It takes five minutes to drive from the entrance of Mole National Park to the Mole Motel. In that time, we saw six elephants cross the track, followed by three kob antelope; a baboon eating a banana at the roadside; and a family of warthogs scurrying ahead of us. Not a bad start to our safari.
And we didn’t have to wait long for our next encounter. As we were unpacking, the manager knocked at the door. “One of the elephants is feeding behind the pool; I thought you might like to see him.”
Mole, which covers nearly 5000 km2 of northwest Ghana, is the country’s largest wildlife sanctuary. It lacks the species diversity and numbers found in east and southern Africa, but people make the arduous journey along the heavily rutted dirt road from Tamale for the chance to get close to wildlife. The focus here is walking safaris, and the chance to admire animals from a few metres’ distance – a welcome change for anyone who has spent time jostling for camera positions in a crowded truck. It’s cheap, too; a two-hour walking safari costs just 9 Ghana cedis – around £3.
I had high hopes for the walking safari the next morning. Tourists waited outside the park headquarters at 7.00am as the senior guide put us into groups. This involved much indecision and head scratching on his part; clearly sorting random tourists into walking groups is a task not taken lightly. Finally he was happy and off we went with Adam, our allocated guide.
Adam was an enthusiastic guide and took his job seriously. His uniform was freshly pressed and he was keen to explain all aspects of the wildlife to us. Our first encounter was with a large group of warthogs scuffling around the staff village, near the motel. These normally shy animals have become accustomed to humans, and compete with baboons for scraps from rubbish piles. He told us the Latin name of warthogs and baboons, having spent two years learning these and keen to show off (Phacochoerus africanus and Papio anubis, for the record). As he talked, a flash of sky blue in the bushes caught my eye: an Abyssinian roller, a strikingly beautiful bird.
We continued slowly through the scrubby forest of baobab, shea nut and dawadawa trees. Adam did his best to interest us in the different aspects of Mole’s Guinea Savannah ecosystem, but everyone was really waiting to see the star attraction – the herds of elephants that roam the park.
At 8.00am, we sat in a wildlife hide on the edge of one of the water holes near the motel, scanning the horizon for movement. After 15 minutes, Lilly, our friend visiting from Germany, spotted them: three males emerging from the trees and heading for the water. Just behind came seven more. “The patriarch herd,” said Adam, clearly enjoying our excitement at seeing these mesmerising creatures.
Our group watched the herd’s morning routine. First a dust bath, then some skin care as the elephants stamped a hole in the ground and added water to form a mudpack, which was then sprayed liberally on their huge backs. And, after a brief standoff with the Nile crocodiles on the bank, a long soak in the pool. The group cooled themselves off with several trunkfuls of water, while the youngest member – a 15-year-old that had recently joined this all-male group – played on their backs, sliding about while the others patiently indulged him. Egrets and francolins in the reeds nearby completed the scene.
A furious rustling in the nearby bushes distracted us. A loud splash, then we saw a male waterbuck swimming across the pond. Its competitor remained hidden from view. Adam explained how the males fight for territory as the beast swam gracefully across the water, posing perfectly for pictures as it escaped on the far side. A bleeding haunch suggested he had lost the fight, but despite the wound he managed to trot away into the scrub.
At this point in most safaris, the trucks would speed away in convoy to search for the next animal. But Mole is different; we headed around the watering hole for a closer look at the elephants. Adam either ignored or failed to hear the questions about exactly where the bask of crocodiles had gone, and led us to within 10 metres of the one elephant that had declined a swim. This was People’s Friend II, identified by his missing tusk and a hole in his left ear. (People’s Friend I had passed away a few years earlier.) He was the guides’ favourite, being gentler than the rest of his herd.
Adam was very knowledgeable and elephant facts were a speciality. He would repeat one of his animal facts if he thought anyone hadn’t been listening, so we learned – three times – that, contrary to popular perception, elephants are actually black and their familiar grey colouring comes from their regular dust baths. As we returned back to the headquarters, we saw several kob antelope – and did you know, you will only ever find male kob on their own or with a female group, never in a group of males.
After the morning safari, everyone congregated at the motel pool or the nearby viewing platform. Situated on top of a rocky bluff above the watering holes, this was the perfect spot for watching the daily activities of the animals below. The elephants splashed about for another hour, before trudging off into the scrub, and the kob arrived in the droves for a cool down. The hours passed quickly at this tranquil spot, especially with a cold Star beer to hand, one of Ghana’s many fine brews.
The only disturbance to the tranquillity was the need to order lunch. This was not sound a major challenge, but in reality involves going through the motel’s extensive menu until you find something the kitchen actually has in stock. This lack of convenience is a reminder that Mole is pretty much in the middle of nowhere – in a rural part of northwest Ghana, over three hours from Tamale, the major town in the north. No option to pop out to the local shop for extra cheese.
During the morning walk, Adam had twice mentioned the option of a driving safari in the afternoon (in Ghana, this counts as a hard sell). We decided to go for it – only 50 cedi (£16) per hour, shared between a group. The Land Rover that Adam drove up in looked too small for six tourists and two guides. He quickly explained: “You all sit on the roof”. Ghanaian safaris really are a bit different.
Leopards, hyenas, hunting dogs and cervals all live in Mole National Park, but are rarely seen on safaris, which usually only explore a tiny corner of the protected area, which covers nearly 5000 km2. Adam had seen only two leopards in eight years working in the park. But this lack of big predators allows some of Africa’s less iconic animals to take the limelight. We spotted bushbucks, western hartebeest, and patas and green monkeys as we toured along the dirt road, deeper into the park to the Brugbani North Plains.
Mole is also a birdwatcher’s paradise, with over 300 species recorded, and the roof of a vehicle is the perfect place from which to spot them. Violet turacos, woolly-necked storks, purple herons, and various species of bee-eater, kingfisher and hornbill swooped overhead. The highlight of the drive was the small spring near Brugbani Camp. We saw the curious hammerkops with their anvil-shaped heads, as well as jacandas, hadadas and white-faced western ducks nesting nearby.
Returning to the motel at dusk, the bar was already filling up. Tourists sipped drinks and swapped safari stories around the pool while the staff crowded around a TV showing the Champions League game. A bird watching group compared notes on the day’s sightings. It took them two hours to tick off the time, location and activity of each species, suggesting they were serious about their hobby.
Escaping the chatter, I headed back to the viewing platform for one last look across the park. The elephants were absent, but the antelope were drinking at the water hole, as the sun set behind them. Hopefully the injured waterbuck was OK; he more than anyone must be grateful for the lack of big cats. And if you don’t mind missing out on the big cats, Mole offers the most colourful – and cheapest – safari in Africa.