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Bridge with a view: Ghana's primeval forest

This primeval forest in southern Ghana boasts 300 species of birds, unique monkeys and the highly endangered forest elephant and bongo antelope.
Image:A visitor walks along the canopy walk
A visitor walks along the canopy walk, a series of foot bridges suspended 30 meters in the air over the treetops, in Kakum National Park, Ghana. Olivier Asselin / Associated Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

This primeval forest in southern Ghana boasts 300 species of birds, unique monkeys and the highly endangered forest elephant and bongo antelope.

But the only wildlife I saw was one very long worm.

The tropical rain forest of Kakum National Park is so thick that light barely breaks through the treetops. Spotting animals, often shy night-wanderers, is an uncommon joy, won with great patience and luck.

Regrettably, the group of visitors that I was part of had neither.

Kakum's "canopy walk" tries to better the odds of glimpsing the park's leery inhabitants.

The rope bridge suspended 100-110 feet off the forest floor yields an extraordinary sweep of nature from what feels like just below cloud level.

A 20-minute climb from the reception and restaurant area on a trail through the dank thicket takes you up 600 feet to the edge of the valley.

Along the way, our forest officer may point out some of the trees and their medicinal properties, a brief taste of a two-hour guided tour that is available separately.

The guide can tell you, for example, about the strange Kantun tree, with its roots exposed above the ground like a coat rack: The bark is good for pregnancy, the leaves are pain killers, the leaf bark sap counteracts parasitic infections, and the tree sap can be an antidote for food poisoning.

The brief lecture serves as chance to catch your breath from the climb — but it is soon to be lost again in the breathtaking view from the canopy walk.

At the top of the ridge you step onto the bridge, with only a narrow plank of wood underpinned by a few steel bars and a netting of rope separating you from the abyss.

The thrill of skywalking can be tempered for an acrophobe like me, who is reluctant to even board a Ferris wheel. Knowing that there is nothing to fear does little to settle nerves or steady shaky knees.

But with a deep breath and a determined look ahead (not down), I walked the plank and pulled myself along the rope handrails to the first wooden platform, a circular treehouse that serves as a way station on the 1,000-foot-long walkway.

The bridge gives a little bounce and sways a bit as you walk unsteadily through the V-shaped side netting and on to the next of the six platforms.

But this is more than an amusement park ride. It's a tiny window on the Earth as it was before man started fiddling with it.

From all around come the calls of birds and the rustle of unseen monkeys scampering among the limbs of ebony and mahogany trees, their crowns highlighted in the late afternoon sunlight.

Kakum, which became a national park in 1990, is a 135 square mile remnant of the vast forest that once stretched near the Atlantic Ocean shore of West Africa, from Guinea through Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Today, 90 percent of Ghana's rain forest is gone, felled for agriculture and mining. Kakum stands amid small plots of maize, cocoa, cassava and palm oil, and tracks of degraded scrub land that were farmed and abandoned when the soil became depleted.

The park has 100,000 visitors a year. Half are Ghanaian and about a quarter are expatriates working here and their visitors. A few thousand are tourists who come to this English-speaking country of 23 million people, often described as one of the safest and friendliest in Africa.

Image:The rainforest in Kakum National Park
The rainforest in Kakum National Park, Ghana, is shown on Sunday Aug. 24, 2008. This primeval forest in southern Ghana boasts 300 species of birds, unique monkeys and the highly endangered forest elephant and bongo antelope. (AP Photo/Olivier Asselin)Olivier Asselin / AP

Around Kakum's edges are villages like Afiaso, a hamlet of thatched-roof huts lacking electricity and sanitation and one concrete building — the schoolhouse. Cocoa beans, the main source of income for the 620 residents, are arrayed in the sun on wooden platforms in various stages of drying.

Afiaso is off the tourist track on the western side of the park, but the villagers were expecting us.

A troop of girls wearing bright wraparound skirts and beaded necklaces, their bodies streaked in ash, performed a traditional dance to a drumbeat pounded out by half a dozen teenage boys.

Chief Nana Opare Ababio and the village elders, dressed in ceremonial togas and regally seated on plastic chairs, greeted us under a tree and talked about the forest, its wildlife, and their hopes of starting an eco-tourist business.

Long ago, the villagers brought down the massive trees to clear the land for cocoa plants. Until the park was created, ending the relentless stripping of the forest, the men would hunt game and conduct ancient tribal rituals at revered forest shrines under the boughs.

The protection of the forest has allowed the wildlife population to grow, but also has increased conflict between man and animal, especially the elephant whose numbers have increased by nearly 10 percent to at least 206 since 2000, says Daniel Ewur, the park manager.

Smaller than the familiar Savannah elephant, the forest dweller is still a healthy eater, and occasionally ventures outside the park to forage in agricultural fields.

Chief Ababio said he doesn't regret the loss of hunting rights and is happy that the children will grow up seeing animals that otherwise might vanish from the earth.