From Burkina to Ghana – better late than never…

…isn’t always better as I just found out while travelling from Ouagadougou to Tamale on local transport system. The whole day was a day of disasters waiting to happen and the avoidance of those disasters.

So I decided to take a local transport from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso to Bolgatanga in Ghana – it wasn’t too far and the Toyota 10-seater van looked in reasonably good condition. The vehicle was supposed to depart at 10 am, and to make sure I got the seat, I decided to arrive at the station a bit early. A bit too early it turned out later as they had trouble filing the “14-spaces” that were created in those 10 seats and they weren’t going to leave until they had all 14 passengers they wanted, and may be more! By the time we left Ouaga, it was nearly 11:30 and I had been at the station for over two hours.

la gare, ouaga
Ouagadougou “taxi” station

The journey started well. Despite taking a lot more weight than it was supposed to (15 passengers, their bags, sacks, and luggage, and a motorbike on the top!), the speed was quite impressive (averaging 72 Km/hr – according to my own calculation using milestones as the markers, for the speedometer was not working – which it seems to me they deliberately disable here in the public transport vehicles!). At this average speed, we would have reached Ghana within two and half hours. I say “would have…” because we didn’t maintain that speed.

What happened could only happen in Africa (even in Nepal, I doubt passengers will tolerate this much!). After about 55 Km outside of Ouaga, a couple of passengers ordered the driver to stop. I thought they just wanted to pick something up from the village off road and we would be off in no time. But what they wanted to pick up was something else. They had a broken-down van at that village, which they wanted to tow all the way to Ghana!!!Yes, all the way to Ghana – some 125 Km away! With all the weight already on the van, it was certain that we were here for a very long ride. And I had to revise my speed/time calculation – and guessed that we wouldn’t be doing more than 50 Km/hr max – meaning another two and half hours to Ghana if nothing goes wrong in this busy highway with a little van towing another similar van (KIA 12-seater).

It was a painfully slow drive, even the small motos were overtaking us at times – and the driver was making unplanned stops here and there, which slowed the journey significantly. By the time we reached the border, it was already 3 pm! But I was thankful that we reached there safe and in one piece given that our heavily loaded vehicle was towing another vehicle on a busy highway.

The passing through both the border controls (Burkina Faso and Ghana) was very easy and fast, at least for me – the only outsider. At the Ghana border control, the drivers were having difficulty getting permit to continue towing the van into Ghana. After nearly half an hour, they got the permit (may be some money changed hands, which I cannot say for sure as I didn’t see). However, there was certainly “something” for the policemen when we were stopped just a few kilometres inside Ghana. I think for these “roadside” policemen, seeing a small passenger van towing another van must be like seeing a money-tree! It mustn’t have been more that 20000 Cedis (old currency as they just re-denominated their currency from 1 July) – thats just over $2 US – which I saw the driver giving to the policemen.

recipe for disaster
Little one pulls a bigger one

We continued again towards Bolgatanga, our destination. But before we were 10 km into our journey, we missed a disastrous accident – only just. Suddenly the van which was being towed was alongside the van towing it and the pair were covering both the incoming and outgoing lanes of the highway! This too just in front of another of the “roadside police booth”. Obviously we were stopped again, and this time both the drivers were in big trouble. Seeing that it could take ages to get off from these policemen, a Ghanaian passenger from Accra, and I decided to take a taxi to Bolga rather than waste our time or risk our lives anymore in the van. He stopped an empty taxi and we had the most comfortable journey of the day to Bolga for the next 20 Km or so.

dealing with the roadside police
Dealing with the “roadside policemen” in Ghana

In the meantime, we wanted to know if the taxi driver would be willing to take us all the way to Tamale. He said he would if we paid him half a million Cedis – thats $55 US for 160 Km! We thought that was just too much. I left the negotiation to my Ghanaian travel companion, who made a final offer of about $40, which the driver refused, and we got dropped off at the Bolga bus station instead. We bought tickets for Tamale (for just above $3 each) in the next minibus (Benz bus adapted to African roads!), which was packed with passengers and goods in every space available. From the rooftop to the luggage space underneath – not to mention 32 passengers in a 20-seater bus! After some usual delays, the bus left for Tamale. After only a few turns, I smelled burning rubber on the bus. I think it was because of the (over)load that at every turn, the body was touching the back tyres, and hence the burning rubber smell from the contact. Anyway, at least we were moving at a reasonable speed and I was already looking forward to arriving in Tamale to catch a good night’s sleep. Little did I know what lay ahead…

From the bus window, I could see the heavy rain just a few kilometres away. I pointed that to a Ghanaian sitting next to me, and he seemed genuinely pleased at the sight of the rain. For it hasn’t rained for a while in Northern Ghana and it is supposed to be a rainy season. I also wanted the rain because it would make the weather a bit cool. When our bus finally caught the rain, I bet every single passenger wished it hadn’t rained after all. The bus didn’t have a working windscreen wiper!! And at places with heavy rain, the visibility was probably only 25 metres or less. The only thing you could figure out through the front windscreen were the white stripes on the middle of the road and the fuzzy headlights of incoming vehicles, that too when you were really near. We all believed this heavily loaded, not properly balanced bus was going to crash somewhere. Some passengers were shouting at the driver to slow down the vehicle. As for me, I was only thinking one thing – if the rain got worse and I saw a village/town on the roadside, I’d just ask for the driver to stop and stay there for the night. The only thing the driver seemed to be trying to do in that heavy rain was to keep the bus on the right side of those barely visible white strips on the middle of the road.

Luckily for us (and to the relief of everybody on that bus) the rain didn’t last long. As soon as we hit a bit lower area it was all dry – and hadn’t rained at all. Now it had started to become a bit dark, I could see every passenger was wishing that the bus had working headlights 🙂 (of course we weren’t sure until we saw it turned on – that too only after it was absolutely dark!). There was another section of higher grounds where we caught the rain again and were again in the same frame of mind. But may be because we survived the first rain, we just sat there, fingers crossed, hoping the driver didn’t make any mistakes and that he had a good eyesight to see through un-wiped windscreen in that heavy rain. We survived the second rainy section of the highway, and after that there was no more rain and lot of villages on the way, which slowed the bus down considerably (as most of these sections have very hard speed breakers!).

By the time we arrived in Tamale, it was already 8 pm. I managed to get off not far from where I was staying for the night, to such a relief. I have never had so many doubts in any of my journeys as I had in this one. Many times along the way, I just thought I wouldn’t arrive at the destination in one piece! Luckily I survived the journey and arrived in one piece too. 5-hour journey took 10 hours but as they say better late than never…

2 thoughts on “From Burkina to Ghana – better late than never…

  1. The memoir doesnot seem to be appeard for heart of a Nepali guy, though it look interesting and thrilling at same time, i donot believe your local travel companion had same feeling as you’ve assumed.

    i collect the impression of a 2nd generation Yankee-Nepali lad travelling somewhere in Africa.

    keep it up !

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