Gold Coast Cranking

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Bicycle back in time with Jacques Marais, as he pedals Ghana’s Gold Coast shoreline. This is a landscape where ancient castles rise from the coastal plains – and where contemporary culture and tradition collide – making it one of West Africa’s most alluring destinations. 

By: Jacques Marais

Travel a solid 6 000km straight up from Africa’s southernmost tip and you’ll find the continental mainland distending into the Atlantic Ocean along a huge, pregnant bulge. Here, the “mother continent” envelops more than a dozen countries, encompassing a myriad tourism adventures and cultural experiences. 

Cameroon stretches along the 10-degree latitude line through Lagos, Benin and Togo, where the latter nudges Ghana firmly up against Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. Formerly known as the Gold Coast, Ghana’s burgeoning capital, Accra, squats down centrally near the coast. 

This city was the original seat of the powerful Ga monarchy, and lays claim to a shared history with Portugal, Holland and Denmark. In 1902, it reluctantly relented to British colonialism, and this schizophrenic past is patently obvious in the cacophony of cultures on display in the vibrant Accra streets. 

Here, you will find more smiles per square kilometre than in any other African capital, but the real gold that makes Ghana so special awaits further to the south. My most memorable West African adventure began on these very streets, when a colleague and I saddled up to crank along the mythical Gold Coast… 

An urban adventure

Our journey was in part to test the new AfriBike – a bicycle with an extended frame enabling it to transport heavy loads – so it was always going to make for laborious pedalling. We escaped the inner-city death-wish traffic by bumming a lift on a truck to Awutu Breku and then started rolling from there.  

This seemed a wise move, as the 3km tailbacks, warp-speed overloaded motorbikes, massive markets and a grey haze of carbon monoxide would not have been the best way to kick off our adventure. With the serious business of pedalling ahead, we steered our steeds into the intermittent African traffic tempest.   

The tiny harbour village of Apam – just on 40km away – was to be our first stop, and we made good time despite the weight of the camping gear and photographic equipment. Tiny villages whipped past as we cruised the busy road, dropping closer and closer to the ocean.  

Hand-painted and off-the-wall signs popped up over the handlebars: ‘God is Able Plumbers’, ‘With God Motors’ and ‘Jesus Never Fails Communications’ made it abundantly clear who was king in this part of the world. At Gomoa, we pulled over at a chop bar (small shebeen) for a rest and a Club Ginger, high on the expansive smiles and welcoming waves we elicited along the way. 

It was pitch dark by the time we reached Apam, cruising along a maze of dark and narrow alleys, lit only by cooking fires and populated by dozens of kids flitting like dervishes from shadow to shadow. We were on a wild goose chase to Fort Lydsaamheid (or Patience, if you will), built in 1697 by the Dutch. 

The fort had since been converted by the local community to serve as a rest-house where brave visitors (like us) could rent one of the cells, which were used to imprison enslaved people, for the princely sum of 50 000 cedis (about R60). To get there, though, we had to run a gauntlet of sewage ditches and wild-eyed dogs while we trudged ever higher up a small hill. 

Near the summit, we were met by our ‘jailer’ for the night, and she handed us a metal key the size of a monkey wrench. Ten minutes later, with the bikes safely stowed, we wandered down into the dimly lit chaos of Apam in search of food.   

A waking dream

Being rather late, our choices seemed limited to watery fu-fu (millet porridge) and dry bread, but the bike-touring gods eventually did smile on us. A yellow pool of light and a few flickering fires led us to an open spot (or bar), where a smiling man named Friday passed us a couple of ice-cold Star beers to help lull us into dreamtime. Sleep arrived suddenly and with absolutely no warning– as does nightfall in the tropics. 

I dreamt that I woke up before dawn to gaze out across the ramparts of a 17th century castle.  Below me, a palm-fringed bay rippled away towards a horizon brimming with ochre cumulus clouds. Square-sailed pirogues painted in brilliant reds and yellows and greens and blues scuttled before the breeze, while oarsmen in akru long-boats engaged the ocean in a contest as old as mankind itself.   

The dawn rays cast long shadows across the waking village, where dogs, chickens and goats competed for scraps of food on the somnambulant streets. Slowly, people began to emerge and soon a vibrantly attired mass of humanity spilled onto the beaches, fluttering like flocks of brightly coloured birds partaking in a peculiar morning ritual. 

As it turns out, this was no dream. Apam – blessed with its ancient trees, medieval buildings and friendly people – unfolded upon the tableau below me in a surreal and gritty beauty. Tim, my co-traveller, brewed a pot of tea and I grabbed the opportunity to scramble downhill through the huts and ancient houses clinging precariously to the cliff-side to join in the throng below on the beach.  

Yes, there was palpable poverty (and the occasional sign of sewage above the high-tide line), but the beauty of this country and its people shone golden through the grit … a Fante grandfather doused me with a bucket of fresh water to wash the ocean from my body, and on the way back from the beach, a couple in a palm-frond hut invited me in to share their meagre breakfast. 

School children scampered over to introduce themselves to this foreign man, not asking for anything but just wanting to know my name. There is such pride present in the people of Ghana from the Fante in the south and the Ewe in the east to the Ga in the north – and they will share with you everything they can. If they have nothing material to give, they will be sure to bestow a radiant smile as a gift. 

The Essentials

Travel requirements: SA citizens need a valid passport with at least 30 days after expiry of their visit, and one unused page for entry/departure. Visas can be obtained from the Ghana High Commission: ghanahighcommission-southafrica.com at a cost of R900 for single entry (valid 3 months); R1 400 for multiple entry (6 months) or R2 400 for multiple entry (1 year). Visa takes 10 – 15 days to process. 
 
Medical: Yellow fever vaccinations are essential, and a Covid-19 vaccination certificate is required in order to avoid Covid testing on arrival. 
 
Currency: 1 Ghanaian Cedi equals R1,46. You can change at street kiosks or banks. 

Bike touring: If you prefer to do your riding as part of a guided bike tour, feel free to make contact: ashantiafricantours.com  

Getting around: Public buses are the backbone of travel in Ghana, while motorbikes are popular for cheap, fast journeys. Ubers and taxis are plentiful.  

What to pack: A hot and humid climate necessitates cotton, silk-based or any good breathable clothing. Pack enough sunscreen, hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes.  
 
Best time to visit: October to March is best, as the climate is cooler and less humid (you will also miss the summer rains). The Harmattan blows from the Sahara Desert in December, causing haze, dust and a very dry skin. 

Stay alert: Avoid using your left hand to greet or eat; Ghanaians are taught from an early age that they only use this hand during toilet ablutions, and it is therefore considered unclean. Theft is a problem, so keep belongings close and avoid wearing obvious valuables or carrying expensive equipment or large amounts of cash. 

Further information: visitghana.com 

Getting There

SAA flies between Johannesburg and Accra three times a week. 
 

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