Mole National Park: A Safari Splurge

I remember the first time I saw an elephant in the wild. We were on our second day of safari in Tanzania, and had left the magical Ngorongoro Crater for Tarangire National Park. We'd already seen hippos and lions and zebras and ostriches - so much amazing wildlife. But when I finally saw elephants, I was in total awe. The elephants seemed to have a level of intelligence and awareness and serenity that really moved me.

Ghana is not known for its wildlife. Unlike Tanzania, it's not the kind of place one comes for safari. There are no giraffes or zebras or big cats (well, allegedly a few lions that no one has seen in years) - but there are elephants. To see them you have to go north, to Mole National Park (pronounced Moh-lay, like the Oaxacan sauce, not like the rodent).

Mole is still developing as a tourist destination, and there are essentially two options right now: budget (Mole Motel) or luxury (Zaina Lodge). Those who know me may be shocked, but after some debate, Kendra (who came to visit) and I decided to take the luxury route! A week later my intern and her husband did the budget option - I'm going to have her write a guest post since there's not a lot of good info available for planning a trip!

From the moment we walked into the lodge, I was thrilled with our choice. We were handed a delicious welcome drink that tasted like a margarita without the booze and walked over to check out the view - and there was our first elephant, taking a swim in the watering hole below the infinity pool! Even though it was rainy season (which means the elephants have more watering holes to choose from throughout the park), we saw at least one or two in the holes by the lodge all three days we were there. In dry season, I've heard it can be 20 or more at once.

First view at Zaina - that dark spot on the far side of the watering hold is an elephant!

But we didn't come all the way to Mole to just watch them from above (though we did do a fair amount of that - the pool was a pretty amazing place to relax). Zaina offers safari drives in the morning and afternoon and walking safaris in the morning - and we tried them all!

While Ghana doesn't have the same quantity of wildlife as other countries, it does offer a very up-close and intimate experience with the animals.  Multiple times we were on foot less than 50 feet away from these massive and majestic creatures. (Don't worry mom, we had an armed guard! But Zack knows how to read the elephants well, and said he's never had to shoot one in 30 years of guiding.)

On our walking safari (should really be called hiking safari), we spent probably a good thirty minutes hanging out with four big old guys. They were well aware that we were just across the dirt road from them, but they were much more concerned with grazing their way towards the watering hole. We were clearly not a threat.

This guy was a little less sure about our threat status inside the jeep - he waved his ears at us and followed along more quickly and closely than our driver would have liked!

We hopped out of the car on a driving safari to hang out with these two who were less perturbed by our presence - even posing for selfies with us. The jeep was hanging out very close by and at some point as we all took pictures, Zack must have picked up on a change in the elephant's behavior because he asked us to all start slowly making our way to the jeep. One girl didn't pay attention and kept taking pictures. Zack finally quietly admonished her to "Please get in the car RIGHT NOW" - which, if you have spent time in Ghana, you'll realize is actually quite serious, as Ghanaians are unwaveringly polite. I teased him about it later and he said he felt bad, but it was better to be impolite than dead. (To be clear: from my view he was not impolite at all! I would have had some much harsher words for the girl who would not follow instructions about wildlife safety.)

Elephants are the main attraction, but there is actually more to see! On safari drives we saw baboons, monkeys, warthogs, and several types of antelope.

In between safaris, we hung out by the infinity pool and ate delicious four-course meals. It was an incredibly relaxing and indulgent experience and was 100% worth the splurge. I'll always be a thrifty traveler at heart, but it's nice to be at a place in my life where I can enjoy something like this every once in awhile!

In total we spent 2 nights/3 days at Zaina which I thought was the perfect amount of time to see everything and not get bored (or go broke).

Getting There 
Mole National Park is located about 2.5 hours from Tamale, which you can reach by air (40 minutes, multiple Africa World Airlines flights daily - $150 RT but purchasing tickets was a hassle - ask me for details) or by bus (~12 hours, STC bus, also a hassle to pay for so basically good luck getting there if you are not a resident of Ghana with a mobile money account!).

From Tamale to Mole, we had the lodge pick us up ($110 each way), but you can also negotiate a taxi at the airport for around 250 cedi (~$50) one way. Ellen will give the details in her post on the super budget option: tro tro!

Accommodations and Meals
Zaina offers several packages, and after crunching the numbers we decided to go with Mole Delights, which included 2 safaris per day and all meals (it's cheaper than paying separately for all of those things). Drinks were not included, but were very reasonably priced - 25 cedi for wine or cocktails. Water was free and was treated on site through reverse osmosis and provided to guests in glass bottles! (They were also happy to fill up my Nalgene.) I really appreciated this and other eco-friendly touches at Zaina - they are pretty rare here in Ghana.

The rooms are each in their own air-conditioned, luxury tent. They're really beautiful and comfortable, and each has its own balcony looking out on the watering holes.

The walkway to the tents. At night, an armed guard walks you back because sometimes the elephants like to visit!

Breakfast was a fairly standard buffet with pastries, eggs, and fresh fruit. They make delicious (but sweet) iced coffee, which we would take and sip by the pool after finishing breakfast. Lunch and dinner were outstanding multi-course meals. Each meal had two options, continental or Ghanaian, and came with a soup course, two salads, a main, and a dessert. We were lucky to speak with the chef on our last night - he's a Ghanaian who spent several years in South Africa before coming home to Ghana and being lured up to Mole temporarily. Two years later he's doing really interesting and delicious things with Ghanaian classics, like a deconstructed palava sauce with tilapia and pounded yam rounds. The kitchen was also great about accommodating our dietary needs and preferences.

Vegan chocolate cake

Zaina excels at customer service and attention to detail. The surroundings are beautiful and unobtrusive, luxurious but not pretentious. They make an effort to be eco-friendly, and they employ a lot of folks from nearby villages in a very rural and poor area of the country (and their staff are amazing!). Basically, I love Zaina. (And as a side note: the CEO got his start in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer! This is an interesting interview about how and why he opened Zaina Lodge.)

PAPER STRAWS in our sunset mojitos!!!!! 

If you're coming during rainy season, be prepared for the tsetse flies! While there's no sleeping sickness in Ghana, their bites really hurt and itch for days! Wear long pants and long sleeves and close toed shoes. Thicker fabric is better (they can bite through thin fabrics).

Other things to pack: sunscreen, good hiking/walking shoes (even if you plan to only to a driving safari, you may find yourself getting out to track elephants!), a reusable water bottle. 


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