Monday, May 15, 2006

Going to Find Africa Part III... The Rainforest

So Saturday we headed out into Africa again. We loaded up Duke and this time headed for the west coast (remember Ghana is oriented N/S so our coastline runs E/W). Accra is about 2/3 of the way to the east side of the country and we drove over to Cape Coast which is about 2/3 of the way to the west side of the country.

We had two goals. The rainforest (and the Canopy Walk therein) and the Cape Coast Castle (the British installation from which Africans were sold into slavery and loaded onto boats bound for the Carribean and the Americas).

We left bright and early knowing that our trip of about 80 miles would take considerably longer than the hour and 15 minutes or so we would spend zipping along on U.S. freeways, and we weren't disappointed. It took us half an hour to clear traffic in Accra (our house is north, the coast road is south). We hit the coast road and got pretty cocky because they have done a LOT of work on it in the last few years and we were on smooth tarmac that was frequently more than one lane in our direction. We were smokin'!

Then we got about 20 miles past Kokrobite (remember the beach we went to?) and hit the wall. Construction here is ongoing and requires quite a few "lane changes" that send traffic from one side of the road to the other on pitted and rutted dirt tracks. Add in the hundreds of large, long haul trucks in various states of disrepair travelling betweeen Takoradi and Tema, the stalled vehicles that litter every road in Ghana, and the enormous amount of traffic trying to get from one side of Ghana to the other on the only major East/West road in the country and you have a recipe for...about 20-25 mph.

Kakum National Park (the Rainforest) is about 15 miles due north of Cape Coast, so we headed up there first. We arrived about 11:30 - our trip of 95 miles took us roughly three and a half hours. Africa does nothing better than teaching patience. Our vocabulary word for the day is "ntoboase" (en-too-bo-ah-say) and it means "be patient".

So. The national park is a very nice place with a well kept reception area, shady seating, a small outdoor restaurant, public restrooms, and a nice walk-through area that explains the rainforest and how it can be protected.

The draw here is the canopy walk. Many years ago, some Canadians came to the park and spent six months hanging from ropes, stringing cable and netting across the top of the rainforest canopy and then laying a single plank down the middle so teenagers (that would be Cooper) and suicidal old people (that would be me and Ted) and hapless drivers who get dragged along for "fun" (that would be Duke), can walk high above the canopy and enjoy the view. Actually, you are only a few yards above the canopy- you are HIGH above the ground, and by my calculations, the canopy is only thick if you are looking at it, not if you are falling through it- something I was often sure I would be doing during my Walk of Fear. This is what it looks like:

But first, you must climb to the top of the rainforest canopy. By now you know we are practically on top of the equator, but let's be charitable and say it's only 90 degrees. Since it started raining, lightly, just before we all stepped off into the abyss, I'm going to call the humidity during our climb 100%. As faithful readers know, I am not one to 'glow' or even 'perspire'- so after the first quarter mile uphill, I was soaked, and not with clean shiny rain. Here is just one set of steps that we climbed...

there were three 'rest stops' on this climb and by the time I huffed and puffed my way to each the people in our group (who had outpaced me waaaaay back there) were rested and ready to continue. My faithful husband, son, and driver stayed with me though as I hauled my fat ass up and up and up. Finally we reached the top and all gathered in a small hut to get the facts and figures about the Canopy Walk from our Park Guide. Supposedly it can hold two bull elephants. I don't want to ever know if that's true.

After the Guide was done speaking he started us off, one at a time, across the abyss, 130 feet from the forest floor. When one person had almost reached each platform between net and plank walkway, the next would start out. In total there are six sections of plank and net, about 200 feet each, connected by small platforms built in tall trees. The walk is U-shaped and you can see other victims...uh...visitors on the fourth section as you cross the second section.

We went in this order; Duke, Cooper, me, Ted. Here is Duke, heading out, alone, trying to remember why he ever liked us.

Cooper skipped off after him, blithely, in true 'bulletproof teenager' fashion, and I followed soon after, able to swallow my fear mostly through a need to chase my child who had run out into danger. I got over that Super Mom crap real fast when I realized the walkway was not only going to swing, sway, bounce, and creak, but that the ropes I was clutching for dear life were occasionally going to hit me about waist high - plenty low enough for me to accidentally hurl myself over the side and cling briefly before dropping to my certain death.

Ted gamely brought up the rear, making sure to watch me as I had begged him to do so that someone who loved me would be witness to my last moments on earth.

First section. Clear.

I even took time to peer over the edge into this:

but now it's time to step off the solid platform and tackle section two. Okay, no problem, I'll experiment with different hand and arm movements to see what makes the walkway sway and bounce the least while allowing me to grasp the ropes firmly enough for the blood to leave my hands.

Second section. Clear.

I have been reduced to creeping up to the edge of the platform rail to peek quickly over the side while I steel myself for section three.

I step off to a loud creaking noise that I tell myself happens when anyone steps off, not just me. While I'm still trying to convince myself of that, Cooper turns and yells from his platform that I should check out the view straight down. I stop moving, get a death grip on the ropes, and peek s-l-o-w-l-y down through the netting at the drop. I quickly look back up and straight ahead. Cooper yells that I should look OVER the edge of the rope and netting to see it really well. I tell him to shut up and quit telling me what to do.

Section three. Clear.

At this point, I cling to the solidness that is the platform tree and just lean out a little bit to try to see the view over the edge of the rail. I check the next section and see this:

I'm thinking the thrill of fear I get upon seeing Cooper do this has less to do with my fear for him than my fear for ME, but I prefer to remember it as more of my protective Mothering come to the fore.

So now Cooper is way ahead and Ted is coming up fast. I wanta slap that smile off his face...

it's time to go...

About 1/3 of the way across the fourth section, I start to idly wonder if anyone has frozen in the middle of the canopy walk and how they would ever get one back to solid ground if one did. Not that I was considering it or anything. I have my pride, and more importantly I couldn't think of any really viable way for them to get me down off the walkway without a rescue helicopter and I'm pretty sure there aren't any of those in Ghana.

Section four. Clear.

Okay, I can do this. Even if this next section is uphill. And creaking like a dead elm tree in a November windstorm. Hand over hand, one foot in front of the next, don't look down. From behind me I hear Ted say "You okay?".

Why??? Am I not skipping quickly enough for you???

I love him very much, and I know he meant well, but I had to stop concentrating on not falling off the walkway to answer with a hearty, "Yup!".

Section five. Clear.

Behind me, Ted is plugging along, not squeaking out loud like me, and even letting go with one hand before he has a death grip with the next hand. This is what I see when I look back to check on him...

Ahead is my last 200 feet of walkway. At the end I can see Duke, vaguely, since he is well inside the shelter provided for the walkers, and Cooper- facing me, smiling, and yelling "Let's go around again!". As I step onto the last section, the little snot starts bouncing on his end. I threaten him with bodily harm, and he stops. I begin counting my steps, telling myself that I'm just a few feet from safety and solid ground.

Section six. Clear.

I collapse on a bench inside the shelter and risk a peek back to see if Ted is coming okay. Duke comes over to me and says, "Did you look down from the walkway?" I reply in the negative and he says "Me NEITHER!" He is apparently very glad he did it, and NEVER WANTS TO DO IT AGAIN! He is happy I took pictures of him to show friends and family- and he will not mention the part where he was terrified and never looked down. Cooper is still hooting and declaring he wants to do it again. Ted arrives and we all start to breathe normally again.

Theoretically you can see wildlife on this walk. Monkeys and birds and stuff. But that would be without my yelps of surprise every time the walkway moved a little too much for comfort and without Cooper's helpful shouted suggestions about looking over the edge and moving faster. Good thing we didn't go just to see the fauna.

Now all that was left was a hike back down the hill on wobbly legs that were still fatigued from the climb up.

Quick bathroom break, then into the car for the fifteen mile ride back to Cape Coast and the rest of our day's activities...tune in later this week for the exciting conclusion!