Published: June 6th 2009May 9th 2009
In Bamako, we took a box of a room - the kind dead bodies might be found in come morning - and I think you could even say we relaxed. Certainly we slowed down. Road travel in the Gambia and Senegal had drained our energy and we were flat like pancakes; emergency! Bring on the Vietnamese food, Castel beers and glowing riverside sunsets! Seriously, there is nothing like beef Saigonese style and a view out over the Niger River as the sky turns golden to soothe the impact of eighteen hours of the stench of illness and a soundtrack of baby screams. Less calming was Bamako's Grand Marche, which was so busy I literally felt high walking around it, trying not to trip over the guinea fowl and severed bulls’ heads in the butchers’ section, then praising the glory of the old fashioned sewing machines in the tailors’ quarter. The human traffic ground to a standstill often, as vendors with wheelbarrows full of soap tried to push their way past women balancing huge metal bowls of fish on their heads. It was all brilliant until someone caught a thief in their stall and all hell broke loose. The fight - if
you can call you that - bounced from one side of the crowd to the other, and we were inches away from fists, the lens hood on Seth's camera even getting flung to the ground in one swipe. The thief restrained, fifty faces looked on in shock as the men who had caught him began to wallop him so hard that he was spitting blood. Later, a Malian friend explained that the country has a chillingly low tolerance for theft; 'The thief, if he is caught, is lucky if he goes to prison. More likely he is killed. If a thief enters your house, maybe you are shooting him dead.’ I went to bed wondering what happened to the man in the market, and thinking that, if we were to get mugged in Mali and drew attention to it, we could be responsible for murder.
We left the capital for Segou, a real non-destination in that it had been given a glowing account in our guidebook and had consequently received such quantities of travellers as to mar the peaceful riverside atmosphere for the visitor, who is instantly tagged by gangs of touts and hawkers, the kind that if you shake
them off complain loudly that you don't like Africans and should go back to your country; ugh. The extra sting in Segou's tail is, since its recent and bizarre popularity, every hotel and restaurant has hoiked their prices up. What you're left with is a few glimpses of boatmen gliding along the Niger river, and glances of families washing their dishes and clothes in the river, but a great big dollop of grievous hassle. Shame, because this is where the famous traveller Mungo Park first laid eyes on the Niger and I couldn't link this place with the one he saw.
Eastwards, to Djenne - much better. The Grand Mosque at Djenne was every bit as odd and wonderful as the photos would have you expect. Built from mud and pierced with wooden poles, it looks like a prickly sandcastle, and there really isn't much to be done but stand there gawping at it. What I didn't know until reaching the town is that it is on a small island. The streets are dusty, the houses old, also of mud, and the whole place has a look of melting chocolate. An oddly abiding memory of our Djenne time, though, was
the night on which my evil cough and sore throat, caused by the desert harmattan wind, reached their worst point, and I was lying in bed, gargling water every twenty minutes, listening to bad karaoke renditions of Celine Dion songs blasting from a nearby hotel, and feeling very sorry for myself. Seth was sleeping restlessly, perhaps having lariam-induced nightmares, and this perhaps explains why he woke up, mistook my hand for a rat and started walloping it. Sigh. As if the Celine Dion wasn't bad enough already.
There were villages close by which we reached on a shared motorbike and by hitching a ride on the back of a donkey cart loaded with bricks (as you do). The first village was populated by the children of doom, screaming for presents, deliberately ruining Seth's photos and toying with the idea of chucking rocks at us. The second had angelic kids who walked with us, shyly holding our hands. The vast difference in atmosphere was much appreciated. The reason we had ridden out to see these places was to get a look at the smaller mud mosques built in the villages. They were smaller but no less austere, and in a
way all the more picturesque for their setting among little granaries and huts. We saw maybe fifteen, twenty mud mosques while travelling in Mali and no two were alike. They leave a very firm impression on you; simple elegance, and an undeniable sense of the exotic. If I wasn't such a useless artist, I’d have sketched them. (It’s a wonder I haven’t yet given away my sketchpad and pencils, like some crazed part of me expects to wake up tomorrow morning the next Da Vinci.)
Mopti, on the Bani River, was raw and we both liked it a lot. The port thronged with boats gliding in all directions and the markets were full of stinky dry fish, scorched looking chillies, chunks of salt on weighing scales and - of course - piles of Drogba and Obama t-shirts. We were lucky enough to join a busload of school basketball players when heading to the city of Gao, and as we lay across the backseat of the luxuriously roomy bus, the kids chanted victory songs, the stars shone and the rocky landscape of the Douentza-Hombori range cast impressive silhouettes beneath the moonlight. Gao would be our 'G' and it felt like the
first alphabet letter in an age. Seth fell asleep on my lap and I eventually realised my constant nudging him to point out every passing rock formation was not making me popular. It was 4am when we arrived at crazily remote Gao (on the Niger River beyond Timbuktu, and at the fringe of our old friend, the Sahara). Seth wisely suggested waiting until dawn before checking into a hotel, so as not to be charged for two hours sleep. This is all very well but after a nine hour bus journey on the back of a long hot busy day, it is hard to sleep on a wooden bench in a waiting room where 'The Power of Love' is being played at full blast and your neighbour, a goat, keeps bleating disapprovingly. I got the giggles in the end, especially when Toni Braxton started crooning about unbreaking her heart (bbleeeee-aaah, said Mr. Goat, and I agreed).
Gao was a long thin town. It looked as old as it was - a mere 1300 years - and as though it had grown up out of the sand, natural, earthy, dusty. The odd tumbleweed flying around town would not have been out
of place. Security issues in recent times meant that Gao's tourist industry was in a dry patch. It really felt like an outpost, with barely a building over a storey high, a general lack of people in the streets and vast, sand blown patches of vast nothingness. We were the only people at the awesome Tomb of the Askias, and among the few mad enough to take a boat ride along the Niger in its driest, shallowest season, to see ‘the pink dune’. (‘It’s orange’, claimed Seth as we admired it at sunset. ‘It’s pink’ I said, uncertainty leaking through - damn. ‘It’s blatantly orange,’ he affirmed.) From there back to the shore at Gao, we passed a mini-age on sandbanks, the boatman and his son trying to push off to a deeper part of the river only to land moments later on another one, while our guide backseat sailed and Seth tried to explain the usefulness of his GPS which showed the exact route along the river we had taken on the way to the dune. Our boatman took an unimpressed glance at the machine and continued on his way. I felt the victory was his because we did
eventually make it back to Gao, albeit in the dark, and what fisherman wants foreigners claiming their strange objects know the river better than he does? Our ‘G’ trinket was a bronze statue of a heron, bought from a hardcore saleswoman in the artisans’ market.
Hombori was a village lying at the heart of those rock formations I mentioned earlier, and we had long planned to make it our ‘H’. On arrival, finding that the accommodation facilities required that we sleep out on a rooftop, I was briefly mortified. For two weeks I had been coughing incessantly and speaking in a growly voice like Rani Mukerjee’s. Now I was finally beginning to feel better but we would be sleeping on the roof of a mud guesthouse in a town full of sand. If the sand winds of the harmattan were to re-infect my respiratory system, this would surely be the place for it to happen. The toilet was a hole in the floor. The shower a room with a see-through wooden beam door, and a giant goat that looked much like the Mouth of Sauron was living in a little outhouse opposite, glaring at me and trying to butt the
door down each time it saw me run by in a towel. It was not ideal. Words like Sofitel, Novotel, Hilton, Sheraton hovered in my head and mocked me. However, this place turned out to be an awesome place to stay. (For the record, we were showered with sand laden winds in the night, but as I lay awake, spitting grit, I saw a shooting star. So nothing’s all bad.) The rocks of Hombori ranged from craggy plateaus to great, finger shaped, leaning monoliths, and Seth fell in love with the place, taking thousands of photographs. Climbing a set of crumbling steps into the rocks - a scene of almost biblical drama - one reached ‘Old Hombori’, where women were pounding millet and kids surrounded us as we walked. Cattle roamed the rocky streets in a lumbering manner a la Hindustan. In all directions the view was magnificent, a world of glowing gold coming in at the eyes.
A cattle market was due to take place in the nearby town of Boni the next morning, and Lelele, the owner of our guesthouse and all round good guy, was going there. We joined him… and half of Hombori village… and six goats… riding in the back of a lorry all the way to Boni, where donkeys were traded, goats slaughtered, and everything from woven mats to football shirts were sold in the shadow of dramatic orange escarpments. Lelele brought his young son Rafael along for the ride, and the four of us ate plates of rice and sauce in a shady compound presided over by a large, hospitable lady, as chickens and children ran around our feet. No transport returned to Hombori for hours, and when a minibus finally went, it was packed to bursting. Seth, Lelele, four other men and a goat travelled on the roof. Rafael and I were perched on a sack of rice at the feet of our fellow passengers in the back of the bus. Sweat streamed down our faces. A man carrying a giant terracotta pot looked dangerously close to falling asleep and dropping it on Raf’s head. We kept knocking on it to remind him we were there, the man beside us - a friend of the family - barking at the Sleepy man whenever he looked to be dozing off. It was fun to chat to the Ghanaian men sat next to me, but the humidity and heat were insane, and when Rafael began to fall asleep, I worried he was passing out. We played games, like hiding from each other under my hat, and messing around with my water bottle (a good excuse to get him to drink lots), but when the bus pulled over and we were invited up to travel on the roof, I was ecstatic. Climbing the ladder, leaping over various bikes and trying not to step on the goat, I joined Seth and Lelele. Rafael was handed up by the driver like a special delivery. That half hour, riding through the classic rock landscapes of Hombori on top of a bus in good company, after a great day, was the kind of travel experience I am always hoping for, the kind that fills you up until happiness is kind of bursting out of you. We were too tired to go trinket shopping that night. Luckily a hawker visited our guesthouse, and from him we bought a chunky Songhai necklace. Our eighth alphabet letter in the bag.
It was over soft white bread and mango jam in a hotel in Sevare that we realised we did not have to go to the Dogon Country to get our ‘I’.
The Dogon Country is Mali’s main tourist draw - ancient villages clinging to rocky escarpments, home to a people whose unique culture is said to have changed little over the centuries. The Lonely Planet dedicates eight pages to trekking in the Dogon. Every single tourist to the country goes there. It is regarded as Mali’s absolute highlight, and for these reasons as well as those of cost and general dislike of voyeuristic ‘village safaris’, we wanted to avoid it. The trouble was, it was full of ‘I’s and we knew of no ‘I’s in Burkina Faso, our next destination. So, over mango jam, resigned to reluctantly heading to the Dogon Country, Seth wondered once again were there really no ‘I’s in Burkina Faso? There was a Michelin map of West Africa pinned to the wall in the breakfast hut, more detailed than our atlas. I squinted at it. Two! There were two! Ingane and Imasgo! We could head on to Burkina, without spending days trying to reach remote Dogon villages! We were free! I should say that I’m sure visiting the Dogon villages could be a great experience and I can see why some people love it. It’s just not for us, at this time, on this trip, nor for the book I want to write. We like to dilute the touristy stuff we do by going to lesser known places too, and a Dogon trek would be… well, hard work diluting. The other thing I wasn’t sure about was how a culture and a people could remain so famously unchanged if so much tourism penetrated it? Anyway, we got a freebie because our minibus to the Malian border town of Koro passed right through part of the Dogon, allowing a glimpse at the crazy rocky scenery and some very nice mud mosques. Certainly, it's a stunning area.
Our last night in Mali was due to be spent in the mud hut room with no door and zero ventilation. I loved it because it looked like something straight out of Star Wars. Seth hated it, and in the heat of the night, swearing, evacuated us and our mattress to the courtyard to sleep outside. We tied our mosquito net to a tree and slept once again with nice gusts of sand anointing us. Still, life was good. We had feasted on chips and peanut sauce at a street stall (yes really) and a friendly Frenchman called Vincent had offered us a lift in his van to Burkina Faso the next day. We had been in Mali for two weeks and it was time to move onwards, south and east.