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Published: December 28th 2018
The irrepressible moto-tricycle driver Abu would invariably reach our evening’s campsite before us, and, punters distracted by tea and coffee and the prospect of ‘ablutions’, he and the guides would put up our generous-sized lightweight tents, clipping the fabric to the poles so that the tents could be moved around as required. I hate to think how hard it would have been to try and bang a tent peg or two into this hard unforgiving ground. Usually the flysheets would be left to one side – anything to reduce the temperature in the tents by a degree or two – but one evening, cautious of the amount of lightning that had been flickering in the far distance all evening, we put them on. And only just in time. My recollection is that it then rained pretty much all night, thunder cracking right above us, though it clearly eased off towards morning. The guides, driver and cook were in older, one-layered tents, and had had to rescue themselves – five Noahs minus an Ark – in the middle of the night, moving their tents underneath the overhang of the primary house in the homestay compound where we’d been made so welcome the
night before. At lunchtime the next day – while we lazed on the rocks beside the Karfiguéla river, enjoying a rare few hours without chickens, goats and kids – they quietly unpacked everything from the moto-tricycle to dry it in the sun.
Overnight camp was usually in a village, either in or around a particular family’s compound, or at one side of the village school’s grounds. As the guides repeatedly reminded us, this trek did not just benefit them – in the form of both fees from Papillon Reizen (the Mali-based Dutch/Malian company that had arranged the trip) and potential post-trip tips – but also the communities through which we passed. Overnight hosts and rest/lunch sites – also usually in the corner of a school’s grounds – would have been remunerated, as were various forms of entertainment laid on for us. With an afternoon to spare in Sindou, we were taken to the neighbouring village of Kawara, renowned for its pottery, although “pottery dancing” was an unexpected take on the subject-matter. Five ladies, matching loose white cotton tops and skirts put on over their day clothes, carefully placed heavy clay pots on a circle of cloth on their heads,
and then danced to the lively beat provided by a couple of drummers. Not once did any of them reach up a hand to check the pot’s position. When, laughing and drenched in sweat at the end of the performance, they suggested I try a pot myself, I was aghast at its weight, but this is a world where everything is carried aloft; hands are only for overflow items. While I hate to think what it does to their necks, there’s no denying Burkinabés’ fabulous posture.
To a limited extent, we also spent money as we went, but largely only on much-desired soft drinks and “Burkina”, the local beer. To our surprise, a usually cold beer could be procured most nights. Sometimes a lad on a moped or bicycle would be dispatched to satisfy the blancs’ desires. On one occasion, we were escorted to the local “pub”, a couple of tables and chairs set out behind a drinks shop that we’d patronised earlier, the hostess then returning to doze on a bench to the side of the hut, and we had to wake her to pay our bill. On another, we were dispatched to the posh walled compound next
door to our campsite, where the fact that our hostess was out of beer was no hindrance – she dispatched her sister on a moped to buy some from the “pub” down the road, and poured us small glasses of her own homemade hooch in the interim.
There was no danger of starving on this trek. Danny cooked as if for the five thousand, though I’m sure that nothing went to waste. Breakfast featured bread, jam and honey, a challenge for my more savoury-oriented Dutch co-trekkers, but occasional vegetable omelettes went some way towards counterbalancing the sugar-fest. Lunch and dinner would involve a vast quantity of carbohydrate – pasta, rice or sweet potato (either boiled or as chips) – and a sauce of some kind, vegetable, tomato, sesame, with fruit for dessert. Every day Danny and Abu found fresh produce in a local market, so our diet necessarily reflected what had been available. Once he cooked meat, thoughtfully separately from the sauce, and once he cooked fish – but not the first time he found it in the market because Ibrahim, our overall trip guide, decided that it had been out too long, and deemed it unsafe for the
delicate stomachs of his clients. Blisters plus heat plus dodgy insides would not have been fun.
Remarkably, we were given access to ‘ablution’ facilities in every village where we stayed. I hadn’t expected such luxury, and had stocked up on wet wipes before I left. But everywhere our buckets were filled with clean water, plastic mugs provided for water-application, and a reasonably private enclosure put at our disposal. At one end of the spectrum, this was patchily walled with plastic sheeting, necessitating a degree of permanent ducking-down to avoid scaring the locals; at the other end, it was a proper roofed mud, with a shower curtain hanging across the doorway. The water might have been cold, but the chance to wash off the day’s dust and sweat was simply wonderful.
For the most part, we had left officialdom behind. The day-long bus journey from Ouagadougou to Bobo Dioulasso and on to Banfora had been intermittently punctuated by roadblocks, everyone piling off to line up and show identity papers to a couple of tall smartly-uniformed but unsmiling policemen. I ladled on the charm and beatific smiles, my French polished to sparkling point, but rarely got more than a grunt
looking towards Mali
from the walk up the Niansogoni escarpment
in return. Of course, taking photographs of roadblocks, and the police and army in any form is forbidden, as in many other countries around the world. But who could really complain about my photographing the Loumana village sign? Late in the afternoon of our first day’s trekking I soon found out, thanks to my subject-matter being somewhat unfortunately located across from the police station. With Loumana being the nearest control point for the Malian border, less than ten miles’ away, the cops here, despite their elderly and dusty rifles, clearly regard themselves as the frontline against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – although the nearest suspected AQIM attack in Mali of recent months is further away than its equivalent in Burkina Faso. It did not appear to be a particularly onerous role. The prospect of buttonholing a couple of rarely-sighted ‘blancs’ looked too good to miss, a valuable interruption to their evident boredom, and we were beckoned over with an appropriate degree of solemnity. On our side, out came the charm and beatific smiles again, though I was feeling particularly guilty lest I’d caused a problem for the two Burkinabés with us, Sinaly and Ibrahim.
But all ended well.
The head honcho, looking suitably stern, reminded me firmly of the photographic prohibition, checking my camera’s recent snaps to ensure that I had not recorded anything I shouldn’t’ve – though what this landlocked country’s resident made of the pictures of the ocean off Australia’s Central Coast when he scrolled too far forwards, I really don’t know – and examined closely our passports and visas, directing a minion to write down their details. (We were amused to see that the minion then delegated the work to a sub-minion, who had not been party to the original set of instructions, so goodness knows what finally got recorded.) Business concluded, the head honcho turned back to us to ask whether, as we had just come from Niasogoni – even closer to the border than Loumana – we had not been very frightened to be in such proximity to Mali. No, not at all, I assured him. I was initially bemused by the question: he must know that there’s no issue with this part of Mali, the country to the west of Timbuktu being pretty safe, just as is Burkina Faso to the west of Ouagadougou. But, on reflection, perhaps it’s simply that he
has been particularly conscious of the drop in tourism to both countries, so wanted to find out why we hadn’t been put off like so many others. I shrugged. “Nous avons aussi beaucoup de problèmes à Londres,” I assured him, “comme tout le monde”. Our hosts nodded sagely. On that philosophical note, we were dismissed.
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