Day 180: Baboons and Warthogs and Elephants, Oh My!

A taste of African safari.

June 29, 2015: Mole National Park, Ghana — First thing this morning I staggered bleary-eyed out of my room at the Mole Park Hotel, and immediately almost walked into a baboon along the sidewalk by the swimming pool. Whoa, wake up! Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!

Mole National Park, in northern Ghana, is perhaps the country’s top birding destination, but it’s also a popular spot for tourists to find their hearts on safari. My second shock of the day came when I sat down for breakfast and realized that, for the first time in a few days, I wasn’t the only non-African in sight. (Two days ago I spotted a pair of nametagged Latter Day Saints missionaries walking through a village, but otherwise it’s been an all-local experience in Ghana so far.) Is there such thing as reverse culture shock?

My birding posse has grown to five people: Me, Kalu, our driver Yaw (“Thursday”), a rifle-carrying park guard named Robert, and another Ghanian birder named Illiesu Ziblim who is a year younger than me and met us here to tag along for a couple of days. We all crowded into Yaw’s double-cabbed pickup and rolled out to follow the red dirt road.

The bird sightings flew fast and furious. At one point Kalu pointed out a Senegal Batis in a tree, and when I focused my binoculars somewhere over the bird, I realized that there were two other birds in the same field of view: A Senegal Eremomela and an African Yellow White-eye. Three lifers at once! Because the environment at Mole is so different than in southern Ghana, almost all the birds we saw today were new ones, and it was all I could handle just to keep up—especially with such evocative names. Would anyone care to join for a Red-cheeked Cordonbleu? And can you keep your Singing, Winding, Whistling, Zitting, Siffling, and Croaking cisticolas straight?

Meanwhile, other animals kept popping into view. Baboons, vervet monkeys, kob (a type of deer-like animal), and warthogs were everywhere in the savanna … and a little rabbit, too! While we were looking for Flappet Larks and Sun Larks in a grassy field, Robert quietly pointed something out in the distance. I didn’t quite catch what he said (Ghana’s national language is English but the accent is very different), and scanned the field for a minute before asking what he had called attention to. Just then a white-faced antelope stood up right in front of us and loped away—I’d been so focused on tiny brown birds that I missed the refrigerator-sized mammal.

The big highlight, so to speak, arrived when the five of us rounded a corner to find two enormous African elephants strolling next to a waterhole. These were my first-ever wild elephants, and I admit I quit watching birds for a few minutes to soak in the moment. The elephants at Mole live a relatively unthreatened existence; poaching is not much of an issue here, partly because of regular park patrols, and these two looked completely at peace as they munched on leafy branches. Later, another huge male elephant interrupted my lunch when it walked up to the hotel restaurant and began, in a very relaxed way, to eat the landscaping. There’s no place like Africa!

New birds today: 57

Year list: 3322

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P.S. There is a Wizard of Oz reference in every paragraph of this post. Can you spot them all?