Ferrying Into The Heartland Of Ghana On The World’s Largest Man-Made Lake
Steaming up gargantuan Lake Volta in the dark of night, I gazed at a heaven full of stars above, an occasional cluster of lights along the shoreline marking a village and, here and there, radiant-red, flaring hot spots that appeared to be raging fires. As I puzzled over the blazing anomaly, Captain Eugene walked up, leaned on the ferry rail next to me and, as if reading my mind, offered an explanation: “Men set fires to drive the animals out of the bush to shoot or trap them for their meat. They burn large areas and destroy habitat for money. It’s a big problem.”
I was taking Ghana’s grand ferry journey, a 30-hour odyssey on the MV Yapei Queen traversing the length of the world’s largest man-made lake. And it would be full of surprises.
Departing more than three hours late, the sun had had already sunk below the horizon and an ebony outline of the shore was our only vista. It would be a long night of slowly cruising up this outsized waterway into the heart of eastern Ghana.
Lake Volta was formed in 1965 with the completion of the Akosombo Dam, which dammed the mighty Volta River of West Africa. A 320-mile-long commercial lifeline was created with large fisheries and a vast fish population. The 3,283 square miles make it the largest man-made lake in surface area (measured by water volume, it’s third).
The Yapei Queen has been plying these waters almost as long as the lake has existed, making the roundtrip voyage between Akosombo and Yeji every week. The ferry moves both people and goods, and none more important than the simple yam — which is why Rumana Ahmed, the “Queen of the Yam Traders,” was a towering and luminous presence on board. She stood apart from the poor and modest passengers with her expensive clothing, fine silver necklaces and earrings, huge size, big laugh and bulging confidence.
Originally from Burkino Fasso, she has been in Ghana 25 years trading yams on the ferry route, picking up product at the northern ports and then shipping them from the southernmost port of Akosombo to Accra, the capital. “Very good business, ” she told me in her broken English with a guffaw.
Rumana circulated the ferry mirthfully tossing out comments, like a strolling comic, getting laughs and smiling retorts in response. At one point, seeing me staring at my tablet screen, she asked me what I was doing. When I explained I was reading My First Coup d’Etat by former Ghanian president John Mahama, she erupted in effusive joy. “I love that man. He was best president,” she declared, and we were friends for the remainder of the journey.
And as it turned out, I shared the boat’s upper deck with the Queen and her sister. The ferry has only two “first-class” cabins that must be booked in person at the ticket office, and both were taken. The very kind Consignment Officer, Pius Salakpi, did his best to try and find me a cabin — “We have to be flexible with the booking process to make everyone happy, so we can have fun too and it’s not only business,” he mused — but to no avail. So I had a choice of two alternatives: a hard bench inside, or the steel deck in the fresh air, and I chose the latter.
Occupying the coveted first-class cabins — which were really just small, basic, bunk-bed rooms without even a private bathroom — were Bo and Ask from Denmark, and Simon and Kari from Wales. The lot of us exceptionally well-traveled and veteran Africa hands, we spent the first evening on the upper deck drinking big bottles of Ghana’s tasty Club Beer and exchanging war stories of our great adventures around the world.
The languid next day was hot and humid, but somewhat softened by gentle breezes. Fishing boats punctuated the passing hours, as did winging kites, eagles, herons and egrets. We even spotted a not-so-common African Pied Wagtail with its distinctive alternating black and white patches and jutting fantail.
The first stop, about 15 hours into the trip, was Kete-Krachi, a remote, squalid outpost with one main paved street, mud-hovel buildings and shelters made of saplings and tarps. Colorful fishing boats lined the shore, people converged on the beach for the scene of the weekly visit of the Yapei Queen, and locals pounded cassava to make fufu, the starchy Ghanian staple made with cassava and corn flour. But more than anything else, Krete-Krachi is a yam hub.
As crates that would be used to transport yams were being unloaded from the ferry and trucks were pulling up loaded with yams, the Queen of the Yam Traders was barking out instructions. On its return leg two days hence, the ferry would pick up the Queen’s shipment of crates brimming with yams bound for the capital city. The yam — served in numerous ways from fried to steamed — is one of Ghana’s most-popular staple foods.
Captain Eugene recounted, with obvious pride, “I’ve been sailing on the lake for 29 years, starting out as a deck hand and working my way up. After attending the Maritime Academy, I moved up into the officer ranks and two years ago became captain.” There was no fancy technology on his bridge, just a floating compass, a basic GPS that looked similar to the small one I mounted in my daughter’s car years ago to help her find her way around Los Angeles, and that was it. He explained that his main navigational tools are “experience and knowledge.” He and his staff know every foot of the route intimately.
But he noted that there are dangers on the lake. Foremost among them are the fishermen, who are out at all hours trolling the waters or checking their nets that are anchored to plastic buoys. The ferry regularly turned on its spotlight and scanned the immediate area for the fishermen’s pirogues, made from carved-out trees. Some had a lantern aboard and would flash it to warn the ferry of their presence and ward off a deadly collision.
Another danger are the eerie dead forests standing in the lake. In creating Lake Volta, large swaths of forest were submerged. In many areas along the edge of the lake, where the water level is shallowest, the tops of the tallest hardwood trees — reduced to sun-bleached stick figures — protrude above the surface some 10 to 15 feet. Reminiscent of a petrified forest, the ferry stays well away from these threatening obstacles.
Last night, a crewman had given me a foam pad to sleep on (while the Queen and her sibling had comfortable mats and carpets, I had come completely unprepared). I positioned it on the starboard side of the open-air top deck, away from the smokestack fumes being blown back to the port side. The thin pad, however, was not up to the task. With the metal deck digging into my hips and knees, I slept in brief segments of 30-45 minutes. I awoke at 3:00 am to a fog-shrouded horizon, a New Moon rising and a breeze picking up. It turned progressively windier and cooler, almost cold, in always warm and muggy Ghana. At dawn, with the moon much higher and the sky splashed with a collage of yellow, pink and orange pastels, the invasion came.
They were suddenly in my eyes and mouth as I futilely attempted to wave and swipe them away, and then they flooded my entire face. Soon I was helplessly blanketed from head to foot in green and black gnats. I was blinded and overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, leaping to my feet to try and break the onslaught. Spitting out bugs and struggling to clear my eyes, suddenly, the invasion ended as abruptly as it started.
Breakfast was eggs cooked with onions and tomatoes, and tea. The small galley on board had plenty of food but a very meager menu of either eggs or simple fried rice with chewy, overcooked fried chicken or tilapia fish. There was no shortage, however, of cold soft drinks and beer. Most passengers, to keep their expenses down (or perhaps not subject themselves to the ferry’s bad chow), brought their own food.
The riders were a diverse mix. Like the yam queen, business people use the ferry to transport their products and vehicles. Local farmers take their crops to markets. Workers go home to see their families from their jobs in the city. For some, it is just the local transportation, like a bus or train line. We stopped at many villages in the darkness of the second evening; at every stop, the ferry pulled up on the beach blowing its horn at a deafening decibel level, a gangplank was dropped on the sand and people poured off while others boarded.
There were a number of kids on the Yapei Queen too, and when Kari pulled out crayons and coloring books she had brought from Wales, they squealed with delight and immersed themselves completely in the art project.
We finally landed in Yeji, the end of the line, at about 1:15 am, after more than 30 hours on the water from Akosombo, or nearly 40 hours if I count the lost time at the ticket office trying to get a cabin, waiting to board and then once aboard waiting hours for the ferry to shove off.
There was no dock at Yeji, just another beach landing, this one on a point about a kilometer from the town. But in the typically kind and helpful Ghanian way, which makes traveling in their country easy, Captain Eugene connected me with the driver of a motorized three-wheel cart who took me down the dark, sand streets to what they described as “the best hotel in town.” The Anini Hotel turned out to be barely a one-star property. The shower was cold and the bed lumpy, but it felt like heaven, and I slept like a baby, after two grungy days on the ferry.
Edward Placidi is a freelance travel writer/photographer who has penned articles for numerous newspapers, magazines and websites. Ghana was the 94th country he has visited. When not traveling he is whipping up delicious dishes inspired by his Tuscan grandmother who taught him to cook. A passionate Italophile and supporter of the Azzurri (Italian national soccer team), he lives in Los Angeles with his wife Marian.