We start at nine after Pauline had the full English breakfast she insisted on – it is horribly late and the sun is already way up, but at least she won’t complain too much about the usual lack of lunch. While she was eating I had a chat with the gardener about cycling in Africa, and he ensured me that there is a new village and a new bridge on the way to Prince’s Town. As if I needed more contradictory information about today’s trip !
We head downtown along the old coastal road. That way there are less than five kilometres between Ankrobra Beach and the Axim fort. We stock up on water and juice, seven liters in total. I find a tailor’s roadside shop and asks him if he can fix my ripped pants, but he looks offended. Apparently some tailors feel above mending my disintegrating clothes.
To sum up the information gathered so far, consensus is that there is a river crossing mid-way, best case is that there is a bridge, worst case is that we have to ford bilharzia infested waters with not even a dugout in sight, median estimate is that a canoe crossing is possible. Anyway since the unknown obstacle is half way, even with no account of underway replenishment I will be able to return using onboard reserves alone provided I start with enough for the whole crossing.
On the way out of Axim, we ask for Prince’s Town. The people along the road advise us to ride up to Abora, but I soon understand that they are once again talking about the tro-tro way, not the direct one I’m looking for. In Africa, most people’s mental map is set by public transportation and forms a network of bus stops with no regard for physical geography. After some thoughts I realize that the same could be said for most people in Paris – they know metro stations but they have no idea about which way is less hilly of shorter by bicycle.
About one kilometer out of town is the turn-off to the Axim Beach hotel, and it is also the start of the road to Ajemra and Prince’s Town. A nice seamstress tries to dissuade us from this folly, but a local fellow cyclist mentions that it is perfectly doable including the canoe crossing. On that optimistic note, we set out toward the terra incognita.
The uphill parts of this backcountry road are almost the raw terrain profile. On one of them I have to resort to having Pauline dismount and push the rig along. But I was not the only one : a tro-tro going the same way as us had to let its passengers dismount and push uphill too !
By now you know my song about the heat, my 100 ml/km drinking habit and so on. On this stretch, I believe I regularly hit my cardiac ceiling – a sign that I should not be pushing that hard in that heat. Normally on long haul efforts I’m always limited by muscle exhaustion or lactic acid accumulation long before any sign of cardiac fatigue.
All that experience underlines how big the difference can be between dust piste and tarred road. Depending on their respective states, I believe there is an effort ratio of three to four between them. And with Pauline now exceeding 23 kilograms not including luggage and water, going uphill is no longer a trivial matter. In general, weight and hills are central consideration in bicycle tour planning – but this sort of experience is great incentive to give them even more consideration. Meanwhile, out efforts along that deserted stretch are rewarded with plenty of hornbills and other colourful birds that I did not recognize.
We talk to the guard of the Lou Moon lodge. He is much more precise than other people we spoke to. He explains to us that after a while before Ajeemra (halfway to Prince’s Town and therefore a handful of kilometres from where we were) the road ends. There are only footpaths beyond that, and a few stretches follow the sandy beach. I conclude that going further is not reasonable – at least not with what I am dragging along. So I head back six kilometres to the Axim-Agona road… We are going to push toward Agona, and at Abora wel’l make up our mind about whether we go down to Prince’s or push all the way to Takoradi to have more time in Elmina and Cape Coast.
Back on the tarred road, we take a leisurly pace – the going is easier but the heat is still there. We stop a couple of times to observe grasshoppers and butterflies. We also see a small green snake flee at our sight.
Riding on roads is easy and before we know it we arrive in Abora, at the fork to Prince’s Town. Takoradi is more than 40 kilometres away and Prince’s Town only 18. The dirt road is not all weather, but it looks freshly graded and this is not the rainy season. It is too inviting, especially after two failed attempts across other ways. I want to know what this now near-mythical place looks like, so I engage into the branching road.
Whereas the rest of the whole region looks like it is owned by Ghana Rubber Estates, the vegetation along the Prince’s Town road looks more interesting. We see a huge, maybe 150 cm long dark lizard with a white and red ringed tail cross the road twice before us. A sign notifies that we enter a globally significant biodiversity area, and we can believe it. I would love to come back there and walk around the landscape for more encounters with those interesting fauna and flora.
We see a couple of workers waiting on the roadside with a pile of isolator plates. They tell us that the thunderstorm two days ago damaged the only power line to Prince’s Town, but we might have electricity tonight as they ensure us that they are working hard to restore service.
Obviously it was all running too smoothly and some adventure was required. I had checked my rear tire pressure before entering the Prince’s Town road. I had added a few pumpfulls of air into it, but obviously not enough. So 160 kilograms of people, bikes and luggage hurtling downhill at 50 kilometres per hour on a rough patch of stones produced a perfectly formed classic snakebite like the ones that shredded my tubes back when as a kid I was enthusiastically brutalizing my mountain bikes with uses far in excess of their specifications. I broke open the carton of a replacement tube and discovered that the thick stem of the Presta valves mounted on my bike are slightly smaller than the Shrader valve of the new tube – yet another story that shows why going touring with hardware that you don’t yet know well enough is a bad idea. I’ll drill the rims wider when I’ll be back home : I like the big fat valve and its compatibility with the car infrastructure. But for now I carry three useless tubes. Good thing I also embarked a large load of puncture repair materials. So I take that opportunity to teach Pauline about the fine art of puncture repair, under the watchful eyes of locals eager to see how the obroni does it. Whatever you do in Africa, you always have an audience.
I like the road’s rural setting – low population density and lack of other tourists makes the world so much nicer. Arriving in Prince’s Town, someone hails us on the side of the road in a way different to the usual “obroni” calls. He reminds us about seeing him at Axim’s fort… He is none other than the fort’s caretaker and Prince’s Town is his hometown. He is happy that we visit his town too and confirms that there is accommodation available at the fort.
We end our 62 km ride as we enter a German fortified farm very far from Germany. The grey stones are much less colonial looking than the whitewash of other coastal forts. The inner yard is a well kept grass, with banana and papaya trees that betray the exotic location. Climbing the stairs to the perimeter walls reveals a stunning view over the whole bay, including the laguna and Cape Three Points, Ghana’s southernmost tip.
The fort’s population is a whole other lot of surprises. The fort’s caretaker has apparently made arrangements with a whole retinue of village touts, some of them cooking, washing or running errands for an overlander Land Rover full of Germans that arrived before us. Others were apparently friends of the Germans, others were the caretaker and his staff, and yet others had wholly unguessable roles – but the hanger-on are standard in an African setting, especially when tourists are around.
The line may be under repair, but the repair crew’s estimate was a bit on the optimistic side : power it is still cut tonight. Night has fallen and the only lights downtown are a few petrol lamps. We fill ourselves to the gills with a huge plate of rice and fish – a necessary thing, even though Pauline does no notice that is has been days since the last time we had lunch. We sit under even more stars than yesterday and only the faint halo of Axim of the horizon. For a tiny town like Axim to produce a halo, you can imagine how dark the surroundings are. On the ramparts, a dozen of us remain, European and Ghanaian. For washing myself, I lifted a bucket from the fort’s cistern, probably like the original occupants of the fort did four hundred years ago. Tonight we’ll sleep on a mattress on the ramparts, under our mosquito nets – the ocean wind is the best air conditioning. Apart from the plastic plates and the odd flashlight, we could as well be seventeenth century German soldiers right after the construction of the fort.
Some guy gives me a small tour of the fort. He insists that the prison could contain up to 7000 people… I roughly measure length and width, get an approximate surface of 72 square meters, posit that each of them can hold ten people as a theoretical maximum and come up with an estimate of 720 people as the most anyone could imagine stuffing in this place. Was his gross overshoot an honest mistake, or is someone having too much fun making the hapless black Americans cry ? For now, the only guests of the prison are a few tiny bats.
Artist-friend-musician-touts of all trades of course end the evening in a drumming session with the beer swilling German guys in the courtyard. Screw them ! I had escaped their ilk up to now, but in tourist spots all over Africa it is only a question of time before you have to confront them. I must confess having once shopped for jembe materials around Ouagadougou and gotten them assembled for me by local artists, and that was a fun experience. But generic pseudo-traditional cultural activities served in tourist locations are too much for me.
Meanwhile, Pauline is very happy : she has fun with whoever she can grab – usually the first African girl available, but anyone else will do. She is disturbed that I set up the lent mattress (a rather clean one for once), the sheet sacks and the mosquito nets outside – but she’ll get used to it. Waking up at night under the starry dome with fully adapted vision more than makes up for the rough setup !