Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Ps visit Ghana - Part 2

More than a month has passed now since went to sleep in the Mole Motel. So... picking up where we left off 52 miles down a bumpy dusty road up north near Mole National Park, here is Part 2 of Up, Over and Down 'round Lake Volta in a Compact Car.

Mole to Tamale to Yendi to Nkwanta

We were back in the car at 6AM barreling back down the wash board road at a somewhat quicker pace leaving the elephants, monkeys, bush bucks, wart hogs and baboons behind.

Whoa, talk about leaving something behind!!!

Reaching pavement towards Tamale was really quite a refief if it would only last. The car seemed to be floating on air.

There is a very noticeable bicycle presence in the north, but especially near Tamale. I haven't been to China or the Netherlands yet, but this is the greatest concentration of bicycles I've seen anyplace. Cars are hardly noticed. I guess there are many factors that contribute to this. Tamale seems flat (perhaps flat like a tortilla...Tamale-tortilla-tamale. Oh well) Bikes are somewhat affordable - certainly more so than a car. Remote villages get cut off following a big rain, but bikes can usually push through the puddles. And holy cow can you carry the goods on a bike even if you have to push it. (See previous post) Also noticed - the number of women and girls riding bikes. You don't see that in the more affluent southern regions of Ghana. Ironically, Tamale was just a refueling stop for us this time.

Privately owned cars between Tamale and Yendi were few and far between. All tro-tros, mopeds, bikes, pedestrians and few bush taxis. If the road conditions continued, by any reasonable estimation, Nkwanta should be just another 2 hours away. Hah! Wishful thinking. The paved road continues to the junction town of Yendi where we turned south. The next 112 miles of dusty, rutted, pot holed roads into Nkwanta were covered in just over 6 hours at a break-neck average speed of 18mph. Believe me it seemed so much faster. So, 260 miles in 11 hours was a bit overly ambitious. By this time the family was getting used to the jolts, weaving and sudden stops. Even SJD, normally a jumpy passenger, didn't really mind what she could not see from her perch in the back seat.

Every dusty little village seems to have its own form of barricade manned by a drowsy officer of some sort. Sometimes a swinging gate must be opened. Other times, a rope is dropped, or a barrel is rolled out of the way. Rarely did there seem to be any purpose served. We'd probably passed through 30 or more of these make shift road blocks on the trip so far. A lorry driver, during a stop for a cool drink (we werethe only ones at the bar not drinking beer) about 50 miles from Hohoe assured us that we'd be there in "one-hour" because our car was "strong." We had all grown used to noises emanating from the underside of the car as it scraped over mounds, holes, ruts and rocks, but an hour seemed and absurd time/speed estimation to Hohoe given our pace so far. But safety and time are merely concepts here. Every now and then we stopped to make sure we had all four wheels still attached.

We rolled into the only known accommodation in the dusty little town of Nkwanta - The Kilamanjaro Hotel around 4:30pm stiff, tired and willing to accept almost whatever was offered resembling a resonably clean bed and shower. A rather sudden, brief but intense storm must have been chasing us into town. Dusty little town was turned into a muddy little town. After that passed, we ordered dinner and strolled the main road with a bit more energy before the sun went down to see what Nkwanta had to offer. The ubiquitous auto repair lots, tro-tro stop and vendors selling "Aligator" machetes for sale apparently. They seem to be as Ghanaian as kente and banku. (Be careful opening holiday presents this year).

Nkwanta is home to another game park straddling the Ghana/Togo border. According to the signs, lions are present, or have been spotted. Another time. So there is more to Nkwanta than meets the eye.... Time to update the Bradt guide.

Back at the Kilamanjaro, the staff produced the oh-so-common flimsy plastic chairs and table in the middle of the parking lot so we could dine alfresco. I guess we were served more or less what we ordered even if it did appear to be hastily puchased on the street and plopped on a clean plate.

The rooms were again very basic, but had probably seen better days and perhaps a broom from time to time. But sometimes you get what you pay for. In this case $10. So you try to remind yourself of that when the bar TV showing the football game blares until 1am, or the mobile public service announcements van begins it's rounds at 4:30am. It's Ghana. (Yes, need to update the Bradt guide on this one too.) As we drove South out of town, we saw a new hotel, the Gateway. It looked more promising than the Kilimanjaro as we zoomed by with a touch of regret. We'll check it out next time.

Nkwanta to Kpandu to Biakpa

Not surprisingly, we were up and out the door of the Kilamanjaro before 7am again without breakfast. More stretches of dirt road south into Hohoe had me a bit annoyed at this point. Eventually pavement returned as well as the lush greenery of the Volta Region. It is absurd to think of the VR as home, but the scenery does seem much more familiar and refreshing after so many hours in the more barren north.

Hohoe is just another refueling stop in the push down to Biakpa.

Kpandu is known locally for its pottery coop. We stopped for a looksee and a few purchases. River clay hand moulded pots, figurines, and other objects. Many of their products are exported around the globe.

At last we reached Biakpa Mountain Paradise and settled in for a light lunch on the newly constructed dining porch. The more we visit BMP, the more we like it and the staff - Tony, Enno and Wisdom. There is a steady rotation of teens from the village of Biakpa who assist with various tasks or guide work. No electricity ever. Water usually. But all is forgotten once the cool evening breeze kicks up around dinner time. The fufu and ground nut soup with chicken is tasteee. Mom and dad bravely ordered up banku and tilapia having grown tired of variations on fried rice and chicken since leaving Anamabo. But the fermented banku is a bit too zippy for our tastes I'm afraid.

So, the final leg of the trip into Accra was pretty uneventful except for a torrential rain storm that we waited out, which was just fine by all.

We really had a fine time on the trip, however it was a lot of driving in a short period of time. A few more days to stop and explore would have been ideal. TdG V2.o will be even better.

So for now, it is back to Accra, work and catching up with that bike race in France.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

DCMTB takes on the best of Ghana and...

Two weeks ago I was tipped off by a friend that a major race was going to be staged in Accra on July 1. A few days later I managed to get invited to participate in the Bahmed Cycling Challenge Cup - a showcase of the best talent from Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Nigeria, as well as Ghana. Ghana would use the race to select their national team to for the All-Africa Games this month in Algeria. The opportunity to show the DCMTB colors in a real race was something I could not miss.

The BCCC was billed as a 115km (72mi) road race and criterium. I am probably better suited for races requiring the sharp bike handling skills and short bursts of speed common in multi-lap crits, rather than the long sustained efforts of road races. The BCCC was sort of both, but really neither. Seventy two miles is a long race, especially considering my steadily declining level of fitness since becoming employed a few months ago. I was resting my hopes on residual fitness, well rested muscles, but mostly eagerness to represent the DCMTB/City-Bikes/Metro-Gutter team overseas.

Since the race advertised a 9AM start, SJD and I rode from home down to Osu leaving a full hour to do the formalities of paying entry, signing liability waivers and pinning on racer numbers. One little detail we forgot - there is no United States Cycling Federation here. At 9AM it was pretty clear that no race was going to begin at 9AM. Nope. A few bikers milled about. There were signs, chairs and the requisite wall of speakers pumping out Ghanaian hip-life and rap at level 11. (The wall of speakers - they really do deserve an entire blog entry. It is no wonder everyone gets up so early in Ghana.) But anyway…no sign of any race promoters.

When asked, a rider named Prince explained that the race will begin in about “an hours time.” Yeah, it is always good to allow a lot of extra time here, and not get too upset when things don’t start when advertised. So I decided to do a quick course 4.5 mile loop to warm up the legs and lungs, as well as note any tricky corners or stretches into headwinds. After a few minutes I returned to the shade of the vacant VIP tent. And waited...

The BCCC was not the only event going on in Osu this day. The Milo Marathon seemed to step off on time, and several of the lead runners were streaming by to the finish at Independence Square providing entertainment while we waited. Milo is a powdered chocolate flavored food drink with “MORE ENERGRY RELEASING B VITAMINS”. Guess you’d need it to keep going in these in fancy shoes. Ouch! Several competitors forgo even the flip-flops, preferring pave' au peid. Ouch again! So as runners pass through the various check points on the course, they are handed a ribbon necklace to wear. By the time we were seeing the racers go by, they had quite a stack around their necks. Very festive.

None of the activity seems to warrant much reason to divert or close roads to traffic. Life kind of just goes on around the runners. Every now and then a police officer would swat the toes of spectators crowding the road for a better look. It seems a bit harsh, but is taken in stride.
On top of the marathon and bike race, the 53 African heads of state were meeting in Accra this morning , adding a few extra speeding, honking, passing motorcades into the mix.

Back to the bike race, or waiting for a bike race.

10AM comes and goes with little action. Promoters and more teams have arrived. A roll of tape appears, and the start/finish line is adhered to the road. Progress in small small steps. Apparently all of the formalities have been waived -- no entry fee, no race number, no waiver forms -- making all the delays seem even more puzzling. I take to my shaded chair again to watch the marathoners, thinking I surely should be able to run 26.2 miles. I’ve got the fancy shoes after all.

11:10AM. No kidding. Motorcycles, TV crew and support vehicle are in position. Brief team introductions were made. All of us were proclaimed to be “professionals”. I alone was introduced as “the foreigner. The white man.“ I waved politely and thanked them for the invitation. All a bit unexpected but a little bit funny.

After a parade lap in the sponsor's t-shirts, things got serious. Note the lone rider that did not understand this step.

Riders ready. Set....


Bunched up.

Bikers overtaking the marathon
The round-about at Independence Square with me taking a breather mid-pack.

Two hours later than anticipated we are sent out to race with the typical first lap shenanigans. The road surface irregularities are painfully noticeable at 30mph - almost like a washboard with potholes thrown in to keep everyone alert. It is clear pretty early that many of the riders are fairly inexperienced with pack riding where maintaining a line is just as important as reacting calmly and predictably, and even more important than simply being fast. The bumps are painful to the wrists and bum, but riders weaving around them upredictably creates waves in the pack. Not even a mile is complete before the first crash occurs. The first rider to go down simply gets bucked by a bump hitting the deck in a tangle of scraping metal on pavement. A rider behind him swerves right into the adjacent open gutter and endos onto the sidewalk. Looked pretty bad. It takes a few laps before the high pace begins to thin the pack creating more room on the road.

Without a team to support, I was pretty much free to ride my own race. I would be thrilled to finish. Content to hang beyond half way. Happy to affect the outcome of the race somehow.
The two hour delay did not do me any real favors. On lap eight my hamstrings began to cramp signaling the end was near for me unless I could get liquids quickly. I guzzled the last of my three water bottles as a small gap opened between the pack and me. My last gasp chase attempt merely resulted in holding steady for a half lap before I pulled over to refill a bottle from SJD. I chased one more lap with another straggler until it was clear that we were losing ground rapidly.

Then out of nowhere I heard the familiar honka-honk-honk-honka of the Fan-Ice guy pedaling his ice-cooler bike full of frozen goodies towards me. I bought one Fan-choco and a one Tampico and faced the fact that I was cooked. It is probably the most shameful example of mental toughness, but frozen chocolate milk tasted sooooo good. Might as well ride back to the start/finish and watch from the sidelines as the rest of the race unfolded. It was a bit of a let down to race just 9 laps of 15 and all of a sudden not be able to turn over the cranks another rotation, but generally a good workout.

The view from the sideline was much more pleasant. With four laps to go the pack had been whittled down to a select group of ten racers still dropping the hammer up to the sprint finish. Local riders claimed the victory as well as second and third spots. All three racers were immediately hoisted upon the shoulders of the crowd for a heroes march back to the start/finish tent. I have never seen such an enthusiastic reaction from a bike race crowd like this.

The next day we read the coverage by the local papers and had a good laugh at the reference to the foreigners' fizzle . See below. Save your eyes and double click on the image for a larger view.

(Also, photo credits to SJD, and Dan & Giselle. Thanks!)