I just experienced the most epic birthday weekend of my life!! I wouldn't be surprised if I never top this one and I also wouldn't be disappointed. (Fair warning, I'm sure this entry is far too long with too much detail but it's animals! In the wild!! I can't help but write it this way!)
We just arrived back from Mole National Park. This park is said to be one of the best parks in Western Africa. The park is a rather large area set aside and controlled by the government to preserve the natural beauty and wild animals. Aside from that, it is like no national park I have ever visited. There are few roads that actually go through much of the park, leaving much of it unused. Unfortunately, this results in high rates of poaching. There is one place available to spend the night and it is strongly aimed towards tourists. It's a rather nice motel set on a cliff overlooking the watering holes frequented by elephants and crocodiles. There is a resturant, a pool, and a landing also overlooking the cliff. It is surprisingly not crowded and your proximity to the wildlife is insane!
We left for the park wicked early on Friday morning, arriving to the motel around 9am. We spent the day lounging by the pool and watching the elephants from afar. We took tons of pictures from far away, not realizing what the next day would deliver. It was an amazingly relaxing day, though rather uneventful, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Saturday was the day of all things new! At the pool, we recognized a few people we've been seeing around Tamale (believe it or not, light skinned people stick out like sore thumbs!) and we were able to make friends with them. They are really nice student from Canada who are working on development projects around Northern Ghana. They actually live at the guests house above the bar where we are celebrating my birthday tomorrow, so they will be joining us for dinner and a drink :)
Saturday morning we got up at 6am to do a walking safari. The only way to get close to the wildlife is to hike around the park, though you are required to be lead by an armed ranger. Getting up we opened up the curtains of our room to see a HUGE elephant walking through out backyard!! We couldn't believe it!! We went out on our balcony and he was honestly no more than ten yards away, ambling about with a lazy stride. Shortly after passing our room he headed down the steep hillside to go to the watering hole. We knew from this moment the day would be incredible. On our way out, we opened the front door to be greeted by numerous warthogs chilling on the trampled grass, picking up anything they considered edible. Warthogs! Like Pumba! These things are so funny looking and I found them really cute (surprise) but was considered to be loony for it. After meeting up with the ranger, he briefly explained the history of the park. It was established the 1957, the year Ghana became it's own nation, the first independent nation in Africa. It originally allowed hunting but this was banned by the early 80s. He said there were 94 species of mammals, and a huge variety of both butterflies and birds. (Ghana is said to be home to an estimated 1,000 butterfly species compared to roughly 650 in the whole of North America.)
The safari started walking up to an overlook and then we dropped down into the basin where the waterholes are. The first animals we came across were lots of warthogs. As already said, I thought these little guys were so cute! They are grey in color and have a very thin covering of hairs, most found along the spine. They have wart-like bumps on the face and rather large, upward-curving tusks. They are surprisingly muscular and usually seen in groups. And, surprise!, the babies were soooo cute!! I thought they were really comical because they can't reach the ground while standing so they bend their front legs so they are crawling around on their elbows while cleaning up their food. We walked through dense trees and came out to a large field with lots and lots of antelope! The antelope travel in either huge herds of females and two or three males (the strongest ones) or in groups of only males. The one we saw the most were the kobs. This red-gold antelope has a white throat and is amazingly long and slender and very graceful. We also had the pleasure of seeing a bushbuck, which was my favorite because of the coloring. It's smaller than the kob and is a deep chestnut color with lots of really beautiful white lines patterned over the whole boy. The last antelope we saw was the water buck. this was the largest antelope we say and has a shaggy brown coat and white bum. The horns are much bigger than the others and lyre-shaped.
Then we came to the baboons. WOW the baboons! I didn't realize how big they are!! And they can be freaky, too. Apparently, the first three weeks of an antelope's life are dangerous because they can't walk and have to be hidden deep in the bushes. During this time, baboons seek them out and eat baby antelope! The ones we saw on the safari weren't too interesting, it was later in the day that they gave us a unique experience! I'll get back to that later.
Before dropping down into the basin, the ranger brought us to a HUGE termite mansion! Way, way taller than I am. I had seen these structures on the drive up to the park, but I didn't realize what they were. Apparently a whole colony will make their home and, when the queen dies, they must relocate, determine a new queen, and build a house all over again. You can tell when the termites have abandoned the home when there are holes in it. At this point snakes, mongoose, and other dwelling animals will take over. I was amazed by the huge structure those little insects can create in an alarmingly sort period of time.
Once at the watering holes, we spent some time in a treehouse built to overlook them. The birds sounded lovely and the view was unbeatable. We actually saw a crocodile in the water, but it was just it's form and wasn't worth a picture. We then walked around to the second watering hole and sat on the ledge where there were about ten elephants cooling off a mere fifty yards away. This part was AMAZING! They are so huge and playful! There were two babies in the group who were incredible neat to watch because they would rough house with the other elephants who usually responded by pushing them under the water, their trunk sticking out like a snorkel. Occasionally, one or two would go off to swim for a bit and I wish I could've seen them below the water, I bet it looks cool! I captured the most perfect video of the elephants and I really hope I am able to post it! It was really neat to see them hose themselves off and see how they move those funny, huge trunks of their! I'm sure this is an obvious one, but a zoo just can't do them justice. In the wild they were so animated and incredible to watch – I could've stayed there for hours upon hours. The head elephant signaled to the reset of his troop that was time to leave and they all lined up and marched out of the pool. (It totally reminded me of the marching scene in the Jungle Book when Mogali is trying to pass as an elephant.) We walked over to get a better look and watched them mud themselves up to stay cool in the hot sun. They put their butts together and formed a circle and they all filled their trunks with mud and sprayed in behind their heads. It was genius because any misdirected mud still managed to land on an elephant. It was crazy to see how huge they are out of the water. According to our ranger, they are the second fastest mammal on land, but I find that hard to believe – they are HUGE (the largest land animal in the world)!
The safari was amazing with crazy close proximity to many animals. Unfortunately we didn't get the opportunity to see any hippos, lions, leopards or hyenas. Dr. Wanye was so excited to see how much fun we had that he has already planned to take us up to Paga, on the border of Ghana and Burkina Faso, to see the crocodile sanctuary.
We finished the safari after 2.5 hours or so and went to a little “restaurant” near the information center. It was an odd place and the service was strange and, overall, we were unsatisfied because we were overcharged. The way we saw it, though, was it gave us a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ghana is considered to be the safest country in Africa and the crime is said to be nearly non-existent, especially up north. Well, we encountered our first theft – by a baboon!!! Our food had just been brought out to us and we were all picking at the odd colored rice and mystrey meat deciding if we would eat it, our heads down. My head shot up when I heard Yue scream, Marielle follow, and both of them try to run from their chairs but end up on the ground, chairs broken. I had no time to react, just laugh hysterically. A very large baboon had walked right up to our table and grabbed rice right off Yue's plate! Once the girls started screaming he did a little jump up and ran away. There was another one perched on the fence close by, seemingly scoping out the situation to see how the attempt would pan out. Apparently CuRi had noticed the hand reach up and first thought it was a kid, quickly concluded it was too hairy and was probably a dog, and then finally realized it was a baboon. Yue, also, first thought it was a kid and then decided the hand was too hairy and looked up to see his face. Oh man! The episode was so perfect! While waiting to settle the bill we walked around the little patio and realized the baboons were everywhere! There were at least twenty baboons, ranging in all sizes, circling around the building and figuring out how to get food. Some were jumping onto the roof to eat leaves. Others were climbing fence posts and eating flowers. Some were snapping branches off trees to chew on. Bottom line, though, they were all just waiting for their opportunity to snag some yummy human food. Marielle is extremely scared of the baboons and literally had rocks in her hand on the walk back to the room just in case one decided one of us looked tasty.
(It's not uncommon for the baboons to help themselves to whatever human luxury they want. There were three girls staying a few rooms down from us who were all taking an afternoon nap and decided the leave the door open for a better breeze (stupid!). They woke up to three baboons in their room. Two girls ran out but the third girl ended up locking herself in the bathroom and spent the next twenty minutes or so waiting for the baboons to leave, listening to the tear the room to pieces in the meantime. Crazy!)
Apparently, Saturday is the day the monkeys and baboons come out to play. After our exciting lunch, still laughing and in disbelief, we went to spend the rest of the day by the pool. There were baboon all over the grounds and, after a little while, the monkeys came out to play, too. The patas or red monkey was running around the grounds reeking havoc. These monkeys are pretty large for a monkey (but no where near as big and intimidating as a baboon) and has a wicked long tail. It is a yellow-orange with a black forehead. They first made their appearance when they poked their head out from behind the bathroom building to see if the coast was clear. It was about 10:30 and there weren't many people eating or swimming. Two monkeys then slinked out to the front of the building and threw a trash can over. The loud crash made an employee run over to yell and throw objects at the monkeys. They sqeeled and ran away, but only for a moment. Next they came from the other end of the building and stealthily made their way across the roof of the restaurant and down the other side. It made a quick dart for a piece of toast and, again, was scared away. This whole time I was sitting by the pool watching the scheme around. It was so funny because it finally dawned on me why people use the term “monkey business.” More and more monkeys came to the area and all camped out in a tree next to the pool, waiting for opportune moments. Occasionally, a monkey or a baboon would run through the pool area and the restaurant patio and I'm convinced they were only doing it to laugh at the squeals and jumps of nearby visitors. At one point, a baboon jumped onto a table where one woman was eating her breakfast and slapped a Fanta bottle to the ground. Another time, one of the monkeys got freakishly close to a tourist eating her lunch. He walked around her chair and poked up beneath her arm, she rather calmly shooed him away. He darted to the other side of her chair and straight up punched her arm!! Not as calm this time around, the lay threw her bag at him. He ran around the table, jumped on top, ran over and took her mango off her plate, put it in his mouth, gave a funny little snicker while looking at her, and ran away. It was hilariously inappropriate!!
Without a doubt, my weekend was spectacular!! Seeing animals in the wild is my favorite hobby, if you can call it that. To see such unique and rare animals in their habitat – it was unreal! We had monkeys, elephants, and antelope chilling outside our balcony to greet us in the morning. We had a wonderfully relaxing time by the pool, birdwatching. It was perfect. The icing on the cake was that it was my birthday weekend. I couldn't have made it more ideal! I'll be posting pictures of the weekend on my website soon enough. I'll let you know when I do so!
This morning we woke up to a gloomy sky. If it storms in the morning, we don't work. We were all selfishly hoping this may be the case because we have a lot of statistics work to do with our screening data, not to mention a lot of laundry and errands to run. When we were all waiting for our driver, a huge clap in the sky was followed by INTENSE rain fall! It was sweet!!! It stormed wicked hard for a good two hours and we got to play in the rain and enjoy the wind. Dr. Wanye called to tell us not to go to work, just get our data entry done at home and enjoy my birthday! No doubt, this has been the sweetest birthday to date. Maybe even forever.
That's it for now (as if that's not enough). I'll be in touch soon! Everyone back home, please take care. I love and miss you all :)
Aunt Bev, Vu and Wetzle (if you've been reading the blog) - You would LOVE all the birds out here! They have fire finches that are barely bigger than humming birds but fly forward! They have so many birds ranging from really big to really small. At the park I saw lots of different kind of kingfishers, oriole arblers, sunbirds, starlings, parakeets, canarys, partridges, and pin-tailed and long-tailed paradise-whydah – and that's just what I was able to identify with my little chart! We also heard a lot of parrots, but weren't able to actually see them. I kept thinking of you three when the guide kept pointing out birds.