It was midmorning in Kakum. The sun was up early, punching bright holes through the tops of huge shadowy trees that draped the National Park. My Ghanaian friends and I were visiting fascinating sites which abounded in primates and cats and birds and other assorted wildlife. Beautiful flora stretched in all directions.
“Wow! Kakum Park is so beautiful I could live in it,” I joked.
Amused, Adwoa laughed. “We will be kind enough to pay you visits, Georgie, if you choose to stay,” she offered.
Adwoa, never tired of teasing me, responded with a mischievous grin when I threw her an unpleasant look. She was sweet and fun to be with, yet Adwoa’s twinkling eyes made me predict that she would let her tongue loose on me later.
“But really, this park harbours an incredible collection of wildlife,” intervened Kosi, a Togolese but also a naturalised Ghanaian.
Adwoa and Kosi were in their final year of secondary school at Sekondi-Takoradi in the Western Region District of Ghana. I was visiting from Nigeria and applying to the University of Cape Coast. We had been friends since our primary school days in Nigeria before Adwoa’s and Kosi’s parents returned to Ghana. Kosi was two years younger than me.
With the permission of our parents, we had journeyed to Kakum early on Saturday for a tour of the wild. An hour before noon, we reached the peak of our tour—Kakum Canopy Walkway.
The walkway was firmly secured with pulleys and guy wires to the trunk of a massive tree. With a meshwork of wire ropes on either side of board floors, the roofless canopy passage presented a front for harmless adventure.
I paid for a ticket and nimbly got on. Only a few paces out, it became clear that the rope bridge was not as fixed in place as it appeared. It swung with every step I took. Halfway through the passageway, there was an announcement.
“My friends, we are walking at a height of forty metres on Africa’s only canopy walkway,” the tour guide said. It was Africa’s only at the time.
I looked down over the sides of the swinging walkway and with rising uneasiness, observed several feet below, a verdant carpet of enormous trees. My crippling phobia for heights set in and my stomach knotted.
Climbing to an elevated place made me woozy. As a child, fruit-picking with my friends was a pastime that had caused me much anxiety. Scaling trees to pluck fruits was an ordeal, an insurmountable challenge, for me. I could never climb beyond the lowest branch of a short tree without falling into panic.
And here I was in the forest of Kakum swinging unwillingly several feet above the tallest trees I had ever come across. Terrified, my heart hung loose in its cavity; I literally could feel it dangling as it thumped. What if the bridge broke? Maybe it wouldn’t, but what if some depraved person decided to sabotage the canopy walkway in order to gain instant notoriety?
Clutching the banisters for support and taking baby steps, I felt light-headed and giddy. Our gleeful guide was pointing out something to fellow tourists but I had become deaf and blind to everything around me, wholly disabled by fright. As the bridge swayed beneath my weight I shut my eyes, clenched my teeth, and interminably recited the 23rd Psalm.
Up ahead, Adwoa plodded along but was coping well enough. Kosi walked on spryly and did not appear the least bit flustered. As opposed to the way I keeled on the rope bridge, Kosi’s easy gait was appealing to the eye. I felt a tinge of jealousy for his youthfulness and agility. Maybe it was his passion for riding roller coasters that had contributed to his fearlessness. I had been on a roller coaster too but one ride on “The Big Dipper” could not cure my paranoia for heights. Nor was it enough to cast a sedating spell on my harrowing canopy walk.
The tour guide was such a drama queen. She walked a few paces forward on the canopy catwalk like a model; then she did a little pirouette as she turned around to face us to continue her chatter. I guessed she did all this to entertain tourists and distract them from their fear. But I was so lost in my own world, so imprisoned in my mind that I could not appreciate her efforts.
At last, we arrived at the tree house on the other end of the bridge. Sighing in relief, I waited for the crowd clustering the gazebo to thin out so I could get off the hanging walkway. Leaning on a guard-rail across from where I stood and looking spent was Adwoa. She waved to me. Kosi was standing close by her.
“How was the walk, Georgie?” he asked.
I still trembled a bit but I told him it went well. Meantime, the guide congratulated us on a successful canopy-trek.
Praising myself too for the incredible feat, my mind returned to my fruit-picking days. How I hated those tall trees! They mocked me with their tantalizing fruits that remained ever out of reach. Often, I would remain on the ground and watch as other boys barrelled up tree trunks like squirrels and hoisted themselves on the branches nearby. It was always a magical sight to behold.
Back then, boys who could not climb simply threw objects at the fruits. I was hopeless at that too. Whereas my companions would expertly hurl stout sticks into tree branches to dislodge torrents of mangoes or udara, a species of star apples native to West Africa, I could never aim straight at those leafy tops. Frequently, the objects I threw missed the tree completely, travelling into the high heavens. Everyone had to run for cover, hiding their heads from the returning boomerang that brought no fruits.
In reality, I did much of the fruit-sorting. While my friends brought down the fruits, I busied with the gathering and sorting.
“You’ll see how quickly we get through the remaining bridges,” I heard our guide saying, most likely in response to somebody’s question.
I had totally forgotten that the canopy walkway comprised seven bridges all linked together! Alarmed, I thought of getting off the passageway immediately. But I soon remembered that we were hanging above the forest in the middle of a jungle which doubtless housed ferocious beasts lying out of sight. Travelling back on the first bridge was out of the question because the narrow passageway only conveyed traffic in one direction.
I placed my trembling self on the second rope bridge. With chattering teeth and quaking limbs, I trudged on. Not knowing what my end would be, I lamented the short and not-so-fruitful life I had lived. Time and again, I caught myself reciting the sinner’s prayer under my breath.
My leaden feet shuffled on with the reluctance of a sheep forced to the slaughter. The air in my lungs had become sluggish as I unconsciously held breath in my throat. I had visions of becoming prey to the terrible creatures below. Certainly, they waited at the table prepared for them, a bloody serving of mangled flesh—me—to be dished anytime soon.
Enduring the torture of my thoughts and the buzzing train of tourists that had built up behind me, I agonized through the second and third rope bridges. My nightmarish journey on the perilous passageway was not getting any easier. I was constantly in fear as I walked over that chasm of death on tightropes that took on the appearance of space bridges.
Yet, there appeared to be hope that I would make it to the end. Inching along much to the irritation of the impatient crowd trailing me, I went through the fourth, and the fifth and eventually the last.
It was unimaginable that I had come through those frightening suspended bridges that swayed! Sadly, much of my trek on Kakum Canopy Walkway was a blur. From the vantage height of the walkway, I did not view any animals in the forest like other tourists claimed they did. Instead, my terror for heights chewed me up and spewed me out, limp and spent, at the end of the walk.
I came away, however, with one intuitive lesson, namely, to steer clear of heights altogether, especially those over dense forests and waiting beasts.