Cape Coast – City of Disappointment

After another small ‘bang’, closely followed by the entire room being plunged into darkness, I have to say I gave up on the whole idea of the Internet. This had been the third night in a row where I’d been in a local Internet café when, no sooner had the sun gone down, so did the power. It was a frustrating end to a less-than-enthralling few days, in all honesty. Sure, Ghana was in general still working its charms on me – I hadn’t found anything here to actively dislike – but my time in Cape Coast probably wouldn’t be the fondestly-remembered part of my trip.

It hadn’t augured well from the start. In the heat of the midday sun I trekked across the whole town to try to find a guesthouse my guidebook had suggested; there were no signs from the road and it was only when I looked up the hillside that I saw it – a shabby, derelict, dusty grey building with no signs of life visible on the distant balconies. A nearby internet café that would become my home-from-home of sorts for the next few days assured me that it was indeed open, so I had another try.

The hotel in Cape Coast I stayed in; cheap.
The hotel in Cape Coast I stayed in; cheap.

At 25 cedis/night (£5) it made my three-day stay there only slightly more expensive than one of my nights in Accra, but as is often the case, you get what you pay for. What I got was a sprawling rabbit-warren of a guesthouse, occupied by a handful of Ghanaians (who made background noise until late in evening) and three Germans, with quite dark, dour rooms even with the light on, a laundry service that cost almost as much as a night’s stay, and a bar that wasn’t even open on the one night I wanted to use it. No internet, of course, but I wasn’t expecting it to. At least it had its own generator so I could waste the evenings reading.

I’d arrived on the day that Ghana’s football team were playing neighbouring Togo in final qualifier for next year’s African Nations Cup. Given that Ghana is a football-mad nation, and they had to win to be sure to qualify, I was expecting quite a lot of fervour and interest. I was expecting to watch it in a bar surrounded by passionate Ghanaians sharing the world’s favourite sport. What I actually found were no bars advertising it, and the occasional comment from local people saying “oh, is that today, I’d forgotten about that”. Eventually I found a small community centre showing the match on a big screen, through what felt like the medium of pirated Internet coverage; the centre itself was at the most only half-full. After Ghana had won, I expected to walk out onto the street to be met by raucous cheering; Cape Coast was pretty quiet.

One of the nearby attractions is a designated area of rainforest, Kakum National Park. This is built up to be some kind of exceptional experience to see the flora and fauna more usually only observed in the deepest jungles. In practice it ends up being a rushed guided walk through some trees by someone who possibly doesn’t really know as much as they should about the surrounds. Having spoken to other tourists later, regardless of which walk you do, it’s pretty much the same experience.
I guess it’s more geared towards school parties – the on-site museum is informative, if very simplified, and certainly when I was there, a whole troop of schoolchildren was about to enter the park itself.

The town itself seemed pretty low-key; the street food didn’t seem as good as in Accra, as well as slightly more expensive, and apart from the Castle, there wasn’t a lot else to do. There were two old forts perched on top of hillsides, no longer in use, but locals had imposed an entry fee on getting to one (Fort Victoria); since you can’t enter the fort it was hard to know what the entry fee would be for (‘upkeep of the stairs to get there’ was the excuse given). The other – Fort William – was free to walk to, but the fort itself seems to now be the home to a large family so I didn’t lurk long around.

Cape Coast, as seen from outside the cathedral.  Fort William is on the left.
Cape Coast, as seen from outside the cathedral. Fort William is on the left.

These forts provided a signalling and lookout system for the Castle. Although the Castle is nearer the sea, these forts are at a higher altitude so have a much clearer view. The whole system was designed to protect the town from invaders from the ocean; having been captured several times in the years immediately after its building,
I’ll actually concede that the castle itself was the high point of the three days I spent in the area – although as the local history was the prime reason for my being there, it would have been an extreme disappointment had it been otherwise. It’s a building from the 1700s, originally Dutch in origin but for most of its life it was owned and occupied by the British. Its primary function was as a coastal fortification; in conjunction with the two forts it provided a strong defence of the area from invading Europeans, desperate to get their hands on the local trade.
The local trade in question, well primarily slaves. The tour of the castle takes you into a few of the cells that used to hold people involuntarily destined for the New World, in often cramped and squalid conditions – some of the holding bays would only be cleaned once a batch of slaves had been loaded onto ships, in preparation for or a new consignment. The trouble being, slaves were often held in these ‘cave prisons’ for maybe upwards of two months. Without a toilet, and with food just being literally thrown in once or twice a day, you maybe shouldn’t imagine how fetid the rooms were once they’d been cleaned.
The tour also passed through the ‘door of no return’ – the ‘gate’ through which slaves were driven onto small boats and sailed out to the big transporter vessels offshore; the principle being ‘once you go through, you will never come back’. These days outside is a small local fishing fleet, and the outside of the portal is the ‘door of return’ – a few years back, the remains of two former slaves were flown back to Ghana from the Caribbean, sailed to Cape Coast, and brought back through the door into the museum, in a kind of ’homecoming/remembrance’ commemoration.

I don’t want to sound negative, but as a whole, Cape Coast didn’t impress me based on my feelings of Accra; obviously Accra being the capital means it will have a unique vibe, but I guess Cape Coast just didn’t do it for me. Oh well, here’s to Kumasi.

Visited: 19-22 November 2014

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