Biking in the land of the black star


Ancient pagan traditions clash with a heady brew of colonial cultures to make Ghana one of West Africa's most alluring destinations. Discover this friendly country and prepare to revel in natural splendour and an abundant heritage.
Story and photographs by Jacques Marais.

CRUISING ACCRA ...

There is no better way to discover a city than across the handlebars of a bicycle. It is our second day in Acrra, and I'm dodging stray dogs, tro-tro taxis and the occasional chained patas monkey while languidly cruising along the back streets of Ghana's capital. To the south is the shimmering Gulf of Guinea, while the Akwapim Mountains rear skywards in the north near Aburo along the edge of a constantly advancing urban frontline. With the midday humidity approaching thunderstorm dimension, I literally feel as if we're biking between the jungle and the deep blue sea. Appetite kicks in, necessitating a stop at one of the less dodgy roadside chop-bars to sample humongous helpings of waakeye, a tasty stew consisting of chicken, black eyed beans and fried plantain.

Settled in the fifteenth century by the Ga tribe, Accra can lay claim to European historic links with Portugal, Holland and Denmark before eventually succumbing to the British Empire in 1902. This schizophrenic history is obvious as I roll along the splendour of Independence Avenue in the direction of Korle lagoon. No tropical beaches and postcard romanticism here though; just dirt poor shanty towns, scraggly chickens and fetid pools leeching into the ocean. Less than two miles along the coast at La Pleasure beach the scene is very different: Labadi Beach Hotel, one of Accra's premier resorts, nestles here adjacent to the Tema lagoon and beautiful people populate beach chairs and breezy seaside bars.

Cycling in Accra is a stunning experience, with well-marked cycle lanes protecting you from the worst of the traffic in most of the central business and residential areas. It is only when you enter into the mediaeval Ussher and James Town sections that the lanes disappear, making way for chop-bars and shanties and barber shops spilling onto the pot-holed tarmac. Suddenly you are swept away by the tumultuous cacophony of fruit vendors, nimble kids and a technicolour symphony of kente and adinkra cloth. Deranged traffic and piles of garbage might push your handling skills, but the big-hearted culture and miles of Ghanaian smiles make it more than worthwhile.

BACK ROADS AND BICYCLES ...

We escape the cyclone that is Accra traffic by bumming a lift on the back of a truck to Awutu Beraku on the outskirts of Accra. Once on the bikes, we make good time despite the considerable weight of my photographic gear and a constant stream of manic drivers armed with murderous intent. Villages come and go, as do a selection of eclectic signs, including gems such as Good God Haircuts and Jesus Never Fails Communications. We schedule our first stop for the little harbour town of Apam, with sunset beating us to our lodgings in the forbidding Fort Leydsaamheid, a Dutch slave castle dating back to 1697.

I wake up at dawn to gaze across the castle ramparts at an amber sliver of sun edging its way above a steely Atlantic ocean. Akru longboats and square-sailed pirogues, splashed in brilliant rainbow colours, drift in the morning breeze while fishermen engage in an age-old duel with shiny sea creatures. Crowds of vibrantly attired people spill from the waking village onto the beaches to flutter like flocks of tropicbirds engaged in ritual preening. I scramble downhill to join the multitudes in their early morning ablutions, scrubbing my body with coarse sand before crashing into the waves .