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The ultra-cheap safari: Get close to elephants for just $70 a day

A safari in Ghana’s Mole National Park, in the heart of West Africa, offers countless ‘wow’ moments.

Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail

After an amazing day trudging through the moist savannah of northern Ghana in search of elephants with a delightful rifle-toting ranger and my partner, Nicole, I opened the door of our spartan bungalow and stepped out into the warm evening air to head for a beer before dinner. I found myself staring down a horde of about 60 baboons.

They were lumbering out of the dense nighttime that comes in the thick of the West African bush, moving slowly down the rust-coloured dirt road that led to our cinderblock lodge and through the parking lot across from our room. Standing just outside the bathroom window, I whispered back through the shutters to Nicole, who was still getting ready. "Come outside. Now."

That morning, deep in the bush with our guide, the large males had screeched at us to keep our distance. Now, weary from the day and slouching toward lower ground for the night, the so-called "congress" of baboons came so close to us that we could see a tiny baby clinging to one of the females. Together, we stared in silent awe as they rambled past.

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It was one of many serendipitous moments on an amazing, ultracheap safari – made even more remarkable because it was technically on the wrong side of Africa for safaris. In the East African states of Tanzania and Kenya, the famed Serengeti and Maasai Mara parks attract around 90,000 tourists each year. But we happened to be volunteering in West Africa – well known more for the Sahelian instability of Mali and Niger, or Nigeria's struggle with Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, than for pith-helmeted savannah retreats with bounding lions and giraffes as a backdrop.

Now, we did not see lions in Ghana's Mole National Park, but there was a cute little frog in our bathroom. And a genteel, elderly elephant called "human sibling" (in Twi), with only one tusk, who we saw, following him on foot, two days in a row. And the baboons. Oh, and the kob and bushbok antelopes. And the monkeys and the warthogs and the astounding 600-year-old mosque.

Wait, was this really the wrong side of Africa for a safari?

We were nearing the end of six-month stints as media trainers for a Canadian non-profit, Journalists for Human Rights. We had been working with African journalists and journalism students in Accra, the hot, noisy capital of Ghana, and we needed a bit of a break. We wanted to see elephants.

Flights from Ghana to Tanzania were about $1,000 each and the least expensive safaris we could find still came to around $600 or $700 a person. We were living on stipends, so that all seemed rather steep. And as Nicole will point out, I'm extremely cheap.

So we flew north 600 kilometres to Tamale, a sleepy city of mosques, muezzin calls and men improbably – but sensibly – bringing sheep to market on motorcycles. Mole lies about 146 kilometres to the southwest of the city, and most people either take a crowded state-run bus or shell out to hire a taxi. Ignoring Nicole's warnings, I argued that we should take a private bus from a dusty depot on the outskirts of the city.

We paid the equivalent of about $4 each – instead of the $100 it would cost in a taxi – and climbed up into the green bus, our luggage strapped up top under a net. The taxi takes two hours. This bus took at least an hour and a half to fill up and took about seven hours in total, some of which took place in the dark – which is foolish on rural African roads. At one point, the bus almost tipped over. Later, we had to point out that we were driving at dusk without headlights. We pulled over, and as darkness fell, up came the hood. A terrifyingly long time later, headlight beams flickered across trees in the distance.

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We rolled on, slowly, past endless villages of mud and grass huts. Exhausted and covered in dust, we got out in Damongo, the closest village to Mole, and got in a taxi. The car pulled into the Mole parking lot 30 minutes later, its lights illuminating an antelope munching on grass with its baby. It was the first of many pleasant surprises in this rather inconspicuous spot, which is where we also saw the baboons. Another day, we watched a patas monkey a few feet away climb onto an awning, catch a bug, spit out the wings and slouch away.

Everything here seemed unexpectedly amazing – partially because some of the pleasures were accidental, but also, for me, because the experience was so cheap. Our room was only about $50 a night; a two-hour walking tour just $10.

The next day, we walked past warthogs lazing on the grass, and followed Usman, our guide, through the bush. Within a few minutes, we were staring at antelope – groups of kob hopping about in the tall grass and the quirky bushbok, a solitary species named for its adorable penchant for hiding beneath small trees (though not very well).

We made our way down the slope toward a nearby watering hole, watching baboons scramble across the dirt plain in the distance, when Usman began talking to his ranger colleagues on a two-way radio. Another group had spotted an elephant; we arrived just as the large male plunged into the water.

A member of our group edged round the shore to get a better view and we heard a loud noise in the bush, followed by a splash. We all watched as a crocodile swam away, scared out of his hiding spot. We looked at each other nervously. Usman seemed more concerned that we had missed seeing the now-submerged elephant in his true glory.

We climbed back up the slope to the motel lodge for lunch, and realized we could still see the elephant rolling around in the water below. And there he remained for hours, peering above the murky surface, occasionally spraying himself. We saw him later that evening, from the comfort of the Mole Motel's patio, on the savannah about a kilometre away, still enjoying his bath.

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I like to think that "human sibling" enjoyed his bath all the more because it was a total steal, sort of like Mole itself.


Since you're in the neighbourhood, don't miss these other two sights:

The mosque of Larabanga Just outside Mole, and not even in the larger town of Damongo where we disembarked, there is a tiny, dusty village called Larabanga that is home to a striking mud-and-stick mosque said to be about 600 years old. Easily accessible in a hired car, the mosque abuts a majestic, stubby banyan tree, which a caretaker told me was planted atop the body of the first imam. If you've never seen a banyan, it is almost worth the trip just for the tree. But the mosque, built in a style common throughout the Sahel, makes a lasting impression. Visitors should donate a bottle of juice, or a small amount of money, to the imam.

The craft market of Tamale Care for a small wooden statue of an African businessman in a pith helmet? A crocodile handbag with the head still attached? A carved family of guinea fowl? A wooden tobacco pipe with a clay bowl featuring a human face that stares back at you as you smoke it? I know I did, which is why I now own most of these fine curios – the handbag was a bit much, though – and why I so thoroughly enjoyed the hassle-free shopping at Tamale's sleepy craft market, where owners saunter over to their stalls when they see you walk in so they can turn on the lights. In Accra, you'll pay top dollar and get stressed out. In Tamale, which you pass through to reach Mole, you can browse like the tourist you are, then chill out with some cold beer, reggae and kebabs.

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