Sunday, September 23, 2007

SKYY Kids and the Tropical Rainforest Canopy Walk

As I climb into the overloaded bus filled with screaming, yelling, singing, dancing, laughing kids, I know it's going to be a fun day in Ghana. The bus ride to Kakum National Park to film a SKYY Kids TV special is a treat for the senses. Sitting upfront with four people in a seat designed for two provides a great vantage point of the road, passing cars and scenery speeding by. Behind me are 50 kids of various ages from local schools who are participating in the SKYY Kids program, a show of kids, for kids and by kids which airs on Saturdays on SKYY Television.

In the back a drum is beating with cowbell accompaniment leading the kids in song. For the whole ride I am treated to the best school bus songs I've ever heard. Call and response, leader and chorus, intricately woven together in a musical fabric as beautiful as the people who create it, pushed forward by percussion and the excitement and anticipation for the upcoming events of the day. This is not your average "Hail to the Bus Driver" school kid chorus.

We arrive at Kakum, a park created in 1994 to conserve the flora and fauna of the rain-forest, to build respect and understanding for it, as well as to create a tourist attraction for the area. Kakum is famous for its treetop canopy walk, conceived by an American and built by two Canadians with the help of five local Ghanaians who still work at the park today. The SKYY Kids group finds a secluded picnic area and sets up camp. We're here for the day, with many activities planned, including a talk show, drama, a newscast, many interviews, and a meal - created by the kids, for the kids.

My role is to be the second camera on a two camera shoot. I will be capturing the days events and will help the young reporters to do some 'streeters' or interviews of passers-by. I work mostly with two young presenters who are full of personality, youthful vigor and absolutely no fear.

After the camp is set up, preparations for the meal begin, and the young presenters go around interviewing the SKYY kids on what is being prepared, how it is made and the preferences of many of the kids for either Banku, a cornmeal dough ball eaten with Okra stew, or Christian rice, which is rice and spaghetti with pepper sauce. One young man asks why there's no Muslim rice to represent our Islamic friends.

After the newscast, interviews and other activities it's time for the canopy walk. About half of the kids have the 1 Ghana cede required to go, others who have already been decide to forgo and stay behind to film the drama. My fare is 9 Ghana cedes, because I am a foreigner. The SKYY Kids organizers won't let me pay that exorbitant fee and instead sneak me in as a Ghanaian child.

After a short trek into the forest, and a long wait at the start of the bridge for others to pass, our group is allowed to begin the canopy walk. The rope bridge is way up in the air - way up! - and is made of high tension steel cables which support a narrow net and planks to walk on. Each section of the bridge ends at a crows' nest station at the top of a very tall tree. Each section connects together to create a large circular path on which to walk, providing a magnificent view of the trees, plants and if you're lucky, animals like jaguars, deer and an array of birds and butterflies below. Apparently at certain times of the year forest elephants can be seen.

Kweku, the primary cameraman goes first and gets some fantastic pictures of the park, the rope bridge and the SKYY Kids. Following him is the smallest of the SKYY Kids, a 5 year old who fearlessly leads the rest of the group. One by one the kids make their way around and take in the view, huge smiles on their faces, laughter echoing around the park.

Two boys and I are left at the entrance to the canopy walk, and we interview the park guide who is monitoring the progress of the SKYY Kids on the bridge. He gives us a nice history of the park, tells us of the importance of conserving the rain-forest and of the importance of having tourists come to the area. The two boys venture out and I videotape their adventure. I am the last to make it onto the bridge. With videocamera in one hand, and another on the guide rope, I step out into the abyss.

As soon as I step onto the bridge I know that I am no longer on solid ground. The bridge bounces and sways in the wind, hundreds of feet in the air. Sweat immediately pours from any and all sweat glands available, including my hands, making both the camera and guide rope more difficult to manage. Looking up and around, I see the smiling, laughing faces of the kids and I know that I'll make out alive. Carefully walking, step by step, I try to keep the camera elevated enough that it gets some sort of shot. I scurry across the rope bridge to the first crows' nest and take stock. I am in the middle of a rain-forest, at the top of a tree, looking down and around at the majesty of nature. The sounds of birds and kids laughing fill my ears, the sound of blood rushing through my veins abates and I continue on the walk.

Getting the hang of it, I get my legs under me and start looking around a little more. I don't see any jaguars or elephants, just happy kids who call out my name, "Uncle Kevin!". I yell back "Hey!", and the kids laugh. From section to section I go trying to keep up with the two boys ahead of me. Getting to the end of the canopy walk, the kids who waited with Kweku, the camera man dutifully filming every kid on the walk, make fun of me for being nervous. I laugh, but secretly think they should try doing the walk one handed, while trying to videotape and at the same time maintain a certain level of calm so
as not to alarm the kids who are now making fun of me!

Just after the entrance a coconut stand beckons us, and we partake in freshly split coconuts, drinking the water and eating the pulp, satiating my dry mouth, and filling my belly with the knowledge I'm back on land. The most refreshing drink I've ever had.

The day ends with the meal, which has the kids singing, dancing and running around, boys stealing the meat, and a couple of tired, overwhelmed girls start to cry. One of the young presenters interviews a park guide who has recently returned from volunteering at the Eden Project, which is a man made rain-forest in a bio-dome in the UK. It can never compare to Kakum, she says. Man made will never approach the majesty of nature.

We finish the meal, pick up our garbage and pack up the bus. The journey home again features singing and dancing with drumming accompaniment. We make it back to SKYY in one piece and I go home. The end of a long day, but one I'll not soon forget.

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