This section of my blog is about buying an older Land Rover Defender in Accra Ghana and restoring and outfitting it to explore West Africa. It replaces the separate overlandrover-westafrica.net which is no longer in service. The idea is to have a single blog covering thoe whole time I owned the vehicle.
This section will be of interest to the Land Rover community in general, especially to anyone completing or contemplating preparation of Land Rover as an expedition vehicle, to those who have an interest in planning and executing 4×4 overland journeys, or just to those interested in discovery and travel. To some extent the project will offer an angle of vision into West African society and culture. It will start in Ghana, which provides the setting for the procurement, restoration and outfitting of the vehicle and the planning for the journey and in time will, if all goes according to plan, take us through many other West African countries, following a circuitous route perhaps as far as Morocco.
Along the way I hope there will be opportunity to provide insights into West African life, its history, geography, culture, society and economy. Much of the insights will be through the lens of procuring and restoring a Land Rover in Ghana. Eventually the focus will shift from vehicle restoration and outfitting to the story of a journey, which is of course the core of the whole project.
The author is a Canadian development worker on a first posting in Africa, who has been in Ghana since 2009. I have lived, worked and traveled extensively around the world, but until now without visiting Africa. To a great extent the blog will tell the story of my own discovery of Africa, viewed through the lens of preparing for and experiencing an overland journey. Among overland journey stories what may be unique about this one is the fact that the preparation is taking place in Ghana, not in Europe, or in South Africa, which each have a strong industrial and service base which provides relatively easy access to products and services related to expeditions. In Ghana the market for related goods and services is much smaller, which will add a level of challenge to everything. At the same time, the very informality of much of the Ghana economy offers some strong points for the restoration project.
Navigation of the site will be made easier with knowledge of how it is organized. The site is divided into categories reflecting the stages of the project: planning, procurement, restoration, outfitting, travel, and demobilization. These categories appear on the right-hand side of the page. While these are roughly chronological, there will be overlap. If you go to any of these categories you will see the most recent posts at the top. To get to the earlier posts just scroll down tot the bottom and when you get there go to “earlier posts”.
Alternatively you can peruse historically by selecting a month to go to, also displayed on the right hand side of the page Like the categories, the the last post appears first and you just need to scroll to the bottom for the earliest posts. Again, watch to see if there are “earlier posts” at the bottom of the page.
As a final note, in addition to being new to Africa, to Land Rovers and to overlanding, which together to greatly increase the risks associated with everything, I am also new to blogging. That will no doubt be evident from this site. Hopefully I will be able to gain a greater mastery of the art of blogging and improve the site over time. Enjoy.
The eighteen months of our Land Rover restoration project brought us into contact with many people who in their own way contributed to the successful outcome. We met mechanics and electricians, welders and painters, upholsterers and air conditioning specialists. After returning from our trip one of our last Saturday afternoons in Ghana before departing for Canada was spent saying thanks to many of those individuals by inviting them to Opere’s shop for pizza and beer. We set up the Defender in full campsite mode, filled the fridge with beer and soft drinks and brought some pizza from Frankies and meat pies we bought from Rejoice at the High Commission.
The turn out was not bad, if devoid of female presence. Despite that, on request we put an Ebo Taylor CD in the stereo and the boys even danced.
It was our way of saying thank you and farewell to some people who helped realize a project that was, when you think about it, rather unlikely and against the odds.
Almost two years ago when this blog was started just before we purchased the beat-up 15+ year old Land Rover Defender for restoration we contemplated some of the possible options for disposal at the end (See Posts in Planning Category). Since that time the list of possible options has grown and evolved from selling in Ghana, selling in Morocco, or shipping to Canada, and include shipping to South Africa to explore southern and eastern Africa, or retaining in Ghana, perhaps on a shared ownership basis, for future use in the region. At the time we wound up our trip all of those options save the Morocco one were still on the table. I had obtained quotes for shipping to South Africa and expressions of interest to purchase from within Ghana, We had weighed all these for some time and each had its merits, and its downsides. If we sent it to South Africa it would open up whole new horizons in southern and eastern Africa, but would carry a large financial cost associated with shipping and storage. Selling it or retaining it in Ghana would provide an incentive to return to try to get to Mali and other West African locations like Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, etc.
After some work time at the CIDA office in Tamale and meeting with Abu it was well toward noon. There are two options when traveling by road between Tamale and Accra. The most common is mostly paved road down the west side of the country, passing through Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city. The other choice descends down the eastern side of the country along the Togo border following completely unpaved for the first 400 kilometres. The second route is actually shorter and can be faster, except in the rainy season when the road is either so wet and muddy to make risk of getting stuck quite high, or if it is dry it is so rough that you average about 30 km/hr. We were not in a tremendous hurry and had never done the Volta route, but after consultations with colleagues and PSU drivers decided it would be too uncomfortable and we opted for the less adventurous, but still interesting Kumasi option.
Jonathon has done this route for work a few times, but always with a driver. It was the first time he drove himself, and the first time Laura had been down that road. It is a great opportunity to see the landscape change from savannah to more humid forest. If you leave Tamale very early in the morning you can get to Accra by dark but because we were not in a real hurry and got such a late start out of Tamale we decided to break the trip half way at the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary about 100 kilometres north of Kumasi. It was raining for much of the drive. We crossed the Volta River near its upper reaches, the same river where we had camped on our first night out a month earlier, 300 kilometres further south.
We also went by lots of lovely northern examples of Ghanaian rural housing.
As it turned out, this route also provided some challenging driving, as we found ourselves on yet another donkey track excuse for a road on the 50 kilometres off the main road into Boabeng-Fiama.
We arrived at Boabeng-Fiama just before dark and were welcomed by the women who manages the guest house, where we were able to set up on the extensive lawn near the washroom and showers. Local s have treated the monkeys as sacred for more than 150 years, there is a myth of a hunter that encountered a spirit that urged him to treat them as family members. The 50 hectares are full of Mona and Colobus. In view of the ease of access to the monkeys the Boabeng-Fiama has become a centre for primate research and there were three Canadian students doing research, one a women from Montreal doing her Masters at the University of Calgary. Small world.
In the morning we toured the site after breakfast, packed up camp and were on the road by noon. It turns out that was not early enough because we still faced a too-long drive into Accra. It was for sure the least pleasant stretch of road we have driven in the entire expedition. The unpleasantness culminated in a two hour after-dark struggle through an awful stretch of rough dirt “road” that had been under construction since we arrive in Ghana three years ago and seems to be suffering from not-so-benign neglect on the part of whoever is supposed to be managing the project. There are vast stretches of unpaved, unmarked dirt eight lanes wide with dilapidated, poorly lit cars and trucks and buses weaving around cavernous holes and competing for space in the dark. It was awful, but I was very grateful for the special KC driving lights we had purchased in South Africa and mounted on the front bumper two days before we left Accra. With those and the regular lights on bright we were able to avoid some serious tank traps, some with very close calls. As it was we only got to our house in Accra at 21:00, after driving more than two hours in the dark, which you should never do out of the city in Ghana. It was actually the only time I was scared on this trip, travelling in the dark with no signs there were moment when we felt quite lost, and there was no place to pull over to take a break, if we had seen a hotel we would have taken a room.
It was very nice to finally pull into the drive in North Ridge. We did not unpack anything, just went in for spaghetti and a bottle of wine.
After leaving Bolgatanga our drive down through northern Ghana was a return to the somewhat familiar. We arrived in Tamale, capital of the Northern Region, about 15:00, in time to go by the CIDA Program Support Unit (CIDA-PSU) office there. Tamale is a pleasant city, clean with wide street and good infrastructure. For Jonathon this was to a certain extent a return to work. We were on holiday but being there he was pleased to engage in work-related discussions with Iddrissu and others in the PSU, not a bad way to get caught up after more than a month on the road incommunicado. We have been to Tamale before, Jonathon for work many times, and always stayed at the Marian Hotel, but this time we were looking for something a bit less refined. On the advice of CIDA-PSU colleagues we went to the Ghana Institute of Linguistics Guest House where the manager agreed to let us set up Camp Defender in their lovely garden.
Northern Ghana is where Ghana sheanut is grown, from which many beauty products are derived. The cultivation of the trees and the processing of the nuts is principally a female activity, and the source of income for many women who work independently or in co-operatives. While in Tamale we were able to stop in at one for tour and purchase some of the sheanut “butter” which is great skin lotion. A lot of this is exported, and can be found on the shelves at the Body Shop in malls in North America.
Most significantly is was while we were in Tamale that Ghana’s President Mills died unexpectedly, we learned of it while we were in an internet cafe and may have seen it before most of the rest of the city.
The other item worth mentioning was meeting up with Abu, the Director of Northern Region office of Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Jonathon and Abu know each other through the CIDA-EPA partnership and on this visit they had lots of fun sparring about the Land Rover. As those of you who followed the restoration stage of this blog may know, for the first 15 years of its life our Defender was an EPA vehicle, and as an EPA veteran Abu spent many miles driving it around the extremely rough tracks of northern Ghana to support village environmental education. Abu was very sceptical that this was indeed the same vehicle, it was only when he saw the original GR 1995 license number that they had etched in all the windows that he accepted it was indeed the same vehicle they had driven so hard for so long, and evenatually sold at auction for scrap. Abu said EPA wanted to buy it back now; Jonathon said it was not for sale.
After an unofficial CIDA work-related meeting with the PSU and EPA (Jonathon forgot he was on holiday) we had a much later than planned departure out of Tamale. We knew we would not be able to make it as far as Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city and a milestone en route to Accra, before dark. The back-up plan was to pull up at a monkey sanctuary about 100 km north of Kumasi a ways off the main road.
A couple of hundred kilometres to the south-west of Tamale is Mole National Park, the place to go in Ghana to see elephants. Although we did not go there on this trip, we could have, and because it is such a great part of the Northern Ghana experience we are going to cheat a bit here and close this post with a couple of pictures from a visit we made there last year.
As we made our way toward Tamale from Sirigu the main stop of interest was Bolgatana, capital of Ghana’s Upper East Region. Bolga is known for it very unique and attractive baskets, which are arguably the most attractive craft produced in Ghana, and useful to boot. One can find these in Accra, but there is something satisfying about going to the source. We were also in the market for a few of these baskets for a design idea for our Ottawa house.
One source is a craft market on the outskirts of Bolga, but there is also a place referred to as the basket market, which is less of a market than a dark, unenhanced room with baskets piled in it. We went to both but it was the latter that had much more greater choice and higher quality for what we were looking for. Laura went wild.
Bolgatanga also has to be counted as a maintenance stop. While Laura was basket shopping I went to deal with the slow leak in the right rear tire, which was actually not so slow anymore and had gone completely flat while we were in Sirigu. The affable roadside tire guy I chose was quite amused by the hardware he pulled from inside our tire: a 2″ inch nail AND a 3″ bolt!
Our last night in Burkina was spent bush camping near a National Park called Ranch Nazinga, a popular site for elephant viewing. The late afternoon was another off-road excursion down a mud track to try to get into a campement that was located some 5 kms off the main road. There had been a great deal of rain the previous night and day and we had to traverse some wide stretches of water.
for about 20 minutes until we arrived at the Nazinga River, which normally one just drives through. However, it had swollen its banks and was about 100 yards wide where the track went in. I waded in to check the depth, egged on by an audience of local teenagers who kept saying “ca peut aller” (it can go). Clearly for them this was a spectator sport.
One of the older boys said “il y a un trou” (there is a hole) and that there was another route upriver where they had put in some boards to help the crossing. If we had had a couple more hours of daylight I might have tried it but there was quite a current and it was getting late so we decided that discretion was the better part of valour, swallowed our pride and turned around, much to the chagrin of the boys. The fact was that we were just looking for a place to camp for the night and there was no reason for us to risk having the Landy swept downriver. We retraced our route through down the wet track and found a nice place to camp on higher ground to pass a very pleasant night.
At Nazinga we were only about 40 kms from the border, but before we left Burkina we took a detour east to the village of Tiebele where the Gournonsi practice of decorating the outside of the mud houses with painted geometric patterns is still evident. Despite the poverty Tiebele almost felt touristy as we were flagged by prospective guides. There is no system for assigning guides, you get the one that you decide to stop for, but once you have chosen one it seem the rest leave you alone.
We were taken to a complex of mud houses that are apparently the residence of the Chief and his family, the guide said some 80 people lives within the walls. It was a bit more refined than houses we have seen elswhere with some very unique features.
We did get a sense that maybe this was more of a museum than an actual house, it seemed too neat and clean. There were some people around, and women on the roofs stirring grains as they dried in the sunshine, but the place felt like it might be more a place to show the tourists than an actual chief’s compound. However that did not detract from the very unique structure, which had many features we had not seen in other villages we have visited.
We could see plenty of other similar structures around, it is much less disruptive that they have one they can take the tourists to without disturbing people. That is just good community tourism management. In the Tata Somba houses we went to in Benin and Togo we had to pay a tip to people whose houses we visited, which was a bit awkward.
On our way out of Tiebele we stopped at the local pump to fill up our 20 litre wash water jerry can. We paid the Village Water Committee 200 CFA (50 cents) for the water, and another 200 CFA 50 to the fellow who lugged the full water can back to the vehicle.
Our objective that night was Sirigu in Ghana,which is about 60 km from Tiebele by road through the border crossing but probably only about half that as the crow flies. We spent the last of our CFA on diesel at the last filling station in Burkina at Po before we crossed the border. Then after crossing the border, just as we were clearing Customs on the Ghana side, the last of all the check points on both sides of the border, we realized that the filling station we had stopped at in Po an hour earlier had not put the gas cap back on. As it is a locking tank it meant a full set of our keys was also still in Burkina Faso. Fortunately, officials in both countries were prepared to pretend we were still in Ghana while we quickly drove back to Po to pick up the keys and cap and waved us back through when we came back 20 minutes later. I don’t think they would do that at the US-Canada border, but then they probably would not have forgotten to put the gas cap back on either.
We arrived in Sirigu about 5 PM, about 20 km in down a laterite road from the highway. En route via the laterite side road we were pulled over by a Ghana Immigration crew that were clearly driven by pecuniary motives, and were none too pleasant about it. They asked why were going to Sirigu and laughed when we said we were going to visit the Women’s Co-op. “Ohhh, going for a visit are you?” It was almost funny to see their reaction when they realized that we had diplomatic passports and the Land Rover they had surrounded to hassle had diplomatic plates. They apologized profusely for bothering us and let us move on, but left us with an impression that the Ghana Immigration Service is not the most professional of organizations.
Sirigu and the surrounding region is also known for decorative painting of the houses. There is a strong women’s co-operative in Sirigu that runs workshops and a guest house with a lovely grounds where we were able to camp for the night. There was a Dutch man staying there who had taken workshops in pottery and basket-making, and an American woman doing research in the region for her Masters thesis in Art History. A pump on the grounds was visited by a steady stream of locals, mostly children, picking up water. As the co-op facilities are themselves painted in the local style we did not have to go anywhere to see it up close.
Sirigu more modern and refined than what we saw in Tiebele, but does not convey the historical sense. We visited the co-op shop in the morning and were on our way to Bolgatanga by 10:00 AM.
PS. A systems note: We have now put on more than 5,000 km on the Defender in the month we have been on the road. Everything is working well. The early charging problems we had with the second battery have disappeared and there is no longer any loss of coolant. Incredibly, there is also no appreciable oil consumption – we have used less than a half litre of since we left Accra. Even the air conditioning, for which I thought it was only a matter of time before something failed, is performing perfectly. We did discover an interesting electrical glitch related to the faulty hazard light switch that is the stuff Land Rover folklore is made of. I had discovered sometime before we left Accra that if I turned the ignition off when the flashers were on the motor keeps running. It was explained to me by Eric our electrician that the hazard switch overides other systems and that this can happen if the switch is faulty. Replacing said switch did not make the cut when determinng the priority things to do before we left. We discovered a new twist on the switch problem one day near Sindou when our stereo suddenly stopped working. I thought it was simply a fuse and on inspection found that indeed there was a fuse that was blown that could have been the problem. We were still looking for a place in Banfora to buy a fuse from when we put the flasher on to turn around and the stereo suddenly started working again. We subsequently learned it was just a matter of playing with the hazard switch until the radio comes on, then it stays on, at least until we go into reverse gear, which for some bizarre reason knocks the stereo off again. I am not making this up. Apart from that rather humorous glitch, and a slow leak in a rear tire that needs attention, everything is humming.
On our drive west from Bobo- Dialaisso to Banfora we stopped to take a picture of a particularly green valley below and it was only in the process of framing the picture that we noticed a waterfall tumbling across a field not 100 metres from where we were parked. What a great picnic spot!
Our destination that day was Sindou, site of the most amazing natural landscape. We did a bit of an unplanned detour toward Cote d’Ivoire because on our map it appears to be straight through the town of Banfora and, unbelievably, the dirt track turn-off for Sindou in the town of Banfora is not markedl. Great road, but the mille bournes (milestones – a legacy of the French colonial system) all kept counting down the distance to the border town of Koloka, which was not on our route. We caught this after about 10 km and turned around to go back to Banfora. The correct road was only dirt, but it was much more attractive than the highway.
The Sindou Peaks are quite special. Created by limestone rocks on one side of a very fertile valley that have been eroded into narrow stalactite-type structures. The guidebooks all refer to landscape as reminiscent off “Planet of the Apes” although somehow that does not quite seem appropriate.
Walking tours of the area are provided by the Association Senoufa, a local community development group that uses the proceeds to help pay for childrens’ school fees. One can get tours that range from 1 hour to more than a week and involve hiking back to Bob0-Dialasso, the distance we had driven over two short days. We took the two hour option and that allowed us to hike to the upper plateau and get a great view.
There was a special bonus to our visit to Sindou, in the form of what has to be one of the best campsites in the world, at least the best we had on our trip. We had been told about a campement in Douna, a town 10 km shy of Sindou, by Alain, the French owner of the B&B we stayed at in Ouga. He did not rave about it, he just mentioned it, but we decided to have a look because it was getting late afternoon and it was before Sindou. We are very glad we did. As a campement it had also had rooms, but they were just very basic huts that were not really even furnished. But as a campsite for us it was perfect.
After Ougadougou we headed toward western Burkina. We had an overnight bush stop near Boromo, where we were treated to some good off-roading in search of a campement which we eventually gave up on for fear of getting trapped by more rain and instead retreated to stay closer to the main road. Next was Bobo -Diaoulasso, Burkina’s third largest city to see the spectacular mud mosque.
Islam is a very important religion throughout much of Africa and this phenomenon is well-represented in West Africa. The faith was brought here by traders crossing the Sahara a thousand years ago, Timbuctou was a center of muslim acadenia and scholarship hundreds of years ago. Today significant portions of the populations of most West African countries are muslim, in Burkina Faso it is about 40% of the population. Every village has at least one mosque, they are certainly the most common religious structure and call to prayer is resounds through the streets.
One of the great architectural manifestations Islam in West Africa is the unique mud mosques that are present throughout the Sahel. Built only from mud, they are also identified by the pieces of wood, usually tree branches, that stick out from the sides. Contrary to first impressions, these pieces of wood do not serve any structural purpose, rather they are intended to serve as a permanent scaffolding to provide easy access for replastering and painting work which has to be done every year.
We went to Bobo-Diaoulasso in western Burkina Faso to see one of the larger examples. Built in the 1840s it has some 56 mud pillars that are “towers” that provide support for the roof over the prayer area inside. Each of these pillars is about 4’ by 4’ and they easily take up a quarter of the interior floor area. That means it does not have a large open hall that is characteristic of other mosques.
Below are some shots of the smaller mud mosque at Nakori in northern Ghana we visited on another occasion.
Our first night in Bobo was at a place called Casafrica, which had little to recommend it, and the worst washrooms we had seen. We did like Bobo enough to give it a second night, but after one night in CasaAfrica we decided we needed a night in a hotel. We found a great place called Toucouleurs, complete with TV, WiFI and a lovely pool. It was real treat, much deserved after a couple of weeks of roughing it.
There is more to see in Bobo than the lovely mosque. The city itself is very laid back and pleasant, with wide boulevards running from large traffic circles each with a sculpture. It is a bit reminiscent of the work of Bernard Hausman in Paris and Washington, ironic given the relative poverty of the country.
Place de la Nation in Bobo
We also toured the oldest section of the city which is like a small village almost separate from the city that surrounds it. One pays a formal admission to enter with a guide who explains the different sections of the neighbourhood. It is quite a masterful blend of history, contemporary life, and a working craft village. There was one place where a craftsman made drums out of his house, another workshop where they worked with brass using the so-called “lost brass method”, another where they made “bark-cloth” purses and bags, where the cotton or leather is coloured using dyes made from bark of different local trees.
What a rich culture. The music wafts through the car windows. The crafts range from simple carving to works of art. We want to sample it all.
Our time in Ougadougou was mostly spent looking for crafts and music. Burkina is a very poor country, but has a very rich culture and Burkanibes are very creative. Burkina is the site of a bi-annual African film festival called FESPACO Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Télévision de Ouagadougou, held in October that attracts films from all over Africa. On the off-years there is another bi-annual ffestival: Le Salon International de L Artisanat de Ouagadougou (International Art and Craft Fair). We are not here for that but there is no shortage of galleries in which to view the creative work.
Burkina and neighbouring Mali are the West African wood carving masters. Pieces we have seen elsewhere we now learn are from here. Statues that might have had origins in traditional religion that is still so much a part of local life. Carvings that invoke plentiful rains or a healthy child. We opted for a sun that tradition says encourages a good harvest. (Who knows what we might decide to plant in our Ottawa garden.)
Bronze is another speciality of Burkina using the so-called “lost-wax method”. Ghana has a few artists that use this same method but here it is used in large pieces of art. The design is first built in wax – for example a woman dancing. Then the wax is coated in clay and the wax is melted out leaving a clay mold. Into this mold the artist pours molten bronze which takes the shape of the wax. The clay is then cracked open and voila a one-of-a-kind work of art.
Then there is fabric. Wax print is ever popular but Burkina adds a bright batik style and indigo printing. The indigo printing that was in the market was a strange overprint on other fabric. More interesting than useful. So instead we now have quite a stock of the batik and coordinating colours. Make the best of what is available! And start to dream of new quilts to come.
Contemporary Burkina music is called Coupé Decalé – unhinged steps. We went out both our nights in Ouagadougou (a miracle in and of itself) to listen to music. One night was a dj with a busy dance floor. We sat outside among the many tables on the sidewalk and bought barbequed chicken from a freelance guy set up right there and cold Brakina beer from the club. We even danced. The second night was live music alternating between traditional djembe, drums and flute, on one stage and a 5-piece band with female lead singer on the other. As the evening wore on the band moved into earlier Coupe Decale, with the woman replaced by an older throaty singer who also played guitar. There seems to be live music all over the country. We bought 4 CDs that have quickly become part of our driving repertoire.