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Walking On the Treetops Of Ghana’s Kakum Forest

This reporter, was among 13 other journalists selected from about five West African countries that included Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Liberia, Togo and…

This reporter, was among 13 other journalists selected from about five West African countries that included Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Liberia, Togo and Guinea by the International Institute for Journalism of InWEnt, Berlin, Germany to attend a two-week capacity building training course on the role of the media in conflict transformation and peace building in the sub-region, held in the Ghanaian capital city of Accra from April 19 to April 30, this year.

The ECOWAS conflict sensitive journalists or peace journalists, as we were fondly addressed by the organizers of the programme, were ecstatic when we found out that a visit to the Cape Coast’s Kakum forest and the famous colonial edifice, Elmina Castle was calendared as part of our schedule for the weekend.  Our curiosity was particularly informed by the heavy-academic workload that dominated the previous week which included lectures, presentations, joint analysis and mapping of conflict case studies, practicals and so on.

After a hitch-free trip, (hitch free because I didn’t see our driver handing over Ghanaian Cedi notes to any of the police officers we met at all the checkpoints we came across from Accra through Takoradi to Cape Coast), we arrived Cape Coast and went North wards towards the Kakum, a distance of about 25 kilometres.

Exploring Kakum National Park

The two vehicles conveying us got their passes from the rangers manning the park’s gate. Subsequently, we ushered ourselves into the park premises and disembarked. We quickly strolled into the administrative block that contains staff offices, a local restaurant, a bar and a museum-like exhibition centre.

Without waiting for any formal ushering, we all vanished into the exhibition centre that contains several animal paintings and plants species that include real elephant tusks, information galleries and paintings. At the exhibition gallery, we met other groups of visitors that included some Ghanaian students, Indians, Dutch, Danes  and Britons.

While we were taking photographs, Susan and Sabine Hammer, one of the programme facilitators, were busy working out the administrative procedures and before we knew it; our tags were secured and were distributed to us. A tour guide was also attached to our group. He later led us through the deep forest of Kakum.

In a very brief address, our tour guide, Mr Godfrey announced that “we are going to walk through the main forest. It is a conservation area that covers an area of 350 kilometre squares of rain forest. As a result of the abundant humidity in the park, it is providing the ideal environment for multitudes of living things.” That sounds very adventurous.

He revealed also that Kakum National Park stands as part of one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the African continent. The forest is an important conservation priority and one of the Ghanaian tourist attractions that generate income to the country.

Kakum, this reporter gathered, which became a national park in 1990, is a 350 square miles remnant of the vast forest that once stretched near the Atlantic Ocean shore of West Africa, from Guinea through Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast and Ghana.

It was gathered also that as of now, about 90 percent of Ghana’s rain forest is gone, depleted mainly by agricultural and mining activities. The Kakum forest stands amid small plots of maize, cocoa, cassava and palm oil; as well as tracks of degraded scrub land that were farmed and abandoned by the subsistent farming communities in the environs.

Also, the park records the highest turn- out of over 100,000 visitors per annum. More than half are Ghanaian and about a quarter are expatriates working in the country and their visitors; while a few thousands are mostly fun-seeking and adventurous tourists from within and outside Africa.

Around Kakum’s edges are hamlets like Afiaso, a typical African village setting of thatched-roof huts with neither electricity nor pipe-borne water.  

The about 620 villagers, this reporter gathered, are mostly farmers of cocoa beans, which is their major source of income. Their boys and girls make brisk business by selling palm wine, honey, some forest fruits and varieties of locally-made beads, bangles, necklaces and earrings to the army of Kakum’s “pilgrims.”

This reporter gathered that before now, the villagers also felled the massive forest trees to clear the land for cocoa plants. Until the park was created, ending the relentless deforestation, the men would hunt game and conduct ancient tribal rituals at revered forest shrines under the boughs.

Currently, the protection of the forest has boosted the numerical strength of the wildlife, but at the same time, also increasing the conflict between man and animal, especially the forest elephants, whose population has been souring by nearly 10 percent to at least 206 since 2000, Mr Godfrey told this reporter.

The park opens from 7.30 am to 3.30 pm daily. This primeval forest in said to have as much as 300 species of birds, unique monkeys and the highly endangered forest elephants, leopards, cobras as well as bongo antelopes. The tropical rain forest is thick that light barely breaks through the treetops.

When our tour guide declared that “we have animals like forest elephants, monkeys, bongo and leopards,” virtually all members of my group became enthusiastic. Particularly when he added that     “but the truth is this, we are going to walk on the safer parts.” A gloomy picture was created in my mind and many of my colleagues, when he said “but I am not promising anything. If we are lucky we can see python, cobra and even butterflies.”

Staggering on the treetops

Enthusiastically, we started dashing towards the gate that leads to the forest. Some rangers were stationed there to check our badges.  They hospitably did and bid us safe journey into the forest. We were very elated. Earlier, whilst we were waiting, our guide said that anyone who needed water should get a bottle now since there would be no water for sale deep in the forest. I didn’t wonder what anyone would need water for – because of my earlier experience in far away, Mecca, Saudi Arabia some two years back when I climbed Jabal- ul- Noor (Mount of Light) whose peak houses the famous Cave of Hira, used by the Holy Prophet of Islam for meditation and also when he received the first divine revelation.

In December 2008, when I went to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage, I made it a point of duty to visit virtually all the historic and holy sites in both the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (that explained why I didn’t come back with any tsaraba, the usual gifts brought from Hajj). Jabal-ul- Noor was one of such places. When our tour guide said that we have to climb a steep hill before reaching the canopy walkway, it quickly reminded me of that fateful night that I climbed that historic mount of about 2400 meters height. Having made about 30 stop-overs, I finally made it to the Cave of Hira, feeling very triumphant despite the persistent gasping, thirst for water and an insatiable quest for hope.  

With all of us decked with a badge hanging from our necks and two bottles of water neatly stuck in my side pockets, the climb soon started. We first had to climb a very steep hill with rocks along the way. Before we knew it, everyone was gasping for breath and you could thus imagine the relief when we came by a hut in the middle of the climb.

After a few minutes of rest, the journey continued again. By the time we reached the crescendo, everyone was sweating profusely. Before we were finally ushered into the fourth hut from where we were supposed to embark on the famous Kakum walkway, one of my water bottles was nearly empty.

At last, a 20-minute climb from the reception and restaurant area on a trail through the dark, thick forest took us up 600 feet to the edge of the valley.

In a final address before the adventurous sky-walking, Mr Godfrey explained that “the canopy is actually seven short bridges joined together. Its nature is that it swings and makes noise as you walk on it. If you are scared of heights just look straight, walk normal and remember, God loves you.”

He added that “the canopy was constructed by two Canadians, George Clemson and Tom Eastward and six Ghanaians. And it took them six months. It was officially opened and commissioned on 22 April 1995.” The brief lecture served as another chance to catch our breaths from the climb – but it is soon to be lost again in the breathtaking view from the canopy walk.

When Godfrey said that “the rest I will tell you if you survive, many of us tremble with some fear and I quickly asked him if there was any incidence of such. “The only incident,” according to Godfrey, “is that people get stuck in the middle and they start crying. But at the end, they put themselves together and keep moving. That is the only thing.”

That statement gave me some solace but not when I heard a British lady, just in front of me, whose husband was about to start the walk say to him, in an emotion-laden voice that “don’t worry, God loves you. You won’t die.” I felt really frightened particularly, as I watched the swinging ropes on top of trees. I prayed, prayed and prayed; hoping that I won’t be a subject of any incident in that forest walkway.  

My colleagues from Sierra Leone and Ghana were among the first to attempt the walk. Just a few steps into the walkway, and they came running back. I couldn’t actually laugh though the tour guide did. Apparently, the walkway was dangling from side-to-side as soon as they stepped on it. The mere thought of falling over a hundred feet into the dark forest was too much for them to bear.

Eventually, they went back and I saw them swinging on air. It was courage and we took a few steps forward. It wasn’t easy. Looking left and right, I could see a dense forest below us but I was too concerned about my personal safety to bother about finding the animals I had read about or the beautiful birds I was told of.

I thought of so many things: my two little kids, Bibty Fateema and Khalifa Mahmood, their mother and my younger siblings. I actually started sweating before I stepped into the dangling ropes. It was a fearful adventure.

The rope bridge suspended 100-110 feet off the forest floor yields an extraordinary sweep of nature from what feels like just below cloud level.

While I was staggering on the walkway, I heard something coming behind me like a moving train running on a Nigerian colonial-era narrowed rail gauge, tumultuously swinging the walkway. A lady colleague far in front of me shouted, “Stop it! Are you crazy?” I was scared to the bone that I couldn’t even surmount the courage to even look back.

It was Muhammad Nazeef, a telecommunications engineer and a cliff hanger. My colleagues shouts and curses made him slow down and walked in our freightened pace.

He told this reporter that he is a telecommunications engineer from Sindarabad, India but was in Accra working for a foreign telecom firm. “I climbed several telecom towers across the world. I didn’t find the walkway scary at all. It was real fun,” he said.

The thrill of sky- walking was not that funny for an acrophobe like me. Knowing that there is nothing to fear does little to settle nerves or steady shaky knees. But with a deep breath and a determined look ahead (not down), I walked the plank and pulled myself along the rope handrails to the first wooden platform, a circular tree house that serves as a way station on the 1,000-foot-long walkway.

The bridge gives a little bounce and sways a bit as we walk unsteadily through the V-shaped side netting and on to the next of the six platforms. I prayed when we safely reached the bottom of the hill towards the reception area.

Soon, the gruelling walk was over after passing through the about 360 metres seven joint bridge walkway and we descended back to the lower part of the park catching our breath as we went along. By that time, my two bottles were already empty while I was soaked in my sweat.

“Kakum became a forest reserve in 1931, so people were coming here of course for tour, so they realised they have to add something new that was what brought the idea of the canopy,” our tour guide explained how the canopy walkway idea was conceived.

Kakum’s canopy walkway is famous throughout Ghana, and for good reason. Constructed with foreign help in 1995, this 350m-long rope-way, through the rainforest canopy is unique in Africa, and is a great way to see the rainforest from above with its beautiful and wonderful view of greenery.

The walkway, despite the abundant risks, provided a good way to appreciate just how high the tallest trees are; the walkway is around 30 to 40m high and the trees still tower above you, and although it seems pretty safe as you bounce along high above the ground (which you can’t see through the rainforest canopy), it’s definitely no place for those with vertigo or suicidal tendencies, a Danish tourist said.

This reporter met five uniformed men perched on treetops swinging ropes. They were the walkway maintenance team. Their leader, Kenneth Asari, told Sunday Trust they were constructing the eight canopy walkway. While chatting with them, almost all of them shouted at some of the Dutch tourists that literarily mistook the canopy for a running track. It was evident that the canopy was meant to walk on not to run on. They said that they were taught by the two Canadians and they have been maintaining the walkways ever since it was constructed.  

After the walkway experience, we all hopped into out waiting vehicles and headed towards the numerous European forts, lodges, and castles that line the 300 miles of Ghana’s coastline. Two of the most notable are the recently restored Cape Coast and Elmina castles, built in 1655 and 1482 respectively, which served as central facilities in the centuries-long trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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