A night in the rain forest And dawn above it
Story by: James Walston
t is dark and the faint glimmer of a waxing moon and stars veiled by the mist do not penetrate the forest’s thick canopy. But the lack of visual stimuli is more than compensated for by the symphony which surrounds us; Baffoe, the expert warden (or “tour guide” as he is rather incongruously titled) identifies the members of our orchestra; the extravagantly plumed black and white casqued hornbills and a shining drongo in the bird section and the prize soloist, the tree hyrax. This is a tree-living mammal that comes down to the forest floor at night to feed. It has little natural protection so emits the most frightening screams to clear its path of potential predators. It sounds like a human being in terrible pain, someone being slowly and horrendously tortured. Combine that sound with the utter darkness of the forest floor which induces more than a tinge of claustrophobia and the effect is powerful. The first few times you hear the hyrax are unnerving but Baffoe’s calm explanation soon dispel the fear and a much more scientific curiosity sets in.
I have been taking students to Kakum for six years but this was the first time that we spent the night there. We found ourselves in the middle of Kakum National Park in the middle of the night because of a combination of two fortuitous happenings; one positive one negative. The first was to learn that there were facilities to allow tourists to spend the night in the forest – it is not a new initiative but it is a well-kept secret which l wasn’t aware of despite the previous visits. The second was a less than positive experience in the Cape Coast hotel where we had gone they year before; some of our party had found themselves sharing their beds with very small and voracious partners.
My conclusion was that if we had to put up with insects, it would be far more interesting to meet them in their natural habitat rather than in a seedy hotel. And so it was. The group consisted of a small group of students, some American, some Italian and some Ghanaian.
The main purpose of the whole trip to learn about local politics, economics and history but Kakum is such an important part of Ghanaian environmental policy and tourist development as to make a visit an essential part of any study trip.
There is just enough of a hint of adventure to whet the appetite without actually being uncomfortable. Every child’s jungle fantasy comes to the fore in the children of all ages that arrive just before nightfall. For our expedition, we had an excellent meal at the park reception area accompanied by swarms of insects which converged on the lights; in comparison, the darkness of the forest was quite tolerable.
Then there is a brisk half hour walk to the campsite, just enough to make us feel that we have left “civilization” behind. There are four tents, a hut for the equipment and a latrine; quite enough. We sit and talks in a good old fashioned way and by nine most of us have retired.
Those that stay up are lulled into an ostrich-like isolation; just because they cannot see more than a metre in front of them, they think sound does not carry either and tell remarkable stories. But the jungle fastness is discrete.
At four, Baffoe wakes us up and off we go. A Gambian rat is caught in the torch beams for a moment, the hyrax makes his presence very audible but does not show his face. The trees look very different from the bottom of their massive trunks than they do from the ropewalk; one feels their exact girth when one has to clamber round the roots.
After an hour and half of dreamlike magic punctuated by some serious walking, we arrive at the start of the canopy ropewalk.
This is the prize at Kakum and justly so – and if your time is limited, then enjoy it at whatever time of day. But even if the thrill does not wear thin even on the seventh walk, it was very different to experience the forest at night and the rope walk at dawn. Students and even some older visitors seem to go into Tarzan mode as soon as they step onto the first suspension bridge and start yelling in a way which frightens every animal for miles around; but at dawn, they were much more awed by the majesty of the trees emerging from the mists and into the rapidly advancing sun and tread silently across the bridges. It is a pleasure to be savoured slowly, searching for the monkeys which forage at dawn, enjoying the butter flies, oblivious of the 30 metre drop which can produce a good dose of vertigo. And then, literally, back down to earth where we try and evaluate the problems and solutions for the environmental and development issues.
Kakum is very much part of Ghanaian culture – the idea of conserving and husbanding the country’s natural heritage is almost a century old. Even since the National Park was set up the rain forest has been eaten away by all sorts of threats, natural and manmade; visiting it and being part of it albeit for just 14 hours, gives the tourist a feel of these issues and he student a way of understanding the reality. And apart from all the noble and didactic reasons, it is also great fun. Since our visit, I gather that there has been a massive tripling of fees charged at the Kakum National Park. It would be a pity if greed or bad management ended up damaging the park’s educational vacation.
Ghana Culture Magazine Issue No. 3/2010