Around the Volta in 14 Days
Author: Tony Pinto
The author journeys to the Volta region of Ghana to find the Ghana killifish Fundulosoma (Nothobranchius) thierryi, encountering surprises—both good and bad—along the way.
The Quest for Ghana Killifish
Like all “fish tourist” tales, you have to start somewhere. My tale begins in late 2005 with a search on the Internet for the tiny little gem known as the Ghana killifish Fundulosoma (Nothobranchius) thierryi. This is a small, beautifully colored fish known from the West African states of Togo, Ghana, and Mali. Most references I found described it to be principally from Southeast Ghana in the vicinity of the Accra. Others mentioned populations from Togo and Mali. This is an uncommon fish with a very wide distribution.
Having previously kept the populations from both these latter countries with some success, I decided to try and find F. thierryi in the wild, and perhaps see how widely it was distributed in Ghana.
My Internet search took me to a German gentleman named Walter Kleinbudde who lives in Cape Coast, Ghana, where he runs a hotel and tourism business called “African Nature Tours.” He had limited experience with “fish tourists” such as myself, as most of his visitors to Ghana come for the wildlife tours, but he was willing to work on organizing a fish tour.
I managed to interest my friend David Armitage of the United Kingdom in coming along on the trip, as he was keen on collecting the anabantoid fish Ctenopoma petherici, as well as killies and other oddball fish that might be found in Ghana. Walter suggested that we try to get a couple more people for the trip to reduce our costs, but alas, all the leads for additional fish tourists turned out to be dead ends for one reason or another. Undaunted, we continued our planning and preparations. We had a final itinerary put together by Walter by the beginning of September 2006. It provided us several opportunities to visit suitable fish habitats in the southeast, middle, and northern regions of Ghana—and to do some fishing while touring and experiencing life there.
Leaving for Ghana
We started traveling from the United Kingdom on the morning of October 10. We experienced a significant delay due to aircraft problems before finally arriving in Ghana just before midnight. It was hot, sticky, and steamy when we emerged from the air-conditioned airport, but Walter and his driver Mutallah were waiting for us. We made our way to the minibus and found that there was a problem with the engine, but Mutallah promptly fixed it. Then we drove off from the airport and onto the motorway to a small hotel called the “Aylos Bay” in Akosombo in the southeast of Ghana. It certainly wasn’t a five-star hotel, but it was comfortable enough for us “fish tourists,” who are more experienced with two- and three-star hotels while on our adventures.
The Helpful Fisherman
After breakfast the following morning we drove to a village called Kpong, which was situated near a huge lake formed by the Volta Dam. The lake had large water lilies and lots of vegetation along the banks, which gave us hope that we might find some fish there. But after 15 minutes of fishing it became clear there were no fishes to be found anywhere near the shores of this lake. Then one of the fishermen who lived nearby approached us and asked what fish we were looking for. David showed him some of the pictures of fish in a book we had brought. The fisherman told us that we were not likely to find any fish close by, since there was a lot of disturbance in the water from the village children playing along the shore and the women doing their washing in the water. He said fishes were more likely to be found around a nearby island in the lake, located about ¼ mile from the shore. He was willing to take us there in his boat if we would pay for his time and effort.
We were somewhat skeptical, but decided to give it a try; after all, the worst that could happen would be that we would lose a little money (it turned out to only cost us the equivalent of six dollars!). So David and I went in the little boat and the fisherman rowed us towards the island. In a few minutes it was apparent that he had told us the truth about the fish. I started seeing schools of small fish as the boat headed toward the small island. Using my dipnet I caught some beautifully colored Epiplatys bifasciatus, Aplocheilus species, and even a few small red barbs.
As we approached the island, the submerged vegetation near the shore yielded more interesting fish, such as juvenile African snakehead Parachanna obscura, a small, nicely marked fish. I also caught juvenile cichlids that looked like Hemichromis and Tilapia species. In addition to fish, every scoop of the dipnet also picked up lots of aquatic insects and tadpoles, which the fish were no doubt feeding upon. It was quite apparent that the lake had a rich and varied aquatic life—changing our initial impression of the habitat we had gathered while fishing close to the shore.
While we were collecting, the fisherman managed to stop a boat containing two small boys who were also out fishing, but for food on their tables. We saw a huge shrimp, as well as a fish closely resembling the African “buffalo-head cichlid.”
The Search for F. thierryi
After an hour of very productive fishing, we sorted our catch, put them into our collection containers in the minibus, and proceeded in the direction of Sogakofe to look for F. thierryi. We passed a village called Juapong, and after about 30 minutes of driving along the road we spotted a pool of water by the side of the road where one of the locals was washing his motorbike. This pool turned out to be shallow with no aquatic vegetation, just some scrub bushes at the edges of the pool; it looked typical of the temporary habitats where one can find Nothobranchius species in East Africa.
My initial attempts at fishing were unrewarding, with nothing but tadpoles and dragonfly larvae to show for my efforts. David found a couple females of a fish that looked like an annual killifish species, but we were not able to determine what it was. But after another five minutes, David caught a beautifully colored male in the submerged scrub vegetation near the edge of the pool, and I knew without doubt that we had found F. thierryi!
We continued to fish here, but once we collected eight pairs of fish in less than 45 minutes we decided to move on to look for other sites. We had been very lucky very quickly. The amazing thing was the water parameters; all the reference material I have says that F. thierryi come from soft and acid water, but this habitat was quite different. The water was fairly hard and alkaline, the temperature was 33°C (91°F), the pH 7.2 to 7.6, and the GH 10 to 15.
Things Heat Up
It was close to noon as we continued along the road and stopped at another couple of roadside pools. These were filled with water lilies but did not have anything other than some unattractive juvenile barbs, which we did not collect. The tropical sun beats down very strongly in Ghana, and even though we were driving in an air-conditioned car, it got very hot in the minivan very quickly. Until this time I had always assumed that the fish we were keeping in the collecting containers would survive quite easily in the air-conditioned minibus; after all, it was never a problem on my other fishing trips. But here in Ghana I was going to find out how wrong my assumption was before the end of the day, and again before the end of the trip.
A Day of Surprises—Both Good and Bad
The road we traveled through passed stretches of dry land, which were covered in grasses and tall weeds—we were in savannah area. We headed in the direction of Sogakofe, passed a few small villages, and every once in a while we came across small herds of either sheep or cattle. There appeared to be little or no effort to bring in agriculture to this area. The paved road became a dirt path with huge potholes appearing every so often. Mutallah was very experienced with avoiding the potholes and so we came through safely.
We Find a Stream
The savannah gradually gave way to small forested areas and we started to notice small streams flowing under the road, but most were drying up or too open to find any fish. Finally, we found a small clear stream and the initial impression was that it contained nothing of any consequence. We decided to fish in the grassy areas at the edges of the stream, however, and it was soon apparent that there was much more fish life than we originally thought. We collected small one-lined African tetras, a Hemichromis type cichlid, Epiplatys bifasciatus, and Epiplatys spilargyreius. David even collected a tiny little (one-inch) lungfish, but unfortunately it did not survive for more than a few days of travel.
The Storm Hits
Huge storm clouds arrived while we were fishing and the heavy rain forced us to cut short our fishing efforts and head back to the minibus. Tropical rainstorms can come down hard and cause flash floods; this storm was no exception, and we continued very slowly on our way to Sogkofe, arriving close to 5 p.m. Upon arrival it was apparent that the town had been built up to the extent that any likely fishing habitats no longer existed, so we left to return back to our hotel in Akosombo. The return journey through the rain and near darkness was uneventful thanks to Mutallah.
Back at the Hotel
Upon arriving at the hotel I inspected the fish and found that most of the male F. thierryi were dead but most of the females were alive. I suspected that the heat in the area of the car where we had stored them had caused this, since there were no signs of ripped fins or aggression (and F. thierryi can be very aggressive in small containers). Over the coming days we would see this situation again, and we finally resolved it by buying a small ice chest (cooler) to keep our fish alive during travel. But I managed to keep the surviving males and females successfully for the rest of trip—a testament to good water management while collecting. We celebrated our first day of successful collection with a great meal and several local “Star” beers.
The Sites of Lake Bosomtwe
We traveled from Akosombo to Kumasi the following morning to see the museum in Kumasi, visit Lake Bosomtwe, and perhaps do some fishing there if time permitted. On the way we passed a few small streams but most were inaccessible from the road. So we only fished in a single location, one which Walter told us about. There were no fishes to be seen in the stream, but David ventured into the tall grass near the bank and promptly came out with a 4-inch Ctenopoma petherici. This was the only fish he found at that location. We packed the fish and continued on our journey to Kumasi.
We eventually got to Kumasi and went to visit the king’s palace and museum (Ghana has a monarchy even through it has a democratically elected government). It turned out to be a very informative tour about the Ashanti people and their rulers, particularly the artifacts on display in the museum.
After the visit we went into town briefly to change some money at the local currency exchange and then drove off to the Bosomtwe Paradise resort on Lake Bosomtwe. This turned out to be luxurious accommodation (the resort provided first-class hotel facilities). There was sufficient light in the sky, but it was apparent that there were very few fish to be found near the edges of the lake, and all of them were very young tilapia. There was a little rainforest area around the hotel, but the heavy rains the previous day had washed a lot of the plants (and even a small bridge) down into the lake, so we were unable to do any fish exploration.
From Fish to Monkeys
The following morning we visited the monkey sanctuary at Boabeng and eventually found our hotel at Techiman. Our hotel was particularly great in terms of service. The lock on our door was not working, but the hotel management promised that it would be fixed by the evening. It took us a couple of hours to get to the Boabeng monkey sanctuary, but it was worth the effort to see the rare species there. We saw the friendly mona monkeys, as well as the more reclusive black-and-white Colobus monkeys. The sanctuary consists of a village with a unique patch of forest in which the monkeys live. The villagers treat the monkeys with respect, and no one in the village is allowed to injure or kill any of these animals (they even have a monkey cemetery).
After a couple of hours at the sanctuary we traveled back to our hotel at Techiman. Before going to bed we enjoyed an excellent meal of the local Ghanian food and our “Star” beers before going to bed. While we were eating we experienced a power blackout, which are very common in Ghana and happen at least once a day, typically lasting for 12 hours. The situation also happens with water distribution. Fortunately Walter had warned us in advance about this, so we were prepared for such situations. The hotel was also prepared in that they ran a generator to supply electrical power to the rooms. So we could enjoy the local music channel on the television without any interruption.
Visiting Mole National Park
On the morning of October 14 we left our hotel at Techiman to travel north to visit Mole National Park for a couple of days. We hoped to see the wildlife (particularly elephants) in the park, and we also wanted to collect fish in some of the smaller streams there. We passed forested areas and then moved on through hilly terrain where the road was raised higher than the surrounding ground. The environment consisted of savannah with lots of brush. There was very little water in evidence, but occasionally we saw a few pools with lots of water lilies—this gave us some hope that we might find fish in these areas, and we planned to collect them on our way back to Mole Park. The highway was well paved until we went through a small village about 60 km from the park.
We arrived at the park at around 2 p.m. and checked into the local hotel just in time to meet a guide and ask if we could fish in the park. Unfortunately it was the weekend and the park administrator was not available to give us permission to collect fish, but David was very persuasive and convinced the deputy administrator that we would only catch fish, identify them, and return them back to the water, also providing them a list of what we had collected. One of the park guides, James, was assigned for our visit and took us around at 3:30 p.m.
Mole Park is unique in that there are no fences surrounding it, so animals in there can come and go as they feel inclined. In addition, it is only possible to walk in the park (preferably with an armed guide), as vehicles are not allowed.
Checking out the Aquatic Life
We saw kob antelope in the brush as well as lots of birds but there was no sign of any slow-moving streams where we might collect fish. Eventually we came across a large isolated pool with weeds around the edges. More out of boredom than anything else, I decided to try and see if anything was in the pool. The first couple of scoops with the net didn’t yield anything, but then suddenly I netted a female killifish that looked similar to a Nothobranchius female. A few more dips and I had a pretty male to go with her. It was an incredible pair of F. thierryi! I believe this is the first time that this species has been reported from Mole Park (and in the North of Ghana). Another interesting observation is the fact that the water was once again moderately hard and alkaline—pH between 7.2 and 7.6, GH at 7 to 14, and KH 20. The male fish was very colorful despite the somewhat cloudy water in the photographic tank we had brought with us; he even attempted to spawn with the female several times.
We returned the fish back to the temporary pool after our short photo session and went to the main water hole where the wild animals come to drink. Along the way we spotted some trees and a tiny little stream, more a trickle of water than a fast-moving stream. A few more dips of the net produced more F.thierryi, proving that the fish was alive and well in Mole Park in northern Ghana. The main watering hole is fed by the Mole River, and this river feeds the Volta River system through a system of streams and small rivers. So it is certainly possible that F. thierryi is to be found in the north and then distributed in the south where it is recorded. We only found a few barbs in the vegetation surrounding the watering holes. As it was getting late, we headed up a steep path leading back to the park hotel. Once we were back at our quarters we enjoyed a meal in the company of swarms of insects, which were attracted to the lights on our table. The electricity was off for most of the night.
Exotic Animals Take Our Breath Away
The next morning we went for an early morning walk through the park at 7 a.m. to see the animals. We spotted deer, elephants, warthogs, baboons, and lots of colorful birds. After the walk and a late breakfast, we decided to look outside the park for any possible habitats for the F. thierryi. We found several likely habitats but there was nothing in them, just tadpoles and insect larvae. The elevation of the road led us to believe that we were too high to collect any of the semi-annual killifish. At one point we passed a small fast-flowing stream where we collected young barbs and also a small elephant-nose fish, which successfully escaped within a few minutes of collection. It was just one of those days when the fishing wasn’t too productive.
We also visited the village of Larabanga, which has one of the oldest mosques in Ghana. We were immediately surrounded by a bunch of young crooks who were looking for easy money by way of donations. I like to think that I made it a little difficult for them to do that by asking for their register where they record donations received. David went on another tour of the park with the guide while I stayed inside and decided to catch up on all my tasks, like changing water, etc.
Journeying Toward Yeiji
On October 16 we visited several likely habitats along the way back from Mole Park to Techiman. While most looked like they were capable of supporting aquatic life (they held water lilies and other aquatic plants), all we were collecting was tadpoles and aquatic larvae, though at one spot I collected a small 3-inch lungfish, which was an exciting find. We arrived at the Kintampo Falls and found that the fast water current just made fishing impossible. But the falls themselves were very beautiful and impressive, and after an hour in the cool shade near the falls we headed back to a hotel at Techiman for our supper. We were going to travel from Techiman to Yeiji to catch the ferry and travel down the man-made Volta Lake the next day, and Walter promised us plenty of opportunities to search for fish.
We started out on our way toward Yeiji at 10 a.m. on October 17 and traveled along the road in what appeared to be hilly terrain. There were no streams to be seen from the road, but gradually we started to see one or two small streams as the road started to become level with the plains. We stopped at one stream flowing under the road where the water flow was quite slow and asked one of the locals who was washing clothes if there were any fish in the stream. He told us that there weren’t any, but at that moment I happened to spot a couple of small Epiplatys killifish swimming at the surface of the water close to where the stream crossed under the road.
Trying to Catch Killifish
Armed with this limited observation, we decided to try to catch them. David walked into the stream on one side of the road, but it turned out to be too deep and fast so he came out within a few minutes. In the meantime I had succeeded in catching a specimen of the Epiplatys and it turned out to be a colorful and big E. chaperi. David decided to fish in the shallow area on the other side of the road and disappeared into the wooded area nearby. Nothing more was heard from him for the next 15 minutes so I went in to investigate.
The wooded area turned out to be an old oil palm plantation and there were lots of smaller fish and shrimps that I was catching. David showed up with more of the E. chaperi and even a couple of cichlids, including a bright red Hemichromis sp. whose colors faded soon after capture. Regrettably, due to the hot temperature in the car, I lost all the chaperi within a couple of hours after capture. This was very disappointing because we did not find these fish again on our trip.
Fishing Near the Road
We continued down the road and the terrain gradually turned from hills to savannah grassland. We noticed small streams along the way and stopped at a stream about 40 km (25 miles) before Yeiji. David fished on one side of the road and I fished on the other. In a few minutes I found F. thierryi! This was totally unexpected, but they were there along with the usual assortment of insect larvae and even a few black-lined tetras. David found more fish than I did, as the water was flowing out of a marshy area where he was fishing and he was able to collect quite a number of fish.
After a half-hour we had collected enough fish to move on. What was unusual here was that the water we collected the fish in was soft and slightly acid—pH 6.4, 0 GH, and a temperature of 28°C (82°F). After collecting, we started packing the fish up for transportation, and then we found that all the E. chaperi had died because of the extreme heat, despite the fact that the air conditioning had been turned on. It was really my fault because I had not packed them in a cool enough place in the car.
We proceeded down the road and collected from another small stream about 10 km (6 miles) down. Once again we found lots of F. thierryi, but there were other species also, including E. bifasciatus, E.spilargyreius, and even another lungfish.
School had ended for the day and we found ourselves surrounded by children who were interested in knowing why these grown men were collecting such small fish! They wanted to try and help us and were delighted when we took their group pictures.
A Long Trip on the Ferry
We proceeded along to Yeiji to catch the “Yape Queen” ferry, which carried us down the Volta Lake to Akosombo. We bought bottled water and even a water cooler for the fish while we visited the town. Time is very fluid in Ghana, and local timetables and schedules are not very reliable to say the least; the ferry that was supposed to dock in at 6 p.m. didn’t show up until 10 p.m. In the meantime we sat down at a small bar for our daily beers.
When the ferry finally arrived it had to be unloaded of its cargo and passengers. We boarded after midnight and were given our cabins. Fortunately the cabins were air-conditioned, and we slept until late the next morning. The next two days were spent doing water changes for the fish, reviewing our records, and even doing a few photo sessions with the fish we collected. The ferry was a commercial transport, so it stopped at many small villages to pick up and let off passengers and animals, while also picking up the crops of yams for sale in Accra, the capital of Ghana. We experienced a couple of heavy rainstorms too, and they slowed down our progress as we proceeded down to Akosombo.
Last Chance for Collecting
We arrived at Akosombo late in the night on October 20 and immediately made our way back to the Aylos Bay hotel. Due to the delay of the ferry, the cooks at the hotel had gone to bed without preparing us a meal. Our arrival meant they had to be woken up, and in a short time we were eating a hot meal and drinking beers!
Our Last Day of Fishing
The following day we went out for our last day of fishing in Ghana. We visited the lake at Kpong in hopes of collecting more Parachanna obscura and perhaps even Ctenopoma petherici. But alas, it was not to be—all we were collecting were the killies, a few barbs, and juvenile Hemichromis cichlids H. bimaculatus and H. fasciatus. We also returned back to the location on the road to Sogakofe and collected a few more F. thierryi.
We then traveled along the road to Tema and sampled a few more likely habitats but didn’t find anything that we had not already collected. It would have been extreme good fortune if we had found the other killifish that comes from the Volta drainage, Pronothobranchius (Nothobranchius) kiyawensis, but we weren’t so lucky. We were likely in the wrong locations or it was the wrong time of the year to find these fish, even though the pools were drying up.
Preparing to Go Home
At 2:30 p.m. we decided to return back to the hotel in Akosombo to pack for the return journey home. The next morning we did a little souvenir shopping in the art market in Accra, and we visited a most unusual coffin manufacturer who showed us some amazing colorful coffins that were more works of art than anything else. We had lunch at an upscale restaurant in Accra, and in late evening we caught our flight from the Kotoka airport.
It had been quite an insightful “fish tourist” adventure in Ghana. The trip proved to me that F. thierryi has a wider distribution in Ghana than I had found reported in the literature.
To conclude, I want to thank my friend David Armitage, Walter Kleinbudde, and our driver Mutallah for all their help in this journey. Without them, this trip would never have happened, and things wouldn’t have gone nearly as smoothly. I hope to visit Ghana again in the future to explore the areas that I didn’t manage to visit on this trip.