Travels with a Dakar

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November 21st 2008
Published: November 21st 2008
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Saturday 08th November

After a coffee and an indifferent bun at the overpriced patisserie we leave Kayes. The dust is just as bad in the morning as it is in the evening. We cross the Senegal river which is alive with activity. People washing, small piroques getting ready for the day, it seems like all human life is there. If it's not on the river it's on the bridge which starts with a sand trap.

The road is good. Too good in the sense that our day is going to be a long one, 400 miles, and there is little to keep me from drifting off into a reverie and losing concentration. Well, that's not quite true to begin with. Although we are back to scrub savannah there are still the baobab trees which symbolise West Africa for me. Buildings are both round and square and almost universally made of red mud blocks with thatched roofs. There are people making the blocks, usually by waterholes. Birds of prey are back with us in great numbers and many of them lounge around the road - roadkill can be pretty gargantuan here with the occasional dead cow in evidence. They lazily flap away as I approach and only at the last moment panic to avoid the bike. But their flying skills are superb.

Then hills. Hills! At first they are small, barely bigger than the undulations of yesterdays roads. Then they grow in size until finally I crest a pass at 342m. OK, I never said they were the Highlands or Connemara but, in a landscape that has rarely risen above 40m since my visit to the Adrar region in Mauritania, they are something.

There is yet another symbol of Africa always nearby.

They stride easily along the side of the road, a stick across their shoulders, held casually in both hands. Even the young children are already developing the same gait. Their dress varies but most commonly they were a long blue overshirt and three quarter length black trousers. A black hoghli completes the outfit. They look as if they could walk forever. Slender with not an ounce of fat they drive their herds across the countryside seeking fodder for the animals. They are the herders of cattle, sheep and goats and are, as far as I am concerned the kings of the road. I wait by a bridge while a transhumance of animals cross. Each flock is controlled by a herder. Each is seperate. It is a memorable sight.

By mid afternoon the temperature is 44 degrees centigrade and concentration is now becoming really difficult. The good road has its disadvantages, at least when I was negotiating the potholes on the worst stretch of the N6 there was no way I was going to fall asleep. Now it is different. The road and heat combine to create a stupour. Waving to the people I pass is one way of battling fatigue. We agree we will try to get to Bamako and see if the Catholic Mission can accommodate us. With our excellent translator Jean-Marie we get to the Mission and, though full, they can accommodate us. Geoff and Jean-Marie erect their tents in the courtyard and a bed and mosquito netting is set up for me. In the courtyard! I don't suppose it will rain tonight.

After the statutory beer we explore the various roadside stalls and what they have to offer. I go for the fish, potatoes and lentils. My total cost for dinner and bed is 2600CFA or about 3pounds!


Sunday 09 November

J-M and I leave a sleepy Geoff to the tender mercies of the sisters at the Catholic Mission. I think they have him lined up for 0800 mass. We refuel before leaving Bamako on unleaded petrol. The bike doesn't seem to appreciate it. It is now happier on super essence! We come to a bridge and get our first glimpse of the mighty Niger river. I am impressed. It is what I expected a main artery of this part of Africa to be. We ride for 11 miles through the outskirts of Bamako before getting on to the open road again. After the sophistication of the centre of the city the outskirts are ribbon development of the normal Malian townships. Jean-Marie is almost involved in an incident when a young man runs across the road in front of him. It happens so frequently my heart skips a beat each time.

Riding in the morning is a blissful experience. It is still cool and the light is clear. We pass through some beautiful rock formations and into the Foret de la Faya. Traffic is light. It is peaceful making for ideal biking. The road is good and sweeps through the forest with gentle bends and gradual climbs for 25 miles. At the end of which is a village much of which seems to be devoted to selling genuine Malian antiques, including some Mercedes wheel trims!

Since our entry to Mali most of the roads we have travelled on are peage, be. Not quite the toll roads we are used to in Europe. But the tolls help to maintian the in a reasonable state. As we approach a section a barrier is casually lifted by a person lounging in a booth, using his foot, as if it really is all too much trouble. There is no tariff for bikes so we sail through each of them without a charge. This should be universal.

The road for the rest of the day follows a pattern of grassland strewn with trees followed by heavily wooded areas and so on, and so on, for 300 miles. Another long day. I look out for things to break the monotony. The smallest mosque I have ever seen. Anything!

Around midday the boredom gets too much for J-M. He is going to ride offroad to cut off two sides of a triangle by following his GPS. He has chosen a track that looks to me more like a farm track than a well used piste. Would I like to accompany him? Would I hell! I arrange to meet him at Bla.

I carry on to Segou only to find the road blocked by an accident. I'm diverted onto my favourite, a sandy piste. I wouldn't say I like it but I might even be getting a bit more confident on sand. I say might and that will hold good until the next time I fall or bottle it on sand. Safely through that hazard and around Segou I cross the river Baoule and stop to watch sand extraction from the river bank. Not giant digger extraction, it's all done by hand. I'm shortly joined by J-M who thought, after being presented with a myriad of tracks and tree roots, discretion was the better part of valour and got back on the tarmac quickly.

While the road is good, if boring, I have come across another first. Potholes in the tops of the speed bumps. Villages take road safety seriously here and their speedbumps are impressive.

Sunday seems to be market day in many of the towns we pass through. We decide to stop somewhere for lunch. At each stop there is nothing to eat, apart from rice. But then this is what many will survive on and it is only us wealthy Europeans who want meat and/or vegetables and/or sauce with the rice. We try San. Eventually J-M finds a place but in the process we get seperated. We look for each other and meet later. At this point I don't want to eat but will happily wait with J-M who by now is having withdrawal symptoms. He decides we will press on. What a sacrifice!

At long last we reach the turn off to Djenne, our stop for the night and probably the next few days. 1000CFA local tax to go to the village. I pay up before J-M starts bargaining and we get to the ferry crossing. I keep on forgetting how quickly and early the sun sets here. It's light when we get to the ferry and 20 minutes later it's dark as we ride into Djenne. Djenne is not Rosso but for a tiny ferry the crossing has it's fair share of hustlers. They give up on me eventually. 1500CFA for the crossing. Another discussion. J-M gets it down to 1250CFA each with the fare collector but the captain won't agree and we have to stump up the full fare. You can only try. And J-M does try.

It's been an long day by the time we ride into the bumpy and dusty interior of the Djenne, it's late, it's dark, there isn't much lighting about, we know diddly squat about the town and we're tired and hungry. We stop for a few minutes to get our bearings and before I know it J-M is tucking into brochette and couscous from a food stall. What is it they say about a Frenchman? I start exploring hotels with a self appointed guide. The first and best option is full. Well, I wouldn't have liked it anyway. It's full of French and Dutch coach parties. So there. The second is basic in the extreme, the third is a possibility. In the meantime J-M has established contact with a man who can provide board and lodging in his house for 2500CFA. J-M goes to explore. 30 minutes later when I think he's been kidnapped he returns. He's been bargaining again and has the poor man down to 1500CFA for dinner, bed and breakfast.

"It's not what you would like" J-M tells me, meaning it doesn't have a shower or toilet. Right there J-M.
"OK, I'm going to the Baba then" I say.

We agree to meet in the morning. J-M has a rethink.

"But the house is filthy" he tells me.

I refrain from saying anything about making your bed and lying in it....

"How much did you say it was at the Baba?"
"3000CFA for camping or 3500CFA for a bed, like 5 euros. Your budget is not that tight".
"OK I will come and see".

He tries bargaining again but there is no movement at the Baba. I have a shower and change while he's still at it and am on my first beer before he eventally gives up.

We are spending the night in the same establishment. J-M in his tent. Moi in a bed.

Later still I finally get a bowl of beef stew and bread from a stall. Stalls in Mali charge seperately for everything so when I ask how much a coffee is I'm told a price but if I have condensed milk it's extra. Well, I didn't say I wanted condensed milk as well when I asked the price!


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