Jan 16 2010

Mali – diary 2009-12-27 to 2010-01-11

2009-12-27

The books say that there is very little bureaucracy in Mali and it was quite evident when we arrived at customs. We were told that we would have to wait until after lunch to get the paperwork done so we sat around for abut 20 minutes whilst the officials went to eat. Once they had washed up we were seen to. It seemed to be a pretty painless procedure and it was. They didn’t even check the vehicle. We then went along to Police and Immigration to obtain the 5 day visa d’entrée. This too was a pretty painless procedure until we were told by a policeman that we had to pay an additional CFA1000 for a stamp that they had put on the Lazze Passe. We have made every effort to not pay these ridiculous requests for money and we managed to get by this one too. If no receipt can be issued we won’t pay! We were eventually let through and continued on our way to Kayes where we planned to spend our first night. I had read about some waterfalls along the Senegal River that were part of a hydroelectric scheme that was apparently a popular camping spot. We didn’t stop in Kayes as it was hot and incredibly busy. The falls were not a disappointment. They were a series of rapids and low waterfalls that stretched across the width of the river. There were also numerous potholes which made for good swimming spots. Whist walking around we met a local man called Mac. He was fishing in one of the canals with his son also called Mac. He offered to take us around the rapids which we agreed to. He took us to some great spots where we happily stripped off our clothes and plunged into the pools. It was definitely a refreshing feeling and cooled down our hot bodies. We took a leisurely stroll back to the car where en-route we passed the ladies from the village having their daily baths and doing the washing. They we re quite at ease with our presence and didn’t bother covering up but carried on their daily activities. When we arrived back at the car we enquired about a camping spot and were told that we could camp behind a derelict building and were assured that no-one would bother us. Christine and Joe arrived at that time and were happy to camp with us. We showed them the way to the swimming pool which soon became our bath…a long soak that we all appreciated since it has become quite a luxury these days.

We made camp and enjoyed a night of star gazing and exchanged stories of our travels thus far.

2009-12-28

We woke up to the sound of birds chirping this morning…a big change from the call to prayer that has become our alarm clock. After breakfast we ventured into Kayes Town to fuel up and take the long road to Bamako. As we left Kayes we crossed the mighty Senegal River which showed a true African image – woman and children washing clothes in the river, men in their pirogues fishing, bright coloured cloth strewn on the banks of the river to dry. It was quite a sight. Kayes has beautiful architecture but again it has gone to ruin. If I had millions and millions of Pounds I would buy all of these building and restore them to their former glory. They are so beautiful and would make great hotels. (These are the things I dream about when faced with a long drive through barren landscapes). The road was surprisingly in good condition. There was the occasional pothole but we managed to make good progress. We stopped in a one horse town called Diema which is the halfway point between the 600km route to Bamako. Whilst there, we refuelled the vehicles and sought out some lunch to keep us going. We came upon these BBQ’s that slow roast legs of lamb. We had struck gold and did not hesitate in buying some fresh bread and lamb for our lunch. It was delicious. The drive was very beautiful and I was surprised at just how beautiful Mali is. The landscape is not as barren as I would have imagined and consists of masses and masses of Baobab trees. There are also the most beautiful flowers that are scattered along the roadside. The wildlife was limited to the usual goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys but I enjoyed spotting the odd colourful bird and again was witness to many Kites swooping into the road to catch some sort of prey.

We arrived in Bamako in the early evening and tried to make our way to Camping Le Cactus. Te traffic in Bamako is a joke. There are thousands and thousands of mopeds and cars trying to cross the river which ultimately results in a grid lock traffic jam. The pollution made a great sunset and we eventually arrived at our campsite exhausted and grateful for the cold beer that awaited us.

2009-12-29 to 2009-12-31

The next couple of days were spent in Bamako sorting our admin. Joe and Christine had bought their car in Mauritania and needed to buy some essential in order to make their travels a bit more comfortable. We also needed to visit Mali Immigration, the Burkina Faso Embassy and the Ghana Embassy to enquire about visas etc. We were up early and headed into town. We had been given some valuable advice the evening before from Marcus, a Dutch overlander. He had tod us exactly what we needed to do in order to extend out Mali visa. It was all pretty painless except for the fact that they had to keep our passports for 24 hours so that they could issue us with a proper visa. This was annoying as we would have liked to have got our passports into the Burkina Faso embassy for those visas too. We had no choice but to wait it out.

Shopping in Bamako is another story…It appears that China is exporting all of their cheap rubbish to Bamako and the locals are selling it at an exceptionally inflated price. You can get anything your heart desires in Bamako, it may not be the best quality but you name, they have it!

Bamako is an unremarkable city to visit. We would have cut our visit short if we didn’t have to hang around for visas. We managed to get our visas back from the Mali embassy at 3pm the following day and thought we would chance submitting them into the Burkina Faso embassy. Knowing that the following day was New Years Eve, we thought they may be more willing to get the applications in the day before so that they didn’t have to work any later the next day so as to avoid missing out n any celebrations. We were right. We were told to return the following day at 11am! So with all admin sorted we could focus on our New Years Eve Party plans. We found a butcher who had a good piece of fillet for us, we arranged for the owners of Le Cactus to prepare some salads for us and we had fillet steaks with garlic butter for dinner. It was a quiet evening but reassuring to know that we had done what we needed to do in Bamako and that tomorrow we would be on the road heading towards the infamous Timbuktu!

2010-01-01

Happy 2010! We tried to get away from Bamako as early as possible to avoid any traffic and managed to do so. We didn’t want to drive too far today and decided to head towards Camping Kangaba. It was recommended in the Bradt Guide and promised us camping facilities and a swimming pool! They also described it as a ‘little slice of paradise’. It was really nice but their prices wee extortionate! They wanted to charge us to use the pool over and above the camping fees. We were not willing to submit to this ludicrous request and decided to leave ‘the slice of paradise’ behind us and head for the river where we found a good spot to bush camp amongst some mango trees and subsistence crops. It was peaceful and the fact that we didn’t have to pay for anything made it even better.

2010-01-02

Scratch scratch scratch! We were all attacked by midges last night and woke up with very itchy bites on our legs, ankles and arms! We packed up and hit the road again towards Segou. Segou is most famous for its Festival de Niger which was happening at the end of January. We were there only to stock up on some groceries, some last bits and bobs for Christine and Joe’s car and then head towards Timbuktu. We stopped off at a very local restaurant for lunch where we paid CFA 500 (€0.80) for a bowl of Rice and Sauce. This appears to be one of the staple diets in Mali as most people cannot afford to buy huge hunks of meat so rather make sauce with either this slimy vegetable called Okra or ground nuts. I preferred the groundnut version! We did some sightseeing which included a look at the Niger River. There isn’t much else to do in Segou and so we had a quite evening.

2010-01-03 to 2010-01-05

We were finally en-route to Timbuktu. We decided to take the northern route; the road less travelled; to Timbuktu rather than the tarred road though Djenne and Mopti. That way we could drive back from Timbuktu via those 2 villages without double backing on ourselves. The route was splendid. We drove north towards Nionio which took us across the Niger River. The irrigation systems are quite remarkable and this allows for farming in the Sahel region to take place. A series of canals have been built which are put to their maximum use. The canals are used to irrigate crops such as rice, tomatoes, wheat, onions and millet. This area is a very important economical region for Mali as most of their crops feed the country and any leftovers get exported to neighbouring countries. This worked to our advantage because it meant that the roads were graded and of a good standard. We crossed over the Barrage de Markala which is a bridge as well as a dam wall. This is also a strategic position for the military and photography is forbidden. I was unaware of this and was merrily snapping away until we saw the Gendarmerie waving us down ahead. I managed to get away with my photographs after having hid the camera and having no evidence of photographic equipment in my possession. We continued on and found a place to camp amongst some trees off the road. This was a superb spot where we enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of being in the middle of nowhere. Kirk cooked us an oxtail potjie of which Christine managed to get as a cadeau whilst in Bamako. It was delicious! Not a single local ventured into our paths that night in fact, they did everything to avoid us completely. A herd of goats came to visit us that evening on their way to the watering hole and they visited us again the next morning. We all slept well and woke to another beautiful day.

We continued our journey towards Timbuktu which again took us through some small village settlements who were always busy doing something constructive. If there are no crops to irrigate or tend to they were making bricks out of clay. Certain areas resemble tropical oases with palm trees and expanses of water. It really was a beautiful sight. One of the features that stood out in these areas were the mud mosques. They are very picturesque with their turrets and resemble that of a fairy tale castle except that it is brown. There were also many termite hills that sometimes stood taller than 2 meters high. We drove all day passing through the Mauritania/Mali border town Lere where we had our passports stamped again. At 4pm we decided to make camp and did so under some trees overlooking some cops. It was again a spectacular evening with stargazing on the cards as well as beef sosaties, potatoes and salad for dinner.

Our destination was getting closer and we decided to push on to Timbuktu today. We were going to take an extra day to do so but the distance was just not enough and the roads were remarkably good. Before we could do that we had to fix a puncture that Joe had picked up along the way. It was Kirk’s first opportunity to test out his puncture repair kit and he thoroughly enjoyed repairing the hole with Joe. Apparently Kirk finds these things fun and he says that they make the trip interesting. The rest of us couldn’t disagree more. We like things to work properly with as little hassle as possible. With the puncture repaired we were on our way again. We made a few wrong turns along the way and struggled to find the piste but eventually made it to Goundam where we bought some bread and had lunch along side the road to Timbuktu. The path had become a lot busier since we found the main road and there were numerous 4×4’s driving by with tourists in their cars. One even stopped to ask if we were okay as he thought we were having car problems.

Timbuktu was in sight eventually with the Grande Mosque showing in the distance. It was late afternoon, we were hot and tired and so decided to find our campsite, Sahara Passion, and enjoy the sunset over Timbuktu. Sahara Passion is owned and run by a Canadian/Tuareg couple. Esekane, a music festival in the desert, was scheduled for Thursday, Friday and Saturday and they were expecting a large number of people. We had arrived in the nick of time and managed to secure a spot in the courtyard with Christine and Joe pitching their tent on the roof terrace. That evening we enjoyed a traditional dish from Timbuktu which was meat sauce and dumplings with the obligatory sand. It is virtually impossible to eat a dish in the desert without the sand seasoning. After dinner we were sat around the table when we were joined by the Canadian owner. We had been discussing the animals on the road and how the donkeys are all over the place and don’t bother moving even if a car hoots at them. She proceeded to tell us a very interesting story about the animals of the desert. It goes something like this…

There were 3 friends, a dog, a donkey and a goat. They had all been visiting a mutual friend In Timbuktu and needed to get home after their stay. They hailed a bush taxi and all loaded their luggage onto the roof of the taxi and set off in the direction of home. The dogs stop came and he instructed the driver to please stop. The driver did so and the dog paid his fare but the taxi drove off before the dog could get his luggage off the roof. The next stop was for the goat, seeing what had happened to the dog he decided to not pay the driver until his bag was off the roof of the taxi, with bag in hand he decided to make a dash for it and didn’t pay the taxi driver at all. The last stop was for the donkey, he was in a predicament now because the taxi driver would not take his bag off the roof without payment. The donkey decided to accept this but stood in front of the taxi and waited for his change. This story explains why whenever a dog sees a car he chases after it to get his bag, a goat will always run away from a car because he is scared that he will need to pay and a Donkey will stand in front of the car to ensure that he gets his change.

This sums up our encounter with the animals of the Mali.

2010-01-06

We were woken up very early this morning by the call to prayer. When everything is quiet the sound is escalated and it is certain to wake up everybody in earshot. We got up and had breakfast on the roof terrace. This also allowed us to do a spot of people watching and with Kirk’s zoom lens we managed to get a few sneaky shots of the locals going about their daily chores. We set off to explore the town of Timbuktu. It really doesn’t meet the expectations you have. A place with such a reputation should almost certainly be more developed but it wasn’t. It is a town made up of mud buildings and not much more. The outskirts of the town still do not have electricity and have only recently been supplied with piped water. There is no such thing as sewage pipes; the household waste is just put out onto the streets. It was quite a disconcerting sight at times and we had to watch our step carefully. We walked to the Djingareiber Mosque which is next to the Bibliotheque de Manuscripts. The sun was scorching again and so we found refuge in a shady restaurant for lunch where we enjoyed brochette and frites. It was good to escape off the streets and not to be disturbed by the locals who were constantly trying to sell us something. After a whirlwind tour through Timbuktu Christine and I headed to the Grand March where we stocked up on some veggies. We headed back to Sahara Passion and prepared to leave the following ay. The festival had brought many visitors to the region and things were far more expensive than we had planned. It was also very crowded at the auberge and we liked the prospect of getting into the bush again for some piece and tranquillity.

2010-01-07

We stopped off at the Sankore mosque on the way out of Timbuktu. This mosque is smaller than the Djingareiber Mosque and was supposedly built by a Berber woman. It was very beautiful. These mosques are maintained every year just before the rainy season begins. The wooden sticks protruding out of the mosque are used as scaffolding and aid in the maintenance process. We posted some postcards from the post office and set off for Douentza, the beginning of the Dogon Valley. In order to get there we had to take a car ferry across one of the tributaries of the Niger River. It was a scenic route that took us past fishing villages and mud mosques. Once on the other side we continued the 250km drive which took us through some beautiful plateaus with beautiful mountains as the backdrop. These mountains are quite spectacular and are quite contrasts to the relatively flat terrain that makes up most of Mali’s landscape. We camped the night at Chez Jerome after deciding that it was too late to continue into the Dogon as we still had tom find camp. It was a pleasant stay with fantastic facilities. We cooked a lamb risotto for dinner which went down a treat. We certainly have been eating very well on the trip. The only thing we have been missing is fruit! Since Senegal it has been difficult to come by and we have been fantasising about biting into a crunchy apple. Something to look forward to as we head closer to the tropical regions.

2010-01-08 to 2010-01-09

We set off in search of the Dogon today. The Dogon is a region famous for its unusual architecture and unique Dogon people. We started off well on a good track heading south. The road provided some good opportunities for Kirk to practise his 4×4 skills and we negotiated some tricky rocky sections. The going was slow but the scenery was gorgeous. We got our first peek of a Dogon village called Wakara. When we looked at the map we noticed that Wakara was on the Plateau and not on the 4×4 track. We had taken the donkey track and were now going to have to negotiate the track down. It was interesting to say the least but thoroughly enjoyable. When we entered Wakara children came out of nowhere. It was incredible to see just how many there were. They ran behind the car shouting ‘ceva ceva’ trying to get our attention. They do not see many white people in these areas and they see it as a novelty. We continued forward to Kasa and again were swamped with children. This occasion made us feel like the Pied Piper as they followed us down a rocky path. They were so excited to see us and started singing beautiful songs. The path down was quite hair raising as there were lots and lots of rocks. The drive was very slow and we only managed to cover 60 kilometres the whole day. As we reached the base of the escarpment we were met with the most beautiful vegetable garden. The Dogon people use every bit of land that is available to them. They farm millet on the plateau and have these beautiful vegetable gardens close to the water supplies. They farm onions, tomatoes and lettuce. It is a refreshing sight to see the vast greenness amongst the brown millet fields. Just as we thought we were in the clear we rounded a corner and came to a dead stop. A caravan of about 50 donkeys and carts was returning from the weekly market. They had reached a section of very soft sand and were struggling to get the heavily laden carts through. We were in for a long wait if we didn’t get stuck in and help them out. Joe and Kirk put their muscles to use and helped to push the donkey carts that were already submerged in the sand. After about 15 carts had passed through we asked them to hold up at the back so that we could pass. The locals were grateful for the help and wished us well on our way when we managed to get a space. We eventually made it into the village of Yendouma which is made up of a clutch of 5 hamlets. We settled in and set up camp in the school yard. We arranged for a guide to meet us the following morning to take us around the surrounding hamlets of Yendouma.

We were up early enough to catch the sun rise and watch the local people visit the water pump. The views were great and we looked forward to venturing into the villages to learn more about the Dogon traditions and customs. Our guide arrived promptly and we set off at 8am. He took us up into the heart of the village where he explained the customs and traditions of the Animists and Muslim Dogon people. Animist was the original religion of Dogon where they had some interesting beliefs about the beginning of earth. They read the stars and have passed down stories through many generations. The anatomy of the Dogon village is very interesting and very beautiful. The most noticeable structures are the Granaries; small circular thatched structures that are used to store the millet that is farmed in the region. The millet is supposed to last until the following years harvest but if the rain is bad that year they need to buy more form the market. The millet is used to make millet beer as well as millet cakes and bread. We sampled some of the millet bread which came deep fried for breakfast. It was quite bland but filled the gap and kept us going for the entire morning. Our guide took us to the Togu-na an open sided structure that is the meeting area for the elders of the village. This is where disputes are settled and decisions are made. The roof is supported by eight pillars which represent the 8 Dogon ancestors and are often decorated in carvings. The roof is low to give both much needed shade and also to help defuse any arguments that may get out of hand as people cannot stand up if they come to blows.

We continued to the next village that had great examples of Tellem Houses. These are cave like dwellings that are situated high up in the cliffs. The mystery still exists as to how these structures where constructed and many believe that the Tellem people had special flying powers. We were shown special altars where they make sacrifices as well as the Maison des regles where woman are expected to stay during their time of menstruation. The schools in the Dogon are probably the most modern structures although many of them are designed to fit in with the architecture. They are well kept and something to be very proud of. All of the Dogon houses are made from mud and clay with either thatched roofs or flat clay roofs that are used to store the excess millet. It was a very interesting experience.

We headed south again and drove through many more Dogon Villages. It would have been good to explore more places but the tourist taxes add up and we would have had to enlist the help of yet another guide. We felt that we had seen sufficient Dogon architecture and headed onto Bandiagara and then Mopti. Mopti doesn’t really have anything special to offer in fact it is the stop off point for tourists for the Dogon and Timbuktu. We decided to stay in the quieter town of Sevare where we found a campement called Le Repos Du Dogon. It was very comfortable with fantastic showers. Kirk cooked us a lovely beef curry for dinner and we enjoyed the peace and tranquillity that a non touristy place had to offer.

2010-01-10

We had an admin day again where Joe and Christine internetted about various things that needed seeing to. I caught up on some reading and we did some research about the next countries we were visiting. It was good to be able to relax in a shady area without any worries in the world. Christine and I took a stroll into the market and stocked up on some veggies and meat. We enjoyed the experience of shopping in a traditional Malian market and didn’t get hassled or bothered by anyone. The vendors were there to do business and if we didn’t want t pay their price they were not bothered. We walked away with enough ingredients to make a wholesome vegetable soup for dinner. The campement filled up quickly that evening as Esekane had finished in Timbuktu and many visitors stopped over in Sevare to leave early for the airport the following evening. Mali was also playing against Algeria in the opening match for the African Cup so the locals were glued to their television screens. I can not even begin to tell you just how excited they got when they went from 0-4 to 4-4. The town of Sevare erupted and the partying went on until early hours of the morning.

2010-01-11

It is my father’s birthday today and I was pleased that I had managed to speak to him the previous evening as we had planned to drive all day after visiting Djenne. We packed up and set off to see the famous mosque. We took the ferry across to Djenne and drove in the direction of the main attraction. It was Monday and Monday is market day in Djenne. The locals from the surrounding areas bring all of their wares to sell. It was certainly not geared for tourists in fact I think the locals hate the tourists being there as they get in the way of their trading. We took some pictures of the beautiful mosque which is also maintained every year before the rainy season. 4000 locals volunteer in the maintenance programme as they are very proud of this world heritage site. The money that the people of Djenne get from tourism is quite substantial as each visitor is obliged to pay CFA1000 per visit. Web also had to pay CFA3000 for the return ferry ticket so although it may not convert to much money in euro standards CFA1000 goes a long way in Africa. The time had come to say goodbye to Mali as we headed towards the border post of Burkina Faso.

Mali is an amazing country where they farm any piece of land that is available to them. There are no big commercial farming projects in place, most of it is subsistence. The people are exceptionally friendly and are always willing to help you with anything you may need. The red meat is cheaper than chicken and we ate a remarkable amount of fillet and rump that was organic and very tasty. If I were to return to Mali I would need a bigger budget as hotels are expensive and anything touristy costs an arm and a leg. It has been a great experience and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how simple life can be and how far a little bit of water can go. Mali is not the dry desert we all imagine it to be; it is full of vegetation but again faces problems such as desertification because of over grazing and deforestation. The air is badly polluted due to the large number of fires that are lit each evening to provide fuel for cooking and light in many of the Malian homes. It again has been a Geographers dream visiting such a place.

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