To the average Brit, the very name invokes images of vast grasslands, plains with shrubberies, dust-capped faded green mountain ridges, and dense rainforest, all populated by hordes of wild and exotic animals, patrolling, migrating, resting at pools of water, and feeding on each other. Humans, aside from the occasional local tribe, are the interloper, the out-of-place creatures lost amongst the majesty of fauna who live, breed, dominate here.
A deer on alert at Mole National Park, Ghana.
Except that it’s not like that. At all. And hasn’t been for a very long time.
The very fact that Mole National Park even exists is evidence that, insignificant pockets of wilderness aside, Africa very much belongs to humans. You only have to look at what we have done to areas of Africa we define as being in the Democratic Republic of Congo for example to know which species is in charge here.
Mole itself is a relatively small (research suggests it’s a similar size to Lake Manitoba in Canada, or slightly bigger than the combined area of Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire in the UK) fenced-off segment of forest in an otherwise under-populated and under-resourced backwater of a reasonably small country (Ghana is very slightly smaller than the UK), yet one of the only places in the region where animals such as springbok, crocodile, and elephant are allowed to roam free without the official threat of human predators. Another, the Parc National de W / Pendjari National Park, covers a small area on the borders of the nearby countries of Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
Birds on the road in Mole National Park, Ghana.
And yet, even this protection is theoretical – Ghana does not have the resources even in the National Park to definitively prevent poachers from wandering through and killing the wildlife; that the park is fenced off and no humans are allowed to live within its boundaries merely makes poaching slightly more difficult, rather than impossible (it was only an hour’s walk along a particularly gravelsome road from the park to the local village on the main road – no problem for local 4WDs and small trucks – and only a small guard post prevents open access). And of course the rewards for poachers are high – from feeding themselves and their family/friends, all the way up to huge profits from international ivory smuggling. The idea behind Mole National Park is wholesome but one can’t help but feel it’s like sticking a children’s plaster over a crack in a dam.
One of the buildings servicing the National Park.
Although in principle it’s geared up for tourism, apart from one tour party and a random assortment of German backpackers (the majority of whom were living/working in Ghana anyway) the place was pretty empty. The men’s dorm I was staying in was only occupied by one other visitor – in practice though it seemed to be used as the place where the local bus drivers had a quick nap before their early-morning drive back to civilisation (the reason I walked to the village when I left was because the last bus left while the time could still be counted on one hand. While convenient for heading back to the nearest significant city, Tamale, I’d just come from there – I was making my way west and the bus in that direction left much later in the morning. Bed + Walk > Bus + long wait), and the 2-hour truck safari around the park I took had just about had enough people – eight – to be viable. There’s several of these ‘bedroom blocks’ and they all look pretty much the same – though most people who come here get private rooms. I was just being cheap.
One of the buildings servicing the National Park.
The centrepoint of the site is the lodge; it consists of a bar, restaurant, long outdoor patio seating area, a small swimming pool, and a handful of tables overlooking the park. It seems to be built on top of a cliff, so the vista is quite sweeping, if a little monochrome (faded green, in this case). The menu for the restaurant isn’t that long, and, apart from a couple of nods to Ghanaian cuisine, it mostly catered to tourist tastes (and wallets – around 20 Cedis a meal). That said, it was reasonably good quality – the only downside being slightly slow service, but with a view like that, it wasn’t a major issue.
View of Mole National Park from the lodge.
It may surprise you that I was here at all – I’ve never made any secret about my general lack of knowledge and interest in the ‘natural world’. I’m not an animal-spotter (I’ve mentioned previously my knowledge of birds is ‘oh, it’s something with wings’), so the idea of going ‘on-safari’ in the traditional sense isn’t one I’m that interested in; I can understand the appeal for a day or so, but after a while of peering into the distance and going ‘is that a lion? No, it’s a bush!’, I’d imagine I’d get a little bored. One might well ask the question then: Why did I come? I guess because it was there, because I was passing by it anyway so I thought it would be an interesting distraction; something different. Plus it was relatively cheap (as Safaris go) – 40 Cedis for the dorm, 30 to get into the Park, and 80 or so for each of the two trips within the Safari I did.
The 4×4 we took to go on a driving safari. We’re parked by a lake, looking for crocodiles. We failed.
The first trip was atop a 4WD truck. We all sat on top as we bounced uncomfortably along the trails, tracing a very weird routing through the park involving a lot of dead ends (despite the park map indicating some circular routes). Most of the ‘road’ took us through woodland, but here and there were pockets of grassland where we could spot mainly wildebeest and springbok in the distance, as well as the occasional large bird overhead. Unfortunately we didn’t see any bigger creatures; even the crocodiles in the large pool we stopped near seemed to be keeping clear of us today. Despite that, it was a nice introduction to the area; while it never felt entirely ‘wild’, I could certainly see what they are trying to do here.
Aside from the birds, deer were what we saw mostly from the truck. Lots of deer.
The other trip was a more local walking safari, exploring the area around the safari’s lodge with a local guide (complete with gun, in case of poachers as well as rogue animals) and only one other tourist. It was more interesting than the truck safari despite its smaller range, as it felt a bit more ‘real’ – clambering over muddy ditches and through dry scrub to see both the landscape and the animals that lived within at much closer quarters.
In fact the walk need only have lasted five minutes, as no sooner had we reached the bottom of the escarpment the lodge stood on, we were greeted by an elephant. In the wild. There’s probably not much else that could have happened for the rest of the two hour walk that would have matched that. As I say, I’m not an animal spotter, but come on; coming face-to-face with such an impressive beast is at least worth a few minutes, even for me.
An elephant in Mole National Park. It was kind of scary to be that close.
My first ever wild elephant, for the record.
Mostly, the rest of the walk was dominated by wildebeest. Again, crocodiles failed to make an appearance, although we did at least this time see tell-tale ‘bubbles’ under the water so we knew they were there. We also saw evidence of a second elephant, its location given away by the trees in the midground swaying and rustling rather more than nature intended, although it never made an appearance, possibly thankfully as they can run quite quick for a big beast.
The first elephant wasn’t the closest I came to the safari’s animals however. In the car park of the lodge, a family of warthogs seemed to like sleeping under the minibuses – they seemed friendly and paid us not a second glance as we walked past them, but instead grunted merrily away.
Sleepy warthogs. They had a tendency to lie underneath the trucks and cars, for the shade.
A cheeky, nosey, warthog peering over the wall, looking for a bit of fuss!
The most active animals though were the resident monkeys. They tended to sit on the periphery of the lodge’s outdoor dining area, waiting for their moment to strike. As soon as they saw something was unattended or not being used, they would creep up, try to grab it, then rush away. The only thing of mine they swiped was an empty bag of banana peel, though they did try to have a go at one of my small backpacks.
A cheeky monkey, feasting on what he’d nicked from the tourists!
A family of monkeys, paying scant regards to the tourists.
Would I recommend Mole? If you’re in West Africa anyway, then yes, absolutely, go. If you’re rather looking for somewhere to look at animals, then go to Botswana or somewhere.
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