We are getting much better at the ‘find your own way’ scenario now! By sticking to our guns and keeping a constant course on the GPS – we eventually found the track to Bassikounou. We passed through unstopped and waved goodbye to the locals and Mauritania (so much for the Nema guy saying we would have to pay 10,000 ouguiyas)! En route we were flagged down by an old, senile man, wearing just a ragged shirt which didn't even cover the top half of his body, let alone anything else. He was desperate for water and clothes and appeared very ashamed for me to see him in such a state. We donated a pair of Michael's old trousers and a long sleeve shirt to him and he was delighted...
Our introduction to Mali was an interesting and very annoying one… We had been told by a number of sources that if you are crossing the border from the Nema direction, Timbuktu is where you complete all your formalities such as passport stamping, vehicle insurance (the latest Michelin map also confirms this). We passed through what we now know was Lerneb (the first town on the Mali side). As usual we waved to everyone who seemed friendly – if a little timid. We drove around a bend and I saw a building saying something about ‘Timbuktu Region’ but there were no police of officials of any sort to be seen nor any signs to say stop, so Michael drove on. I saw a civilian in my rear view mirror jumping out, shouting and waving at us (he was one of the ones we had waved to earlier), but Michael decided to drive on as the continual stops are frustrating, often unnecessary and frequently someone simply trying to catch a lift!
Then we recognised pretty much immediately that the road was heading SE – probably to Lere (although there is not such road marked on the Michelin map). Once again we decided to go ‘bundu-bashing’ and we did a circle round to the NE to intersect with the correct road. The path we made was much easier going than yesterday, with less undulations and a partial riverbed which happened to run in the right direction for us. Within 3km to our reckoning, we found the road and proudly proceeded on the correct piste…
Then we met a Toyota Landcruiser with about 7 Kalashnikov-wielding gendarmerie soldiers on board. The captain waved us down and they all jumped off the back – all the usual questions (nationality, where have you been, where are you going etc…) followed by a request to see the passport. He began to get quite aggressive and asked why we hadn’t passed through the border formalities at Lerneb. I spoke my ‘broken-French’ and it frustrated the hell out of him and he kept shouting that if we visit Mali we must speak French! He spoke pretty good English, but I guess he was playing the same language game as us. He kept shouting saying ‘it is an infraction to burn the border post’. The rest of his group were quite friendly and were looking closely at the vehicle. Michael kept telling them how Nyathi was constantly breaking down, to avoid any ideas they might have about acquiring it! Eventually after much discussion and offering to return to Lerneb (knowing it wasn’t really necessary) – he told us we had two options only to give him a cadeau and simply tell the officials in Goundam that we had been told to do the formalities there or return with them and probably spend the night at Lerneb. Despite feeling really annoyed about the whole thing and vehemently disagreeing with him about the concept of cadeaux we resorted to giving him a cheap watch for less then £1 that I had bought at the Boots Staff shop and hot footing it out of there (after feigning difficulty with starting the engine of course)!
I never felt threatened by the fact they all had weapons and they never got physically aggressive – the captain was just a down right bastard who wanted to make life difficult for us. I have to say though – the fact that their vehicle had a few bullet holes in it made us both slightly apprehensive, but they tried to convince us bandits were no longer a problem! The whole incident left us with a sour taste in the mouth and we set up camp far away from the sight of the road and kept listening carefully if there were any other vehicles.
We woke up fairly early in the morning, after a strange, dream-filled night. I wasn’t feeling very happy when we heard the loud bangs which sounded like gun shots, but they could just have easily been a car backfiring and we did hear two vehicles subsequent to that, well that’s what we told ourselves. We didn’t have too far to go to Goundam so set off, happy that we would e able to explain our situation if required, and I would speak better French! We made what was intended to be a quick pitstop (all the water drinking does wonders for the bladder), then Michael did a routine checks of the wheels and discovered the back left bearing had gone (we only replaced it in Morocco last November) so were quite surprised! The job took only an hour and a half, but it seemed much longer in the sweltering heat. Despite staying in the shade of the tree and an umbrella, with factor 35 I still got quite burnt. Michael got really burnt as he was more exposed!
The route to Goundam was relatively good, but it’s that fine powder dust which gets in everywhere! I have given up and am only going to brush out all the dust when we leave the desert. Our experience in Goundam was in sharp contrast to the day before… We sought out the gendarmerie first thing, with loads of extremely friendly waves and shouts from the locals. At first we went to the wrong gendarmerie, but the ‘chef’ sent us with one of his soldiers to another section who he thought were responsible for immigration and customs formalities. The ‘chef’ there was even more pleasant. He invited us to sit down and had some chairs brought in. Then he explained that he could write in our passports, but it would mean nothing because all the formalities should take place in Timbuktu! The he asked us if we had wandered around Goundam – we said no, but that we needed to buy tomatoes and asked if there was a bank, because we didn’t have any Mali money yet. He insisted on giving us 1000 CFA (£1) to go to the market – we were gobsmacked and delighted to find such a different attitude to what we had encountered yesterday. We wandered round a lovely covered market with an aromatic mix of spices, in the air. The people were all really friendly and we had no demands for cadeaux whatsoever!
We headed out NE towards Timbuktu on a built road (rather than a piste), which was badly corrugated and shook us vigorously. We need to remember to check all the nuts and bolts for signs of loosening! We arrived in Timbuktu to the same friendliness – we drove about looking at the town. The commissariat wasn’t available as it was siesta time, so we returned to the camp ground to escape from the midday sun and have something to eat. There was running water so we wet our clothing to stay cool! We sat in the shade of an acacia tree. Michael had been chatting to a local boy (Mohammed) who is only ten, but spoke excellent English, particularly considering he was not taught English at school. He returned later with his ‘brother’ who is a guide, who was very pleasant and interesting to talk to (Idrissa). We had our passports stamped – no problem whatsoever. He told us it was 1000 CFA per passport, but that we could return to pay whenever it suited us, or if we liked we could pay in Mopti, whatever was easiest for us! We went for a wander around the town in the evening with Idrissa and Mohammed and stopped by at the local restaurant and ordered local specialities for tomorrow night.
When we got back to camp we ate and listened to the camp owner (Sharif) and his friends socialising. He invited us over to be introduced and they were all local businessmen and hoteliers. Later a few more people joined them and they all had a very merry time. It was great to simply sit next to Nyathi, eating and listening to titbits of their conversation and all their laughter. When they left they apologised profusely for making noise and disturbing us, so of course we said it was no problem at all!
We both slept really well last night and only got out of bed after 7am! Idrissa met us at 8am and we went in Nyathi to the ‘douane’ to get our vehicle papers processed and to buy a laissez-passer (type of insurance for the vehicle). It turns out that chef looked closely at our carnet-de-passage, taking ages to read it and then said we could go. I suspect we’ll need to pay something somewhere, but we’ll wait until we get asked! We went to visit two war monuments – one to represent the Tuareg uprising (Flame of Peace) and the other, built by the Chinese to commemorate lives lost in the war with the French.
We exchanged money at the bank (long process), but we got to sit in an air-conditioned room = heaven! We got the mandatory postcards and stamps from the Timbuktu post office. At about 11.30 the heat became a bit unbearable, so we went to Patisserie Asco to have a cold drink, which turned into and order of ‘frites’, more beer and shandy and then Asco invited us to join them for their family lunch. We all sat on the floor and ate rice with fish in a tomato based sauce – it was very tasty and we felt privileged to enjoy them.
We spent about 2 hours just relaxing there, writing postcards and watching life go by. It is unbelievable to see how relaxed everyone is here. They all treat each other like family and make themselves at home. People sit down and listen to music, turning up the volume if a good song comes on. Our guide, Idrissa answered the telephone when it rang – it is really amazing to see! Also, people just walk in and out, help themselves to water (it was the same at the bank – where they had a fridge of water and also the tap at the campsite is open to anyone who needs it, they simply hop over the little broken wall and help themselves).
Now I am sitting in the cab in the shade of a tree at the restaurant. It is 45°C and I am sweating (or should I say glowing). Idrissa is returning shortly to take us on a tour of the mosques etc. so that should be interesting… Michael is in the fan-cooled internet café seeing if we can down load this directly onto the website using the laptop, which would be so much quicker!!!
Back from our guided tour… we had an enjoyable walk around the town. We visited the grand mosque and for a fee of 2500CFA, plus some coins to the local children who looked after our shoes which we left outside. The mosque was interesting, but not earth-shatteringly so. We did get very good views from the terrace top and learnt about the man who wasn’t a true Moslem and turned into an elephant (as a result they sealed off the door through which he entered the mosque), as well as some incomprehensible story about the twins and their two special places within the mosque.
We enjoyed a tasty dinner at Asco’s. We ate Riz Alfaja and Toucassou which is a meat dish with bread baked within a sauce of twelve spices grown in Timbuktu (wakondo, alkaffa, mafedje, wangala wafedje, altabowo, tawati albaselle, kabbe, lefe, tjkry, hoye, poivre and holhobbi). While we sat and ate our dinner under the trees a group of friends and ‘family’ were all gathered around outside watching the television cinema-style.
We decided to take our guide, Idrissa down to the Dogon country with us for three days for a fee of 60,000 CFA. He met us at 08h30 and after going to the market to get supplies, going to the internet café to get a message from Karen and paying the policeman 1000CFA for stamping our passports, we were on our way…
We went via Goundam and I nipped in to see the chef at the gendarmerie who had given us the 1000CFA previously and gave him two toblerones from the freezer – he was delighted. They had a somewhat delapidated bridge as you exited the town, so we crossed the river bank instead...
We made our way along the lesser used route down to Tonka, Niafounke and Sarafere. We took a ferry (powered by an attached pinasse dugout with a 40 yamaha motor on the back) across the Bara Issa river. It cost 5000CFA and our timing was perfect as it was just making its way across to our side of the river when we arrived back from a slight detour to see if the river was fordable, so we didn’t have to beg them to come across to us. I sat on the Nyathi’s bonnet filming, while Michael drove on. There were quite a few pinasses floating about too.
The children were all playing and bathing in the river and were delighted to be filmed and have their photographs taken. The view through the cab windscreen was beautiful, with swaying palm trees lining our route...
There were loads of enormous anthills scattered about the horizon, which dwarfed Nyathi! We set up camp shortly afterwards on a bank above the river. It was terrific, we could hear the fish splashing and there were loads of birds calling (including a nightjar), plus the bats came to skim over the water after the sun disappeared. Michael and I tightened up the bearings while Idrissa made a campfire. We ate a hearty meal and introduced Idrissa to the delights of braaied marshmallows.
We made good progress today. We came across two further rivers with ferries. At the first one Michael walked across to test how deep and muddy it was and ten an old man showed Michael an alternative crossing which he walked with him and we crossed there instead!
There were loads of brightly painted pinasses floating on the river and much activity with women washing clothes and fetching water. I walked the second river and filmed Michael as he drove across!
We stopped under a large tree in a field and ate cold mangoes, which we shared with two local children who took a break from herding their sheep.
We got to Bandiagara at about13h00 and we soon had lots of people offering our services. We told them Idrissa was going to sort it all out and we agreed on Mamadou (le petit magnifique). We bought some kola nuts to give to the village elders and then we took Idrissa to find his brother’s wife who was staying with her father at the gendarmerie. It’s amazing how small Africa is – we’d be driving along and all of a sudden one of the guides would shout out to someone they knew, who was miles away from their home area. We arrived in Dourou and left the vehicle at a campement (local Dogon home with rooms or mattresses on the roof terrace) while we went for a walk to the village on the hill. It was a little frustrating as Idrissa and Mamadou kept talking between themselves and it took a bit of reminding that it was us they were meant to be talking to!
The villagers were all very friendly and there were also lots of children shouting ‘ca va’ and trying to shake our hands. The village was quaint and interesting with winding alleyways and houses with courtyards surrounded by granaries (one used by the men for millet and the others used by the women for supplies for food cooking). The greeting in Dogon is pronounced ‘paw’ and you simultaneously lift your hands in a cupped motion. Michael and I had many quiet giggles lifting our hand up like dogs’ paws and greeting the villagers! The elderly (especially the men) are treated with reverence and sit under a low heavy straw roofed area holding counsel. The Dogon country kind of has its own set of laws and the gendarmerie does not get involved in law keeping or local disputes, they are all controlled by the elders. The Dogon community comprises three religious groups (the quarters are sometimes divided in this way) – Moslem, Catholic and Animists.
The end of our visit was most interesting when we went to visit the village chief. He was not there, but we sat with his four wives and many children, using our limited Dogon (paw = hello, sewha = how are you?, gana = thank you) and talking through Mamadou. It turns out we were a bit of a hit as we asked what all their names were, told them ours, and the first wife told Mamadou we would be welcome to come back later if we wanted to.
Close to our campement we saw some women dyeing indigo cloth. I resisted the temptation of buying one. They asked if I had any medicine for their sick child (but they couldn’t very effectively describe the symptoms) so I said I would bring some multivitamins from the vehicle later. After much reminding we got our guides to take us to the Animist quarter – we gathered that they (as Moslem) thought that Animists were bad people for praying to fetishes etc. We tried to convince them that they were simply different and everyone had a right to choose their own way of life. Mamadou told us to ensure we followed him closely as he didn’t want us to walk in the wrong place. There are sacred areas and ‘fetishes’ (usually mud mounds) scattered about the village where sacrifices are made - such as chicken blood or millet soup. No-one is allowed to walk in, or near these places, unless they are a Hogon (type of high priest) or an elder going to pray or perform a sacrifice.
As the sun was setting we left the village to see loads of women walking down to the village’s only well to collect water. The Dogons have an enchanting greeting system, first there’s the ‘paw’, then they chorus a circular greeting to each other saying ‘how are you’, ‘I am fine’, ‘how are you’, ‘I am fine thank you’, ‘thank you’… We enjoyed couscous and a tomato sauce for dinner and had a shower African-style, using a bucket of water and a cup. We are used to it and found it a pleasure to have a whole bucket of water, instead of just a third. Our guide, however, was not impressed and also asked Michael if he could borrow his flip-flops to use in the shower! I braved it and got Michael to cut my hair, by camp light next to Nyathi, with me holding up the sections looking in the mirror and him doing the cutting. The locals found it most amusing and we must have had at least a dozen people watching. All things considered the result was quite good and a whole lot cooler (and spikier)!
Today turned out to be fantastic! We decided to rather go with Idrissa and Mamadou on the piste to some more Dogon villages, instead of taking Idrissa to Djenne. In particular, we wanted to visit a village where there was a Hogon and where the original Tempi people (pygmies) lived in very small houses up on the escarpment before moving out to CAR, Congo etc. Driving down the Bandiagara Escarpment was spectacular, with massive granite outcrops and some steep cliffs. It reminded me of the Matopos and Maleme Dam near Bulawayo – so it really took me back…
We did a little bit of desert track and then got to see what we felt were picture postcard Dogon villages. At the village of Ende we went to a hotel where Idrissa knew the owner (Hotel Le Alakala) and they were very hospitable. Their rooms were very pleasantly decorated and their facilities clean (we wished we had stayed there last night)! Idrissa took his friend with us to climb up the escarpment and have a close look at the Dogon houses.
Only one person still inhabits the escarpment and that was the Hogon, but more about that later…
We got to see the First Hogon’s place of rest where they had buried him within the escarpment wall high above his dwelling place. All his belongings had been taken by his family except for anything to do with ceremony, fetishes etc. so we got to have a really close look at it all. It was extremely fascinating.
Then we went to see the current Hogon. Hogons have an exceptionally important place within the Dogon community and are treated with the utmost respect. They are not allowed to be touched and if they give consent for you to visit, you need to follow their lead as to where to stand/sit and generally only engage in any kind of conversation or eye contact when encouraged by them, or via your guide. Hogons never use water to wash, as they are washed by snakes instead.
Our guide approached the Hogon, with us following gingerly. After a brief conversation the Hogon rattled an elongated bell in his hand which signalled he was happy to receive visitors. He was an old, wizened man sitting on his haunches in a blue robe with a serviette-type hat slung loosely over his head. He asked Idrissa to come forward and was told about who we were, our travels etc. He performed a little praying ceremony with Idrissa on our behalf, taking to the fetishes and pointing to them, muttering quietly and then removing his hat and touching his hand to the floor and then to his head, encouraging Idrissa to the same. We gave him a gift of 500CFA and some kola nuts and were allowed to take some photographs. Michael asked if he could approach him and show him his picture on the digital camera – The Hogon found it quite comical! He blessed us on our way and we made our way back down the rocky escarpment.
When we got to the bottom, we went to investigate a Land-Rover we had seen from the top and discovered it was two English guys, Glen and Patrick who were travelling from Malaga to Cape Town. We had a great time swapping stories and agreed to travel back with them to Sevare, to Mac’s Refuge.
What a fantastic end to the day. We opened our first ‘treat envelope’ which we had got from Ange and Andrew and decided to stay the night in an air conditioned room! Mac’s Refuge is very well run, with exceptionally clean facilities, rooms decorated in themes reflecting different Malian ethnic groups, delicious meals and a swimming pool! He brought us iced ginger rums to the pool and we enjoyed a delicious dinner of soup, grilled duck and pasta, plus peanut clusters for dessert together with Mac, Pat and Glen, Christine and her husband and son (from Norway) and Mark and Jenny (an inspiring couple from England who are working for two years on the Mercy Ship moored in Togo, which provides surgery to local people, particularly those with facial disfigurements, goitres etc. They get paid $1 on their birthday, which has to be spent on board ship, otherwise they would be considered slaves)!
L - R: Michael (with cat), Sandy, Mac, Pat, Glen (with ginger kitten), Mark (with tortoiseshell kitten) and Jenny.
We spent the whole morning giving Nyathi a thorough clean out. She was absolutely filthy with dust and it was hard work, but it rained last night and was still spitting every now and again so that took the edge off the heat. I cut Mac’s hair for him and he gave me a beautiful bead necklace to say thanks. We ended off our stay with a scrumptious lunch of salad, tuna and fresh baguette. Our stay cost us 57 euros, but that included everything and it was a welcome break!
We made our way south along good tarmac roads towards Djenne. There was a lot of water lying in the fields and the rivers were all flowing strongly. We realised we had missed the turning to Djenne, which was right before the last police stop. So we turned around and the man (civilian clothed) at the police block said we had to pay a tax to go to Djenne, I kept saying we didn’t need a taxi, we had our own vehicles. Eventually I said we would pay in Djenne and we drove off. Then the fun began… Djenne is on an island and you have to cross Bani River to get to it. They have just built a new road/bridge over the river and there were a few local men there on the take! They had put a barrier up across the road and told us we had to pay a tax. When we asked how much you could see him make up the figure in his head – 6000CFA for the two vehicles. When we asked if we would get a receipt, they said they would write it on a paper for us! I told Glen and Pat about the scam and we agreed if we didn’t get our way, we’d forgo Djenne! Michael ended up having serious words with them, especially when we saw a local LandCruiser cross without paying. Michael asked the main guy’s name and he said he’d give it once we paid – Michael said he was going to inform the ‘gendarmerie’ about them. All this went on while I sat quietly negotiating for some hand-crafted jewellery for an old t-shirt with the very pleasant local ladies. As we agreed to turn around I said to Michael that I thought we could ford the river, so he and Pat went and tested it and sure enough, Glen and I drove the vehicles across with no problems at all!
We thought Djenne was a bit of a dump, apart from the beautiful mosque. We arranged for a guide to tell us about the history etc. for 1500CFA and we paid someone to guard the vehicles. It had rained recently so it was very muddy, especially down the back alleys and the water wasn’t too savoury. Still, the mosque was impressive and is the biggest mud structure in the world! It was prayer time while we were there so we got to hear up close the Muezzin calling everyone to pray and we saw the men washing before entering the mosque. Michael and Pat got to meet the Imam and senior ‘elders’ afterwards, as they had come over to look at our vehicles.
We bought a few supplies from the vendors (one with a lovely cat called Mass) and made our way triumphantly back through the river! Then Michael recalled that he had seen the previous Land Cruiser go down toward the river first before one of the men shouted to him to use the bridge – they obviously didn’t want him to show us you could ford the river – cheeky!
We set up camp under a big tree, unusually close to the road and we knew the village wasn’t too far away. As a result we had some children visitors who were very friendly and found it fascinating to see our maps, pictures etc. When nightfall came they all wandered off home (after I had taken their photo and they all excitedly pointed to themselves and each other when I showed it to them on the screen!). I cooked up a dinner of smash, fried corned beef, onions and tomatoes, plus baked beans and we treated ourselves to some chocolate for dessert.