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Dark times on the Cape Coast (Marie Javins)

Dark times on the Cape Coast


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16th October 2011

Intrepid Wander Woman Marie Javins is forced to face her country's role in slavery on a visit to Ghana's Cape Coast

"You can take a Ford to Cape Coast."

Say what? I didn't quite get it. Did the hotel clerk in Ghana just advise me to take a Ford to my destination?

She had. This turned out to be an almost-generic term for the sleek, new, air-conditioned shuttle vans that privately transport passengers from Kumasi to Cape Coast, which is on the sea.

But I wasn't there for the beach – I'm not a fan of sunbathing, and beaches play no part in my MariesWorldTour.com trip around the world. I was there for the history. Cape Coast features a famous slaving castle. Like visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia, this isn't a lot of fun. But it feels necessary and appropriate to revisit and learn about atrocities when travelling. In this case, the history is complicated by the knowledge that my own country was, in part, built on these atrocities, prior to the Industrial Revolution and the advent of mechanised automation.

In Cape Coast, I headed to the Mighty Victory Hotel, a budget lodge I'd picked out of my Kindle guidebook. This was like budget lodging in Asia – cheap, en suite, slightly worn, complete with towels, linens, wifi, and restaurant. And all the answers I needed about how to get to the activities I had planned.

"You'll be pushing it to try to get to the national park today," explained the friendly owner. "The last entrance is at 3:30. See the castle today and then tomorrow morning, you can easily go to the park before continuing on to Accra."

I left my bags in my room and hurried out on foot to make my way down the hill to the castle. I passed men sitting outside at pedal-Singer sewing machines, surrounding a huge pile of denim. And then further on, shops with funny bible-referencing names: "The Blood of Jesus Sewing Centre", "To God Be the Glory Cosmetics", "God's Love Bikinis." That sort of thing. Okay, I made up the bikini one. But you get the point.

The sun was low in the sky and I entered the castle just in time to get attached to the tail end of the day's tours. The man who took my admission fee hurried me down into the men's dungeon to join the group. I couldn't see at all after being in the bright sunlight, but in a minute, my eyes adjusted. I could see a diverse group of tourists all surrounding a thin Ghanaian guide, who was lecturing in the stuffy, humid basement.

The guide showed us where the tunnels had been, which the kidnapped Africans had been marched through en route to the "Door of No Return". In the women's dungeon, he showed us the gash in the stone in the corner that was the only toilet for the whole dungeon. He showed us a well that had once been a dungeon, but there hadn't been any air so that hadn't lasted long.

The dungeons were of course small, dark, and appalling, but the worst part of the castle was the "Door of No Return."

"Here, the men were all shackled together and led one at a time through a small door. This way they were easier to control. And because of the shackles, no man could throw himself overboard from the small boat or he'd take the other men with him. This way they were led into the small boat and out to the slaving ships."

Horrifying.

This castle was beautiful – whitewashed, pleasant, jutting out of the rocks above a lively fishing village where men brought in nets and children kicked a football – in contrast to its terrible past. Seeing this place first-hand brought it all much closer to home, closer than any of the well-manicured historic Civil War battlefields my mother had taken me to as a kid.

The trip to the national park the next morning was a good deal cheerier, but at first, I thought I'd be rained out.

"How dare this impending thunderstorm ruin my morning on the forest canopy," I thought when I woke up next to my laptop, which was perched on top of a hotel bible.

But the front desk clerk was more optimistic.

"It will clear up," he said, when I asked him to help me find a taxi.

It's not impossible to get to Kakum National Park on public transportation – it's only 35km away – but it takes work. Namely, at the end, when you have to get from the nearest road to the park headquarters for the canopy walk. I didn't have time for all that – I wanted to get to Accra by tonight.

The hotel clerk found me a pleasant taxi driver with a working taxi. The rate is the same for all of them (40 cedi), but I did have to pay one more cedi at the gate to get the taxi into the park and then ten more for my own admission fee.

I was given a badge at park headquarters, to wear on a string around my neck, and sent over to a bench under a tree.

"Wait here for your guide."

School kids in uniforms ran in and out of the bathrooms as I waited for the other tourists who would be going up on the canopy walkway with me.

Six more showed up, including a single man, a couple, and two parents with their teenage son. A female guide in a neatly ironed skirt showed up.

"Do you all have your badges?"

We did.

"Follow me."

Up, up, up. The trail was dirt and occasionally gravel, and the guide led us up it, so that we were starting pretty high up before we got our first look at the canopy walkway.

"Here is your walk." She pointed at a series of horizontally hanging ladders covered in planks. Knots, steel cables, and nets were on either side of and beneath the walkways.

Oh my. That? We walk on that?

"It is normal for there to be some swaying. Please do not be alarmed. That way, to the left, is the short way. To the right is the long way. The second person should not start until the first person is halfway across. At the highest point, you will be 40 meters above the forest floor. You will not see any animals – they come out at night. I will meet you on the other side."

Cool.

The family went first, each waiting for the other to go halfway before starting. Then, the woman in the couple hesitated.

"Which way is the short way?"

"It's left," I reminded her. "But you only get to do this once. You might as well go the long way. Either way, it's scary."

She took a deep breath and bravely headed right.

I headed right as well, but without hesitation. This was actually fun. I don't do so well with things involving bungees or risk of physical damage, but this looked just scary enough to be enjoyable, but not scary enough to be terrifying.

The walkways shake and jangle just a little as you go. I balanced, hanging on with both hands. The walkways have little platforms in between, built into the trees, so you can get your bearings if you're starting to feel off-balance.

I had nearly passed through Cape Coast without trying this, because I had initially thought it would be too difficult to get to the park. But travelling here by taxi had been a cinch and walking up here in the trees, in near-silence, was a wonderful way to spend the morning.

Too soon, we were at the finish and back on solid land. I left the other hikers and hurried back to the trailhead to hand in my badge.

Then, back in the taxi to the Mighty Victory Hotel.

"I'll just go in and get my bag, and then can you take me to the bus?"

The taxi driver conferred with the hotel owner, and they decided that today I would not travel by bus, because there was a better, faster way.

Ten minutes later, I was again loaded into a white Ford for the two-and-a-half hour journey, this time to Accra.

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