A Travellerspoint blog

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)

Send More Money, Please

On how I've made it through €12,000 in 12 months

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Liberty Dollars

Liberty Dollars

Roaming around West Africa for a year isn’t cheap. It’s not particularly expensive either. Once my twelve months here are over, I’ll have burned just about €12.000. Sure that’s a lot of travelling, but those twelve grand are the only money I’ve spent in a whole year. And since they have started to run short, I figured I might as well write a little about how I saved them and what I’ve burned them on.

Getting your hands on travel money isn’t too difficult. Most of my stash was built by saving money through smaller jobs I had on the side of my studying and volunteering back home. Granted, with free education and a monthly scholarship from the government (it’s good to be Danish) it’s been easier for me than for most. But mind you, I manage to do this without anything near a full-time job salary.

Guinean Street Food

Guinean Street Food

I eat cheap; I try to cut down on transportation cost. I never shop stuff I don’t need – I can’t remember when I last bought new clothes that weren’t second hand. But most importantly, I haven’t made any big investments like the purchase of a house or a car that I’m struggling to pay off.

The last bit of money comes from writing for GlobeSpots.com and selling some of my best travel photos online.

Testicles for dinner

Testicles for dinner

Both of these added incomes are simply a matter of me travelling a lot. I got the GS gig by meeting the editor on a hostel in Uzbekistan, where we shared some shish kebabed goat’s testicles with another traveller (no joke). Haven taken thousands (if not tens of thousands) of travel photos during my last decade of travelling, I’ve used an endless number of hours taking editing photos. Followed a somewhat evolutionary path, I’ve gradually used more and more time getting into taking good shots. Eventually, I’ve gotten good enough to sell the very best ones.

Spending millions

Spending millions

Having thus secured this massive amount of wealth, how have I managed to blow it all?

€12.000 in 12 months neatly equals €1.000 per month – or 33€ per day, which is a pretty decent backpacker’s budget in most of the non-Western world. In places like Southeast Asia and India, it’s an absolute fortune. I won’t break it down in details, but about ten percent have been wasted on visas. Maybe even more. Sure, Senegal and Gambia was free, but Mauritania was a 120€, Liberia 150$, the two visas for Guinea were 45€ and 120€ respectively (don’t buy your Guinea visa in Liberia).

Slow going

Slow going

Other than that, there’s ‘the rule of thirds’: a third of my money goes on accommodation, a third on food and the last third is split between transportation and during fun stuff. The last third is divided because days that are heavy on transportation is usually less heavy on museums, national parks, party nights and so on. Travelling with public transportation in most of the world, getting a few hundred kilometres easily takes a whole day. Then you’re there for a few days before spending another full day going somewhere new.

Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing

As for accommodation, cheap's hard to come by in West Africa. Europe and Asia have cheap dorm beds everywhere. I’ve slept in less than ten dorms after I left Morocco – they are not here. When there are no budget travellers, there are no dorms. And there are very few travellers of any kind here in West Africa. Instead, it’s single rooms, and the cheapest are rented by the hour for stuff other than sleeping. That makes accommodation expensive. Couchsurfing in large cities helps, but that will be evened out by 15€ rooms in the major provincial towns.

But isn’t food really, really cheap in Africa? Yes. It is. And to be honest food might not be a full third of my budget, but it’s not a fantastic as you might think. Cheap food has almost no variation. Anywhere. In all of West Africa. It’s usually limited to omelettes, rice with sauce spicy enough to melt concrete or fried fish. Sure, in few places it’s possible to get regional alternatives, but the dirt cheap, street food options are very much limited to this – and then to women selling fruits and vegetables.

Needed variation

Needed variation

And I’m simply not build to eat the same thing day in and day out. I need variation. At least, get me some fried chicken, some spaghetti, or some grilled fish. The problem is that to get these simple variations into my food plan, I often have to splurge on a 3-5€ meal… Sure I could probably nitpick my eating priorities. Or spend more time searching out better food places. But travelling should be fun too, so I really can’t be bothered. It’s hard enough to travel through Africa alone, and eating something other than street food once in a while have become my most cheeriest luxury.

Ten months into this, I would go insane if I had to eat more rice than I already do. I haven’t studied it carefully, but my estimate is that more than half of my lunches and dinners include rice in some form or another. A few countries have even had rice soup as the typical breakfast at the bus station before those early morning buses too. I’ve had plenty of days where rice was the main part of all my three daily meals. Sigh.

The “fun” part of the budget is somewhat limited. It’s mostly blown on expensive visits to national parks where there is little to see, but monkeys. Or for guides to climb mountains. And transportation is a rather necessary part of travelling, so I won’t bother getting into that category.

Fun Budget

Fun Budget

The last big expense is alcohol. I could probably make a separate budget post on that, but usually, I divide it between the food and the fun posts. As a rule of thumb, anything more than three beers goes on the fun part of the budget – three beers or less goes on the food part. Isn’t budgeting fun?

This is, of course, a matter of rough estimates. The point is that it’s relatively easy to blow through €12,000 in a year’s travel. Interestingly, as I’m getting closer to the end of my adventure I have less money to spend (funny how that works – spending money without making money means that I gradually have less money). But staying longer and longer on the road means that I have to use more luxury money on nice stuff like good food or alcohol as a coping mechanism in a desperate attempt to avoid going crazy.

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On that rather sad conclusion, as a small end note to this post, I can announce that I’ve finally booked a flight home to Denmark. But don’t worry, I won’t stop writing right away. I won’t be flying until I’ve made it to Niger. More precisely, I’ll leave West Africa on March 11, landing in Copenhagen the following day.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 14:58 Archived in Ghana Tagged travel budget travelling money cost west_africa wealth saving costs spending Comments (0)

My African Christmas

Because corny headlines is my thing now…

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Christmas Dinner

Christmas Dinner

I celebrated Christmas 2016 by sitting eight hours in a bus, before eating a magnificent Christmas dinner of roasted chicken and French fries with ketchup. Honestly, I went to the finest restaurant in town – they even had tablecloth on the tables. I also ordered the most expensive item available from the menu (which was limited to fried chicken or fried fish, with either fries or rice). Why? Because I was stuck in a provincial town in eastern Côte d’Ivoire, waiting for a morning bus leaving early the next day.

None of this

None of this

On the upside, celebrating Christmas alone on the road could quickly become a very lonely affair. Now it felt no less alone than a regular day of travelling. Back home, Christmas stuff begin to appear everywhere at the beginning of November. Constant reminders that this is the season of friends and families (because we apparently need a special season for that) makes December a shitty time to be alone on. Then again, on the road I’ve had none of the usual stress about gifts, family visits, a calendar packed with snaps and Christmas dinners or any of the cold, dark weather. Actually, having had no Christmas season this year have been rather nice.

The Basilica

The Basilica

Especially because there has been none of that commercialised Christmas crap. I’ve been roaming around in provincial Côte d’Ivoire, which has none of that. Throughout all of December, I’ve seen almost no signs of Christmas. My first Christmas spotting was on December 20 when a large metal Christmas tree was standing in front of the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix in Yamoussoukro.

Since then I’ve seen all of two plastic Christmas trees, three shops that had some Christmas decorations and two (two!) people were wearing Christmas hats. Though one bank employee wore a Santa tie. But that was it. That was all. No reminders that we were hitting the holiday season. No cold weather – the temperature only drops under 25 degrees centigrade if I walk into a room with air condition. Christmas isn’t around – despite having spent much of December in the prominently Christian regions.

Abidjan

Abidjan

This changed a bit when I arrived in Abidjan, the largest city in the country, on December 25. Abidjan is the commercial capital of Côte d’Ivoire, so – no surprise – things are a bit more commercialised here. Plenty of Western-orientated or -inspired places looked more “ready” for the holidays, and more people were running around in Christmas hats. But it wasn’t before sitting in the lobby of a big hotel in Accra, Ghana, that I heard the first Christmas music. On January 2nd! I have even made it through the holidays without being Wham’ed!

African Christmas

African Christmas

So no, in case any of you wondered, travelling in Africa during the Christmas season has not been more lonely, unbearable or sad, that travelling alone through Africa at any other time. Not at all, actually. Down here, friends and family are attended to constantly. They don’t need a particular month for that. Though people I met had taken a walk around with their friends to visit each others’ families – a pretty common Christmas tradition. Other than that, people here are pretty like at home. They spend most of their holiday with friends and do a lot of drinking.

To be honest, the lack of Christmas actually surprised me (once I finally figured out it was mid-December), because so many people are so massively religious. Most of the first few drafts of this blog post were mainly centred around religion, but as I have only negative things to say about the subject it quickly turned into a rather bitter read. So I scrapped it and started over.

Church on Dec 21st

Church on Dec 21st

Sure they do special services on Christmas, but the churches are often full no matter what. And many places have services not every week, but every day. In some cities, it seems like every second building is a church, and every second billboard is certainly branding one kind of congregation or another. People here should be thrilled that Christianity has stolen a number of pagan rituals and turned them into the make-believe birthday of their bronze age, born-of-a-virgin, zombie god.

But as mentioned that’s not the case at all. Despite being such a religious part of the world, Christmas doesn’t really seem to be celebrated much here in West Africa. At least not in a way that’s recognisable to my eye. My common sense reasoning has three solutions for this:

  • The Pagan traditions were stolen to form Christmas celebrations come from Europe, not West Africa.
  • “African Christmas” is not commercialised the way "Western Christmas" is back home.
  • Christmas is expensive, and large scale celebrations are out of reach for many families.

Commercialised!

Commercialised!

As for the last reason, Christmas in we West is so much about the money. That might very well be why I don’t usually enjoy it. As a student and/or someone trying to save his money to go travel, I don’t appreciate how expensive December has become. In conclusion: Everyone who’s tired of the over-commercialised December holiday were an invisible sky man's son, which is actually himself, is celebrated should spend their December budget on going to West Africa and rid themselves of all that silly and expensive nonsense.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 15:33 Archived in Cote d'Ivoire Tagged churches religion travel christmas africa santa holidays travelling season celebration west_africa ivory_coast côte_d'ivoire Comments (0)

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