Ghana doesn’t have quite as diverse range of large mammals compared to some other African Safari hot spots but it is home to lots of national parks which offer a certain amount of refuge to a wide range of wildlife. Out of these, Mole Reserve is the biggest – and with the prospect of spotting wild elephants – probably the most exciting. We had a long and exhausting day of loading the bike and luggage in and out of a series of tro tros and taxis to cover the 380km we needed to reach Larababga (the town on the edge of the park). We had seen barely any other tourists in our first 10 days in Ghana and now we understood why – they were all here in Mole!
We cycled into the park the next morning early and discovered it offers jeep and walking trips at a fraction of the price to other Safari experiences (a two hour jeep safari costing us just £8 each.) The motel, at £48 per night, sits on the edge of a ridge looking down across a large section of open savannah and two watering holes. And despite the hour long wait for food was luxurious compared to the other places Paddy and I had been staying in so far. I can’t see us spending thousands of pounds on a Safari experience in the future so this was a good compromise! Unfortunately we hadn’t booked the Motel in advance so could only get our second night there. This meant camping in the rather deserted camp site where all the baboons hangout after dark. Slightly surreal but actually quite a fun experience, (despite my mild irrational panic in the night about hungry leopards coming across the tent!)
Our time at Mole was great fun. We took two Safaris out into the park and saw elephants on both trips as well as warthogs, ground hornbills, patas monkeys, Hartebeest and lots and lots of Kobs. The rest of the time was spent lounging on the terrace with beer and binoculars in hand looking out across the park where we could watch elephant bathing, crocodiles creeping and palm nut vultures soaring. We had scorching weather and the motel pool was a good place to cool off ourselves. The first part of the holiday has involved quite a bit of roughing it and pedalling quite hard so we thought we deserved a bit of comfort and rest. Pictures below!
We had reached the Kwahu Plateau and all there was left to do was to climb to the top. Despite it being late in the day we knew the climb wouldn’t be too difficult and we could easily reach Kwahu Tafo town before sunset.
This stretch ended up being a really spectacular cycle with the ridge edging upwards in step formation on our left hand side and from the road we could see flat savannah landscapes suddenly giving way to sheer rock faces dropping for hundreds of metres. The road twisted around Bruku Rock Pillar Shrine which sticks up out of the landscape and is believed to home a powerful god who protects the surrounding area. As we climbed we also enjoyed some lovely views of the river too.
The plateau itself is 250km across, has a max altitude of 725m and offered a welcome change from the relatively flat Aftan plains. We ended up staying in the hotel which the local Chief owns. There had obviously been a significant royal death celebration as the whole place was decorated with the funeral colours red and black. A local gent called Winston befriended us as we headed out for food and accompanied us around the town as we chatted about what it was like to live in Ghana. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of fufu which was very spicy and then fell into bed.
We woke to an extremely misty morning which obviously had no intention of lifting. This was a real shame as we had plans to visit a canopy walkway in Odo. By the time we reached the town the mist had slightly lifted and over a second breakfast we decided to go for it. The experience was well worth it even though we couldn’t see a huge amount. Just watching each other walk the route was comedy gold. According to the guidebook, the wooden walkways have been built to European safety standards but we can only presume the writer hasn’t lived in Europe for a good 25 years. As well as loose screws and rotting wood the mist had made the whole thing a slippery nightmare and we regularly found ourselves clinging onto the sides for support.
Relieved when we reached the bottom again we jumped back on the bike and enjoyed the long stretch of down through a rich forest to reach the bustling major town of Nkawkaw – here we were finally able to get more cash – a big relief as we had about £4 left! Nkawkaw is a lovely town with the end of the ridge suddenly dropping to create a giant wall around the town on one side.
From here we needed to pick up a local tro tro heading west so we could reach our planned destination – Bobiri butterfly sanctuary – that evening. A nice Policeman helped us call down a van and with no hassle the bike (verticals style!) and the bags are tied onto the back and off we go. The tro tro takes us a good 80km down the N6 towards Kumasi where we get dropped off in Kubese. The sanctuary is well signposted and although a bit slippery in places with mud we reach the heart of the reserve in 30 minutes. True to it’s name we see a lot of butterflies even though it’s not really the season for them. The guesthouse sits in a clearing surrounded by beautiful blooming shrubs, roses and flowers. Beyond, the thick forest branches out in every direction. It’s idyllic and for £8 a night and the only guests there we feel we have really lucked out. Founded in 1942 by the British, the butterfly sanctuary has been managing this local area of forest ever since. Remnants of the old British style architecture can be found in the wooden library house and adjoining terrace (sun downers anyone?!). Here we cook and eat dinner browsing the ecology books from the shelves. We sleep very well and enjoy following ‘The Three Sisters’ trail the next day through the forest before jumping back on the bike and cycling back along the track.
We now had a day to explore some Ashanti culture before our long public transport haul to get north to Mole National Park the next day. The Ashanti originally migrated from the north and settled in central Ghana many centuries ago. They conquered a lot of land and integrated many tribes into their fold over the course of the years. Six states were joined together to make a confederacy in the 17th century under the first Asantehene who ruled under the ‘Golden Stool’. (Chiefs are elected by a group of elders and can be de-stooled if they prove not to be incapable of the position.) More wars and conquering followed with the zenith if the fighting taking place against the British.
First up were a couple of 19th century fetish shrine houses. Both with an internal courtyard and four stages on the surrounding walls for observers, musicians, singers and the preparing of special meals, these buildings were where the community would carry out rituals so as to communicate (indirectly) with Nyame, their supreme God. The communication was done via a number of lesser gods known as abosom. Elements of these lesser gods such as water and clay from a sacred river and certain herbs or plants would be collected and mashed together in a pan. The special priest/mediator known as the Obsomfo would then perform certain abisa (ceremonies) which may include certain sacrifices and often involved dances known as akom which were accompanied by skilled musicians and singers. These rituals would allow the Obsomfo to offer advice to petitioners or look into the future. These priests were the Chief’s special advisors and right hand man.
After the shrines, the afternoon was then spent visiting some Kente cloth production villages. Of all the crafts associated with Ghana, Kente weaving is probably the most recognisable – the intricately woven and richly colourful geometric designs are hard to miss!
Woven into long strips, each design has a meaning behind it – these strips are then combined to create unique cloths with their own symbology. Special designs are used for certain ceremonies or people. When Obama visited Ghana a unique Kente creation was created for him representing his character, politics and ethos from many different traditional strips. The company we visited said they were debating whether to create one for Trump when he visits! Originally Kente was reserved for Chiefs and immediate family and it can come in both silk and cotton. After the tour, naturally we bought one which took a while to choose but we ended up going for this creation which apparently means ‘Learning to respect differences and be together as one’ as it is created using 12 individual strips which represent things like ‘the road is long and hard’ and ‘step by step’.
We spend a bit too long in the cloth shop and are then caught out by a rainstorm but we do finally manage to meet up with the main north to south road ready for the public transport adventure the next day.
We had a lovely rest of the cycle from Anddo to meet back up with the road, passing through many villages along the way. We have both commented on how nice it is to be back on the bike and we are enjoying the continuous eating – chomping on fried plantain chips and the delicious fruit and baked goods from the many stands we pass. The mangos here are to die for and the pineapple which is much whiter than the stuff you get at home tastes almost like a different fruit here. Naturally the bike is getting a fair amount of attention and we are regularly greeted with a loud ‘Ayyyyy!’. (If anyone has watched Happy Days it’s exactly like The Fonze’s exclaim when he sees something unusual.) we are getting a lot of stares but as soon as we wave or smile we get a merry wave back and a call of ‘You’re Welcome’.
Another pleasant surprise has been the noticeable lack of dogs – something I have been very happy about as it normally falls to me to be first line of defence when they begin to give chase. Most people speak at least some words of English and the majority of people we have spoken to are fluent. This means we can really communicate well, ask lots of questions and minimise misunderstandings which has been really nice. So all things considered, so far, Ghana is turning out to be a very relaxed country to cycle in!
We have discovered the rainy season here isn’t equivalent to the monsoon season in parts of Asia and we really have had barely any rain at all. Showers tend to be sharp and short at around lunch time or at night so we have largely been able to shelter from them. It is very humid however and we have had to be careful of the mozzies after dark. The rains have meant that everything is very green and luscious and we have enjoyed seeing some of the amazing flowers many of which look like weird alien beings.
Despite the unpaved roads and rolling landscape we made really good headway and by 10am had decided to set ourselves the ambitious task of getting to the highest town in Ghana that evening – still a good 55km with the last 12km being a very serious 6% climb. Now that we had a feel for the smaller roads we again carved out a rural route which avoided the large town of Ho. We eat lunch at a large junction and have an opportunity to sample our first taste of cassava which is a root based plant used extensively across Ghana to make a sticky dough. It is pummelled a lot using long bamboo sticks until you get the right consistency.
Fufu and Banku seem the most popular dishes so we ordered one of each. They are both soup based – a large slab of cassava dough is placed in your bowl and a rich meat, spicey broth is poured in with some meat pieces added to the side. Eaten with your right hand (you get told off for using your left!) you use your index and middle fingers to snip pieces of the dough off and you can slurp the liquid from the bowl as you go. It’s a weird sensation eating with your hand at first but you soon get used to it and a handy jug of water and a bowl is placed on the table for you. We both agreed that fufu was a better option – banku dough has a tangy, sourness to it which we both found hard to like.
By 4.30pm we had done a major part of the climb and were turning onto the road leading up to the highest town in Ghana – Amadzofe. The mountain was completely shrouded in mist and we were soon totally engulfed in it as we made slow (but steady) progress up the track. With jungle on either side and the mist and darkness pressing in on us it was quite a surreal hour of cycling. Slowly we see some street lights appear through the gloom. We have 500m to go to the guesthouse when there is a huge clap of thunder and the heavens open. I have never seen rain like it! We have difficulty finding the guesthouse and get completely drenched in search of it. Thankfully we have credit on our local sim to call the guy who is able to give us directions. All we could think was thank goodness we weren’t still climbing! We finally stagger in from the storm looking like drowned rats to discover all the power is off but greeted by a friendly lady who shows us our room and a kitchen we can cook in. The power returns after a while and within an hour we are both showered, clothes washed and cooking veg curry with a beer in hand listening to the storm raging outside. = happy Annie and Paddy!
The next day we planned to rest and explore Amadzofe. We wake to discover the storm is over and that the view from the guesthouse offer an incredible outlookut across the mountains. Once the mist has cleared we can even make out lake Volta in the distance! After breakfast a guide takes us down to the local waterfall which involved a slippery scramble down through the forest with the aid of a rope. We then climb the mountain peak – Mount Gemi – on the other side of the village which boasts great panoramic views across the mountains. The afternoon is spent stocking up our supplies in the local market and planning our route, which we hadn’t really considered until now.
The next morning we got going early as we needed to cover 40km and get to Kpandu where we hoped we could get a boat across lake Volta so we could start heading west again. While eating our breakfast we spot two toucans perching on the tree ahead while two vultures sour overhead.
We decided to take the longer but main route out of Amadzofe which was a good idea I think as we had an excellent paved surface for most of the cycle. It’s Sunday and we pass a lot of church services with live music making. Everyone is in their Sunday best and some of the outfits are really beautiful. We reached the lake by 10.30 and are told we could wait four hours for the two hour ferry crossing or pay 150 cedi (£24) for a private boat immediately which would take about 30 minutes. Even though we already felt a million miles away from our jobs back home we reminded ourselves that we were not on our £25 per day budget anymore so we opted for the private boat. 🙂
We got very wet on the crossing over but as promised, half an hour later we were pushing the bike up the beach on the other side. We now had a 100km cycle across the Afram Plains to reach Ekye-Amanfrom where we could take another river ferry crossing to reach the Kumeau Plateau east of Kumasi. According to our guidebook, the Afram Plains are one of the most unvisited areas of Ghana by tourists and there wasn’t much info about the route. There’s not much to see here in terms of ‘sites’ and we didn’t plan to stop much along the way but we were looking forward to cycling this part of the country. The plains were once an important area for Cocoa plantations but since the damming of lake Volta, which consequently affected the local climate, the crops failed leaving the people here with very few other economy driving alternatives.
We stop at the bustling town of Dolkonogram where we feast on a delicious take out of rice and chicken. A rain storm rolls in while we’re eating so we sit it out for 40 minutes before getting on the road again. We stop over at another village that night and again ask the Chief if we can camp nearby. Again, the villagers are very generous and accommodating and offer us a spare room in the old Chief’s house to sleep (although we end up sleeping outside as the room is stiflingly warm). The next morning we hit paved road for a good 20km and easily reached the ferry by 12 noon. We see a lot of wildlife including a big dead snake on the road and a HUGE black scorpion crossing our path! We have a bit of a wait at the ferry where Paddy replaces our worn out gear cables.
The next morning we packed up the bike and headed to the big supermarket on Oxford Street. We just didn’t have time to do the rounds of one of the markets again. I felt guilty about this as we should be trying to support the small local businesses but convenience won this time. There was a lot of western branded products and we were able to buy a lot of our normal staples which made us feel like we were back in our cycle touring groove. We were on the road by 11.30am following the heavy traffic out of the city which seemed to sprawl out of the city centre for miles in every direction – each district was bustling. It took us a good 90 minutes to reach even the quieter suburbs where we decided to stop at a small ‘chop shop’ (food kiosk) and was served spicy noodles, Jollof rice (rice with beans) and fried chicken with tasty spices chutney and avocado paste.
The weather, although humid, isn’t stifling and it remains cloudy all day with no sign of rain at all. Pretty perfect for cycling really. We were headed for Aburi which would act as our entrance into the mountainous eastern Volta region sandwiched between lake Volta and the border into Togo. We had a mixture of paved and unpaved roads and this gave us a feel for the traffic and the drivers who we agreed are pretty good compared to lots of other countries we have visited. We saw lots of careful and considerate driving with no crazy overtaking and this, along with a decent hard shoulder in some areas, made us feel very comfortable on the busier roads. We had some decent climbs to ease us back into our first day!
Our general route was to cycle through the ashongmon district of Accra and meet back up with the main road at Kunkunu before the final climb up to Aburi. Just before the town we did a quick stop at Rita Marley’s house (Bob Marley’s wife) who has traced back Bob’s ancestry to Ghana. She now lives here, and set up the charitable Rita Marley foundation.
We reached Aburi town centre at about 5pm and we’re glad of the cooler temperatures up here after the climb. We decided to head straight to the botanical gardens and paid our 20 cedi entrance fee hoping that we could camp in the gardens overnight. We headed to the guest house which sits in the middle of the park and got chatting to the proprietor. After assuring him we’d be leaving in the morning and after considering his position he decided it was ok to let us pitch our tent in the gardens. We enjoyed some good grub in the restaurant next door and then pitched up in the dark. Neither of us slept amazingly well that night – a combination of getting used to the tent again and the various bird calls during the night some of which were pretty spectacularly strange! We both did a lot of tossing and turning. A light rain fell just before dawn and we crawled out of the tent at 6.30am to be greeted by a very mystical scene. After a breakfast of fried egg rolls we packed up and cycled out of the park.
Our second day would see us continue to head north towards Akropong and reach Kpong on the Volta. We had a lovely stretch of road for the first 30 miles most of which was downhill. We were soon zooming down into the tropical, multi-storey forests of the region and with every metre we felt the humidity rise again. At the bottom we encountered our first police check point where a few officers are checking vehicles and we see a couple of the drivers performed some very smooth ‘handshakes’ before being waved on.
We had quite a bit of sun as we headed towards Senchi and took some smaller road routes which gave us our first insights into the rural communities in Ghana. Most of the villages have a central square with a bore hole water pump. The houses, most of which are simple dwellings either with corregated or palm leaf roofs, surround this on both sides of the road. Lots of beautiful gnarled trees provide shade and without fail there is always a football pitch somewhere! All the villages we have visited have electricity but a lot are without toilet blocks.
Christianity is big in Ghana and the various church secs are all obviously present – Adventist, Pentecost, Latter Day Saints etc. Even a small village can have a number of church buildings. We can’t help but notice the huge billboards advertising big prayer meetings with famous national and international prophets and it makes you realise what a big network it all is. It is also the norm for families to design and display large posters detailing funeral arrangements for deceased relatives. These are often title ‘Hail to Glory’ or ‘Home Coming Celebrations’ and are clearly large events and respected members of the community might also have funeral anniversaries. We are skeptical about some of the ages detailed on these posters – the oldest has been 125 years!
Most people we meet here, if we chat to them for long enough, will ask us if we are Christian and are keen to explain they are a man of god and not wanting to generalise too much, we have noticed that ‘God’s help’ is most associated with financial success. It is very common for people to name their businesses after things from the bible – my favourites so far have been: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd Fast Food’, ‘Trust in God Electronic Works’ and ‘Jesus Will Rise Again cold store’.
Having said all this we have noticed a number of mosques so there must be a decent number of Muslims here too – we know that parts of the north such as the third largest city Tamale are predominantly Muslim.
As well as religion it’s obvious that music is a hugely important part of life here. It’s unusual to cycle through a town or village without hearing some live music – be it djembe drumming, brass bands or choral singing. Music plays a big part of prayer meetings and loud music gets played in markets and high streets everywhere.
As the day progressed the countryside got more and more lush with plenty of banana trees, palms, mango groves and long grass. From the bike we had our first glimpses of some of Ghana’s famed bird and butterfly life. The colours on them are so amazingly bright!
We had more rural detours before lunch after which we met back up with the road. There has been a decent number of sunny spells and we have had to be careful to apply factor 50 as we have realised how quickly you burn when this close to the equator. The sun has allowed us to get out our new solar panel however which is very exciting! We reach the famous Adomi bridge and cross the Volta by 3pm. Just as we are posing for photos on the bridge with two locals our first big rain storm rolls in and boy does it bucket down. We shelter in a very convenient roadside bar just after the bridge and after about 35 minutes the rain thankfully stops just as quickly as it began. We jump back on the bike and carry on towards Juapong where we stock up on water before turning into a much smaller dirt road. We had about 2 hours of light left and the plan was to get to one of the villages a short way in and ask if we could set up camp nearby.
After 30 or so minutes of cycling we come to the small village of Anddo. We knew it was important for us to find the village Chief and ask his permission to sleep here so I stayed with the bike while Paddy went in search of him. While he was gone I noticed lots of small faces popping out from behind walls and doors. They got closer and closer until finally one of them was brave enough to cross the road and come closer to me and the bike. There was a lot of giggling, running away and then slowly creeping back closer. Eventually I was surrounded and I dared one of them to come and ‘high five’ me which caused much hilarity.
The ice broken, we chatted away until Paddy got back with a thumbs up from the Chief who was very nice and had a pet monkey tied up outside his house. We were offered the church to sleep in and so we unpacked and got cooking with many onlookers. The night turned into an amazing display of singing and dancing performed by the young people of the village accompanied by a band of drummers and percussionists in the church. A lot of the adults came in to watch too and it was a really joyful experience. We were even encouraged to join in on some of the dancing which everyone thought was hugely comical mainly because I think Paddy and I looked more like we were trying to impersonate a chicken! There is a definite finesse and art to African dancing which we certainly didn’t master!!
We learned more about he village which was founded by the current chief and a few of his followers in 1984 after he had a vision from God. We slept very well that night and woke early with the rest of the village. Not wanting to overstay our welcome we packed up and got going deciding to have breakfast on the road. Onwards to Amedzofe.
We landed in Accra slightly behind schedule but otherwise in good spirits. We experienced some fruity turbulence as we passed through a heavy band of thunder and lightening when crossing into northern Ghana – proof of some of the hostile weather conditions we could face! There was a lot of genuine screaming from passengers which was thankfully short lived. I always enjoy following the flight route map on long haul flights and the weather was clear enough to look down and enjoy the changing topographies – I was especially glued when we crossed over Algeria and flew right across the Sahara desert – what an incredible landscape it is. The flight path was almost a straight line down and this is also reflected in the fact that we only had to put our clocks back one hour despite being in the air for 6. In fact the Greenwich meridian line passes through Ghana.
Stepping off the plane we were greeted with the humidity for the first time – it wasn’t as engulfing as I thought it might be. We were greeted with a 2 hour passport control queue before finally being reunited with all our bags and bike box (phew!). Despite the delays the friendly hotel owner Margaret and a guy called clement were waiting for us outside the airport to transfer us to our final destination.
After checking in, despite the time, were keen to stretch our legs and start getting our bearings so we strolled out towards ‘Oxford Street’. We can hear and smell the crashing waves of the sea nearby. It is very quiet with most of the shops and bars closing up for the night but we did find a street corner bar where we were able to taste our first local beer – Club.
English is the official language of Ghana and this, along with the familiar street names, are indications of its British ‘Gold Coast’ colonial past. Ghana as we know it today certainly didn’t exist before the nineteenth century with the northern and central regions annexed in 1902 and the eastern Volta regions ‘passing’ to the Brits from German Togoland in the League of Nations after World War 1. The country was the first colonised country to gain independence which they did in 1957 but the country only had their first legitimate election win (e.g. without a coup taking place) in 2000.
We spent the morning setting up the bike which always takes longer than we think. But once we had him all ready we had the afternoon to explore the city. We head down to the coast and the old town of Jamestown. Here we find the two remaining buildings of the city’s colonial past – the fort and Jamestown Lighthouse. There’s lots of people living right on the beach and we pass an industrious very smelly fish smoking factory.
It’s fun meandering through the small streets on the tandem again. Janestown is bustling with people going about their business. We see a tiny lady steering a huge pot of porridge on a charcoal stove pounding it with what can only be described as a huge oar shaped wooden utensil. We have to try not to stare (in complete awe) at the head carrying skills of the women on the street. No rain today which was great and during the afternoon the sun even came out and Paddy got burnt in 10 minutes.
Our first impressions of Accra is that is a very chilled for a capital city. People are very friendly. The weather is humid but the sea provides a fresh breeze most of the day which makes the city feel a lot more comfortable. A lot of the houses and market stalls are homemade and there is an organised chaos to the place which is quite captivating. All children over 4 go to school as we noticed their absence until 4pm when they all suddenly appear in their smart uniforms and greet us with ‘how are you?!’. English is spoken widely but we also hear a lot of local dialects and languages too. We get a lot of calls of ‘white lady’ and ‘white man’ from market traders!
We are getting to grips with the local currency (cedi) and sample a few of the snacks from the market. These are tiger nuts which are dried slightly and eaten whole or ground to make a very sweet, coconut/almond milk. The husks are apparently good for diabetes and high colestoral and locally are said to be a strong aphrodisiac! There is also lots of baked plantain, dried fish and fried yam snacks as well as mangos and pineapples and of course amazing cloth everywhere you look.
After a lunch of rice, fried fish and plantain chips we head off to find a Ghanaian flag to display on our travels. We meet some lovely guys at a more touristy market who are keen to have a go on the tandem. Mouhammad also gives us a lesson on the kashaka – a small handheld percussion instrument.
So it was time to set off again – almost to the day that we arrived back in the UK on the tandem. We are both hugely excited about cycling in Africa and we hope Ghana will be a good introduction to a brand new continent for us!
Now we are back in the real world after our long trip we could only spare 18 days, but we were keen to explore as much of the country as we can in that time. No route planned yet, we will see how we get on with the conditions, which promise to be extremely hot and humid with a decent amount of rain and a lot of unpaved road ahead.
It was slightly surreal preparing all the gear again – annoyingly (but not surprisingly for us) quite a few bits and pieces have gone missing. Amazing that we were able to travel through 26 countries without losing hardly anything but as soon as we move into a house our carefully constructed, finely tuned, touring system completely collapses.The biggest loss has been our red pen knife (Dirk) which has been with us since Cambodia after a fellow traveller gifted it to us. We’ve also lost our steripen – another bit of kit which would have been really useful in Ghana. We’ll now be forced to buy and drink mostly bottled water (our life straw gravity filter and water purification tablets acting as emergency back up.)
The rest of the gear remains in tact – a re-waterproofing and re-seaming session on the tent and rain gear should keep us dry in the inevitable downpours and we’ve replenished our spare parts box and given a full service to the Optimus stove. We’ve made a few small upgrades too, largely in the form or a solar panel charger instead of a battery pack. We’ll see how this goes.
We fly from Heathrow direct to Accra with BA. No custom bike box this time – experience now tells us that the bike is pretty solid. We have simply dismantled it (to get it down to the 190cm length limit) and wrapped it in a lot of cardboard and gaffa tape before slinging it in the back of our van along with the other five bags of luggage we’re allowed. We travelled up from Cornwall late last night to give us plenty of time at the airport. We slept in the van in one of the suburb villages nearby and have had plenty of time to clear everything through the oversized baggage department. We have time for two well deserved beers.
By the afternoon we had followed the coast road back out towards the Atlantic, cycling through Ahakista and passing the stone square towers that dot the coast here. We reach Kilchrohane by 3ish where we had made plans to visit Eleanor – a distant relative of Paddy’s dad who still resides in the house that Paddy’s grandmother was born and grew up. Paddy’s dad has fond memories of summer holiday spent in Kilrohane so we were both keen to visit the house and surrounding area.
Eleanor was waiting with her sister and niece for us to arrive and had prepared an amazing array of cakes and scones to have with our tea – it was great to meet them and hear more about the family and the house. After feasting on all the delicious baked goodies and a quick tour of the bike we said our goodbyes and set off to find a camping spot along the coast. We didn’t need to go far – finding a small track to the left of the main road which led us down to a shingle beach on the pretty inlet south of Khilchrohane itself. We tried to make friends with the aloof alpacas before setting up the tent.
The next morning we set off early and not having time to cycle the full circumference of the long peninsular we head inland towards the steep mountain road known locally as ‘The Goats’ Pass’. Tough but short lived we manage to reach the top and stand a while enjoying the panoramic views while Paddy tells me tales of Fin McCool the giant and his mystical dog… Down we go to the other side and within two hours we have reached the bustling market town of Bantry where a food and craft market is in full swing with musicians playing in the streets and car boot stalls set up all along one side of the square.
After Bantry we had our first major climb to look forward to which would see us cross into Kerry over the Caha Pass – the road which twists and turns up through the green craggy mountains of the Beara peninsula.
The rain stayed away for the climb for which we were grateful and we enjoyed gaining some height and passing through the woodlands to the craggy tops above. Yellow and green flags are displayed outside almost every house. These are the chequered colours of Kerry’s Famous Gaelic football team. We also saw a sign for an opportunity offered for tourists to adopt a sheep (?!) and this prompted Paddy to explain the other well known Kerry talent – their ingenuity and lengths taken when it comes to fleecing American tourists… (excuse the pun!)
We cycled through the famed tunnels at the top of the pass and soon reach Kenmare which marks the ‘ring of Kerry’ the most trodden tourist route in Ireland. This famous loop will have to wait for another year as we had no plans to cycle it, instead wanting to reach the west coast in this last week. From here we have another 10km climb to Molls gap – which sees us reach the famed Kilarney lakes. By now the weather has rolled in and we look out on a misty landscape below. Caraun Toohil – tallest mountain in Ireland is here too.
We contemplate whether the weather at the bottom will be any better but with a stunning view at Ladies View overlooking down towards Mc Gillicuddy reeks (mountain range) we decide to make a very gnarled, twisted old oak tree our home for dinner and we can decide about camping … It’s overhanging mossy branches provide a pretty good umbrella from the misty rain And it’s not until the proper rain really arrives that we start to regret not putting the tent up straight away. We are now forced to erect it in full wet weather which is never fun. In the tent Paddy delves into Irish folklore once again with more stories involving Fiin McCool such as the Salmon of Knowledge tale.
The old oak sheltered us well all night but we woke to more rain and decided to pack up and reach lower ground before attempting breakfast.
Before long we had reached Mill town – where P’s grandfather, the original Paddy Cronin, was born. We set up a mini camp on a big grassy park section of the Main Street and used the time to dry our very damp tent.
While Paddy was cooking a full fry up I went to get water and unfortunately was met by a very unfriendly pub owner who proceeded to passive aggressively tell me it was extremely presumptuous and rude of me to come and ask for 4 litres of tap water ‘for free’ – didn’t I know the cost of water in Ireland now?? I found the whole thing ironic largely because Irish citizens did for a time start paying for their water but the policy was so unpopular that the government rescinded it a year ago and made it free again!! I wanted to tell him he was the first person ever in 25 counties to refuse us a refill, and ask him what that said about him, but I ended up politely excusing myself instead and the next pub filled them up no questions asked.
We were met by two huge herons when we unloaded the bike on the quayside at Schull – they were gorging on fish and squid cuts from the fishing boats. The seagulls weren’t getting a look in.
It was turning out to be the sunny day that our crystal clear morning had promised and I couldn’t have asked for better weather for my first introduction to Schull – the seaside town which Paddy grew up in until he was seven. With its curved, sweeping harbour and many yachts moored in neat rows, bustling peer with the small scale fish factory still in business and the main shopping street populated with locally owned shops, Schull struck me as a lovely little town.
We visited Paddy’s old house and then went to call on Mary his old babysitter who was more than surprised to see us I think!
My lasting impression of Schull was that it must have been a very happy place for a seven year old to grow up in – particularly one who couldn’t be more addicted to the sea if he tried – i kept thinking (and hoping) that our planned new start in Cornwall at the end of the trip might hold in store a similar life.
The weather remained amazingly good for the rest of the day. This was fortunate, because we had some stunning coastline views awaiting us as we continued south towards Mizen head. With the picturesque Long Island straddling the mainland and the vast, piercingly-blue Atlantic Ocean stretching out beyond, we didn’t make great progress because of all the stops we kept taking. The way was pretty up and down but we were so eager to get to the peaks to enjoy the panoramic views we at least made good progress on the climbs.
In the afternoon we linked back up to the main road which brought us right back next to the coast again. We stop next to the Altar Wedge Tomb – an old Bronze Age burial chamber – and thoroughly enjoy a leisurely picnic of smoked mackerel salad and bread. We spend a good hour sunbathing, listening to the waves lap the rocks below and the sound of excited German tourists exploring the rock pools. After some time a lovely Irish lady and her dog ‘Lucky’ sit down next to us and starts chatting away about the bike.
The aim was to reach the famous Barley Cove beach by late-afternoon so we climb back on the bike and make our way down and along the road which skirts the fortified natural harbour of Crookhaven. The beach is still busy and we can’t resist running into the sea for our second swim of the day. As the beach empties we pull out the bottle we had been storing in the pannier since Schull and get set up on the sand dunes above the beach. We watch the tide slowly engulf the sandy beach as we sip our mugs of wine waiting for the pasta to come to the boil. It takes a while to find a suitable camping spot and it’s pretty late before we begin to pitch the tent in the semi-darkness. We hear a cry of greeting from the road as we’re locking the tent poles together and Paddy goes to investigate.
Helen who had seen our parked bike on the beach earlier had cycled all the way up the hill from her camping ground below to offer us a bed in her caravan for the night. Overcome by this kindness we gladly accept and hurriedly pack up before following her back down the hill. We spend a very comfortable night in Helen’s caravan and even get treated to fried eggs, bacon, and black pudding in the morning. Word soon gets round that we are travelling by bike and we enjoy meeting many of Helen’s camping neighbours over a leisurely morning.
Helen’s niece was in fact cycling in Tajikistan with a friend so it was great to hear about their recent travels as well as Helen’s own hitchhiking and cycle adventures!
With plans to meet Helen and her sister in Durras for lunch and wanting to visit the famed lighthouse at Mizen head beforehand we decided it was time to get going. It was a pretty tough climb up to Mizen point but we had a really enjoyable hour exploring the lighthouse and the views along the coast were spectacular. There was a good exhibition on the construction of the lighthouse and we were delighted to discover that the entire structure was made of beautifully interlocking stones all carved at the turn of the 20th century in Penryn, Cornwall – very close to where we are soon to move!
We hang over the rail and watch a family of seals playing in the swell before giving the Fastnet rock one final glance before heading back down and onwards North to the next peninsular.
We have an amazing cycle towards Durrus as we head inland and with the wind pushing us along we’re only 45 mins late for Helen!
After lunch we make our down the south coast of the Sheep’s head peninsular towards Kilcohane. The peninsular is famous for its walking routes, ring forts and towers. It was now time to delve even further back into Paddy’s past and visit the house his great grandmother was born…
We said our goodbyes to Ger and Christine and set off on a wet morning to continue our journey south. We reach a town called Kinsale in time for lunch – Paddy has fond memories of sailing here including competing in lots of races. A gap in the rain allows us enough time to have lunch on the quayside where we repeatedly have to scare away a persistent seagull who is intent on stealing what he can of our sandwiches.
From Kinsale we keep to the coast and reach Timoleague beach – another childhood haunt of P’s.
The plan was to reach Clonakilty by late afternoon where we would be meeting up with lads Noel, Paul and Shane. The last time we saw these guys was in a hostel in Dushanbe, Tajikistan where we spent a great evening swapping stories and beers having crossed paths – us heading west to Uzbekistan on the bike and them east towards the Pamirs in their 1.2l Nissan Micra – part of the mass organised Mongul Rally challenge. We reach Clonakilty which, is a really lovely town, in plenty of time and so decide to cycle down to the nearby Inchydoney beach which is a stunning sandy paradise. The headland used to be an island before the British built a causeway which over time has silted up. After a nice stroll on the beach Paul picked us up in his van from a nearby supermarket and the lads were waiting for us with a pile of amazing food and the barbecue already smoking. It was an amazing evening – slightly surreal – but great to follow up on our hurried promises of meeting back up in Ireland.
The next day was a classic Irish ‘soft day’ and it was all a little miserable and damp. Not cold though and we kept our spirits up as we made our way down to a lovely coastal hamlet called Glandore. The kids sailing club was in full swing in the sheltered harbour when we arrived and we stopped for a cuppa and a scone while we watched them all whizzing about in their dinghies. On our way out we stopped at the local church where there were lots of info boards containing snippets of local history including one about the mythological goddess Cliona who had three brightly coloured birds who would lull the listener into a healing sleep. She was drowned in Glandore harbour after falling into one of the three magical waves of Ireland. – Irish mythology is so epic!!
There were some horribly stiff climbs waiting for us after Glandore and we spent a hard hour grinding up them sweating into our rain jackets. It’s incredibly rolling here and we were beginning to miss the Italian Alps!
If you ever spend any time in west Cork you won’t be able to ignore the red fuschia plants which adorn the hedge rows in the whole region. The plant isn’t native to Ireland being originally from Chile I think but the delicate, dangling red flowers are so ubiquitous that they have become the official symbol of west Cork.
By mid afternoon we’ve completed the rolling hill section and the rain has all but stopped as we free-wheel down into Baltimore. Here we take the small passenger ferry over to the island of Cape Clear. We get loaded on along with all the packages, post and other passengers and head out through the misty and rain towards it. We couldn’t see much and when we arrive into the small harbour a new weather front rolls in. Nevertheless we decide to take a bracing walk around the island and end up climbing the steep hill in the centre and hiking across the fields along an old foot path to where the church stands at the top. Soaked, we stomp back to the harbour by which time the rain has stopped and the clouds are beginning to part.
We cook our pasta on the quayside next to the village shop and get chatting to some of the local kids who are jumping into the water from the jetty. We’ve heard quite a bit of Irish being spoken here which is great to hear. After dinner we head over to one of the two island’s pubs for some Guniness before cycling round to the other harbour to hopefully find a free camp spot. There’s a convenient patch of flat ground right next to the water and despite the ‘No Camping’ sign and the island’s only official campsite staring down at us from the other side of the bay we pitch up our tent on the grass behind some handy rocks. It’s so dark by this point anyway that no one can see us and we fall asleep to the waves crashing on the rocks below.
The bad weather blew itself out completely overnight and we woke to a beautifully clear, fresh morning. We pack down quickly, push the bike down to the beach, put on some coffee and then brace ourselves for an early morning swim. Stunning (!) but we didn’t stay in for long – mainly due to the fact that two mischievous crows started to attack our breakfast cereal.
Wanting to capture the beautiful morning I reach for the camera from the handlebar bag and to my hotter realise it’s not there and I obviously left it in the public toilets on the other quay. Luckily it’s still early and we still have an hour and a half before our ferry leaves for Schull. I leave Paddy to clear up and run round to the other harbour to investigate. The camera isn’t in the toilet and the shop connecting to them isn’t open for another two hours so I wonder down to the quay and the friendly crew of the Baltimore ferry start ringing round the houses (literally) to find out who might have it. After speaking to Nellie who cleans the toilets and Tom who owns the shop we discover that Neal indeed had our camera and promised to drop it down to me before the second ferry was due to leave at 9:30am. The whole episode was a lovely way to finish off our time in this little community before heading onwards to Schull.
It was a beautiful morning – making up for the misty crossing the night before. The Fastnet lighthouse could be clearly seen on the horizon and as we headed into the beautiful harbour of Schull we were met with clear blue skies. Paddy was back in the town where he grew up and we wheeled the tandem off the ferry to explore the town.
Before we departed from Cobh we were keen to take a day trip over to Spike Island. Spike has a fascinating history but it also holds a strong personal connection for Paddy and his dad’s family because it was where Paddy’s grandad and great-uncle were posted during their service in the Irish Army.
Due to its natural protection thanks to its shape and size Cork Harbour has always been an important tactical naval base and Spike Island was the keystone for its military defence. The town was a stronghold for the British Navy ever since the Napoleonic Wars. Cobh was also the major embarkation port for Irish men, women and children who were committed and deported to the penal colonies such as Australia and Spike for an extended time acted as a mass prison for these ‘convicts’. It remained a prison throughout the War of Independence.
After the establishment of the Irish Free State, Britain retained control of three strategically important Irish ports one of which was Cork Harbour and consequently Spike Island remained a British Royal Navy stronghold until 1938. Paddy’s grandfather and great uncle attended (and raised the Irish flag) at the ceremony.
After the handover the island remained an Irish navy base, prison and ‘correction centre’ until 2004. In 1985 an infamous incident happened where the prisoners managed to ‘escape’ to the island’s quayside and, finding that there was no boat to take them to the mainland, consequently broke back in to the prison with an abandoned JCB, set fire to their prison block, and climbed the roof of the main building before being re-captured! Brilliant!! The island is now a 103 acre museum.
It has been great to visit sites like Spike Island and learn more about Irish history and the part Britain played in it. Although the pass-over of Spike was a peaceful and apparently jovial affair, I know the handover of most of the other Irish territory by the British was not so convivial! Since learning more about Irish history I feel a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t known much about it before. I have felt the same kind of feeling when visiting other countries on the trip such as Myanmar and Iran. I’m no historian and I know we can’t necessarily link the British occupation with the civil war that happened after – or everything that happened during the troubles – (the same is true for Myanmar and Iran), but I can’t help thinking had Britain not been so god damn greedy and arrogant in the first place, world history would look a lot more peaceful today.
I bring this up now because visiting Spike Island was an important part of my learning about past British foreign policy. This has been a really important strand for me throughout the trip. Questioning what it means to be British in an international context, and my relationship with my home country when learning history through new perspectives; the other side of the lens as it were. I think we still have a terrible knack of glorifying and justifying the British Empire at home. I certainly remember being fed the positive rhetoric of the Empire in school – looking at a world map, half the landmass stained red, to show just how ‘powerful my country once was’.
I guess what I’m trying to say, is that we Brits have a lot to answer for, and I don’t think we are very good at knowing the full truth regarding our past political actions abroad. I’m not justifying anti-British sentiment in any form – more that it’s our duty to understand our link to certain situations – such as why the border crossing between north and south in Ireland is such a sensitive topic for the Brexit negotiations currently or why it’s so difficult for Brits to get an Iranian visa. Visiting Spike Island and learning about Paddy’s grandad and great uncle was an invaluable milestone for me in all of the above.