Things don’t always go to plan in Africa, or even as might reasonably be anticipated. The old hands have a couple of acronyms for this: TIAB (this is Africa, baby), or the more fatalistic AWA (Africa wins again). But this can go both ways, and the positives never seem to get much of a name-check.
Seeing elephants in Mole National Park was definitely one of the latter. It’s the back end of the wet season here. Water and vegetation are everywhere, so animals disperse; no need to congregate around shrinking resources when there’s an abundance. The chance of seeing anything in the long grass – sometimes 10-12 feet just high at the roadside – let alone in a national park where only a small percentage of the park is accessible and then only when being driven by rangers who don’t always seem to realise that slower is better, was always going to be slim. And, owing to a little of the more customary type of TIAB, we were heading out in the hottest time of the day when nothing, given any choice in the matter, moves. (Under pressure from volunteers on the Namibian elephant project keen to get their money’s worth, Keith would take them out over one lunchtime during their 10-12 days in the desert. They soon learnt that sitting in a vehicle in 40-ish degrees (105-115F) watching a sleeping elephant for an hour was not a whole lot of fun, particularly if the pachyderm had nicked all of the available shade.)
To get to Mole, we’d left Tamale, the unofficial capital of Ghana’s northern regions, at 7am for the two-hour drive west. On arrival, we were greeted with the typical hot climate sight of everyone dozing under the biggest acreage of shade available, the tree in centre of the rangers’ compound. No-one was jumping up to offer me the walking and driving safaris I’d been expecting; instead we were told that trips only happened at 7am, 11am and 3.30pm. And this appeared to be non-negotiable. (It’s forbidden to drive yourself in Mole National Park.) My driver, James, set to with his best talk-’em-round skills, but there are times when it’s worth just saving your breath. These guys weren’t goin’ nowhere. Fortunately, there were other things on the day’s itinerary that didn’t involve disturbing sleeping guides, so we left them to it.
On our return an hour later, no-one seemed to have moved very far. I sat down to wait for the promised witching hour of 11am, but then the first of the positive TIAB events happened. James had been chatting to one of the rangers, and, looking up, suddenly asked if I’d mind going out on my own. This couldn’t be right; maybe we were going to pick up more people at one of the two lodges inside the Park. One of the drivers un-parked the budget option of the available game vehicles – no roof covering, and certainly no air-conditioning other than the au naturel variety (which I infinitely prefer) – moved it forwards and bade me ascend. I was followed by James’ ranger, now introduced as Sadiq, complete with an elderly rifle over one arm. When we stopped at the Mole Motel just up the track (such an incongruous name for its location), I assumed that others would emerge – perhaps the two Brazilian girls I’d met at the airport the night before – but it seemed deserted. Sadiq got out of the vehicle and beckoned me over to the edge of the turning circle. Just as I was opening my mouth to comment on the unexpected view across the gorge, he pointed: “Elephants in river. We go.” Leaving the unfortunately-never-named driver behind, we started down a rocky path towards the river. I could barely contain myself. Legs still wobbly from the weekend’s ascent to the Wli Falls, thrilled to be back in Africa and seeing elephant for the first time in over four years, yet nervous to be on foot through dense vegetation in a national park, it was all I could do to focus on putting one foot not too noisily in front of the other. Did Sadiq know what he was about? He took us round the back of a deserted hut and then we emerged, near the water’s edge. Four male elephants, one a monster of an old guy, were almost fully submerged in the middle of the river; what was showing of their skins glistening and un-customarily dark grey. It wasn’t long before the old boy spotted us, the end of his trunk doing a snorkel routine from below the surface, swivelling round to point in our direction, and, locking onto us, the rest of the head followed. He gazed over at us, flaring his ears, trunk now out of the water and raised. I gulped. According to Sadiq, he’s an unpredictable elephant – thanks, now you tell me! – but we were clearly, in his mind, far enough away not to be any kind of threat, though he still mustered his acolytes and, after a final splash, the four of them made languorously for the far shore.