an entire region in central Ghana, simply called the Ashanti Region.

Dressing up

Dressing up

The death of the queen mother is a once-in-a-generation experience. So it’s a lucky coincident that the five-day ceremony fits perfectly with our trip. Thousands of people had gathered on the palace grounds and in the surrounding streets. Most wearing all black – including our two German friends who had have special clothes made in the market earlier that day. Some combined black and dark red (the royal colours), and a few came in whatever black or red clothes they had. Both Bo and I struggled to find anything that could go with our black t-shirts, but most people seemed to forgive our brown pants.

A ceremony like this one – we found out – tend to be rather rowdy. One thing is the heavy drinking. The funeral is held a few months after the queen mother’s death. So the moarning had been replaced by something more fitting a goodbye party, which I guess fits well with a funeral. More problematic was the dancing and competition. Let me explain.

Chief's entourage

Chief's entourage

All the regions local chiefs attend this funeral. With full entourage. These entourages, complete with weapons for noise-making, tend to compete in creating the loudest and wildest presentation of their chief. One thing is the firearms for making noise, but the dances and shouts mostly arrive from old worrier and war dances that are very aggressive in nature. Having a bunch of armed bodyguards competing in being the wildest loudest and most aggressive, doesn’t necessarily create what I would call a ‘nice atmosphere’. It was rather a spectacle.

Funeral drummers

Funeral drummers

Having mostly untrained local bodyguards to act as crowd control didn’t improve the situation further. Local dancers would approach us white people and make a dance move where they would rather aggressively head-bud a money bill. If we were meant to donate money to the dancers, I don’t know, but being singled out by these guys weren’t fantastic.

Village chief

Village chief

At this point, some local guy felt pity for us and used most of the rest of the funeral on showing us around and trying to explain us things. Including getting us into the lines that would walk around the dead queen mother’s body as a sign of respect. No shoes, no jewellery (including watches), no hats and apparently no glasses. I’m just happy that I’m only 0.5 myopic – so it wasn’t a problem to actually see the body. Had I been near blind it might have been a problem not to accidentally step on one of the many members of the royal family who was sitting on the ground around the corpse.

Rowdiness and the aggressive vibe aside it was an enjoyable experience. Only one real low point was that both Bo and I suffered an attempt to pickpocket us. This is the first time in my ten months here in West Africa I’ve experienced it, but crowds like this are prime locations for thieves, so I’m not surprised. Both Bo and I are experienced travellers, and none succeeded.

Funeral crowd

Funeral crowd

I’m mostly a bit offended by how stupid “my pickpocketer” though I was. He got my zipped pockets opened and tried to go for my phone. I feel his hand around my pocket, grabs it with my left hand and pushes him away by planting my right hand firmly in his chest. Accompanied by a loud, “keep your hands out of my pockets!” You should think he would get that message, but no. A second later he tried to open my zipper on my small camera back strapped to my belt. Again, I manage to push his hands away and just before I turn around some locals shout out to me that he’s a thief and he loses himself in the chaos.

Priestess dancing

Priestess dancing

However, he was wearing a blue and white jumper. In a crowd of all black. He was the easiest guy to spot, and I manage to spot him across the crowd. I simply refuse to get pickpocketed by someone so amateurish that he doesn’t even dress to disappear into a crowd of people all dressed in black. If you want to pickpocket this white guy, you simply need to make at least a minimum of an effort!

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:04 Archived in Ghana Tagged travel king queen ceremony ghana travelling mother funeral chief west_africa drumming asante ashanti pickpocked Comments (2)

I’m Taking a Vacation

Starting 2017 with something very travel-related. A vacation.

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Really & Serious

Really & Serious

2017 began with celebrating New Year’s Eve on a Ghanaian beach called Kokrobité. In other words: I soaked in alcohol for three days. Most notable from those three days, a couple of Canadian girls, that I’m simply going to call Really and Serious to hide their real identities, thought me to drink something new. Something called Triple Gin & Lime. And it’s pretty simple. Take three shots of gin and one shot of Rose’s Lime – you know, that yellow sticky stuff that is usually used to give cocktails a lemony taste. Then pretend really, really hard that is a proper drink and not just three shots of gin with yellow poured on top.

It tastes horrible. At first. After two or three of these death traps you begin to think that it’s actually a proper cocktail. This is a warning sign because it only makes you drink it faster. Which will, of course, only result in you getting shitfaced even more quickly. Go ahead. Pretend that three gin shots with some yellow sugar is a drink and see how fast your night is going to end. On the 31st Really, Serious and I started this show pretty early in the morning, and I’m real proud to say that I do remember the midnight fireworks. I don’t remember much after that, though.

Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing

Thus, I think that is it fair to take a short vacation from the hard traveller’s life. So, I left Really and Serious to soak in more Triple Gin & Lime and left for a fancy hotel in Accra. It’s not my first “vacation” on this trip. I spent about two weeks in both Freetown and Bamako lying around, doing nothing as a break from travelling. This time is different, though. In Freetown and Bamako, I was still on my shitty traveller’s budget, still couchsurfing and sleeping in a dorm. It was still budget travelling, just without the moving anywhere.

Fancy Hotel

Fancy Hotel

This time I’m doing it properly. Primarily because I’m getting a visit from my parents and my sister for two weeks. I’ve apparently been away for too long, and when I’m not going home to visit them, they have to come down and visit me. Which is, to be honest, very sweet of them. This means a massive upgrade of my living standards. Which is also why I was heading to “a fancy hotel” in Accra. Fancy hotels instead of dorms and bordellos. Air-conditioned restaurants instead of street food. And a rented car to get around in instead of the overcrowded buses.

Rental

Rental

Instead of taking a break from travelling by not moving while staying on my small budget, this time I would keep moving, but upgrade the travel budget massively thanks to the family visit. Something most people would actually be able to recognise as a vacation. Together we would explore Denmark’s colonial and slave-trading history on the former Gold Coast, cruise on the biggest human-made lake in Africa, visit West Africa’s largest market, see colonial forts and castles and, walk through the tree tops in canopy walkways.

Cruising

Cruising

My family’s visit had been arranged quite some months ago, and Ghana is certainly the ideal location. It’s the most developed country in West Africa, probably has the most prominent tourist attraction, and is Anglophone. Not surprisingly Ghana is often described as “Africa for Beginners”.

It’s also a quite strange feeling. Going from trashy, backpacker type to upper-middle-class vacationer. Though the word “backpacker” doesn’t really work here in West Africa outside Ghana. All that sitting around hostels, drinking with other western backpacker’s, which is, essentially, a huge part of backpacking – whether backpackers want to admit it or not – isn’t available here in West Africa.

Russian Train

Russian Train

I’m not going to lie. Staying at hotels that cost four daily budgets a night feels pretty damn good. But it’s nothing compared to being able to eat proper food! The travelling life had become somewhat routine after ten months, and this luxury break can hopefully do something to reset the excitement of travelling. Because that is essentially where the magic happens. I was rereading one of my first blog entries from my adventures in Central Asia the other day. My first experience on a Russian train. The sheer excitement and curiosity I expressed in that blog, is far from the feelings I have about West Africa after ten months of travelling here. I need to return to that!

West Africa, sigh

West Africa, sigh

But the time for this early and innocent excitement is probably over for me on this trip. Simply because I have learned how most things work here in West Africa. All the wonder and some of the excitement is gone. It’s pretty naturally. Travelling for a year in the same region, where the countries are relatively alike, means a certain getting used to everything. That is not to say that the travelling has gotten boring – not at all – but it isn’t new anymore.

Changing everything up, with two weeks of luxury, is new. And with a little luck, going back to the shoestring travel will afterwards hopefully be like coming home to an old friend once again.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 12:47 Archived in Ghana Tagged travel vacation sights ghana travelling west_africa Comments (0)

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