Travel: Trunk calls at close quarters

Ghana is a paradise for twitchers, but elephant-spotters don't do badly either.
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The Independent Culture
GHANA IS not the first place that springs to mind when thinking of safari locations. The plains of East and southern Africa are far better known for their wildlife. But in the dry savannah of northern Ghana is the enormous Mole National Park, at 4,840 square kilometres the country's largest reserve. It's true you won't see giraffe, rhino or herds of grunting ungulates here, nor prides of satiated lions sunning themselves. But Mole boasts an impressive array of birds and the tourist-filled Land Rover populations are thankfully small in number.

The park is accessible by an unsealed but sound road. The only lodge within the reserve is the Mole Hotel, which camping facilities and is built at the top of an escarpment, giving it good views of the surrounding countryside. A few metres from the swimming-pool is a viewing platform where you can sit sipping a glass of Ghanaian beer, with binoculars trained on the animals drawn in from the surrounding bush by the area's only major water-hole.

It is here that I get my first glimpse of elephants. A tree starts to quiver and then jerks to the ground, swiftly devoured by a small family group. They munch behind a screen of thorn trees on the edge of a small lake, its mud-brown water criss-crossed by languid crocodiles, suddenly mobile in the warmth of late afternoon.

I wake before dawn the following day to the sounds of an elephant snuffling in a drain just 15 metres away from my room. By the time I've got my binoculars, the beast is off at a deceptively brisk pace, moodily swishing its tail as it disappears back down the slope.

We are restricted to visiting the park during the daytime as there is a heavy incidence of poaching in Mole. Part of our guide Zakaria's job involves the nightly anti-poaching patrols. In East African reserves, wardens are much freer with their guns, but in Ghana they can only use them in self- defence against poachers.

The best way to see the park is by foot-safari, in the cool of the early morning and late afternoon. At these times, the wildlife is at its most visible and active, and visitors must be accompanied by a warden or "technical assistant" armed with a rifle, just in case. Our party sets off soon after the orange sun weakly crosses the horizon, dimmed by a fine silver-brown haze of dust blown south from the Sahara.

As the sun rises, a flock of guinea-fowl play eccentric games of dominance and submission at the base of the nearby escarpment. I can't help thinking how good they were last night - roasted and smothered in red beans and deep-fried plantains - but am soon distracted by the soothing chirl of doves and the surprisingly heavy dew that sparkles in the long grass.

We skirt a series of small pools where thousands of tiny frogs scatter at the water's edge like kicked sand. The pungent cloud of a civet cat's territorial scent hangs in the still morning air and our guide Zakaria points to a week-old lion spoor, warning that there could be other eyes watching us from nearby bushes.

Mole is home to some 300 bird species. Among the more spectacular we see are brilliant blue Abyssinian Rollers, Red-throated Bee-eaters, small iridescent sun-birds, and a Paradise Flycatcher with its improbably long white feathers flickering in an acacia, but the primitive and otherworldly looking Violet Plantain Eater is the most striking of all.

Kob, bush-buck and water- buck eye us cautiously through thickets, and before we know it Zakaria has lead us to the edge of a small pool - all that stands between us and two bull elephants. They are clearly aware of our presence and make sure we know it with inimitably cool assurance. A few minutes later they are on the same side of the water. After 12 years, Zakaria knows them well. He manoeuvres us to get close to the more docile one, proving that, if you're on foot, Mole is as good a place as any to see elephants.

Jon Lusk paid pounds 590 return from London Heathrow to Accra on Ghana Airways (0171-499 0201). Through discount agents such as Flightbookers (0171-757 2000) or Trailfinders (0171-938 3366), fares are around pounds 500.

There are daily flights from Accra to Tamale (the nearest city to Mole) and, from there, there is a daily bus service to the park. It may be worth hiring your own vehicle in Accra.

Double rooms at Mole Hotel cost between $14 and $20 but you can also camp in the hotel grounds. Park entrance fees are around $2 and guided foot safaris cost about $1 per person per hour