The Day I Nearly Died

Another morning another day of battling bush taxi drivers, language barriers and border crossings. Today’s task was to get from Kara in Togo, across the Ghanaian border at Tatale and on to Tamale. Sounded pretty simple, but as we’d been discovering, travel in West Africa required patience and bags of it, nothing seemed to be as simple as it should be. We’d been looking in our guide books, the Lonely Planet had the road from the border at Tatale marked, worryingly our Bradt guide of Ghana did NOT. Further reading suggested that dependant on weather the road was passable and although the border wasn’t commonly used we should be able to cross there, it then went on to say that the area around that border was subject to countless tribal disputes and that there had been quite a few deaths and blah blah blah. We were heading that way, it was that or a 4 day trip back south to Lomé and back up through the Volta region in Ghana.

Taxi to the border sorted we set off, the road had some rather large potholes and the journey doubled in length due to the amount of  times we had to slalom our way round said craters! Arriving at the border was fairly straightforward. We were tipped out of the car, had our passports stamped and walked into Tatale. The difficulty came when we quickly discovered that although Ghana may be an English speaking country, not all spoke it, the poorer or more rural people spoke their local dialect and that was the case here in Tatale. We tried speaking in French thinking they may have a small understanding of that seeing as how they bordered Togo, more confused faces and a lot of laughing later we gave up. I resorted to the universal language… I repeated the destination we wanted to go to getting increasingly louder until someone understood me! It seemed to work only the news wasn’t good. There wasn’t a bus going to Tamale until the morning and there was no where to stay in Tatale as we were told they don’t get tourists there. Fantastic!

Eventually after a bit of negotiation I managed to persuade a driver going to Kumasi to drop us in Tamale so long as I paid the full fare to Kumasi. Deal. Fare paid, we waited and waited, then we waited some more, and some more.. we’d been sat there for 4 hours before all of a sudden there seemed to be some movement. Our transport for this journey was a knackered old Mercedes minibus with the suspension jacked right up, we’d heard it needed to be like that to get down the road, how bad was this road? it looked like someone had seen some American monster truck advert and thought, ‘I’ll have a go at that’ and duly pimped his van to vaguely resemble one. They piled a few tonnes of yams onto the roof then loads of bags, pans, livestock, pretty much everything you could think of on top of that. Our bags, as an afterthought were tied on just above the windscreen, they looked a bit precarious but at least the driver would know about it if they fell off.

Finally loaded up we piled onto the bus, to say it was cramped was an understatement. I’ve not got the usual slight frame of an African male, I’ve got broad shoulders and I like my space, space was something I wasn’t going to get though and so I opened the window and slid a shoulder out of that for the extra few inches of room as the bus driver crammed us all in like sardines. I’d made a flippant remark as I shot my video diary about going to Tamale on this bus if it ever made it that far, and as we rocked out of the dusty car park and down a road which would be simply classed as impassable back home, I was starting to think that there was a real possibility that we wouldn’t. With all the stuff on the roof the van must have been going on for 20ft tall and so it swayed a lot, you could see the sides of the bus flex as we rocked over bumps in the road and there were various holes where you could see daylight through and I’m not talking about windows!

Half an hour later we’re still rocking down the road, every so often you’d hear the bus bottom out on the road, it would then rock so severely to the side as we manoeuvred around that you were sure it was going to topple over. Gen was terrified and I was in agony, not from the lack of space but from the lack of blood going  to my lower right leg as she was squeezing it so hard. Although there had been the odd whimper from everyone else I kept reassuring Gen saying that there was nothing to worry about and that the driver must do this all the time and that I’d start worrying when everyone on the bus was. They seemed fairly calm compared to Gen who was now a few shades lighter than earlier. 3 hours of knee crippling torture later I noticed a smooth black line on the horizon, it was tarmac, we’d survived.

We pulled up onto the tarmac and the passengers on the bus gave out an elated cheer. I looked at Gen and apologised, “perhaps I should have been a bit more worried after all” it seemed like surviving that part of the journey was something to be celebrating and Gen’s worries had been valid! We relaxed a little now and I started to get the feeling back in my knee as we rattled along a pretty rough tarmac road which seemed unbelievably smooth after the last few hours. The only problem now was that it was starting to go dark. We’d been trying to avoid being on the roads at night, they’re dangerous enough as it is in daylight, never mind at night where people drive, cycle and walk without any form of lights. It was unavoidable, we were hours from Tamale and we were miles away from civilisation, we were going to just have to go with it.

I’d come to realise that sat resting my head on the vibrating window was as comfortable as I was getting and as I started to gaze out the window at the sun setting on the horizon there was an almighty bang and fierce jolt. At this moment the horizon quickly disappeared from my view and all I could see was tarmac whizzing past the window. I couldn’t see anything but the road, we were on two wheels, everyone was screaming and crying, there were bags flying everywhere, we were going to flip over, I grabbed the chair in front with one hand and Gen’s hand with the other, bad idea the seat in front just moved. When people explain close encounters with death and they explain how it all goes in slow motion they’re not wrong. Whilst getting thrown around like a rag doll inside the bus I felt a sharp jolt to the right as the driver obviously tried to stop the bus from rolling, the bus was now on the other two wheels and we were careering towards the edge of the road where there was a 7 foot ditch into a field. It was going through my head that if this bus were to roll, it would crumple like a tin can, if we escaped with anything less than serious injuries we’d be incredibly lucky, the probability of some fatalities was certainly high. I just held on tightly and braced for that moment where the bus rolled. Unbelievably the driver managed to jolt the bus left again and as the wheels hit the tarmac there was a huge crash as the front suspension shattered and bits of metal started sparking as we slid along the road with no control.

The bus came to a stop and we were still up right, I let out a huge sigh of relief, kissed Gen and turned to see if the family behind me were ok. They were crying uncontrollably, everyone raced off the bus and knelt on the tarmac kissing it and praising to God. Not being religious I refrained from this and instead gave Gen and big hug, first thing she said was “I just want to see my mum again”, we both agreed that we could definitely chalk off one our lives after that. I left Gen sat on the tarmac in the dark with everyone else and went to see if there was anything I could do to help to fix the bus and get us moving. The guys only had  crappy little wind up torches and so I got out my head torch which made it a bit easier to see what the problem was. It was pretty obvious, the front suspension was destroyed. We were going to be sat here hours waiting for either parts or a replacement bus, or so I thought. Moments later a car came driving down the road towards us and hit the very same pot hole we did and came to a stop just behind us. Luckily for him he had just shredded a tyre, unluckily for him though he didn’t have a jack to get the tyre off and replaced. We all helped out and lifted the car as the tyre got changed and once he was all fixed up he very kindly offered to take Gen and I to Tamale. It turned out he was a Police Officer and was heading with his family to his post just outside of Tamale, I seem to have a knack of befriending foreign Police, I was so pleased with this I could have kissed him, what a gent. We somehow managed to squeeze our bags in and got the 7 of us in a Vauxhall Astra and headed off leaving everyone on the side of the road. I’ve no idea how long they were stranded there for but I bet it was until the morning, I was so grateful to not have to get back on that bus, we’d found in Peru last year that its incredibly stressful and hard to get back on something you’ve just had an accident in and squashed in the back of this car with Francis the Police Officer was a million miles better than getting back on the death bus.

I’m not sure how long we were driving for as remarkably I managed to fall asleep but we arrived in Tamale quite late. I offered Francis some money for fuel but he declined it, I shook his hand and couldn’t thank him enough, he said “you’re welcome David, safe journeys!” and off he went. We’d read and been told that the Police in Africa were corrupt and to be careful around them as they were always out for making a quick buck, this was either wrong or we’d been extremely lucky and met the only genuine Police Officer in Africa!

We got ripped off for our taxi to a hotel but really didn’t care. Room sorted, we were told there had been no water in Tamale and hadn’t been in the whole city for 4 days, fabulous! We asked about the possibility of getting a beer and were told the bar was closed. Shittest day on tour EVER!! We were alive though and we had to be grateful for that!

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