In 2013, myself and some friends decided to embark on the cycle-ride of a lifetime, while raising some cash and donating our rides to local Ghanaian kids.
I re-read this for the first time in ages yesterday, its a pretty awesome story and worth a post on Medium.
Dream Big Riders
Dream Big Ghana is a small charity based in the volta region of Ghana. Over the past few years volunteers have built over 20 compost toilets for local families as well as running summer schools and sports coaching for local children. We are now embarking on an ambitious project to build a community learning centre for the area.
With this in mind The Dream Big Riders will be taking hybrid bikes kindly donated by Saracen and taking a 500 mile journey from the lodge on the south coast up to the North of lake volta and following a 2 day ferry trip cycling back to the lodge.
We have no prior experience. We are told that our old paper map of Ghana is not reliable and many of the roads were never built or have falling into disrepair and are impassable. We have no lodges booked. And are being escorted by an old Toyota pick up with no 4 wheel drive. The riders include 3 British based volunteers. 51 year old Tim, 42 lone female Kim. 41 year old Scotsman Davey.
The charity coordinator Dougal who is 23 and locals Safo and Boutros who work for the charity. Between us we have done hardly any training but are all pretty fit.
What follows tries to describe our adventure. It is so hard to relate the sights and sounds, smells and tastes, warmth and friendliness, love and happiness we felt throughout the journey but it is a trip that will stay with us all forever.
Without the determination to not turn back and the amazing generosity of Saracen who gave us everything from clothing water bottles, tools., rehydration tablets, energy bars, helmets and of course bikes this would never have happened.
We are attempting to cycle from the Meet me There lodge in Keta on the coast of Ghana to a town called Juapon which is based at the southern tip of Lake Volta. It is around 70 miles on our paper map of Ghana which is around ten years old and is our only guide on the trip. The road looks fairly flat and we envisage a fairly easy first day. What transpired soon made us realize the enormity of the task we had taken on.
We left the lodge in high spirits with all the staff waving us off. Within 100 yards Tim who had just changed his pedals to cleats fell in to the bush at the roadside to a chorus of mass hysteria. Laughing and joking we cycled the 5 miles along the coast waving at locals and turned left on the road to Sogokope. Within ten minutes the heavens opened and we were in monsoon conditions. Shoes were all waterlogged and the open top truck escorting us with all our gear in the back was flooded. All our mattresses and bags of clothing were soaked. In Sogokope Wisdom, our driver managed to get a tarpaulin to limit further damage but it was all too late.
The first 35 miles were flat and on good roads and it seemed that the terrain would be fine. We soon found what we thought was a main road to Juapon but as the tarmac ran out our suspicions that we may have taken the first of many wrong turns dawned on us.
Within 5 minutes we had our first puncture of the trip and we still had 10 days to go.
It soon became apparent that our Ghanaian contingent would be the ones to get us through every crisis as they got us on our way again.
The rain had made parts of the road virtually impassable for the truck and we came upon a waterlogged section of track which looked almost impossible to get through .
We picked the best route and proceeded to sink the drivers wheel 3 feet into a muddy bog. Within minutes a crowd of locals appeared. Some to help and some just to enjoy the comedy. Again the Ghanaians in our party cut branches and reeds to fill the muddy tracks and with a series of manouveres we freed the truck. The best part was Davey falling in a muddy pool as the truck freed itself.
We are in a country where no one panics when things go wrong they just work out how to fix the problem.
We found a small side road cut through the bush and after confronting an angry machete wielding farmer who didn’t want us to pass we settled on a 5 cd fee ( around £1.60 ) for his inconvenience and we were on our way. The dirt track was around 40 miles of bone shaking cycling and our first easy day ended with us arriving in Juapon after dark searching for a hotel.
A few beers and a dinner of Banku with tilapia and fried chicken and rice our spirits soared.
One thing that is a constant and could be repeated every day is the friendliness of the Ghanaians. Especially the children. In the whole week I saw no more than 5 other white people. We were met with looks of astonishment every where we went especially when we explained our intended journey. People wave and shout welcome in every town and village. When you stop you are surrounded by excited children wanting their picture taken and laughing as they see their own digital images on the screen. There is virtually no begging. I have never felt so safe anywhere in the world. The sense of community spirit and respect for each other is something we could learn from. Children are smart polite and happy despite having none of the advantages we have.
We gave a football to a group of children which cost us £1. Each child came to each of us to say thank you and shake our hands. So grateful for something so small.
Note. Every where you go locals shout Yavu at you which means “white man.” It is a friendly greeting.
Attempting to cycle from Juapon to the town of Asesewa which is near the shoreline of Lake Volta. This appears to be fairly hilly. We soon learnt that if you ask a Ghanain directions they will always give you an answer whether they know it or not. If you ask how long it takes to get somewhere they will also give you an answer.
If you ask six different people you will probably get six different answers. After a fantastic first ten miles on tarmac roads we crossed the river Volta and stared looking for our chosen route. We took the advise of the most confident of the locals we asked. It is very hilly and two hours to the main road. As we started the ascent the back of Kims bike disintegrated in pieces.
One of the screws holding the back wheel snapped off and the back wheel chain and gears came with it. After searching for a spare screw anywhere on the bike it became apparent we had a real problem. We decided to send the bike and truck back to the last town to try and fix it. One thing Ghana is not short of is a bicycle repair shop. This can be anything from a man with a box of tools at the side of the road to a shack full of old bikes being stripped down for their spare parts.
We lay out in the sun for a couple of hours but by now we new that you will get it fixed in Ghana and eventually the truck returned with a healthy bike. We set off on a tortuous climb in the midday sun on a road that only had tarmac on the straight bits and was unmade on the corners. Why? We may never know.
Thankfully the rest of the day allowed us to get to our destination and we discovered a lodge with cold beer and banku and fried chicken.
Attempting. Asesewa to Nkawaw. 36 miles hardest ever
The idea was to reach the shoreline of Lake Volta and follow the shore road for 40 miles assuming it would be flat. After a serious climb we hit a tarmac road and saw the lake ahead. An amazing sight and spirits soared as we envisaged a beautiful tarmac road and lots of lake side lodges.
It was not to be.
This is the day that tested us more than any other. In short we managed a mere 36 miles through the most tortuous terrain you could ever attempt to ride a hybrid bike on and nurse a 4 wheel drive truck through especially when the 4 wheel drive was not working. Somehow turning back was never mentioned but it was clear we were getting in to some pretty serious country.
The road was a mixture of rocks, sand and impassable holes. Carrying the bikes became the only option at certain points and the heat was relentless. We were low on water and it was clear we were going to spend a night in the great outdoors.
After following the lake for hours passing through villages that were virtually cut off from the outside world except by boat we climbed steeply to the west and eventually hit a farm road and were directed to the route out. With 25 miles left and the light fading we asked next village we arrived at if we could set up camp.
We sent a local with a motorbike off to find beer and water and the locals cooked us Banku for dinner. With the noise of the jungle behind us and a canopy of stars above it was a night we will never forget. We ate dinner and drank beer to cheer us up and amazingly in a village of around 50 people found a drinking den that consisted of a guy with a torch strapped to his head serving shots of apeteche in measures costing between 6p and 12 p. The largest being a small medicine bottle. One of the highlights of the trip,
Note. Banku is the national dish here. It is fish, usually Talapia with a spicy tomato sauce and served with balls of maize.
Note. Apeteche is the local firewater home brew. It is served as a shot and probably kills several thousand brain cells every time you drink it.
Attempting to get out of this place and get somewhere on the main road to Kumasi. Ghanas second City.
At daybreak we were taken by the locals to a huge area of flat rock overlooking Lake Volta. An inspiring way to start the day. On the way out of the village we visited the chiefs house and thanked him for his hospitality. He wanted his picture taken with Kim who he had proposed to the night before.
A few tough miles on mountain bike terrain saw the unmade road become more passable and by lunchtime we had reached the town of Mpreso. It was clear that we had survived a pretty epic adventure so it was decided we should have a beer and some lunch to celebrate, We found a great rooftop Spot and spent a very happy hour watching another town that looked like a scene out of the wild west.
From Nkawkaw we took the main highway to Kumasi and managed to make up some valuable time. We managed to find The Maria Guest House which was attached to the Maria spot so five minutes of the bike Kim was ordering shots and large beers. For the only girl on the trip she was putting us to shame on the bikes and in the drinking stakes. We decided to try and find some food in town. A taxi propped us in town and we proceeded to be turned away from several eateries until at last we were offered FuFu . This a bowl of stew with a ball of Kasava (pummelled root vegetable) made with with either chicken or fish. Despite all the food here having a pretty similar taste this was a pretty good meal. Following a short tour of a few spots and shots varying from whisky, gin and Alomo which is the bitterest fouling tasting drink on the planet we finally made it back to the guest house in one piece.
I am not sure that drinking and going out is the best way to prepare for a long day in the saddle but it is a great way to mix with the locals and experience the amazing sights sounds and culture that makes this amazing country so unique.
Note. Spot is anything from a small drinking den serving only homemade apeteche in fuel cans den to a pretty decent bar.
Note. They sell you small plastic sachets of alcohol such as a gin called striker and a ginger concoction that is impossible to describe. Thet cost around 10p. Avoid them at your peril.
Ghanaians rarely drink coffee but it seems that each morning we manage to get a cup of instant nescafe with ideal milk and loads of sugar. It tastes amazing and really sets you up for the day. A long way from our £2.50 skinny cappuccinos.
We aim to head north today once we near Kumasi. We have to negotiate one short ten mile stretch of road which could be anything from a dirt track to a river bed. In Ghana you can’t second guess what the roads will be like. A perfect tarmac road will become impassable within minutes. There seems to be no logic in the way this works. Someone clearly ran put of money along the way.
After an hour or so we lost Safo and Boutros. It appeared that Safs bike. (Not a Saracen) but a pretty sturdier looking mountain bike was having major problems so we camped up at small layby for a few hours whilst we waited. Managed to boil some water up for more coffee whilst Kim arm wrestled local boys beating them all.
By now we have become used to the unexpected and delays are just part of daily life. We are still on target for the ferry at Yeji which sails at 3am in two days time. We are not sure if we are booked on it but somehow things just seem to work out over here.
Lunch was a mixture of roadside food and fresh coconuts and hundreds of kids wanting their pictures taken.
Ghana treated us to one of its amazing downpours after lunch and bedraggled and waterlogged we headed North. Our 10 mile track proved to be a fairly good dirt road and we managed to get to the town of Mampong leaving us a mere 100 miles to the ferry.
We found a great guest house and headed up the road to another spot with another power cut in place. You don’t even register there is no electricity after a certain time. We went for some take away street food from a van which we were told would be half an hour. Two hours later it was ready but we had used this time to take various local beverages on board and those who could dance took to the dance floor.
Davey was christened Cofi Ashanti which apparently is “Born on a Friday” On giving his birth day to a local he was confidently told it was a Friday. On checking he was right. It is common for Ghanaians to give names to each other.
Every time you see Davey he is engaged in conversation and usually laughter with several locals. The Scots are pretty famous for being good travellers and he is no exception.
We are slowly getting our Ghanaian contingent in to the European drinking habits but Boutros is staying firm and sticking to his Malt. A soft drink made by Guinness. We are putting the pressure on and will get him to take a drink before the end.
We are going to get as far as we can today. As the mornings are fairly cool we make great progress for the first few hours but once the sun is up things start to get tough.
We need to reach Ejura which is about 30 miles away and try and find a bike mechanic to look at Safs bike and also stock up with food for the ferry which is said to be a 36 hour journey that could turn into four days.
Ejura is unbearably hot as we wander round the packed market. Piles of second hand western shoes and clothes are being sold to locals. Were these not donated to charities.
Something clearly not right here. By the time we sat in a cool spot and had avocado sandwiches we had spent far too long in the sun. Safs bike was going to have to make it without the right repairs so we set off for the town of Atebubu around 30 miles on.
We found a friendly guest house and haggled over room prices which ended up at around £6 each. The customary power cut was waiting for us so another hot night with no fan was ahead. They cooked us up Fu Fu and chicken and we took it easy intending to get to Yeji early to sort the ferry out.
Day 7 to 9
Getting to Yeji and the fery trip
After a plate of banana and honey sandwiches we set off for Yeji. Tim with sunstroke struggled at the back and by the time we reached Yeji was fit to drop. The guide book said it was not a great place and they were right. Ports are rarely great places and this was no exception. Down by the shore small boats were coming in and out and on the jetty there was no ferry. They guessed it would be in at 10pm. Another ten hours and we couldn’t check in till 3.30.
Checked Tim in to the very seedy Lake Volta hotel, which by the way had a power cut and headed off in search of lunch.
The guide book said this ferry trip was one of the most memorable things to do in Ghana. It didn’t say whether that was a good thing or not. .It says there are 2 small cabins on the boat and it is wise to try and get them as if you don’t you are out on the deck for the duration.
You have to get to the top deck and find the captain to secure these overbooked cabins. As night fell most of the party wandered off and Tim fell asleep on top of the truck.
The horn that announced the arrival of the ferry would wake the whole town and true to form as soon as it landed Safo and Boutros boarded and within minutes had secured the cabins with the captain. We were allowed to board at 10pm and immeadiatley went to bed. Every time we woke up we were still in Yeji. At 5.30 am the horn woke up every one within 20 miles to announce our departure.
We were on the boat for the next 55 hours in which we could have flown from London to Sydney, gone to the opera, had dinner and flown back. It was however one of the most memorable experiences ever.
The beauty of this huge man made lake that was damned up to supply Ghana with its water supply was breathtaking. Going through all the different times of the day and passing by hill tops that had become remote uninhabited islands, stopping at villages and watching hundreds of locals loading the boat.
At one stop the whole village turned up to pack pretty much the whole cargo deck with their Yam harvest. As this was done by hand we were stuck there for around four hours.
No one seemed to mind and our arrival time in Akosombo was clearly going to be missed by a considerable margin leaving us a long last day to get back to the lodge with no idea of the state of a 40 mile stretch of road we had failed to find on the way north.
When we woke up on day 9 the deck had acquired some cows and goats who seemed pretty unfazed about the whole deal. We managed to befriend the staff of the tiny kitchen and food turned up just when it was needed.
Note. There are goats and chickens wandering freely throughout Ghana. God knows how they know who owns them. Sadly saw a few chickens not get to the other side but the goats seemed to have better road sense.
Akosombo Ferry Port to home. 91 miles.
As we awoke on the boat we were finally let off at 5am and set off for our longest day back to the lodge. We retraced our steps to Juapon and after a roadside breakfast of fried egg sandwiches and coffee we looked for the road we failed to find on our first day.
We were told by a taxi driver that this road did not exist and just when we were resigned to taking the hellish route that brought us here were pointed up a dirt track and reliably informed this was the Ajidome road.
If we had seen this road on day 1 we would have thought it a nightmare but by now it was like an Olympic velodrome to us. 20 bone shaking miles with no punctures, falls or major incident saw us singing along to Ghanaian folk songs as we realized that the end was in sight. At Sogokope we had a beer by the river and set off for home. We even got Boutros to have a Smirnoff Ice which we informed him was a girls drink.
I don’t know why it is but the last leg of any adventure is the one that hurts the most. We had 30 miles into a headwind on a boring flat road in blistering heat with no food. It seemed to take hours and the coast road never seemed to get any closer. The feeling of elation when we reached the T junction washed over us all.
We had to stop and take on energy drinks just to get the last 5 miles done. A mile from the lodge our trip computer logged up mile number 500. As we arrived at the lodge a welcome party greeted us and we hugged each other in the knowledge that we had shared a unique experience that will ensure we remain friend for years to come. Through it all, not one argument, no talk of quitting, loads of laughter and memories to last a lifetime.
The Dream Big Riders ;-)
Originally published at dreambigriders.tumblr.com and http://www.saracen.co.uk/stories/13/09/13/saracen-madison-and-dream-big-ghana-blog-two