Zwei Wochen in Mali
I went to Mali in January. Most people asked me why, and where in the world is it anyway? Timbuktu was my motivation. Again, same questions and does it real exist? Yes, it does. It just takes time. I used my air miles. Thought, it will be a clever deal. Well, there are always strings attached: Mali is not on the list of Lufthansa and its airline partners. I was offered to fly into Ivory Coast. I declined, Dakar in Senegal sounded better. As everybody knows whoever redeemed miles: no direct ways to the destination. The plane brought me from Germany to Lisbon to Dakar in the middle of the night. I found a good place to stay not far from the airport but with oceanfront. That sounds wonderful. The truth is, that the beach and shoreline are polluted and dirty. Dakar itself was very chaotic and dusty because of multiple road construction and at the same time very quiet. One of the religious leaders had died and a 3-day-silence was over the city. I went to an ex slave island, which is one of the tourist destinations. I would call it nice, pleasant to stroll around, local artist trying to sell their paintings and metal art under huge Baobab trees.
I left early the following morning, aim: Tambacounda. It’s about the middle on the way to Bamako, Mali’s capital. I had inquired about a bus but a car seemed to be a better option. Not just for myself, no, to share with a few other fellows. To be accurate: 8 plus driver in one Peugot. Once, all negotiation were settled and the car was full we could leave for the road trip. It was a bit packed, 3 people on the seats behind the back seat row. My muscles and knees appreciated every stop for unfolding and stretching. After 3 hours on fairly smooth roads the adventure began. The road was more a connection of holes than anything else. The driver used three tactics to continue traveling: (1) find the hole and circumnavigate, which meant driving zick zack from left to right and be back on the ride side before oncoming traffic was too close, (2) half of the car on the shoulder, half of it on the road or (3) create a new road off the road = dusty off-off road. Not even I could sleep (whoever had traveled with me before know that this is rare, I can sleep almost everywhere). We were driving though savanna, huge Baobab trees, villages, nothing. Not very scenic but a lot of dust.10 hours later and sore knees: Tambacounda. I stopped at an Inn. It looked promising, although above my budget, and even had a pool. Nice round bungalows, my shower water was red-brown from all the dust, a consistent feature for the next 2 weeks. I stopped by at a soccer game. Played in dust. Must be hard. Fanatic fans were around. Will I be in Mali the next day? Almost the same happened the next day: negotiations, waiting for full car for over 2 hours (it was a Sunday), packed in a small car but better road conditions. Cars were changed close to the border, some more money paid. The border formalities were simple: an officer at a table next to the road, questions where from and where to, a stamp and a signature. Slightly different on the Malian side: I left my rucksack at the ‘bus stop’, walked though the village to the police station. The station was basically a house without anything inside. I was 4th in the book 2008, 3 other tourist were here earlier. Another stamp. Waiting at the ‘bus stop’ to get the car filled again. The other 3 tourists were French Canadian, biologists, on the same way as I am. It took a while, maybe another 2 hours till the car left. Time becomes relative. I left my watch at home. Africans have time, Europeans have a watch. After an hour trip we arrived in Kayes. We stayed at a Catholic missionary, very basic accommodation for 5 Euro. Steak, bread, fries and beer was served at a small restaurant. We were the only guests. We walked through town, pretty dark, scary on the bridge over the river Senegal. I wouldn’t have done this walking alone. Early start at 6 AM next morning, now at sunrise, the river and the bridge looked beautiful in early daylight. We got on the bus to Bamako at 7AM. On the road again, a good road thanks to the support by the European Union. Only the last 2 hours were on an on/ off road.
A bustling town, broad alleys, tall trees, it reminds me of Harare/ Zimbabwe. The street market is a labyrinth of lanes with everything in any color you can think of. We (the French Canadian and me) are winding us through the crowd, fresh veggies and mangos in our bags. Earlier, we walked along the river, just across the hotel Seguere: many woman and man, like ants, were busy dying cotton material. The water quality reflected this activity, colorful, as much as the glistening material was laid out for drying on grass. Pictures. Forgotten are the strict environmental concerns of a German. Taxi rides in the dark created goose bumps and JP even got his pocket knife: the driver took a short cut through dark dark roads, we exchanged a few views and our nerves were tense. Then the automatic door lock clicked. What does that mean? Nothing: the driver was just too relaxed and touched the lock by chance. We were all very relaxed once back on well-lit road towards our hotel. The two dinners at the hotel were a treat: the first with lemon ice cream as dessert, the second: self prepared because we missed kitchen hours. The mango-peppermint-lemon salad got invented. Yummy.
On the road again: Bamako-Sevare: 9 hours in a bus, villages, straw covered huts, dust, kids, who make music with several wooden plates put on a stick. Sleep on the roof at the hotel, better than inside and amazing stars. Interesting conversation about Mali, Africa and life with Paul, who works at the hotel for 6 months.
Back on the road again: Sevare-Bandiagara. I decided to join the 3 French-Canadians to explore the Dogon country. They don’t mind. And I had interpreters. The Dogon country is a huge area of cliffs, plateaus, villages, traditions, mystics. Ancient people (Tellem) had built houses into cliffs almost similar to Mesa Verde in the States. Alexis’ uncle Mamadou is Dogon and a tourist guide. Nothing better could happen. His village is 2 hours away from Bandiagara. Great stars again. Delicious food: rice and sardines. Sleeping on mattresses inside small huts with straw and mud walls. I’m glad to have my sleeping bag. It gets cold otherwise. We start hiking through the Dogon country the following day. The first day along the plateau through rocky areas, onion fields and Baobabs. The villages are small, have smaller (for woman to store kitchen staff) and larger storage huts (for man to store gropes, mainly millet) made of mud with black straw roofs, they look almost like Hershey kisses from far away. Friendly villagers, Christian, Muslim and Animist villages side by side. A simple life. We stay in Begnemato: there is a mask dance in the afternoon. Small and large mask up to 3 meters long, dancers bare feet or on stales, colorful dresses or better skirts, only man dance, simulating fights till sunset. The following morning is the same way back. This time, we stop at the onion fields, which are smell able from far away. Onion greens and bulbs are either smashed and formed into balls or dried. It’s an important income source. There is market in Dourou: colorful, meat, onions, millet beer (not my favorite), rice, beans, clothes. No photographs allowed. Indigo fabrics are another specialty. We all get an Indigo hat as a gift. Funny hats. We thank and continue our hike along the plateau and down the cliff. Yousoff is our guide. Woman leaving the market have the same way. JP is trying to carry some load on his head, not bad, the woman are amused. Once we reach the cliff: stunning views over the Gondo plain with the red sand. We hike for another 2 days along the falaise, through beautiful villages with a view to the cliff dwellings. Something new in each village, a lot of mystics, sacred places, fetishes. A ceremony where the villages bury a dead woman in the cliffs: a long row of colorful people, singing walking up to the cliffs. I liked the idea of the togu na – meeting place of the elders, which is only 1.2 m off the ground preventing to stand up during meetings and discussions. Every time Dogons meet they greet each other asking about the family. It’s a sing sung and sounds very funny. I usually sleep outside under a sky overloaded with stars. Those days are very memorable and over way too quickly.
Once we leave the Dogon country and are back on the plateau, its time to say goodbye. The French Canadian continue to see the Elephants. I don’t have the time and have seen them in East Africa. I better get on the road again to Timbuktu. As Louise predicted, I won’t forget the trip back to Bandiagara on the motorcycle. We left late at sunset. Yousoff worked hard driving the motorcycle with me and my rucksack through the off road and sand in the dark. After 2.5 hours and a sudden stop of the engine in the middle of no-where I was glad to be in Bandiagara.
I made it to Timbuktu on the following day. It was a long ride and I arrived under a sky full of stars at the ferry. The road was 5 hours long for 200 km off road, my black shirt turned into brown-red from the dust. Everybody talked about the music festival outside Timbuktu. I didn’t want to go there, my time was too short and the tickets were not cheap. I don’t regret it – Everybody I met later was disappointed about the festival. I liked being in Timbuktu during the festival time: the town was tourist and hassle free. I could walk around in the streets and houses and almost nobody was around. There is nothing special in Timbuktu. It’s a town in the desert. Old houses, mosques, wonderful magazines, houses where explorer like Heinrich Barth stayed and studied. Mystique. I got a stamp from Timbuktu in my passport. I’m proud. I spend my second night in the desert with a family, which I reached after 90 minutes sitting on a camel. I can't say that I like riding on a camel. I don't feel safe being so high above ground. And the animals don’t appear very intellectual like horses. It was very interesting to see how families live in the desert, not much to live from.
I wanted to get back to Djenne on the following day. Well, that was not happening. No cars were available in Timbuktu. I asked around, nothing. I decided to hire a motorcycle plus driver to get out of Timbuktu to the ferry. May be I will have better luck there. That motorcycle was a bit old and the 10 kilometers to the ferry with my rucksack on my back were stressful. My legs were sore the next day. The bonus: I got a free ride from the ferry to Douenza. Instead of 5 hours it took only 3.5 hours through the off road. I shared the 4x4 with a journalist. The following day was on the road again: I made it by bus to Djenne after I waited the whole morning. Djenne, a world heritage site, is famous for the mosque, the biggest mud structure in the world. I was lucky because it was Sunday afternoon. I could see the city before the large Monday market. Walking through the town is like being in a mud labyrinth. Houses, narrow lanes and open gutters. It was good to wear robust boots not caring where to step in. Another interesting person I met: the Bask Jose, about 70 years old, driving through Africa for a year, he already ‘finished’ Asia and Americas. He is ‘collecting’ local music and posting it on the web. Will love to be as active at 70 as he is. The picture around the mosque changed on Monday: the city got packed for the market day. Very colorful. Everything to buy. I had to leave.. hopped on the bus again in the afternoon: 11 hours to Bamako. Driving in a taxi around midnight in Bamako: dark streets didn’t scare me any more. I knew it from 2 weeks ago. It’s safe. I’m glad to stay at the same hotel again, the last day in Mali and everything seems familiar. A smile after I got my plane ticket to Dakar - I wasn’t able to reserve it before hand and I didn’t want to sit in a car for 3 days through the same road again- . Now, I stroll through Bamako’s market, got some souvenirs and colored materials. I spend my last hours in Mali reading in the hammock overlooking the Niger. Interesting country, friendly people. With some French knowledge even better to travel.
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