Thursday, September 21, 2006


Addo Elephant Park

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Sunday 5th Feb
We headed straight to the Mauritanian border along a track which wasn’t shown on the map. The people in a couple of settlements we passed were already starting to looked different in appearance as well as dress that it felt like we’d already reached another country. We only distinguished the border by the line on the GPS with no people or geographical features. Over the border the homes of the nomadic people were different to Mali and Niger with some pieced together with plastic sacks and rubbish whereas the former were made of wood. There was also a lot more rubbish around, like in Tam, Algeria and Libya. Around the wells there were lots of cattle and goats being watered although there didn’t look much for the cattle to feed off – a sahel type landscape of dusty tracks and one type of shrub. We may have seen some evidence of slavery – a woman in darker clothes carrying the water while a couple sat on their donkey cart ahead. Mauritania made slavery illegal only in the 1980’s and amongst the Nomads it still carries on. The colour of people varies quite a lot from lighter more Arabic skin to the darker West African colouring. In a small village fifteen kilometers from Bassikouno, we were surprised to see a police stop. After a quick look at our passports we drove on a short distance for a lunch stop. Whilst stopped for lunch some men rushed past on their camels, not looking altogether friendly, but maybe we looked frightening. The men were wearing boubous – most of the men seem to wear these in Mauritania in various shades of blue. The landscape continued to be pretty flat and dusty with the same landscape. We reached a smaller village after Bassikounu where there were more police. They seemed a bit officious wanting us to pull off the road, but the chance of passing traffic seemed very slim. They asked for cadeau, but Steve thought it was time to hand out the badminton set to the nearby kids, with Steve quickly drawing out the court and instructing and demonstrating, although it was a bit windy.
Monday 6th Feb
While packing up our tents in the morning a Toyoto stopped and the guy pulled over asking for something like frein we struggled to understand but he managed to get us to open the bonnet and indicate that he wanted some brake fluid which John handed over. After an hour’s drive the scenery began to get more interesting with a red escarpment to our right. Four or five large green lorries, that are typical of Mauritania came thundering past us. We reached the tar road at Nema where we had to go and check in with the police and get a stamp in our passport. They wanted to see our car insurance documents and didn’t like them being in English – Arabic or French preferred. They wanted to clearly see that they were valid for Mauritania. This seemed a bit difficult to find on Steve’s insurance, but the policeman was busy on his mobile phone trying to get through to someone. But after a while he seemed to get bored and went off to have our passports stamped. We just got to the bank before closing at one, where we changed our CFA for the Mauritanian Ouguiya, all in notes of one which is worth about two pounds fifty. Then it was time for further work to the car. The welding from Timbuktu had held out, but the suspension now needed welding on the other side at the back. I went off to do the shopping. Nema, although quite a big town for Mauritania, didn’t have a lot of variety in the shops. I bought more tins of tuna, sardines and six packets of biscuits – probably more than I usually buy in a year. Four packets of Biskrem, biscuits with cocoa filling made in Turkey, imported to Algeria, but half a packet tastes as good as pain au chocolat once the choice of food in the shops has got this slim. Four tins of ‘Choice pineapple broken pieces’ from Thailand – seemed a long way to travel but maybe the fishing boats that come to the west coast bring this as cargo on the outward journey. For vegetables there were only onions which fortunately I still quite like. I went to a take away restaurant and had an omlette and salad for me. While waiting a Malian herbal doctor was talking to me. He recognized by skirt as being Malian. He’d lived in Mauritania for 20 years now, had 5 kids here and more back in Mali – polygamy. He laughed at the lack of kids in Europe. He said Mali and Mauritania were very similar which was completely the opposite to the impression I was getting. Mali was more like other West African countries, whereas Mauritania, calling itself an Islamic republic was quite different. The omlette I got was pretty good with a tasty salad – beetroot, lettuce and carrots – more than could be found in the shops today. With the welding complete, more fuel and water taken on, we were ready to start on the route to Oulata by 3. This was the start of an 800km journey along the escarpment. We camped in a small oued (dry!) less than 40km from Oulata.
Tuesday 7th Feb
The route got progressively sandier as we headed towards Oulata and we bottomed out once. Oulata was hidden on the eastern slope of the escarpment and spreading out along the valley. The Spanish and Mauritanian governments have established a project to restore Oulata and includes the architecture, economy, agriculture and tourism. What appears distinctive about Oulata is their highly decorated doors. Mauritanian women wear brightly patterned materials wrapped around them like a sari and shawl to cover the head. We definitely feel like covering up here unlike Mali and Niger. We wandered around to the top of the town with some good views of the valley. Project Oulata was supposed to involve a rubbish collection scheme but walking around the village it looked as if this had ceased. We bought some fresh bread and continued on our route to Tidjikja. While we stopped for lunch a camel train of at least 50 camels moved past in the distance. After lunch we continued following the track but were drifting progressively further from the waypoints and we were between escarpments, so we’d obviously got into the wrong valley. Passed through a village and continued on in an oued and the tracks had disappeared. We got stuck and needed winching out and although we were now beginning to get closer to the next waypoint there was no guarantee we were going to be able to get to it across and escarpment so we retraced our steps. On getting back to the village I guy came over to us, who may have been the school teacher and asked if we were taking the route to Tichit. We said we were and h confirmed we were on the wrong route. He asked for some medicine, so we gave his a strip of paracetemol. Once back on the correct route we continued on quite a sandy piste until we reached a stony Hamada where we saw some big rocks near the escarpment to camp amongst. To the south and west was a wide flat open plain. John went on a hike to the top of the escarpment.
Weds 8th Feb
The day started rather early, before 2 am with the howling wind rocking the tent. Steve and Kathy had to get up and pack up their tent before the wind did, as some of their possessions were already beginning to fly. They then slept in their car. John managed to rescue a cardboard box, but couldn’t catch the washing up bowl. John changed the angle of our tent against the nearby bolder for some better shelter to buffer the wind. Eventually the wind died down a bit and we managed to get some sleep. That was until 5:45 when the wind got up again with more ferocity than the first time. After closing all the tent flaps down we then considered it better to wrap them up and allow the wind to pass through the mosquito nets – a soft engineering approach. But by 6:20 John gave the call to abandon ship. He thought the tent poles might break if we stayed in it, and we weren’t going to be getting any sleep anyway. So we got our earliest start that day just after 8 – John commented that he’d never seen Kathy and Steve pack up so quickly. The wind was still pretty strong and a whitish haze resulted from the blowing sand. Still I felt it was good to see as I guess this is the weather when the desert features are created. The camera opening mechanism was beginning to struggle and the zoom feature finding it a greater struggle. My eyes felt they had a fair bit of sand and dust in them so I could understand how it felt. We passed through areas of apricot barchan (moon crescent shaped) dunes resting on a darker grey stony Hamada. It was possible to drive around some of the dunes, but in denser patches we had to cross them and got stuck a few times and needed winching out. We stopped as we reached a couple of reptiles mating on our route. They scarpered, or at least the more disguised brown (maybe the female) did, but the brightly coloured black and yellow/green one hung around and looked like it was trying to find the female. It didn’t seem too frightened of us, was about 20cm long and as thick as a snake. I suspected that it may have a bite to it. John got closer than I would have done photographing it as the zoom continued to struggle. In the afternoon we passed our first car since Oulata – French tourists with a guide. We made it up a 800m sandy ascent with only two goes needed for a short section near the top. John was very pleased with himself and got back to look back at the route and view and see how Steve faired. We’d passed a man walking up in a smoother more elegant style with his 3 camels. Steve struggled on this ascent – a change as the rest of the trip he’d spent winching us out. Two teenage boys had by this time appeared out of nowhere. One wanted a cigarette. Steve in his final attack of the ascent let out a big belch of black smoke and the boys ducked for cover behind a dune – probably never having seen pollution like this. We gave the boy a couple of cigarettes at the top and continued on. There was a small nomadic campment on the plateau and a guy ran over to us. By sign language he indicated that he wanted medicine so we gave him a strip of paracetemol and some water to go with it and he looked very chuffed. It was windy on top of the plateau and we needed a calm peaceful night to catch up on some sleep, so we continued on to go down the sandy Enji pass descent – a bit easier than an ascent. We headed towards some dunes to the south, but got stuck in some sand and needed winching. John was surprised as he discovered the sand seemed wet. We saw a camel at our intended camp spot, then as we looked a bit harder as they blended in with the horizon, especially while sitting, we noticed there were at least 8 camels. It proved to be a peaceful camp spot for all except the desert rat who was unlucky enough to pop up under Steve and Kathy’s tent spot.
Thursday 9th Feb
We got stuck within 10 metres of leaving our camp spot and needed winching. The second attempt gave quite a thrashing to the car and fortunately my breakfast hadn’t been that large. After negotiating around a few dunes we reached Hamada and passed a crumbling house which look straight out of the Sunday times crumbling property of the week – house in beautiful remote location, but in need of repair, no services and 300km to the tarmac road at Nema. After the Hamada we reached an area of small dunes of whiter sand which looked more like an area of coastal dunes, but continued for miles at the bottom of the escarpment. The piste had disappeared as the route description said it would due to the blowing sand. After we stopped for lunch we found quite a lot of tracks in the area – we hadn’t seen anyone all day. This could be the remnants of this years Dakar rally. Then after passing over a ridge ahead were dark rocks which looked like a mini Akakus, Libya, or Tassili n Hoggar, Algeria (Es Sba rock formations). We went and explored one large lump which had wind created tunnels and caves. Shortly afterwards was a plateau area with the Aratane wells and many Nomads who ran towards the car with little flint axes and stone beaded necklaces and bracelets which they wanted to exchange for goods or money. I just gave away some of my clothes, but there were plenty of others keen to receive goods. At the end of the plateau there was more sand which John got stuck in the sand and let out some pretty strong language which the Nomads hanging around must have got the jist of. We got out after a few attempts, passed several more of the Aratane wells – the water was quite shallow on this plateau at only about 5m down and descended onto the plain. It was getting time to camp and we hid behind the big rock lump known as Guelb Mhassi. It wasn’t very far from the Aratane wells and it wasn’t long before a Nomad had joined us. He was on his way home to his camp further along the road. After a while he continued after received a light for his joint.
Friday 10th Feb
The wind was quite strong at times and seemed to funnel around the base of the Guelb Mhassi, but it was calm enough to get a good nights sleep. There were actually a few drops of rain on the tent as we woke up and it was quite overcast, but the few drops soon dried up. We soon passed a nomad camp and the Guelb Makhrougat large rock formation and got stuck in the sand. An hour or two later we were surprised to see a vehicle heading towards us. An elderly French couple in an old, small truck, were leisurely making their way to Nema. They stopped for a short chat and mentioned that they had lost a piste. This explained why there was no sign of their tracks a short distance down the road. We passed the Touijine wells and what the route described as diatomite field which just looked like dust. Here two Mauritanian vehicles sped towards us and begrudgingly shifted slightly off the piste without breaking speed as they passed. We stopped in a dry oued for lunch and John climbed up the rocks to get a good view of the route and desert. Driving in the afternoon we saw another couple of mating reptiles, but as they saw us they darted down their respective holes in the sand – so they don’t live together. The day continued to be quite grey and overcast, but still very warm. We drove through the village of Akrejit and past the oasis, round some dunes, across a stony Hamada where the salt flats of Tichit spread out to our left. An area of the Hamada also was used as the airport runway. It wasn’t exactly clear which part but it didn’t look like we were in danger of seeing any planes. I hadn’t seen one since Timbuktu. In Tichit, the police needed to write down our passport and car details – on a scrap of paper. They initially asked us if we had a form and it seems the best thing to do here is to have pieces of paper with your passport and car details ready to give to them. We left Tichit passing through the oasis with very white sand between escarpments. It was quite a steep ascent out of Tichit made very difficult by the white soft sand and we had to let our tyres down to get there. Once at the top it looked like small white dunes stretched for miles – difficult to drive in without getting stuck and not easy to hide behind from the piste. There was supposed to be more traffic on the piste from Tichit to Tidjikja. To our right continued the harder apricot sand and a side valley in the escarpment which we went to camp in. John busied himself climbing the rocks and found some caves and rock carvings. We’d filled up with water from the police in Tichit, so I enjoyed washing my hair and having a good wash – the first since the shower in Timbuktu a week ago. Fortunately hair doesn’t get greasy or itchy with all the dust, but it’s difficult to get a comb through it with all the wind.
Saturday 11th Feb
I started the day by climbing up the escarpment. The weather was still hazy and overcast but warm, a kind of eerie white mist. I didn’t find any of the carvings but it was nice to enjoy the view and cool breeze on the top of the escarpment. It wasn’t long before we found 3 German Motorbikes heading towards us with a French couple they’d met up with in a Toyoto behind. The female German motorcyclist switched from perfect French and English as well as German. She seemed to be finding the route quite tough going but they’d made it from Tidjikja to 20km from here in just one day – sounded pretty tough to me holding up a heavy motorbike in sand. There had been a 4th German biker, but his bike had broken and they had to leave him in Nouakchott. The French couple also had a dog which was pursued and frightened back into the car by George. One of the German guys quoted that the Land Rover is always dying but never dead. This was to prove quite true when before 3, the front drivers side spring of Steve’s Land Rover broke. We pulled off the piste for John and Steve to work on a repair job. The spring had also broken in two places and one of the breaks probably happened some time ago. They joined the three pieces of spring together with webbing and jubilee clips and they were both quite proud of their work. They changed both the front shocks and put back the repaired spring.
Sunday 12th Feb
The drive to Tidjikja was going to be slow to give the repaired spring minimal work. However, just after we’d said we drive through lunch to make better progress Johns Drivers side back spring broke on quite unspectacularly flat terrain. It’d broken quite badly – it resulted in 4 pieces so we stopped for John and Steve to work on another webbing and Jubilee clip repair effort which their thinking of patenting! Steve had also broken one of his back springs, although the two pieces of spring had meshed together to sit nicely. After an hour or two we were ready to continue with the remaining 50-70 km to Tidjikja. We arrived in Tidjikja by 5, saw a couple of old Land Rovers there and examined them to see if there were any springs, but they gone along with many other parts. The German woman had recommended a campement in Tidjikja run by a French woman and Mauritanian husband where they’d stayed. We weren’t originally going to stay here, but now with the broken springs and need of repairs we did. We stopped at La Phare du Desert campement – A lighthouse in a desert sounds quite odd to me, but I guess the desert can seem like the sea at times. We asked if there was a French woman in charge there, to which the guy said yes, but I guess they weren’t exactly in a rush to show us what proved to be the next campement down the road. We stayed here and asked if there was a mechanic and staff immediately set about trying to source some Land Rover springs for which two were quickly found for Steve’s Land Rover. John’s car is more difficult due to the unique suspension and he thought he may have to settle for a front spring of a Land Rover Defender or the Steve’s strapped front spring. Our planned route was a 4 day 400km piste to Atar, but with the land rover springs breaking like elastic bands we didn’t really have enough faith in the cars to make it there. John was the most disappointed as the Mauritanian desert had been one of the stretches he was most looking forward to. He was hoping to continue the desert stretch although it looked like we’d have to take a quick detour to Nouakchott to get a spring. Kathy was now reading Chris Scott’s Desert Travels and I thought this should be compulsory reading for the guys as most of his early desert adventures had a problem with the motorbikes or car early on in the trip resulting in early abandonment of the trip. Fortunate for us, Kathy and I were both feeling deserted out and needing to stick to the tar roads meant we would have to head to Nouakchott, the Capital and head up the coast to Western Sahara and Morocco. The Michelin map, 2002, does not show all this route as tarred and we though it may have only been completed in the last year. We decided the best thing to do would be to phone Lucas and Barbara, or Lucas in case Barbara was snoozing in the car, who would now be back in Majorca. They confirmed it was all tar apart from about 10km across the border to Western Sahara and recommended a couple of places to visit. The campement staff confirmed that it was all tar road to Nouakchott. Interestingly enough, this place seemed to be pronounced whakshot. The campement was filling up quite a lot with a French group and four Austrian vehicles. We sat down with an Austrian Couple who had a huge truck and had just come down from Atar. So huge that they said it was underloaded for this trip. But I couldn’t imagine travelling around in something so incongruously large. They mentioned that either the Danish or Norwegian press had published an article that hadn’t put the Prophet Mohammed in a good light. France had also got involved saying that there is free press in Europe, but this hadn’t been taken too well by the Muslim Countries. This had meant that a number of Europeans, possibly Scandinavians had been turned away at the Moroccan border. They’d learnt of this at a campsite run by a Dutch man in Atar. This was a campsite that we’d been warned not to stay at by the English Journalist in Agadez. We ordered food at the campement which came very late for us, after 9, chicken in batter and chips. Steve had a huge plate of spaghetti, a few carrot and some bits of meat which we took while Kathy retired to bed early, not feeling too good and this was food which wasn’t really worth waiting for.
Monday 13th Feb
Over breakfast a couple of Austrian came to ask us what the route was like to Nema. They were unsure about taking the piste and were considering taking the tarmac road and just doing the short stretch to Oulata. They went off briefly while the Austrian woman we’d met last night came back and quite harshly seem to warn us not to put them off otherwise they would not be able to do the trip by themselves alone - in their massive truck. We hadn’t got the impression that they were traveling with anyone else the night before. Obviously all was not well amongst the traveling Austrian group. We sat down with the others in the group and described the route, showed them some photos and downloaded the waypoints we had to their GPSs. They said the Austrian couple just rushed across the desert not stopping allowing time for taking photos and exploring. There were 3 of them – 2 guys, one woman all traveling alone in their own vehicles. The woman described a number of trips she’s made to Libya and Mali and she was obviously a great lover of the desert. She would have been enlightened by a trip to Tam, Algeria to meet Claudia. Kathy and I walked into town to buy some more food supplies. We were accompanied on the way by a couple of young boys. The town seemed pretty quiet and it took us a while to find the more lively market area, where they had more vegetables than onions. The architecture in Mauritania is not too impressive with just block buildings, but with all the women out in the market selling produce in their brightly coloured saris, makes it more interesting. I bought tins of Moroccan sardines, the pineapple from Thailand and 4 packets of the Biskrem biscuits, laughing cow cheese, bananas, onions and courgette/marrows. We went to a material shop where Kathy was persuaded to buy. The material feels quite harsh but we were assured that it softens up – and it looked softer on the women here. We returned to the Campement with the boys accompanying us all the way – something kids in Europe definitely wouldn’t do. Kathy gave them a banana and some biscuits. Back at the campement we met one of the German motorcylists. One of the bearings on his bike had broken on the way to Tichit and that spare part they’d left with the 4th biker back in Nouakchott. He hired a vehicle in Tichit expensively to take him and the bike to Tidjikja. He’d come to see if there was any chance we could take him and it 170 kg bike. John still with a broken rear spring didn’t consider it. Steve, now with two second hand springs fitted considered mounting the bike on the roof of the car as he didn’t think his roof rack would take the weight, but the German guy did not think this would be a good idea. He also described BMW bikes as always dying, but never dead, but he had a KTM bike. Something Kathy and I could pretend to understand a bit after reading Ewan McGreggor’s Long Way round book. We left at Midday to start on the journey to Nouakchott. The drive to be surprisingly scenic across a rocky plateau to an oasis in the valley, climbing up through a large area of dunes to another rocky plateau where there was a spectacular view on the descent of the town of Moudjeria and the dunes advancing across the plain towards it. We reached the main road from Nema and thought we’d begin looking for a camp spot but there were many Nomad encampments along the road and we drove quite a long way until it was just about to get dark and picked a spot on flat savannah scrub some distance from the road.
Tuesday 14th Feb
The day was quite windy with the sand blowing around to create a white haze. We arrived in Nouakchott just after midday and Steve spotted a guy in a white Discovery. We asked him if he knew where we could find spare parts for a Land Rover. He said to follow him and we went right across town to near the airport where there were many garages and we turned into a yard full of old Land Rovers. We tried the rear spring from a discovery but because our car has a 2 inch lift to the suspension, the car sat more skew than with the rear broken spring. Whilst looking at the car while they were looking for another suitable spring, John spotted that the front drivers side spring had broken near the top, so he needed another spring. I wondered what the chances were of the 4th and only remaining spring of making it back home. We left John and went off to find a bank, but the few cashpoint had no visa or international signs and did not accept cards, the banks were closed for the afternoon and the airport only changed cash. John had picked two springs for the front and rear that seemed to fit better at 17 Ouguiya each. We didn’t have the cash to pay for this, but the man in the white Discovery who worked for the Mauritanian tourist board who had stayed in the yard for the couple of hours, said it was no problem – he could pay and we could pay him in Euros. He asked us what the equivalent rate was in Euros and just asked us to pay what we thought was a fair amount. We gave him 120 Euros, just a bit more than the Mauritanian equivalent, having to borrow 60 Euros from Kathy and Steve. We headed to the beach camp site for the night, but on the way the car started to lean a lot to the right, far worse than with the broken springs. I went for a walk along the beach which was crammed full of wooden fishing boats with the men bringing the boats in for the evening and chanting as they heaved the boat up the beach. It was quite a cool breeze with a haze and quite a lot of the fishermen were wearing full yellow waterproofs. The fish market was behind the boats. John had got to work repairing the original front spring and it was dark by the time he started to jack the car up to change it. Meanwhile a blue Land Rover discovery had pulled up at the beach, so Steve went over and asked if there was a Land Rover garage in town, which the guy wrote down a number for. Five minutes later a woman came over offering help – she worked for an oil company in Mauritania, and her driver mentioned that we had problems with the car. She gave us a mobile number to call tomorrow if we needed help and said she would send the driver out in the morning to see if we needed assistance. Once the repaired front spring was back on the car it sat much more level.
Weds 15th Feb
While John worked on putting some protective carpet above the rear spring, Kathy, Steve and I headed for the bank. Only the banks in the Capital did not accept visa, only cash. Also the only cash they accepted was the Euro, Swiss Franc and US Dollar. I had 67 thousand CFA and although a major currency in West Africa, used by two of Mauritania’s neighbours – Senegal and Mali – none of the banks would change it – I had to go to the market to change it. This was the advice I was given by a couple of people. A suited man in the bank said we could follow him to the market money changer. This was my only option of changing money with visa not possible and no Euros left. He got in his car and we followed him. When the traffic queued up, he drove on the left and negotiated around the donkey cart and other cars heading towards us and we followed. The man in the market said he would give me 27.5 thousand Ouguiya for my 67 thousand CFA – I asked if 30 were possible, although not too sure of the rate. He wanted to see my money and once he’d seen the money he offered 28.6 thousand, and I realized later that this was better than the bank rate we’d received in Nema. The man we’d followed from the bank didn’t want any money when I offered him some. We went back to the garage on a small chance the owner might give us some money back for the spring. We asked for 5 of the 17 Ouguiya it cost us and I was pretty sure the labour in putting on the spring wouldn’t have cost more than 5 and I highlighted this might get him another 17 thousand tomorrow. He said he would give us 5 as we’d had a lot of bad luck with the springs. We then headed out of town through some smarter suburbs to take the new road to Nouadhibou, not shown on the map. We could see from the GPS that the road was some distance from the coast so we had to give up on our preferred option of camping by the coast, and camped by some dunes just over 100km from Nouadhibou.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Djenne, Bamako, Mopti & Timbuktu

Monday 23rd January
We drove on to Djenne taking the boat across the short stretch of water to drive in near to the mosque on market day which was pretty manic. We’d thought about staying at the Campement on the north side of Djenne, but there was going to be no way to get the vehicle past the mosque on market day. Arriving in the car also meant that there was many people offering to be our guide – even just to a hotel and offering conflicting advice about which route to take. There looked to be many roads on the map in the guide, but the car was not a key mode of transport here and most of the roads were not wide enough for a car and some had deep open sewers at the side. We managed to head out west and find an open bit of wasteland to which there were no other routes out. But then got back to what seemed to be the only drivable road around the west of Djenne and up to the Campement. This was full, but we needed to stop for a drink to get out of the midday heat. We visited 2 hotels on the west side, but they were also full – everyone visits Djenne on market day, so we took the only option for staying in Djenne – sleeping on the hotel roof. Their roofs are nice terraces, even if a bit dusty and nice and cool unlike some rooms. We walked around the market in the late afternoon – nothing really of interest to buy, but no hassle as there are plenty of tourists. We ate at one of the restaurants, where the food was not too spectacular, but the waiter did tell us that there was a new direct road to Segou, not taking the big detour of the main road. Walking back to the hotel was pretty difficult with no street lights, no moon and we’d forgotten the torch and you wanted to be careful what you stood in.
Tuesday 24th January
We woke up early and saw the sun rise at 7. After a quick walk around the much quieter Tuesday morning Djenne, we found the new road to the north of town very quickly. It wasn’t tarmac, but was well graded. We made quite quick progress to Sarro, but then it wasn’t clear which would be the quickest route to Segou. The route we took weaved through more villages to Dioro, when we eventually hit the tarmac outside Segou. Some of the villages didn’t seem quite so used to tourists, and lots of kids run excitedly towards you shouting toubab – the Bambara word for tourist. Segou has some nice hotels, although unfortunately they all seemed to be full except the Hotel de France which had definitely seen better days. We stayed at the Lebanese run hotel on the route out of town which had a nice bar to watch the football, but the food wasn’t as good as the Lebanese restaurant standard set in Niamey.
Wednesday 25th January
We left early to make a dash for the Mauritanian Embassy in Bamako to try and get our visas as quickly as possible. Although we thought we’d drive a bit faster, the Malian buses were still trying to overtake anywhere possible. We saw a lorry with its front cab completely smashed in and I struggled to imagine something that could be hit here and that unforgiving until we saw a burnt out tanker a bit further down the road. We reached Bamako and progress was going quite well until be hit the Boulevard de Peuple when we became surrounded by the green, bashed up transit van taxis in a busy market. We eventually squeezed our way through to the far end of the road near the railway station, but in turning the corner here the policeman took offence to John’s driving, thinking he was trying to run him over and was chasing after us, but fortunately the traffic lights went green just in time for John to make a hasty getaway. We stopped to ask someone the way to the Mauritanian Embassy or just any embassy to get us in the right direction and we soon found the Iranian embassy and after asking a few more people we found the Mauritanian Embassy. It was just a few minutes to 12 but we were shown through to the office of a very helpful Mauritanian lady who helped us fill in new visa forms in French. We were then shown the waiting room and got the passports back with visas within 30 minutes. The lady was very helpful and it was worth getting the visa just for the pleasant experience. We then drove to the Mande Hotel, west of the city on the River Niger to meet Kathy and Steve for a drink and lunch – salad and white wine – luxuries not often found in West Africa. Our table was overlooking the river where we could watch the fishermen passing on pirogues and look along the river towards the few tall buildings in central Bamako with women busy doing the tough workout of the washing in the river in the foreground. At forty two pounds for a room in a good hotel by the river, we didn’t consider leaving the hotel after lunch. Kathy and I spent the afternoon relaxing by the pool – while the guys worked on the cars.
Thursday 26th January
We decided to spend an extra night in Bamako. John wanted to take the car apart and work out if the fuel tank was leaking and ended up needing to get the suspension welded back together. Meanwhile Kathy and I were happy for the time to go and see the centre of Bamako. We took a taxi from the hotel and after a stop a minute down the road where the taxi driver tried to sell us a journey to Mopti which at a goods days drive away sounded a bit far, he took us too the city centre. I asked for Les delices de Bamako – a patisserie shop, but obviously my French wasn’t quite up to standard and he interpreted this as the l’eglise de Bamako and we ended up outside the Cathedral.
It wasn’t far back to the bank where we used the first working cashpoint we’d found on our trip in Africa. We then went to the patisserie, which had a great old atmosphere, although there were only men there. The coffee and fresh orange juice were great, but the Danish pastry and croissant were very solid. We then walked around the centre of Bamako, including the artisan market, and restocked up on paracetemol for which we receive constant requests for in Africa. We then went to the French cultural centre and took a taxi back to the hotel. This was quite an experience and we weren’t sure if the extra guy in the front was also a passenger or a friend to show off to. But fortunately we and everyone else we encountered on the way survived in one piece. It was then time to relax again by the pool. We thought we had to be a bit more adventurous and leave the hotel that evening and went to the Campagnard restaurant, described by the guide book as Bamako’s finest, we were worried that it might be really smart or expensive, but was quite relaxing, a cross between a Swiss chalet and English pub and the food was great and the waiters took the piss out of the guys English manners, being greedy and ordering everything first.
Friday 27th January
We took advantage of the large buffet breakfast at the hotel – sausages, eggs, fried and boiled, ham and good cheese, then went to the supermarket to get luxuries like yogurt, sausages and French wine. Bamako was heaving with traffic as we left and you could taste the pollution. We travelled back across the main bridge and got the final views of Bamako. We tried to find the Institute Geographique de Mali for a better map to help us with the more rural routes to Timbuktu, but failed. We continued on to reach Segou by late afternoon. Segou looked very quiet and relaxed on a Friday afternoon and very tempting to stay the night, especially if some nice accommodation was available. We said that we hoped to camp all the way to Timbuktu. We were rewarded for continuing on with a scenic drive near the river, crossing north of it over a dam at Markala. We took the road heading east towards Massina which turned out to be tarmac and we realized that this was probably the quick route from Djenne to Segou that we should have taken previously. We headed off the road to try and find a good camp spot near the river, but ended up finding a village where they didn’t look to welcoming, so we headed back to drive a bit further down the road. We kept driving and weren’t finding a secluded spot and was soon getting dark and the area was getting marshier, so we camping not far from the road.
Saturday 28th January
We continued on the road to Massina, where the tarmac road gave way to a much dustier route. We then reached a channel and the directions in the village were that we had to cross it. After seeing some people and donkeys wade through we could see it was not above knee height. We made it through OK but then John thought he’d drive the car back it to wash the dust off and then the wheels started spinning and we had to be winched out by Steve. The village across the water was Diafarbe, where I thought I’d have an attempt at trying to buy some bread, but it looked pretty sleepy until we found the grand bricked town hall, mosque and market. There still looked to be no sign of bread, but John after talking to a Tailor who requested his photograph directed us to a shop around the corner. We headed out east trying to find the piste towards Mopti, but found a smaller village with no obvious piste. Here amongst a group of children we found a French teacher who took us back to his house to get directions and consult the map. Unlike what was shown on the map, we were told the route was north to Tenenkou before heading to Mopti. We had lunch to the south of the village, bordering on the River Niger where we enjoyed the fresh pineapple bought in Bamako and John and I went for a swim along with a few of the local kids. After lunch we headed north back across the channel to Tenenkou, and soon after we hit another couple of channels to cross, by which time it was getting near sunset and we camped next to a palm tree on the canal which was pretty noisy with all the birdlife. John decided to try his fishing rod and was trying a number of different bait including our good cheese but didn’t catch anything. We were in view of a couple of villages which consisted of a few buildings on higher ground surrounded by palm trees. A few people came to investigate who didn’t speak French, but seemed quite friendly. There were lots of bugs flying around so I retired early to the tent to escape the bombardment.
Sunday 29th January
The drive continued along a dusty road with us stopping to ask for directions to Mopti at each village. By lunchtime we’d found the River Niger and a good place for a swim. Soon after lunch we found the ferry crossing north to Mopti. Mopti was busy with the stalls around the port and we headed on to Sevare to the supermarket which had none of the delights of Bamako. We then picked a hotel on the route back to Mopti. While John was working on the car, the Dutchies drove past and spotted him, so came in for a drink. They were just heading to Mopti after visiting the Dogon region. They’d been to Benin, Togo, Ghana and Burkina Faso since we’d left them in Niger in December. We met up at the restaurant Sigou that evening, although the fish meals gave you the taste for camp food again, but John’s steak was pretty good. The River Niger did not look so clean here with all the busy port market, unlike Bamako and Niamey.
Monday 30th January
We headed into Mopti for some breakfast and to see the busy morning port and after buying some bread which is very dry and airy and not nearly so good as other bread in Mali we headed back to the hotel to spend the rest of the morning in or by the pool. We left at Midday after buying a big watermelon, to start our route to Timbuktu. We left the tarmac at Konna and reached a lake with no name that looked good to camp by. That was until we started driving to it and sinking before we reached some grazing cows and made a hasty retreat. Steve spotted a rockier area nearby where we were able to camp right by the lake. This was in view of two villages and it wasn’t long before we had 3 guys come over to visit. They couldn’t speak French but with limited communication we understood they were Bozo fisherman. John had already started fishing and tucked into the final French supermarket salami for bait. Meanwhile Steve had given them a land rover magazine to look through, although what they thought of it was impossible to tell as they found it hard to comprehend that a bottle of water we were drinking came from Mali. John was having no success with the fishing and asked if they had small fish to use as bait. We didn’t know if they’d understood and they left us before sunset, but we though because they’d indicated it was getting cold for them with the breeze blowing off the lake – much warmer than England though. However, they returned a little later by pirogue bringing some fish as bait, one guy bringing his wife and son with him. John was also given a heavy terracotta fishing weight. John gave them some hooks, line and weights although it was John that needed the help and he’d still not caught anything by the end of the evening, although the bait had been eaten. The fishing was obviously best left to the Bozos.
Tuesday 31st January
We continued north around the lake and reached Korinetze and continued heading north following alongside a channel. We passed through another village and to the north of that we reached another channel which was too deep to cross. They had one of the Malian blue crossing boats on the other side of the channel. The channel crossing wasn’t shown on the map (although there were two others shown to the north) and we thought from the GPS we could have been further west than the main piste, so we headed east to try and skirt around the channel. Meanwhile someone had told us to ask for someone named Konna in the village to take the boat across the water. In trying to drive around the channel we managed to nose dive into a small ditch and needed to be winched out. This was within view of a grand looking man in green robes on his camel. His camel was making a loud gurgling sound which didn’t sound friendly. He shouted at us and told us to follow him. It was quite impressive following a camel to the piste. It shows the camel not land rover is king around here. The piste continued to head east, but we thought we were best to stick to a proper route for a while and it did turn into a road that had been newly constructed. Not a road that was on our map, but it took us east to Ngouma. Now we would just be taking the route further east to Timbuktu. Looking at the map we thought it would be nice to camp by a lake again. As we reached a village about 15km further on we bottomed out in some deep sand and needed to start digging. We were expecting Steve to arrive shortly behind us, but meanwhile we worked on getting the car unstuck and used the help of a passing herdsman. It took a good 15minutes to get out of that and take a parallel route without the deep ruts. By this time we though Steve must have passed us on a parallel route, so we thought the best thing would be to head forward as quick as possible. We stopped two passing trucks we saw and managed to get a passenger to understand us – but neither truck had seen a white land rover. We continued on a few kms to the next village which had a good view of the surrounding plain, but still no sign of them. We continued on to Kanioume and where the market was finishing and asked again, but no one had seen them, so we started heading back. We bottomed out again in some deep ruts near the village with the good view and this time needed sand ladders. After a few attempts we got out and continued to the village where we originally got stuck and travelled a bit beyond. From the map it looked like there was a lake near the village, and we’d said that we wanted to camp by one of the lakes, but there was no sign of water at this time of year. By this time it was getting towards sunset and we thought we’d have to continue on and camp somewhere before Kanioume. As we got to the village with the good view two guys on motorbikes with the big old Dogon style guns waved us down. They managed to tell us the white land rover was traveling between Kanioume and Bambara-Maounde. So we knew they were ahead of us and could try and find them early in the morning. We camped near to a dune from which you could look out and see many camp fires of the nomadic people.
Wednesday 1st Feb
We packed up quickly and were driving before 8. We didn’t have any breakfast, but Kanioume looked too sleepy to find bread, so we continued on. Half and hour later we spotted a paper sign on a tree. Kathy and Steve camping at the next tracks on the left – and there we found them. We both recalled what had happened yesterday – they hadn’t spoken to the guys on the motorbikes, although they’d spoken to others. We thought we’d use the CB radios today! – for the first time since Niger. At Bambara we managed to buy some bread and after that there was a heavily corrugated road for the route to Timbuktu. It was so heavily corrugated that there were lots of parallel tracks, which we took instead. After 90 km we got to the River Niger where we stopped for lunch. We reached the crossing point and there were two boat loads of vehicles in front of us so we sunbathed on the shore while being pursued for cadeau by the local kids. Men in two pirogues with sticks were trying to persuade their herd of cattle to swim across the River Niger. This took quite some persuasion and two escaped the sticks back to the bank. The boat crossing seemed to be taking some time as the route was not to the dunes at the nearest point opposite. It was about two hours before we could get on the boat – a tricky manoeuvre that involved reversing the car up the boat ramps onto the deck. The ramps were fairly steep and we’d seen plenty of Toyotas stuck with their back wheels spinning on the ramps before driving off and starting again. One Toyota nearly managed to get its back wheel to drop between the two ramps, but then someone else argued they’d take over the driving. By the time we got on the ferry, there were about 14 cars waiting to get across and each ferry could only squeeze on four. We soon saw why it was taking such a long time as the route was some distance upstream. This was far enough for a passing fisherman in a pirogue to hitch on to the side of the ferry and save his energy for a while. As it was late afternoon by now we thought it would be better to stay and visit Timbuktu tomorrow, so we’d camp outside. We ended up driving to Timbuktu and taking the route east out of town to Gao. From this route out it was easy to see how Timbuktu could be swallowed up by sand as we were immediately in soft sand. Fortunately we managed to find a spot to camp a few kilometers out without getting stuck. We saw an airplane leaving Timbuktu airport and the buildings and lights of Timbuktu seemed quite imposing for what I thought would be quite a small place.
Thursday 2nd Feb
Both cars managed to get stuck and need winching out within a few hundred metres of leaving our camping spot. The heavily corrugated road had taken its toll on our car and the welding done in Bamako had already given way. We checked into the Hotel Colombe just after 10 and John found a welder opposite to start welding back together the suspension. Meanwhile we took a late breakfast in the hotel. While watching the welding, John met a French tourist who’d taken the route John planned to Mauritania who told him it had taken 4 days from Nema, southern Mauritania. We took advantage of the hotel to get some washing done – African women are a lot more experienced and better at handwashing than I am and with everything containing so much dust, it was great to have some white sheets back again and my dress probably cleaner than when I bought it.
After breakfast we went and explored Timbuktu – we didn’t have high expectations as the first European explorers to reach Timbuktu all said it was a city in decline together with many guide books since. We walked around an artisan building, the petit marche, where the food looked pretty grim – cabbages cut up into at least eights and going brown as obviously this small quantity was what people could afford to buy. In walking around an English speaking boy followed us, offering to show us the sites. We didn’t ask for a guide and John hates following a guide, but when we passed the grand marche building, he showed us up to the top of the building from where there is a view out across Timbuktu. There was a Tuareg there who recognized the Tuareg and camel on the front of my Bradt guide book, although said the camel was now dead. I asked the boy, Mahamoudou if he was a Tuareg, but he explained that is family were slaves to the Tuareg until the 1970’s when there was a drought with many Tuareg heading into the towns from the desert and slavery finished. Mahamoudou said his favourite football team was Man United, although this still didn’t make John any keener to have him around. I mentioned that Spurs have a Malian player, Kanoute, and asked if he was popular in Mali. He said he was one of their best players. Aumar, our guide in the Dogon region didn’t speak so highly of him and I wondered if he’d displayed some of his more frustrating performances, like he does for Spurs, for Mali recently. The fruit and veg here looked a bit healthier. There was a material stall opposite where I bought some fabric and was immediately grabbed by the Tailor next door to make an outfit from it. I didn’t need too much encouragement – sounds much more interesting to have clothes made in Timbuktu rather than China. He wanted the equivalent of ten pounds for his work and half of it up front – much more demanding than the Tailor in Niamey, and there was only half the material to work with. I negotiated to nine pounds, then he took measurements and got started. We made our way to the house that Heinrich Barth stayed in when he was in Timbuktu. There is a little museum which has a few of his belongings information about him and pictures from his journey. I thanked Mahamoudou and gave him some money and one of my African books. We then went to the internet café run by our hotel where I did manage to get some information on the blogsite, before it froze up. I returned for an hour in the evening and didn’t manage to get anywhere with my email or blogsite.
Friday 3rd Feb
John went early to the bank to get some more cash for changing in Mauritania. I took the better option of going to buy some of the round Timbuktu bread from the kiln bakeries in the street. I also took all the passports to the tourist office to get the free Timbuktu stamp. I then took a final walk to the Grand marche, bought some more Malian material and then went to look for the houses of other explorers that reached Timbuktu. On the way I met Mahamoudou who was returning from school as all four teachers had not made it to the school that day. Gordon Lang’s house which is now an ordinary residence with a child sitting in the doorway. Rene Caillie’s house had to be rebuilt in 2003 after they had a lot of rain. Rene Caillie was better liked by Mahamoudou for his better preparation learning Arabic and travelling through the Tuareg area with a caravan. Meanwhile John had returned from the bank – a process that took 1 ½ hours! I went back for a final stint at the internet café and was very frustrated when the blogsite froze before I’d managed to add any photos. We headed to the flame of peace, a memorial constructed at the end of the Tuareg rebellion when 3000 weapons from the Tuaregs and Malian army were burnt. The memorial has some of the burnt out weapons cemented into it. The road out west to Goundam was a pleasant surprise – a well graded road and none of the deep corrugations of the road to the south. We thought at this rate we’d get to Mauritania pretty quickly. We stopped for lunch by Lake Fati. It was pretty warm so I thought it looked like inviting to paddle, but the ground was very clayey and close to the lake the cracked desiccated clay gave way and I just managed to pull out my tyre sandals, but now had my hands and feet covered in clay. We continued until we reached the police roadblock in Tonka. The police weren’t too friendly – maybe because we’d nearly driven past the Halt Gendarmerie sign. Both Niger and Mali have many roadblocks which are just 3 or 4 drums in the road which are often just removed with not much interest or just gendarmerie signs when just a nod or wave as you drive past seems to be all that is required. After some debate with John and Steve and without any of the requested cadeau or drinks requested being given we were on our way. At Niafounke we reached the river again and thought it would be nice to camp by water for the final time before a long desert stretch. After exploring the north bank of the river there looked to be better camping opportunities on the other bank, so we took the ferry across the river. The first people we found didn’t seem to welcoming so we drove a bit further. We found a good spot to enjoy our gin and tonic, watch one of the best sunsets and watch the many fishermen in their pirogues laying their nets. One pirogue had a father and daughter in it, the young girl being the one to pole the boat along while the father sat back and played a stringed musical instrument which was a great setting for the music to carry.
Sat 4th Feb
We headed back to the ferry to get back across the Niger for the final time. As we drove along we heard a big clang and John stopped to look what it was. I thought it must have been parts of the tow bar clanging. Then John found a short piece of the spring suspension. Upon inspection this came from the front passenger side of the car and the largest piece of spring had fallen onto a smaller piece of spring with the third smallest piece of spring, now in John’s hand. We knew we had to get back across the water to Niafounke, see if there was any mechanic there and work out what our best options were. There aren’t too many land rovers in this part of Africa, although we had seen a number of old land rovers in the centre of Timbuktu. We found a mechanic in the centre of town and asked if they had any springs for a land rover. They immediately asked us for a jack and wanted to start working on the car straight away, but John wanted to see what the replacement part was before thy started work. As the suspension has a 2 inch lift, we really needed two springs so the driver’s side would match and it wouldn’t sit skew. Meanwhile John called Scorpion racing on the satellite phone for advice and to see what the best options were for couriering parts to Africa. We thought this would mean that we’d have to go back to Bamako and being Saturday this would take the best part of a week out of our schedule. After a search on his motorbike one of the guys managed to come back to the garage with the front spring from a land rover defender. There was only one, as the other one had broken. John and Steve negotiated a price for the spring and managed to reduce the price of the old spring to the equivalent of fifty pounds and 10 pounds for the labour – for which there were up to 10 people gathered around the car at one point, but John had to been in the centre supervising, helping and handing out his tools. After a couple of hours the work was complete and as a pleasant surprise the car was not sitting skew. John tried a few swerves down the street without warning to test the suspension and fortunately my lunch stayed down and the car passed the test. We took the road to Lere which wasn’t so fast, but we got to Lere by 5. This was shown on the map as a border town. We were getting a little worried about our visas which looked liked they’d expired yesterday, so we thought the sooner we left Mali the better. Fortunately the border official didn’t notice and in fact asked us the date before he stamped our passports – not noticing the visa date. We continued just a few kilometers down the road to camp in an area of hazel type bushes.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Dogon Region

Thursday 19th January
Our guide Aumar, and his sister Amanata arrived at our hotel for breakfast and suggested driving to Tirelli to start our tour of the Dogon region. I recognized the name as being the village that Michael Palin visited. It was pretty cool today, I’d been worried about walking in the Dogon region because it can get so hot, maybe 45-50 degrees in the middle of the day, but today I was wearing jeans and a wool jumper. We drove across the plateau passing many fields of onions and people tending the fields watering them with Calabashes. The onions could be smelt at times especially as women were grinding up some of the onions. We reached the Bandigara escarpment and stopped to take in the view before descending down to the plain. The escarpment is a long sandstone cliff which is the focus of many Dogon villages which sit at the base of it or climb up the sides. We suddenly arrived at Tirelli and got a lot more than we bargained for! The villagers were waiting for us and men were shooting old rifles which must have been as tall as me. The sound was very loud particularly as the noise rebounded of the cliffs and felt like we’d travelled back in time a few centuries looking at the age of the guns. There also seemed to be hundreds of kids running around many trying to grab your hand. We were escorted into the centre of the village where there was singing and the men were dancing a repetitive stomp around a circle which Kathy and I were invited to join in and I felt to polite to refuse. There was then a bit of a speech given by a very old looking man of the village – this was in the Dogon language so I didn’t understand a word of it. The man spoke very seriously, but for some reason the people burst out into fits of laughter which was quite bizarre. I wonder what they were saying about us. Steve tried a bit of French to say thank you for the welcome and we were led upstairs to a terrace above one of their square mud buildings for lunch. This had all been organized by the Joliba Trust charity who we’d raised money for. One of the Malian Directors of the charity was based in Tirelli. After lunch we were taken higher up the village to an area of open space where they performed the Dance des Masques. They men danced on stilts and three men had masks that extended a few metres above their head and they leaned forwards and back to the ground to represent sunrise and sunset. Other masques represented ploughing and animals such as rabbit, antelope and bulls. There were 20-30 men performing the dance dressed in bright pink and yellow costume accompanied by men playing music in the traditional indigo clothes. Each group of masks had their own solo spot. There were a few young kids copying the dance of the elders on a rock above the dancing area and they were doing pretty good impersonations. After the dance we were introduced to each of the dancers and then went back down to the centre of the village where they had a shop selling Dogon items. There has been a big problem with many old items from the Dogon region being sold to Europe and America, but here everything in the shop had been agreed by the village elders. John spent a long time looking at the masks before choosing one. I don’t really like masks myself so my shopping was over after a minutes browse. We went for a short walk outside the village, Kathy and Steve or rather Dillon and George had many followers. The kids showed us the fruit of the Baobab tree – of which there are many in the Dogon region. It is dry and like a fine honeycomb tasting like sherbert. They cooked us an evening meal of macaroni, mutton and sauce. By 9 the village was getting pretty quiet and we retired to bed.
Friday 20th January
The previous nights food hadn’t sat to well in my stomach and we’d eaten quite a lot with both large dishes for lunch and dinner, resulting in me being sick in the night. We were given doughnuts and guava jam for breakfast – I passed on it. John and Steve got busy trying to learn the Dogon greeting. This is a long routine when one person asks how are you, your family, children and wife and then is repeated the other way round. Although it sounded like it would take a long time, our guide did not seem to break stride when going through the routine with people along the route, except when he knew them quite well, and as we woke up and the women and girls were carrying heavy buckets of water from the well up to the village, it sounded quite quick and almost sung – ago po, sao, We started walking north east at the bottom of the escarpment to other Dogon villages. The route had many baobab trees, donkeys, goat and cattle grazing and some bright blue birds. After a few kilometers we reached Amani which has a big pond full of sacred crocodiles – I didn’t get too close. We walked through the bottom of the village surrounded by lots of kids. Most of the villages had schools, mostly given through aid, so we wondered why the kids were not at school, but this was army day – a national holiday. I was feeling a bit feverish from being sick and didn’t have the energy for a big days walk, so Aumar arranged that I stay at the house of the school directors wife. I thought I’d rather lie under a tree between villages and hence not surrounded by kids, but after 10-15 minutes they’d calmed down and found something else to interest them. The school here had been funded by a Dutch guy, Joop van Stigt who following his travels and studies of the area had set up a charity and built a number of schools in the area. I lay down on a mat and enjoyed sleeping under a tree. At lunchtime a child of the school director, brought me out a bowl of rice, large cup of water and a bowl of green herbal looking sauce which looked like it would be good for my stomach so I tried some. Meanwhile the others walked on to the villages of Ireli and saw Tellem homes. The Tellem were in the region before the Dogon, were hunter gatherers and lived in tall houses on the cliff face. Each village has a togu-na, a rectangular building, not tall enough to stand up in where the men settle the issues of the village.
Back at Tirelli the place was busier with a number of Hungarians staying there. They’d completed a rally from Budapest to Bamako, like the Paris Dakar except the object was to spend as little on your vehicle as possible and also raise money for charity. They were struck by how poor the people were in Mauritania and how even in the Capital city, they struggled to find a garage to fix a car. When they saw I wasn’t well they prepared for me a natural remedy made from Papaya and limes – a green slime. This is used to combat malaria, although I was sure I just had a stomach upset. I tried a little bit of it, but it was very sour and I took a couple of imodium just in case!

Saturday 21st January
We set of south west, the other direction along the escarpment to visit the villages of Komokani and Nombori. As we left we were again surrounded by kids following us and 4 managed to hold on to George’s short lead in addition to Kathy. This certainly isn’t a place to come if you don’t like kids and the kids are quite used to tourists and asking for a whole range of cadeau. John thought it would be an interesting challenge to set someone to walk through the Dogon region for a week, with a box of pens, large packet of sweets and walking a dog and managing to come back with everything you set out with. And after thinking of this he thought he could set many other challenges for West Africa – obtaining an Algerian visa from the Consulate in Agadez, clearing Tunisian customs within half an hour once you’ve admitted your carrying a CB and a GPS.
We walked up the side of the escarpment through the village of Komokani to see the sites before it got to hot. We saw the Togu-na and went up to the top of the village where the Hogon representative lived – a spiritual leader of the village. This one said he thought he was 90 years old. We gave him some kola nuts. We stopped for a welcome drink before continuing on to the village of Nombori. The route passed through many allotment type gardens full of onions, but also lettuces, aubergine and their tobacco plant. People were busy watering the plants from water filled Calabashes. We reached Nombori with just enough energy to struggle up the escarpment to the village restaurant and collapse for lunch. The cuisine is pretty much the same here for lunch and evening meal – rice, couscous or spaghetti with a sauce with vegetables, chicken or mutton. A greek salad would have been lovely in this temperature and it looked like they had all the ingredients. Restaurants here also serve as a siesta place which is a great way to get out of the heat. The guys went off to watch the blacksmith at work nearby, apparently taking orders to send to Europe. Aumar explained that most of the important old Dogon artifacts had left this village and been sold to Europe and America. We left at 3:30, had a quick walk around the village and tackled the 8km back to Tirelli which was quite exhausting.
Sunday 22nd January
Today we were introduced to another employee of the Joliba trust to be shown a number of projects they were running in the area. We headed south across the plain at the bottom of the escarpment to stop at a village and see tree growing projects. Trees grow quite quickly here and a papaya tree is quite large six months after it has been planted. One of the wells in the village had only been completed in the last year. The water was over 40m below ground level and John looked quite exhausted helping to lift some up. Another well in the village was being drawn by a camel with a very young boy sitting on its back. We were given a large bowl of milk to share which brought back memories of school and being forced to drink cartons of milk, but it was cool and quite fresh and didn’t taste too bad. One of the elders of the village gave a speech in the Dogon language thanking us for our contribution to the Joliba Trust and our visit to the village. Steve returned a short speech in French to be translated by Aumar into the Dogon language. We continued on to another village where they were in the final stages of constructing the well. At the time they were dewatering it, but the do send men down the well to dig. With two engineers this visit took quite a while with many questions. We continued on to another village where we saw peanut butter being made from groundnuts, the village school and a number of fields with newly planted trees. We then headed back to the Bandigara escarpment and the village of Telli for a welcome late lunch and siesta. We decided we were to tired to start climbing up to the top of the village, but had enough energy to walk on the flat to the village of Ende. Ende is known as an artisan village and had many bogolons (batiks) handing up for sale. Kathy and I welcomed a drink at the end of the village, but to our surprise, Steve and John decided to walk around the market at the end of the village. They weren’t long as they said food and drink were being sold in very small quantities as no one really had any money to buy.
That evening football could be heard on the radio – the African cup in Egypt. Aumar said South Africa were playing Guinea. As we ate our evening meal Aumar couldn’t help but laugh as he said Guinea had beaten South Africa. Aumar admitted that he thought he’d only been going away to the Dogon Region for the day which is why he hadn’t brought any other clothes with him. It was now 4 days later. We spent the night sleeping on mattress on the roof, instead of a room which was much more pleasant in the cooler temperature.
Monday 23rd January
This morning we had enough energy for the climb to see the village of Telli where we’d stayed. The view of the mud built mosque looked quite stunning in the centre of the village. We were to travel to Djenne today, with the largest mud built structure in the world, but the small intricate mud mosques in these small villages were really quite impressive. We stopped at Kani-Kombole, the last village at the base of the cliff to see the mosque, then drove the steep climb up the escarpment and back across the plateau to Bandigara, where we dropped off our guide Aumar at his house. Aumar lived at home with his family although he was engaged and had kids. The house was very small and basic and he must have had better paid work than many others when being a guide in the Dogon Region. He explained that he also worked in the field at other times of year, which sounded like a long day, preparing the fields in the heat prior to the rains.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

River Niger to Gao, Mali and Hombori

Sunday 15th January
The previous day we seen a nice looking patisserie called chocolat, but unfortunately it was closed on Sundays. We managed to buy some nice croissants from another patisserie to eat in the car. I went for a quick browse along the street of second hand book stalls as I thought I might have a good chance of finding our rough guide that was stolen and buy it back as books are very hard to find here. But unfortunately with some enquiries the best English book I got was the final third of the Lord of the Rings for John to read again. Niamey was a lot quieter on Sunday mornings than other days and I noticed a lot more of the women had similar cut marks on their face like a tribal custom. Leaving Niamey we took the main road to Mali that roughly follows the River Niger, although the Niger is not too easy to access. We arrived at Ayorou, the Niger border town, late afternoon for the quick exit formalities. The border guard had very striking face scars of six oval incisions from outside his eyes across his cheeks to his mouth. Whenever this had been done it must have really hurt to leave these very clear incisions. It was 40 km from here to the Mali border and border town so we thought we’d try and find a quiet spot on route by the River Niger. As the area did not seem too remote from people we stopped at a small village to ask if it was OK to camp nearby. There were only women and children around in the village and none of them spoke French, but Steve through sign language and drawing in the sand managed to convey that we wanted to camp nearby. We drove on to find a camping spot beyond the village but were soon in another bigger village where upon the exit there was another border post. This was slightly confusing as it wasn’t shown on the map. We checked that this was still a Niger border control and not a Mali one. This border seemed more formal than Ayorou and they even wanted to check our vaccination records which seemed a bit strange for an exit. We asked here if there was a good place to camp and they recommended a place 11km on along the River Niger, but it was nearly sunset so we only drove a few km along before trying to drive down to the banks of the River Niger for a place to stop. John thought he’d walk down to the river and investigate a spot for fishing tomorrow but didn’t get very far as the ground was interlaced with channels. The camp spot was noisy with the sound of birds and we just enjoyed the gin and tonic we’d bought at the supermarket in Niamey rather than cook.

Monday 16th January
I got out of our tent to spot a couple of fishermen in pirogues only about 50m from the tents just staring at the site of two strange tents. I put the kettle on to boil and after 10 or 15 minutes the fishermen decided to use their pirogue to within about 10 metres of our tents. There was also another pirogue with two people working its way towards us. The first pirogue was a father and son and only the father could speak a little bit of French and of course I can only speak a little bit of French to. I asked if the son went to school, but he said no, he was training to be a fisherman. When the other man and child arrived they could also not speak French. They were after any kind of goods we would give. I gave the boy some trainers which in hindsight would have been much more useful to someone that worked on the land not water, and Kathy and Steve gave away a couple of jumpers which they put on before they returned to their pirogue no longer interested in us visitors. In the distance on the opposite bank John spotted a black small whirlwind which looked like it might be locusts.
We soon arrived at the Malian border and quickly completed the car paperwork. However, the man in charge of passports was not happy with our visas as they were valid for a stay of one month within 3 months of issue, but ours were issued in Paris on 4/10/05. John was pretty sure that he’d explained the dates to the French embassy and we weren’t behind schedule, but it didn’t look right. The Malian official was keen for us to recognize that the visas were out of date; we could each pay the equivalent of five pounds and get the visas sorted out in the next big town of Gao. Going back to Niamey wasn’t really an alternative as we’d already formally left Niger on our visas in addition to all the extra time it would take. He said he would radio through the information to the police in Gao. We were now in Mali which was pretty sparsely populated in this area. We’d found out at the border that the time had gone back an hour to be the same as England and the rest of the West African countries we would visit. We were following the route of the River Niger, but not quite as close to it as John would like. Tributaries of the river which were dried up at this time of year, acted like reservoirs next to the Niger for watering the animals and washing. We wanted to camp next to the Niger that evening and again asked in the village for permission, using sign language as no one spoke French. As we drove to try and get close to the river a couple of boys were chasing afternoon. It was still pretty hot and on the route all the donkeys in the villages were lined up against the shaded wall of the buildings. We thought the boys were trying to show us the best place to camp, but when we followed them they were showing us a boat to take our vehicles across the Niger. This crossing led to just a 70 km section of track. We drove on a further kilometer and realized we weren’t going to get closer to the River Niger. They make lots of thorn tree hedges near the River Niger to keep the goats out of the farmed areas. Where we stopped proved only to be just over 100m from another group of juts and a man busy building his pirogue. These huts were still part of the same village where we’d asked permission. It wasn’t long before 2 or 3 people came over to have a look at us and see what was going on. Then a young guy came over with a bowl with what looked like might be some kind of animal in it and was walking over to Kathy and Steve, the vegetarians. What it turned out to be was cooked fish which tasted quite nice – the others said it was like Perch. About 10 kids gathered around fascinated by the dogs and doing sharp sprints away following any docile movement from Dillon before returning. One guy came over that spoke some French and was talking about death from something which sounded quite serious until we worked out that he was talking about hippos and how the lower ground 100m from us is used by hippos and obviously it’s not a good idea to get between them and the water. He invited us for evening food in the village but the guys politely declined. John was looking forward to the big Toulouse sausages bought from the supermarket in Niamey. A woman came over with her twin baby boys, Hassan and Yussein to proudly show us give us to hold. There was only the one guy amongst them that spoke any French. My mobile picked up a signal here as we were not far from Assongo so I was able to receive text messages from home and call a friend in Scotland and find out she’d got engaged. The line had a delay on it and it was horrible to hear myself echoed a second after I’d spoke.
Tuesday 17th January
Soon after dawn the fisherman were setting off in their pirogues and the boy goat herders were leading their goats away from the village. The boys used sticks to bash and shake the trees and drop goods for the goats who when not satisfied took to clambering up to the tree. We thought we ought to give out some goods to the village to say thanks you for the hospitality and stay near their village. I gave away the top I’d had made in Niamey which felt too big for me. We soon reached Assongo which has distinctive rocks against the wide Niger River and is known for hippo spotting, but we didn’t see any. The 100km dirt road from here to Gao was having some construction work done to it, but got close enough to the river for some good views. We got to Gao early afternoon where the guidebooks say you should register with the police and we needed to sort out our visas. They needed two passport photos from each of us and the office had an interesting photo album of tourists that had been through the town. This was to help them find you if you disappeared. In looking and stamping our passports they said nothing about our visas and this is where we’d been told to go so we hope our visas should now not be questioned. We still need a visa for Mauritania which we couldn’t get in London due to our date of arrival. We should have got them in Niamey and now it looked like we would need to detour to the capital Bamako to get them. There were lots of coloured scarves for sale in the street and with the weather feeling hotter all the time I thought I’d buy one. I asked if they were for women as well as men and was told 4metres for women, 6m for men. I wasn’t convinced that women were wearing 4m of material around their heads, but some white material to cover my head would be useful so I bought some. The stall owner could speak French, so he was getting a guy who was passing down the street in a wheelchair to translate. The guy in the wheelchair also spoke excellent English and asked if I’d buy a Tuareg cross – he said they’d been made by people who suffered from Polio. In Agadez and Niamey there had been many people in wheelchairs with bicycle pedals in front at hand height for moving with the hands. In Niamey there had also been a lot of boys who had lost a leg walking around on crutches. They tied all 4 metres of cloth around my head which was pretty hot and it was a relief when we drove off and I could take it off without offending. A guy from Nigeria, seeing from our car we were English asked us for money who’d been expelled from Libya and was now stuck in Mali without money.
We left Gao to take the boat across to the other side of the River Niger before it stopped for the evening. We drove along a causeway which had lots of water lilies next to it, to reach the roll on roll off ferry. Just beyond the ferry the piers and first deck section for a new bridge across the River were in place. The first bridge since Niamey. The boat men said it would be completed this year, but would seem quite as romantic as taking the ferry with the included animals and manure. Once across the other side we drove to Gossi, an area known for its elephants, but we didn’t see any and from here What we could see was three misted mound shapes rising above the flat horizon near Hombori. We drove until the sunset towards them and rough camped at the base of the largest one.
Wednesday 18th January
It was a really windy night with the car swaying and tent making so much noise that it was impossible to get much sleep. It felt like all the wind was being channeled around the Hombori massif to our tents. In the morning Steve found one of his heavy duty thick tent pegs had been bent. We walked up to the base of the Hombori rock to near where heavy duty rock climbing skills would be needed to continue. As we looked back at our tents we saw that we had actually camped quite near to a small group of round huts, but with no lights and natural materials we hadn’t noticed them the previous evening. When we got back to the tents there were two boys by the tents. They couldn’t speak any French and I think they were from the Fula tribe. Communication was pretty limited but they had a good laugh at some of the photos in the Michael Palin book as well as laughing at the digital image of themselves. We continued along the road to Douentza passing the unusual rock mounds, a monument valley, one rock called the hand of Fatima. We stopped at a village on route that was alive with its market day. The people looked very poor. John found one stall which sold Kola nuts and bought some as the guide books say they are useful to give out to important people in the Dogon Villages. We pulled off the road to some rocks for lunch. During lunch a family came over to us who couldn’t speak French but were communicating they wanted medicine. The man appeared to be communicating that he had earache and ringing in his head while he slept. The woman had a young baby who from his size must have been less than 3 months old and was indicating the baby was being sick although breast fed. Another woman with a larger baby showed us the weeping ears of her baby. It was easy to see why the infant mortality rate for the under 5s is so high here. The teenage girl with them looked much healthier in her smart blue material robe and pierced ears and braided hair of her tribe. John gave the women some money to take the babies to Doctors which they seemed pleased with. They enjoyed pointing out to us baboons climbing up on the sides of the rocks. This they did by pointing, repeating Un, Un and laughing. We continued on arriving in Bandigara in the evening where we were due to meet a guide for the Dogon region that had been arranged for us through the Joliba Trust charity that we’d raised money for. Arriving in Bandigara you’re immediately set upon by men offering to be your guides to find hotel and for the Dogon Region and English is a lot more widely spoken with the tourism. The expensive hotel was full and our guide who’d been around the hotels looking for us would come back tomorrow morning. The weather had turned pretty cold and I had to dig to the bottom of my clothes box to find jeans and a wool jumper. We bought a large bag of kola nuts from someone offering to be our guide and tried a bit of one – not very nice and quite bitter, so it was unlikely that we’d eat any of them. They’re grown in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.