Mali and Burkina

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October 19th 2012
Published: October 19th 2012
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The first thing that struck us when we entered the Mali immigration control was just how professional everything looked. Uniforms were clean and crisp, offices were neat and tidy and the officers were polite and friendly. Within 20 minutes we had been processed and were on our way with not a bribe in sight. We were slightly anxious with the prospect of heading to Bamako but we were soon distracted with beautiful rolling countryside that was punctuated with the occasional huge rocky outcrops. It only took three hours to get the capital and we were surprised to find it a pretty modern city that straddled the mighty Niger river. We had actually already passed over the Niger back in Guinea but it was a trickle of a stream compared with the huge expanse of water that we now found ourselves crossing. We headed for a backpackers hostel called the Sleeping Camel and found the place full of journalists rather than fellow travellers. The troubles in the north of Mali were still raging on and as we had arrived we discovered that the Tureg rebels had just taken the town of Gao and that the enlightened Islamists were in the process of smashing up the ancient shrines of Timbuktu. One tout tried to sell us a tour of Dogon Country, one of Mali’s most scenic trekking areas but we were soon warned by another well meaning local that ‘you would die’ if we went there as it was a bit too close to the troubled areas. This view was reconfirmed by a few of the journalists that we shared a beer with back at the hostel. Two of them were preparing to head north to Timbuktu to cover events there. One was a writer and the other a photo journalist, they had recently been covering the border warfare in eastern Congo for the last few years and had seen some pretty horrific things; to them north Mali was a picnic.

As always we needed to get some visas, in this case for Burkina Faso, our next port of call. We hopped on a motorbike taxi and took a tour of the city as we made our way to the embassy. We drove down ‘Wall Street’, so named as it is where all the black market money changers ply their trade. When they saw me approach on the back of a bike the stampede started, all of them running next to the moving bike waving wads of West African Francs and dollars while screaming for custom. We still had one million Guinea francs that needed changing but they just laughed when I asked what I could get for them. Nobody wanted the money, in their eyes it was worthless and they looked at the wad of frayed notes as if it had been minted in Chernobyl. Slightly miffed, we decided that we would make a coffee table when we got home out of our toxic millions.

With visa applications submitted we thought we would do something vaguely cultural and visit Mali’s national museum. The first signs looked promising; the building was a new modern structure, not unlike the Sydney opera house, located in beautiful public gardens. Sadly the contents did not live up to the initial promise, when we say contents there must have been a total of only 30 exhibits, mostly bits of broken pottery and a few arrow heads. We tried very hard to be impressed but it had only taken about 20 mins to see everything on display and at the end we felt a bit short changed so we fled back to the hostel for a beer.

Tyrone also needed some love and attention after his three wheeled adventures back in Guinea, we were still driving on a torn up brake disc so we were keen to get that replaced. He also needed some basic maintenance, change of filters and an oil change. The filters we could do ourselves but we needed to find a garage for the oil change. We were recommended a street garage close to the hostel and sat back and watched as the man carefully positioned a large basin under the car before removing the sump plug. I was actually quite impressed as he collected every last bit of used engine oil, not spilling a single drop. I was less impressed when he then proceeded to empty the basin into the ditch by the side of the road. None of the mechanics could find a suitable brake disc for Tyrone so we would have to soldier on for the time being with the damaged one.

We had a few days to kill as we had to wait for our visas for Burkina Faso to come through. Truth be told after Guinea we were happy to just laze about at the hostel and take advantage of the nice facilities. They had satellite TV and we tried to catch up with what was going on in the world and it seemed as if nothing had changed since we left home, the Eurozone was still just about to break up, Syria was still a mess and Justin Beiber still had a face that you would not get tired of punching. One thing we could catch up on and that was the rugby internationals, specifically Irelands tour of New Zealand. We had missed the previous test where Ireland had run the All Blacks close so made a special effort to get up early to watch the final game. Sadly our crack of dawn efforts were wasted as Ireland were rolled over and allowed themselves to get destroyed 60 nil by a pretty inexperienced New Zealand side.

Once we had picked up our Burkina Faso visas we made preparations to leave the next day. We can’t really say we had seen Mali properly, the country was once West Africa’s largest tourist attraction but all visitors had seemed to have fled as a result of the troubles in the north and there are no signs of the situation being resolved any time soon. So with reluctance we headed south to our next border crossing.

Burkina Faso was a place that a year ago I would not have been able to point out on a map, but now we found ourselves heading towards the wonderful sounding Bobo-Dilase. Bobo was a thriving market town and centre of traditional crafts, specifically wood carving and fabrics. A major draw for Burkina’s second city is the ‘Grande Mosquee’, an outstanding example of Sahel style mud architecture. We found a secure spot to hole up in for a few days and went exploring. The city was pretty laid back and its lovely tree lined avenues added to the charm. We checked out the mosque which was pretty impressive with its conical towers and wooden struts. However, the main draw for us was the market, the centrepiece of Bobo. Like most West African markets almost anything and everything is up for grabs here and half the fun is in the haggling and the banter with the stall traders. Uniquely though you were given space to breath and enjoy yourself, something that was virtually impossible in the like of Marrakesh or Fes where you are subjected to the ‘hard sell’ on every street corner. With the night time temperatures rising we wanted to get hold of a small fan that we could fit to the roof of the tent and sure enough found exactly what we wanted. That was the easy part, now we had to haggle and agree on a price, the crowds sensing what was going on formed a circle in anticipation of ‘bargaining battle’. Gill came out of the blocks fighting and the stall trader was soon on the back foot, even his ‘ace up the sleeve’ comment of “this is very good quality, see, it is made in China’ brought howls of derision from the assembled. Eventually we reached a stalemate with each of us refusing to compromise any further so we played our final card which is the walk away trick while muttering about the outrageous prices. The man finally came down to our demands and we now could look forward to a cool nights sleep. The market also had a huge fabrics section so we also indulged in buying a few sheets of some interesting print designs that we hoped to be able to fashion into shirts and dresses at a later stage. We finished the day buying a whole roast chicken from a rotisserie for dinner back at the campsite.

We made our way to the capital, Ouagadougou; yet again we had to sort out visas, this time for Ghana. We parked up in a hostel and soon made friends with a Portuguese car trader, Louis. He had been driving cars (and other ‘goods’) from Europe to West Africa and selling them for years. He was a bit of a Han Solo figure in that he had knew how to slip through borders and charm various officials into not searching his cars and as a result had made a nice living as an international trader. He was full of useful travel tips and general info on how to deal with corrupt policeman and where the best places were to hide things in your car when crossing borders.

We applied for our Ghana visas and had to jump through the usual hoops with regards to explaining to the stony faced official as to why we had not obtained our visas back in our home countries. Apparently Ghana not actually having an embassy in Dublin and any home issued visas expiring before we reached their border were not good enough reasons and we soon found ourselves plunged yet again into the painful vortex that is African bureaucracy. It was time to bring out the big guns and we emailed our MP back in London asking for a glowing character reference on some nice House of Commons headed paper and in fairness to Mr Zac Goldsmith MP he promptly came to our rescue. He was pretty laid back about it all and just asked us to draft a letter stating what we wanted to hear and he would sign it. So with help from our professional lobbyist friend Dom back home we crafted a grand reference letter explaining how we are ‘in good standing with Her Majesties government’ and detailing how a British MP would be taking a keen interest in our trip and how disappointed he would be if we are not afforded the full cooperation of the nation’s we passed through. It could be argued that we went slightly overboard in outlining our awesomeness and how we know the names of all the Queens corgis but in Africa we have learnt not to hold back. Sure enough within 24 hours we were in receipt of our reference letter complete with a nice portcullis letterhead and we resubmitted our Ghana visa application.

Like many African capitals, Ouga was functional rather than aesthetic and was not exactly full of exciting sights or attractions so we spent most of our time at the hostel whiling away the time reading, drinking and bizarrely watching some of the truly atrocious soaps that pass as highbrow TV drama. It was fascinating to watch the staff and locals in the bar react to the unfolding medical or family dramas on the screen. Gasps of disbelief greeted every episode ending cliff hanger before the room descended into heated debate about the various plotlines revolving around family honour, infidelity and acts of skulduggery. The shaky handheld camera shots, cardboard sets, piss poor acting and production budgets that would make a school nativity play back home look like a Jerry Bruckheimer film did not seem to bother anyone.

We also experienced our first Saharan sand storm, the ferocity and speed at which this phenomenon unfolded was startling. We were just relaxing in the outdoor hostel bar when out of nowhere a storm force wind started to shake the trees and upend chairs, a few seconds later a red wall of sand engulfed us sending us coughing and half blind into the shelter of the reception. We had not seen anything like it, tiptoeing outside we found a scene from Exodus where day had become night. Cars had stopped in their tracks, unable to see ahead of them and pedestrians fought their way through the dust and wind while batterling to keep the sand out of their eyes. It was the time of the year the hotel receptionist muttered without barely registering the mayhem going on outside. For the rest of the day we were shaking crimson red sand out of our hair and ears.

The tedium was broken when we also found out that a Swiss couple that we had met back in Essouraria in Morocco were also in town running the visa gauntlet and we agreed to meet them for dinner. It was nice to get out of the hostel and enjoy some different surroundings and fine food. Rob and Marie had not been able to get into Senegal so had spent several days in Mauritania driving across the desert to get to Mali instead, very brave. It seemed that we had a roughly similar schedule and we agreed to meet again in Ghana.

A few days later we were back at the Ghanaian embassy collecting our visas from the not so smug looking official. We were free to leave town and we made preparations to leave Burkina the next day. We had spent a total of 8 days in the capital, much longer than we anticipated or wanted.


20th October 2012
Grande Mosque - Bobo-Dioulasso

Interested to read your observations of Bamako. Sad that Dogon Country is discouraged due to Al Qaeda in the north...the trekking there is magnificent. Timbuktu a no go...very sad. Gotta luv the mud mosques. As you have been through there Kap's thread in the Africa Forum "Mali...bloggers uniting for peace?" is a must for you. And by the way...more pics please. Keep safe.
24th October 2012

Way to go Dan!
Hi Dan, Just read all your blogs in sequence - astonishing stuff! Much relieved to find you are still alive and not in some grim prison. We're off next week to spend a month with Rick and Kellie in Melbourne, taking with us a pram for the imminent Possie. Fourteen hours on a jump seat is not half as much fun as waiting a week for a visa. All the best to you and Gill, you are both truly bonkers! Cheers, Mike

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