Travel tips: Accra on two wheels

The photo shows two men driving motorcycles with the setting sun behind them in Kigali, RwandaPhoto: Getty Images

The major innovation of this trip to Ghana (at least for me) has been my commute.  I’ve been zipping around Accra on a Yamaha Crypton, which has been fantastic.  In cities with heavy congestion and limited infrastructure, motorcycles offer a commuting option that’s cheap, fast and versatile.  They’re good for cutting through stalled traffic, or navigating unpaved roads with ease.  They offer a great chance to explore areas that couldn’t otherwise be easily reached with public transportation.  And sometimes you just want to drive along the road by Labadi Beach with the salt wind in your face.  In short, very fun and highly recommended.

That said, learning to drive a motorcycle well enough to to do safely in Accra required a substantial amount of up-front investment.  Here are some tips for getting started with a motorcycle and learning to ride safely in urban traffic.  I don’t mean the volume of them to sound discouraging, but there is real risk to riding a motorcycle, and if you can’t commit to doing it as safely as possible, then you shouldn’t do it.

  • Spend a few weeks as a bike commuter.  No bike lanes allowed!  Riding a bicycle is the best way to prepare for handling a motorcycle at low speeds, which is mostly what you’ll encounter in traffic-plagued cities like Accra.  You’ll also need to get used to being in close proximity to cars.
  • Get a new motorcycle.  The used motorcycle market here is large, cheap, and full of lemons.  You do not need your mirrors to fall off at the first pothole you hit.  I bought a new moto from a dealership here for about $1300, and expect to recoup most of that cost when I sell it at the end of my next research trip.
  • Get geared up.  A helmet is non-negotiable.  For preference, you should also wear close-toed shoes (or ideally over-the-ankle boots), jeans, a jacket and gloves.  An armored jacket is ideal, but at minimum you should do a durable raincoat or denim jacket.  All of this can be rather hot if you’re stopped in the sun, but as long as you’re moving I’ve found it to be quite comfortable.
  • Find a safe place to practice.  It took me at least a month of daily commuting on quiet back streets before I felt like I had an intuitive sense of how to handle the moto.  It’s essential that you find a safe place to practice until you reach this point.  If you have to consciously think about how to turn, swerve, or stop, it will be difficult to respond rapidly enough to all the challenges you’ll encounter in places like Accra.
  • Be prepared to respond to problems coming from every direction.  Anyone who’s learned to drive is used to scanning for potential obstacles in front of them, and to the sides when changing lanes.  You’ll also have to get used to scanning below you, for potholes or loose gravel; above you, to avoid things being thrown out of car windows; and behind you, where cars are likely to creep up to your back tire to try to force you to speed up or move over.  (In situations like these, slow down, move over, and let the other car get their way.  You can’t control their behavior and you’re not going to win a contest with them.)
  • Obey the traffic laws, but don’t expect that others will.  I would say that 75% of drivers here follow the laws fairly well, with the exception of small things like failing to signal turns or stop completely at intersections.  The worst offenders by far are other motorcyclists, who have all collectively decided that they are bound by neither law nor physics and drive in a manner which reflects this.  I spend more time scanning for motorcycles than any other type of traffic, since the erstwhile advantages of being small and fast make it difficult to see them in advance and respond quickly to any unpredictable behavior.
  • Don’t outride your brakes.  Or, put differently: you always need to try to identify a safe path forward, and be prepared to stop if you can’t find it.  Even if you’re on a well-lit road with limited traffic and a clear line of sight, it’s difficult to predict what you might find ahead of you — uneven pavement, a pedestrian dashing across the street, a turn that comes up more rapidly than you expected.  Drive more slowly than you’d like to, particularly if it’s your first time on a certain road.
  • Be extremely careful at night.  I’ve driven several thousand kilometers in a wide range of conditions, and am confident in my ability to handle most driving challenges.  I still actively limit the amount of time I spend driving at night in Accra because of the high levels of risk involved.  Take all the issues outlined above, add a lack of street lights and the problem of having opposing cars’ headlights constantly in your eyes, and an accident becomes a question of “when” rather than “if.”  If you are going to drive at night, stick to well-lit routes and drive even more defensively than normal.

In short: be safe and have fun!

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