Ghana: Cape Coast
27th November - 10th December 2000
We drove into Cape Coast along the Elmina Road, which runs parallel to the beach and past the Fosu lagoon. All along the beach fishermen were busy at work around their boats that had been beached under the palm trees, out of the glare of the hot sun. Nets had been strung up between the trees and were being repaired while others unloaded the morning's catch. Our taxi driver dropped us outside the Sammo guesthouse on the Jukwa road, a place that had been recommended by both my guidebook and other travellers I had met. I was glad to be at the end of this journey, which had started some fifteen hours ago, and to be able to lie down on a bed and rest while my immune system went to work destroying this stomach bug I had picked up yesterday. Kjell went off to explore the town while I rested for the afternoon.
Cape Coast has a population of just over 100,000. It used to be the British colonial capital until it was moved to Accra in 1876. The Cape Coast Fort dominates the town overlooking the sea and used to be the British administrative headquarters. Forts and castles are dotted all along the Ghanaian coast. The Swedes, Germans, French, Danes, British and Portuguese who all tried to gain power of the Gold Coast to exploit the commercial potential of the area built them. By the turn of the 18th century there were 37 forts along the coast, some of which changed hands many times over the years.
By late afternoon I felt a lot better compared to when I woke up that morning on the train from Kumasi. My appetite had returned so I walked down Jukwa road towards the town centre to buy something to eat and drink from the many street vendors along the road. When Kjell returned he was surprised by my recovery, almost as surprised as I was.
We walked back into town to the castle to see if we could catch the last tour of the day, this would leave us the whole day tomorrow free to take a trip out to Kakum national park. As we guessed the castle gates were closed when we arrived, we had left it too late. Instead I walked down onto the beach and around town while Kjell went off to find a moneychanger. There had been a political rally in town that afternoon; most of the supporters were making their way home, some very drunk. With all these people about on the streets I began to feel uneasy; there seemed to be an atmosphere of purpose and confrontation. I unfortunately was followed by a couple of drunk, young men, which confirmed my fears. They began to demand money from me; they were thirsty, I should buy them a drink. Where ever I went they followed, pestering me in an increasingly menacing way. I let them walk a few steps in front of me; when a taxi came past I discreetly flagged it down and before they realised what was happening I was in the taxi and off down the street. After all they were drunk and their reactions were not the swiftest. I took the taxi back to the guesthouse and went to the bar on the roof for a drink.
By the evening I was hungry enough to go and venture out to a restaurant. There is not a wide choice of restaurants to choose from in town; our hotel manager recommended the Solace Spot on the way out of town north along the Jukwa road. It was more of a bar than a restaurant and looked like a popular place for the young wealthy locals to meet and drink. It was an outdoor bar, the surroundings were relaxing, good music and cold beer and a reasonable selection on the menu.
The next day was Sunday, a day that we thought would be quiet; it wasn't. I woke at six in the morning to the sound of vehicles and people coming down the road into the town centre for another political rally. You could tell it was a political rally from the loudspeakers on the cars blaring out the party message, which also woke up most of the hotel. At 08.30 Kjell and I walked down to the fort; we wanted to do the tour as early as possible to give us time to visit Kakum national park later in the day. We came to the bottom of Jukwa road and turned left onto Market Street. As we came round a corner we suddenly saw a huge colourful and noisy crowd coming towards us; everyone was chanting and waving political banners and flags; we had accidentally stumbled into the political rally. We carried on walking along Market Street towards the town centre as best we could in single file, squeezing past the hordes of demonstrators coming in the opposite direction. We had gone past maybe about half the rally when, out of nowhere, a fight started between what looked like some onlookers and some of the demonstrators. In no time at all the situation deteriorated into full-scale violence; people in the crowd ran in all directions, while others joined in with the mayhem. We discreetly disappeared up a side street; after we reached a safe distance I looked back to see a scene of utter chaos. By now rocks were being thrown and young men were ripping up anything along the road to use as a weapon; we carried on walking. The rest of the town was peaceful, as I would of expected on a Sunday; a few streets away you would of been totally unaware that a riot had broken out.
We walked around the trouble and back down to the coast and the fort. We paid our entrance fee and were promptly taken on a tour. The fort was also used for trading slaves. The dungeons below the central courtyard could hold 1,500 slaves waiting to be shipped off to the new world. Our guide took us down the ramp from the courtyard to the dungeons a few metres below the surface. Even today they were not pleasant places to visit, especially with the knowledge of what happened here in the past. The dungeons with their bare stone walls, smelt stale, the dank atmosphere heavy. You could not even imagine what the conditions would have been like down here with each dungeon holding 400 slaves with little or no sanitation or fresh air. A tunnel had been built running under the courtyard leading to a gate that opened onto the beach. The residents of the fort and their guests, often business men buying slaves, didn't want to see the trade in human cargo parading past them across the courtyard to be loaded onto ships. This tunnel conveniently kept the physical trade out of sight. Slavery was finally abolished in 1870 and since then the dungeons have been empty.
The museum at the fort is well worth the visit and was included in our tour. This gave a detailed history of the British occupation and the horrors of the slave trade. The weather though was beginning to beat me; I have never been in such hot and humid weather before I reached the coast of Ghana. Even in the museum I could not stop sweating and found myself constantly standing under one of the ceiling fans while I read the history and descriptions of the exhibits on display.
When we finished the tour we negotiated with a taxi driver outside the main gates to take us to Kakum National Park, 33km north from the coast. It would be possible to take a minibus along the main road and be dropped by the gates, but hiring a private taxi, especially when there were two of us travelling, still worked out cheap in comparison to neighbouring countries we had travelled through. In the end our driver said he would wait for us at the national park and bring us back when we had finished. Sunday must be a quiet day for taxis, as he did not charge us for the hours he waited while we hiked around the forest.
The park is an ecotourism project protecting about 357 sq km of both rainforest and semi deciduous forest; most of the park has been selectively logged at some point over the years leaving only about 14 sq km of virgin rainforest. The highlight of the park is the ropewalk way that has been constructed in the trees. The walkway leads off from a steep embankment out into the trees some 30m above the ground. In all it is about 350m long leading in a semicircle between eight huge trees that serve as viewing platforms. At the park headquarters we hired a guide to take us on a hike into the forest. I was disappointed that you could not hike into the forest by yourself, even though the trails had been clearly marked. We did not buy a ticket for the canopy walkway; the price - the white man price that is - was prohibitive when compared to the local economy. Instead we climbed the hill from the headquarters and into the forest for a two-hour guided walk. As soon as we were in the cover of the trees our guide asked us why we did not buy a ticket for the canopy walk way. We explained that is was too expensive and not really worth it. Our guide began to haggle with us asking us how much we would pay. In the end we said we would only pay a quarter of the fee asked at the headquarters. He then brought out two passes from his pocket took our money and lead us to the walkway.
The walk way was a unique experience, looking at the forest from the canopy. It is the only such walk way like this in Africa; there are only four in the world. We didn't spend long on it, our guide was mindful of another group on the way and wanted to get going as soon as possible. Once we were back on firm ground he ushered us off into the forest along the ebony trail. This is where his vast knowledge of the forest became apparent. He knew every tree we passed and told us exactly what it is used for, either construction or medicine (and occasionally both). As we walked into the dense forest, sweat now pouring from me, he would stop and point out a tree and tell us how the local people used it to make medicine and how this knowledge had been taken to be used in western drugs. Even under the shade of the giant trees you could not escape the heat; even the backs of my fingers began to sweat. We didn't see any wildlife, which is supposed to inhabit the forest, only insects and butterflies.
The best time to see wildlife would be at dawn or dusk and not during the heat of the afternoon; unfortunately the park isn't open at these times. The hike didn't last as long as I wanted; I really wanted to get out amongst the wilderness but in the end had to be satisfied with the circular tour along the ebony trail. To our surprise our taxi driver was still waiting for us in the car park on our return and took us back to our guesthouse in Cape Coast.
Continue reading this journey: Accra & Ada