Traveling cheap in Ghana is an adventure I’d recommend to anybody who loves intimate contact with fellow travelers and the excitement that comes with never being sure if or when you’ll arrive. It wasn’t for everyone in the mid ‘60s but it worked for me and for Ghanaians making the average wage of seventy-five cents a day. The most reliable, most comfortable mass transit was State Transport’s fleet of Mercedes Benz buses with jump seats that lowered into the aisle to accommodate seven to a row. They ran on time and made rest stops along the road so passengers could wander off, find a relatively secluded spot and relieve themselves. Disadvantages? They ran only between major centres such as Tamale and Kumasi and if the coach was full there were no backup buses to take the overflow. That’s where the Peugeot 404 station wagons came in, lurking on the outskirts of State Transport depots waiting to charge a higher fee to desperate travelers unable to get the bus out of town.
The heart of low cost transportation between towns were the lorries, Bedford chassis imported from Britain and completed by made-in-Ghana teak wood cargo/passenger boxes. Passengers sat on wooden planks and there was always room for one or ten more. A lorry never left until enough fares had been collected to cover the cost of fuel and departure time could become a battle of wits between the driver and prospective passengers as seasoned travelers often sat in the shade rather than roast in the back of the lorry waiting for critical mass to be reached to start the trip. One day as I sat in the shade in Bolgatanga a man suddenly leapt into the driver’s seat proclaiming loudly that the lorry was about to depart. Time to get on board and pay up! Once the money had been collected and we were planked the lorry was driven once around the lorry park then shut down as the “driver” dashed off to turn the cash over to the owner. Wait, wait, wait until enough people had paid and climbed in to make the trip profitable and then the real driver appeared and we were off to Bawku.
Memory call: being stranded west of Tamale with no buses, Peugeots or lorries and a blue open-back goods lorry carrying a load of corrugated roofing and people wheezing to a stop to let passengers climb down while others clambered on. I was looking forward to riding high up on the load but the driver’s mate ushered me into the almost upholstered seat of honour in the cab by the driver and tied the door shut with a piece of rope. I realized the lorry had no starter when the driver released the brakes so it rolled down a slight grade and he popped the clutch to start the engine. I realized that the radiator leaked, a lot, when we stopped at each stream so the mate could get water in a plastic jug to refill the radiator before the lorry, always stopped at the top of the hill above the creek, could be rolled to start again. The best ride of my life but it was dark when we got to Sawla where I hoped to catch something heading north to Wa. Something was a city transit bus let out to pasture on northern gravel roads after a lifetime of dedicated service in the south. Everything seemed fine until the driver announced we were almost out of fuel but not to worry because we would probably make it to a Public Works Yard where he could get some diesel. The driver stopped at the top of a dip in the road and disappeared into the night with a jerry can. Vehicles without starters were the order of the day. Refueled, the engine refused to turn over going downhill but the bus did roll part way up the slope on the other side. Time for the passengers to get out and push the bus from the front to see if it would start in reverse. It did! But my glasses fell out of my shirt pocket onto the road. Time for me to cry, “My glasses fell out of my shirt pocket onto the road!” Time for us all to search on our hands and knees. Glasses found! Time for all to get back on the bus and roll on to Wa. I forget what happened in Wa but I’ll never forget the ride, the best of my life.
I didn’t realize I was learning one of life’s great lessons. Destinations are never guaranteed; the journey is all that is certain. May the road rise to meet you.
Correction: Louis Poirier contacted me to note that I failed to mention black Olympian Neville Wright, who was on Canada’s second 4-man bobsleigh team, last month in “Black Olympians in Vancouver.” My thanks to Louis and my apology to Neville Wright.