Tuesday, 27 October 2009

He Says - Chill out time

26 – 27 Oct 09
The 4x4 taxi that picked us up drove the complete opposite of the Mercedes taxi, he was slow and careful and avoided as many obstacles as possible. As a result we got back to the Auberge Kanasay at about 1700h. Irrelevant of the money savings we decided to continue to sleep on the roof. During our trek we found it to be the best way to keep cool, it being cheaper was only a bonus. The views alone should have made this the more expensive option. The first night the plan failed us. There was no wind and it was a hot night, however from that night on it was the best option by far.

The success of the trip put me in a festive mood, and on that first night back, I was craving a beer so I had one then another, two beers and I was drunkish ! Not really drunk but “happy” as they say. Tiemo came by to say hello, see if we were settling in okay and get the rest of his money. Although I felt like the latter was almost embarrassing for him. We gave him a 20k CFA tip (so 1 day for 1 person or 10%) and this he really did seem to be embarrassed by (but happy too). We chatted for a while and he asked us to go for dirt ride (motorbike) on Sunday to two cool villages. I was not sure if this was as friend or as guide.

The next day (Saturday) was chill out and chores day, Tam spent morning in river doing laundry Mali style and had a little helper. In true Mali style Tam’s little helper did not want payment or anything, just helping the crazy (and probably only) white woman to ever do the laundry in the rive was enough. However when we offered him a “sucery” (coke/fanta..) his eyes became the size of Anubis’s headlights and said yes. Once he got it he almost ran a way, got a couple of friends or maybe his brother and sister and shared the drink. It was like mana from heaven. We saw him a couple of times after that and each time he grins a huge grin and waves like we are Santa Clause or something. The rest of the day was hanging out just relaxing and recovering from our trek. That night Tiemo came to the Auberge to see if we still wanted to go for the ride. He made it very clear with out us asking that it was as three friends going out, this really made me very happy.

The next morning arrived and I had the issue of how to get Anubis down the 4 steps, to get him in we had the help of many men. But now there was but one. I knew also that this time I have gravity on my side. So I used it. I jumped Anubis out of hotel. 4 stairs no problem! The ride was a lot harder then I was expecting and I was struggling with Anubis’s and Tam’s weight on the soft sand and even on the harder rocks.

I though it was simply that it was hard, I was still tired from the trek and I had not done a lot of two up dirt riding in years. I am sure some of this is the case, but I was also coming down with something as we got to the first village I was dizzy and feeling very ill. 30k of off piste riding and I was sick this was not a good thing. I put on a brave face hopping it would pass as we walked around and relaxed a bit but I was constantly feeling like I was going to vomit. I was getting worst by the minute (this btw will be the first time Tam knows how bad I felt, I did not want to ruin it or worry her). It was a shame as the village was not on the tourist trail and as such the people were great. For the first time we were invited in to eat and the “to’” it was amazing (unlike the restaurant to’ we ate). We sampled a bit of food eaten in the traditional style (sitting on the ground eating with right hand). It was great tasting but unbelievably hot on the hands. Although ill it was so good that both of us could have eaten our fill, but as this was unplanned, we assumed that there was not really enough to feed us. So after a polite amount we excused ourselves.

Unfortunately I was feeling really bad by time we headed out and towards the next village. The to’ had some positive effects though and I was a bit stronger I was finding the riding a lot easier. The sand traps (in general were no longer stopping us and we only had one or two kick outs). I was feeling extremely shaky and was not sure if it was a good idea to push my luck with the 30k return trip and an other 10k to the next village. Then Tiemo’s bike broke down. It was the end for me. Although we got it running, I said no more. We were too far out to get help if we need it. It was too far to push the bike and I was getting worse by the minute. Fortunately, we got home with out issue, but I was dead for rest of day. I can only remember little bit of the day from that point on. I remember laying on palm wood chair in the Auberge’s bar, Tam making me eat some spaghetti, then some how we moved up to our terrace. I was not asleep during any of this time, but not really awake either.
The next day I felt marginally better, we headed out to the local market for some local breakfast of mutton curry with pancakes. It was great and something I could eat every day.

Just out side market guy came up to me and wanted a high-5 but grabbed my wrist instead. He then held on to me as hard as he could, I could tell he was trying to hurt me. I broke the lock easily, to which he responded by kicking me in the shin as hard as he could. It was not a good kick and did not hurt I could see the disappointment in his eyes. I think he wanted me to go down. Was he trying to mug me? The years of martial arts practice came back to me (despite the more years of not practising). I went into fight stance with out thinking. I scoped out his body position,
I planned my attack. I felt that I was sort of back in control of the situation, but I stopped myself from going on the attack. I just stared at him. I did not know what was going on… the guy looked like he wanted to fight a few people around started to shout (not sure what) and I kept starring at him. I was not going to attack nor would I risk turning my back on this person who attacked me for no reason. I was a good head taller then him but he looked fit. His grip and kick were not powerful, but I was not sure that I could take him. I may remember the stances and moves but after 15yr of not practising could I really defend myself like I once could? I did not know if I could take him with minimal force, so all my instincts were yelling “if this turns ugly, treat this as life and death, do not try to subdue but try to take down permanently” It was a scary bunch of thoughts that I have not had in years. From many a door way the local’s shouts were getting angry, but no one moved.

Then he left. With as little warning as the first attack, he just turned and left. I did not understand what happened was it some kind of cultural misunderstanding or was he mentally unbalanced or was he a nut job drug head. I did not know. I was glad it was over, but I was angry. I spent the next 3 hours feeling like a Gecko brother.

I, in retro, realised he had a mouth full of yellowish crumbs, that we have seen on a lot of the really older people. If it was only a cola nut or more I don’t know. We headed again to the market for lunch. We sampled some more of the local foods and enjoyed ourselves being the tourists that we are. I purchased a huge watermelon and headed home. We saw the attacker 2 more times, I don’t know if he saw us but he did nothing. I did observe him steal some food from one vendor, yelled aggressively to a few other people, and hit (or tried to) yet an other person. Although I cant be sure, sometimes the Dogon language sounds harsh to me but the reactions of people around me told me that at very least he was a bully. The rest of day was trying to get me over my fatigue that seemed to be getting worse not better. Tam did some more laundry, as she attempted to clean our very ripe bike gear.

That was our last day in Bandigara and for all in tense and purposes our last day in Mali. The next day we arose early and started to pack up our gear, although I was still extremely tired. At about 0730h I looked over the edge of our balcony to see Tiemo waving from the end of the street. I got Tam up and we went down to say our goodbyes and thank you. I was great that he came to see us off. That was his express reason for being up so early too. Thanks again Tiemoko you are a friend.

After a quick breakfast Bouba, asked us if we kept track of the food and drinks that we have had. He was very happy that Tam was keeping track as he could only remember about half of it. Ironically the 4 days there and all the food and drink we wanted was still cheaper then a couple of days in other hotels alone. We went out to the bike to be cheered on by what seemed like the entire staff of the hotel as well as much of the town. So if you ever find yourself in Bandigara, Mali I whole-heartedly suggest the Auberge Kansay!!!

On our way out of town we passed the attacker from the day before. Now we were in full bike gear with helmets on and visors down so there is no was he could have know who it was and yet he struck out at Anubis. I gunned the engine leaving him a cloud of smoke and flying rocks and sand. I am more convinced then ever that he was either on drugs or mentally unstable. Either way he is lucky that it was us that he was playing with, many people I know would not have walked away. I also think that he is not doing the town any favours and one day he will annoy enough people and they will do something. If he is on drugs I don’t care what they do to him (kill him for all I care), if mentally unstable I hope they can find him some help. Unfortunately I feel that it is most likely that he will come to an unpleasant end.

From Bandiagara we headed back to San, the turning point for Bamako or Burkina Faso. This included a 10km stretch of rough piste that was a detour. We had taken it once before on the way to Djenne but it had degraded a bit in the last week, probably due to the rains. About half way though the piste both Tam and I noticed a lot of banging and knocking coming from the rear. Once we were safely off the piste we examined the luggage rack and found that it had sheared off the main mount point for the panniers. Knowing the rest of the route was good bitumen I was not too concerned about it and would deal with it once we were at the hotel. The remainder of the ride was uneventful. We enjoyed a roadside lunch in a tin shack lean to in San. After which Tam would not agree to carry a watermelon the 1k (on the bike) to the hotel. Disappointed, we went back to the hotel, and although my illness was not over, I had to fix the bike. So I spent the next two hours MacGuyvering a new bracket. While Tam stayed in the room working on the computer, although this seemed extremely unfair at the time it turns out that she was coming down with the illness that is afflicting me. We had an early night as tomorrow we hit country number 9: Burkina Faso!

Mali has been a great place, it started out great, had a low in Bamako and finished on an awesome high in the Dogon valley. The people (as a general rule) are nice and helpful. They have the balance of working with tourist and not thinking of them as walking wallets about right. Unlike some places they still make friend with their clients and form relationships that are not only finical. It is a friendly place, it is place where I feel like I have made friends. I have noticed that of all the African countries so far Mali has had the most aid from foreign countries. I don’t know if this helps them or hinders them. I don’t know if all the pressure to be like Europe or the US is a good thing. I do know that there lives are based on hard physical work and labours, I do not think if this is a bad thing, I do not know if it is a sad thing that many want the easily life they think that we have. There is a beauty and simplicity of many of the rural Malian’s lives that I envy, there is many things that I don’t know. But I do know that Mali has become a place that will remain in my heart for many years to come and that I have left a bit of myself there.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

He Says – Dogon territory

20-24 October
The room was bloody hot and the fan did little to dispel the building heat. We had the door and window open. Tam slept near naked despite the risk of being seen. We woke earlier then we needed to. Truth is I did not sleep, there was still too much to do. Although we packed the gear that we were taking with us the night before, the rest of the bike gear and travel gear was unpacked and unstowed. We broke our fast on the typical African hotel breakfast of a baguette, jam and Nescafe (Tam did get tea). Although filling, it is not the most exciting of breakfasts day after day.

Shortly after Bouba the Rastafarian hotelier arrived and showed us where to stow the gear. All was working out and Tiemoko was not due for another 10 minutes, even the taxi, which was to take us to the trek starting point, was there. We sat down to wait. 10 minutes and no Tiemoko. Now I was worried. I was worried that we was not a real guide and had fled with our money. After all there was the “oh my licence is in Mopti being reissued, but I do have this “ as he shows us a dodgy pin thing. But last night both Tam and I decided we don’t care if he is real or not we liked him. 15 minutes and just as I was about to get angry, Tiemoko arrived. It turns out his mother was very sick and he had tried to call but no one answered the phone at the hotel. I did hear the phone going several times too, and this is Africa 15 minutes late is well with in being early. Hey a couple of hours late is considered on time here. With in a few minutes we were off.

Tam pointed out that 10 years ago almost to the day we were setting off on a trek in the Himalayas, and now were are doing something similar again. History does repeat itself.

The Taxi was a very old model Mercedes, I don’t think it had any breaks and the driver drove it like he was in the Dakar rally. There were no seat belts and you could feel the springs though the seat covers. I had lost count of the number of time the car bottomed out. The man was simply insane. Despite our impending deaths, Tiemoko was giving us bits of information as we went with out any prompting. So far it has been a good start to the trek. Forty-five minutes of teeth shattering bumps later we arrived at a little village of Djiguibombo. Tiemo (as he prefers to be called) took us directly to see the chief of the village and introduce us to him, and we had a cold drink and sat for a while. I had no idea what was going on, Tiemo disappeared a few times and was speaking the local dialect. A bit confused I grabbed my camera and started to walk around taking pictures. Tiemo then remembered that he had photos to disseminate. He pulled out a stack that was about 10cm thick. It was suddenly Christmas here people appeared from all over the village to see if they had any photos of themselves or of loved ones. This lasted about 45min.

We then started out tour of the village (only 2 hours late, so on time?). The people were so photo genic and were for the most part happy to be shot. Many of the old people where given gifts of cola nuts. (Yes the “drug” that was originally in coke a cola). Tiemo filled our heads with facts and dates, and explained many of the traditions; he also tried to teach of some of the local language.

I decided at that point that I was having a hard enough time with French I was not even going to attempt 15 different dialects of Dogon. During our walk Tam wanted to try pounding millet, so Tiemo asked an old lady if Tam could try. The woman thought Tam was nuts, as did I. “Why would she want to work hard in this heat” was the look on her face as Tam took the 2m long pounding stick. Tam was working had but was too slow so shortly after the old woman joined back in.

At about 1100h as the heat was building to its peak we headed out of the relative coolness of the village and in to the dry and desolate plateau of the Dogon escarpment. It was hot but there was a nice breeze and for the first 3k. We all found it relatively easy walking. I was worried about Tam, I did not want a repeat of the desert collapse, but she was fine, even bouncy. About a 2k into the walk Tiemo had flagged down a guy on a motorbike and asked him to warn the café and have some food ready for us. I though this was a brilliant plan, and although the guy said he would do it. He never arrived.

It also turned out that only parts of the plateau were dry, there was one amazing waterfall and a small valley that was almost tropical. It had plenty of water and trees and was simply amazing. From there we reached our second village. This was a small place and was predominately a place for lunch and hiding from the worst of the heat. We lazed about for a few hours, at which point Tiemo disappeared to take a nap. With in seconds people appeared from what ever mystical place they hide and Tam and I were asked to buy this, donate money to that, sponsor this, they even wheeled out the local handicap kid o display for us before asking for money. It was done with little pressure but annoyed me none-the-less. If it was legitimate why wait till our guide was not around?

At about 1600h we walked though the town and saw out first Tellum houses, tucked in the high cliffs of the escarpment. There was also a smaller version of the Djenne mosque. We continued to walk to the last village of the day. Teli. It was a hot 4k though sandy tracks and millet fields. We arrived at about1730h, which gave us only about 30 minutes before darkness, meaning that we really only had time to set camp and order food. The food was amazing, the “officially worst guide book ever” describes the food “as basic”. I supposed it could be called that we had couscous and with chicken and vegetables in a wonderful spicy sauce, sure the menu was limited but the tastes were not. Tiemo did not ever let us go hungry if our plates were every ¾ empty he would put more food on. We slept on the roof with only a mosquito net and watched the stars, until sleep took us. Early the next morning, we headed up to the old town. It was a hard 600m slog up a 45° hill. It was incredible; you could see the Dogon houses and granaries as they were 6000 (and only 60 yrs) ago. Above them sat the remains of the Tellum houses perched high in the cliffs. The Tellum people were ousted by the Dogons, their cliff side villages abandoned and now used as cemeteries by the Dogon.

It was a magical experience, we explored for an hour or so before heading back to the new part of town. We explored for a further hour or so seeing the traditional crafts and trades. We headed back to the encampment to collect our gear and prepare for the next leg. With in seconds of Tiemo leaving us to pay the bill and take care of other business maters, the touts and “please give us money” people arrived. I simply ignored them but Tam donated money to a woman’s group. As soon as she did this it was like opening a door and there was no longer a soft sell but now the hard sell. Just before I got really annoyed Tiemo returned and the people vanished like ninjas.

We had a hot 5km to do before the next and only village on our list today. The “officially worst guide book ever” describes all the walks as up and down the escarpment, but it was a long flat walk. It was hard going sometimes as the ground was uneven and could be very deep sand. Tam struggled a bit was but doing great and my fears for her were slowly evaporating.

We arrived in Ende just before noon and just before the heat got to be unbearable. We had some lunch and simply waited for the heat to die down. Four hours of sitting was not my idea of fun and as before any time Tiemo was gone the sellers or beggars would arrive. The encampments would be wise to stop this as it always made me feel uncomfortable and I would not recommend any of them. It was not until about 1600h hours did we venture out into the village. Ende was a big village. I did not like it at all. It had all the hassle and dirt of any big city but not much else. Tiemo took us to the “artisan” quarter, which is really just tour talk for “place where your are shown stuff to be pressured into buying” quarter. Every tour has one of these and I don’t like it much at all. Tam wanted to go and get some indigo dyed cloth as a present for someone. We walked in to one of the dyers and she was swamped with woman trying to seller stuff. She found one she like and bought it suddenly all the woman who were vying for her attention left with out so much a thanks or goodbye. The rest of the “artisans” quarter was no better, if you said you did not want anything they would either move to hard sell time or look at you like you were scum of the earth. Ende was closer to Morocco then anywhere else in Mali. I was not really happy with the buy this buy this, and told Tiemo it was time to head to the old village and see the stuff we liked. He agreed readily (although warned that the artisan quarter maybe closed by the time we get back—Thank god I thought). We walked up the 700m of steep cliff to find the least magical place ever. UNESCO decided that it would rebuild everything, remove anything that was ugly and install some fake altars. Tiemo was as unimpressed as I was, it was no longer a historical site but a movie set or museum replica. We only spent about 30 minutes in the old village, as there was nothing really to see or shoot. This meant that we could see more artisans!! Yippee! We headed for the sculptors quarter, I was expecting more of the same buy this attitude but I was wrong. The sculptor was happy to just sit there doing his thing. He thing was carving small statues with a hatchet and he could make the most intricate cuts with a few thawacks of his hatchet. I was majorly impressed. He asked once if we wanted anything and when we said no continued to chat and cut away. He was one person that was the saviour of Endie.

We slept on the roof again at about 0300h I was wide wake having gone to bed at about 2100h As I lay there star gazing I see a fast moving satellite shooting across the horizon. It suddenly hit the stratosphere and burst into flame as it headed towards us. I then realised that it was a meteor. It was huge and close enough as it flew over head to see the rock itself, as well as the wall of gas behind it that burned a bright yellow and the vapour trail in its wake, it then left our stratosphere and left for places unknown without any sign that it was there. I noticed Tam was awake too she had seen it. This was the second big meteor that I have seen in my life, and both have been shared with Tam. I really like that.

We headed directly out that morning. Headed for a small village where once again Tiemo handed out more photographs to more excited people. Tam was surrounded by children who grab her hand tightly and walk with her (until she could untangle them). We spent some minutes watching a blacksmith do some woodcarving with fire. We both also had a go at using the ancient bellows, these were basically a bowl that has a leather skin tied around them that when pulled up and down pushed the air, simply yet effective. Tiemoko found a couple of carvings that he liked and engaged the blacksmith in a heated bartering session. Unfortunately he never got a good price. All the guide book say never bargain with a guide present, as the shop owner will be expected to tip the guide. Well it should also note that the guides should never bargain with punters present as the shop owners assumes that the object is really for the punters and wants tourist prices. Tiemo left empty handed and we headed to an old village that was once again was real and really old.

The path up to it was barely there and the climb was the hardest and steepest yet. It really felt like we were true explorers bashing our way thought the undergrowth to find the ancient village and not tourists. Once we finally made it to the top, sweat was pouring from all of us like it was raining it was hot, but wonderful. There were pots and broken pottery everywhere, the doors hung off their hinges and rope still sat there from the last sacrifice. The feeling in the place was as if we were the first people to have seen this since its abandonment. Much of the village was considered sacred so we were unable too explore it in its entirety but what we could see will stay with me forever. We still had a long and steep walk to do before we arrived at our final place to sleep.

It was a 4-5k walk up to the top of the escarpment to Begnimato, it was hot and getting hotter. The first bit of the walk however was nice and flat so we were fooled into thinking that we could make good time. What we did not take into account was the talcum powder soft sand, it was slow going. Eventually, we made it to the foot of the hill and started our climb. It was not that bad. A cooling breeze had come up, we were walking in the shadow of both the escarpment and the trees. Tam had flash backs of Nepal with its 1300 steps. We were slow but steady. When we reached the top we were greeted with a stunning view along the valley. Almost with out having to discuss it, Tam and I both agreed that at least for the first time we would meet Sam’s challenge of “when we find a spot that we love raise a beer to him in the north and “Cheers” him”. So Sam there you go! (we will likely do it again but here is one). We spent the next hour or so watching the sunset and relaxing.

Tiemo, decided that he would really really like to extend the trip for one day and 4 more villages, and did his best to convince us. We were unsure, but eventually decided to do it.

We again slept on the roof under the stars. I did not sleep well but was once again getting used to it. The next morning we walked around Begnimato visiting people and the famous Dogon hunter. We had a M.Palin moment when one of the hunters fired off his gun with its accompanying cloud of smoke and debris. It was a great experience. We had 7k to go before lunch and an additional 5 to go after that. So we left the village and started to walk. It was the hottest day yet but worse of all it was also humid we were all walking slow. We had to take several brakes, something we have yet to be force in to. The walk was on top of the escarpment, it was over hard blackish rocks or hard packed ground, there was little to no shade. It was hard going. We made it to the ½ way point and stopped for drink and some shade. After about 15 min rest we took a 1.2k side trip to look down on a village. Life there had not changed in thousands of years.

The rest of the journey to our lunch stop was relatively easy going if not extremely humid and hot. We made it and settled in for a well-deserved rest and meal. All the while just knowing that the hard 5k was still to come. At about 1530h it started to rain. We would have to either cancel the last day or walk in the rain. We all agreed that it was the walk! Tiemo told us that it was a 5k walk down hill, it was more like 3k flat easy going, 1k at about 60° and then 1 k hard going though soft sand and river fording. The 3k flat was dotted with stunning rock formations, which kept your mind off the grey clouds and tired feet. It ended in a valley with walls looming up on both sides. That was breath taking and had an ethereal feel. I asked Tiemo if it was sacred and he originally said no but then went on to explain that many villagers though it was haunted and need to make a calls as they passed though t protect themselves. The valley floor then dropped away at 60° moving us further down the escarpment, it was a hard walk but not a hard climb. The views were such that you never even realised that you were working so hard.

We eventually exited the crevasse and upon looking back it was almost invisible. It was as if you did not know that this was the pass you would never find it. The rest of the walk brought us unto view of the last village Nomburi. It towered over valley with Tellum buildings reaching for the sky and the Dogon village perched half way up the rocks. It was late and we were very tired. So we headed for camp. We spent the next couple of hours watching at last three species of bat (two micro and one mega) emerge from the cliffs and houses above. Tam was giddy with joy. There was a pack of French tourists already there (having taken a different route) and had paid the local to dance and sing for them. It was nice too watch although one French tourist in particular was firing shot after shot of flash photography in the faces of the people and anyone else in range. After about the 300th I was sick of it. I could only imagine how the dancers felt. Tam and I were asked to join the dance and where both tempted but it was the others that paid for it so we felt that it was wrong of us to do so, however Tiemo joined in the dance. I wish we could have as well.

The next day was a hard slog. We all woke up tired and we all knew that today’s plan was to walk up the escarpment around for a couple of k’s then down again and back up the way we came 24 hours earlier. We were all walking slow, it was very humid and was threatening to rain again. There was no wind and the temperature was climbing faster then we were. It was a climb up a rough and rocky track that once again was invisible if you did not know it was there. The number of stops we took to “enjoy the view” was increasing with every metre that we climbed, (although the view was the same). Finally after what seemed to all to be a 10k walk we reached the top. We wandered though a little village that was stunning but there was little enthusiasm. Enthusiasm took more energy that anyone had left, the only thing increasing was the temperature and the humidity. For the second time in as many weeks I was dripping wet with sweat. We left the village and headed for a mango grove that wound its way down the hill. On route Tam found more evidence of bats living in the Telium houses and we spent a few minutes fantasising about research project that could include anthropology, ecology and archaeology.

Just then the grove got very thick a small stream pooled up and was filled with sacred fish. It was a cool and tranquil place and the water was refreshing. It was almost magical as we all seemed to perk up after a splash of water on our arms and heads. The truth was the heat and humidity broke as it started to rain. We made it to an encampment in the valley below before the rain got too bad. We waited out the short but soaking storm. As the rain died off we head back out to the valley and the climb back up the hidden path that we climbed the day before. It did not lose any of its magic as we traversed it sheer steeps. Amazingly though it was a long steep climb we all felt that it was easier then it should be. Psychosomatic, I am sure, but the beauty of the place and the cooling effect of the rain made the hard walk enjoyable. Back at the place we had lunch the day before we waited for a taxi to come and end our trip. I was very physically tired and happy to know that the hard work was done but I was very unhappy that our Dogon adventure had come to an end.

She Says – Dogon Country, I Want To Stay!

23-24 October
We’ve been having a rest day today, not only getting over our trek but to get things sorted out like camera downloads (I think I’ve taken about 400 shots over 5 days…) and to get all our washing done. I spent about 2 hours this morning washing our clothes and bedding, but it could have taken longer if I hadn’t had a little helper! I decided the best thing to do was wash in the river with all the local people, especially seeing as it would take a lot of water and effort in the auberge, and anyway, everyone else was down there doing it! Feeling a little nervous, I carried our big bucket of laundry down towards where I thought a suitable spot was – near others to be social, flat enough to get good access to water and pounding space, not too close to anyone else. As I approached my spot, a boy smiled at me from the other side of the river and pointed to the spot I was heading to – excellent, I had chosen the right place! I set up my tub of soapy water and got started, when the boy crossed over and started helping! At first, I thought he was just showing me what to do, but he kept grabbing laundry from my bucket and washing it, even when I said thankyou and it was ok in my limited French, but he wouldn’t be deterred! In the end, we got through the whole load together, and while I scrubbed my tough-to-clean long sleeve shirt, he rinsed everything out. In the mean time, some girls came and sat with us, obviously waiting for the spot to do their washing, but I think they thought I was a bit funny. Most people seemed to accept I was washing and thought little of it – well, I think so, I said hello to a few women, but got rather focussed on my work till the girls arrived! It certainly works extremely well, pounding onto the rocks, scrubbing tough bits across the rocks and sand (that shirt has never looked better!), then rinsing in running water. Unsure whether the boy, Mahmadou, was expecting payment or just helping me, I had decided to make sure he got something for his help – it was very hot and it was 2 hours of hard work – and to ask Bouba at the auberge what was appropriate, a soft drink or money and how much? I managed to get Mahmadou to come up to the auberge with me, where he met Xander, then waved and left! We got him to come back, especially when we mentioned ‘sucrerie’ (soft drink) and his eyes lit up. Obviously that was quite a treat, and at 450CFA a bottle I’m sure it’s not a treat he gets often (less than a pound for us, probably half a meal for him). Duly paid for his excellent work, Mahmadou disappeared for a while, and I later saw him back where he started. I think he must have been doing laundry for other people to be able to leave and help me like that. I don’t know, but he sure made my life a lot easier!

So the last day of our hike was tough but good. Neither of us slept well, due to a warm night without wind. Tiemo had stayed up all night and Xander was tired, so at least I wasn’t the only one walking slow in the morning! A young man who sometimes helps Tiemo with equipment portering joined us. We had some light rain the night before, and clouds built up again in the morning and it was very muggy. We started with a quick visit to Nombori’s old village, still in use as a sacred site so we couldn’t visit much, then on up the escarpment through a tough valley to Idjeli ‘at the top’. We followed a stream down through a forest laden with mango trees, and visited the pools of fish that are sacred and can’t be fished, to the lower part of Idjeli (‘Idjeli over the river’). The village was really pretty, but unfortunately it started raining heavily when we arrived and it wasn’t really possible to take photos. It’s a shame as the buildings are mostly built up the hill and it was a very small town. We sheltered in a small restaurant and had drinks while it bucketed down. Eventually we had to hit the trail again. We headed back along the flat but sandy track to Nombori, admiring the cliff face from a different angle, reaching the village at 11am. There were Tellum houses all along the escarpment, amazing. By the time we reached Nombori, the rain had stopped and it was very muggy. The rain had made the sand slightly easier to walk across, but not much! We had a quick break, said goodbye to Tiemo’s friend, then it was on up the steep cleft we had come down the night before. It wasn’t as tough as expected, especially when the occasional breeze came through, unlike the morning’s hike, which was tough going. We made it up with only two stops, one for a snack break, another for rest. After that it was across the flat to Douro for lunch. It was market day, so we went to the goings-on and try some snacks – hot peanut mush with bissap/hibiscus leaves, and cooked water lily tubers (like potatoes mixed with sweet potatoes, tasty with a bit of salt). The market was amazing, so many colours from all the women’s clothing. We didn’t take cameras, though the shots would have been nice! Somehow it felt obtrusive to photograph the people going about their business. I have to note that we never wanted for anything on our trek. Tiemo not only crammed us with food at mealtimes, but always made sure we had snacks of peanuts, biscuits, watermelon. This is good, as I had noted I need to keep up my food content and he certainly made sure of it! While at the Douro market, he paid for all the food we tried, and he always made sure we had plenty of water to filter whenever we needed it.

At 4.30pm, our car arrived, and we spent a very bouncy hour travelling back to Bandiagara. We all went off for showers, and Xander and I set up our tent on the roof to keep cool. After dinner, Tiemo came back. We paid him and gave a tip, which he complained was too much but we thought was too little. He gave us a fantastic experience we’ll never forget. He mentioned doing another trip on Sunday on our bikes, so we’ll see if he’s back for drinks tonight and whether it will cost or if it is just as friends.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

She Says – Dogon Trekking (part 2)

21-22 October (written from notes taken while trekking)
We leave Endé the next morning for Yabatalou. On the way, we pass through a small village that I never caught the name of. Tiemo stops to pass out photos taken by visitors on a previous trip, and I take photos of a girl pounding millet. To break up the tedium, she throws her pounding stick into the air and claps, before pounding the millet again. As we leave town, we pass the village blacksmith, and this time the action is in full swing. His ‘forge’ was a clay oven built on top of the ground, and the bellows were pieces of leather wrapped over round holes in the top of the oven. You grab the leather and push and pull air through the forge. We both have a go at using the bellows, and beat out some tunes! It was fascinating to watch the blacksmith making wooden sculptures. He took the carved pieces and used red-hot tools to burn the wooden surfaces, leaving them smooth and solidly black. And I always thought that effect was from polished black wood!

We reach Yabatalou before lunch and head straight up to the old town. People have only recently left the old village partway up cliffs here, and some houses still looked like they were being visited or lived in. It was a nice town, with a good altar and paintings, plus a grotto spring hidden in the cliffside. A valley split the escarpment and created a beautiful forest of mango trees, which we followed down back into the main village. We visited a house that had just harvested all of their peanut plants – the entire house was full! The women were inside picking the peanuts off the small plants, which then becomes animal fodder, and grinding the nuts into paste and oil for cooking. We ate some fresh peanuts, and I was surprised they were pretty tasty and juicy. We visited the chief’s campement for lunch, Tiemo got us a yummy watermelon as well, and we enjoyed the chief’s excellent wooden sculptures displayed all over the camp while picking off all the billions of plant seeds that had attached themselves to us!

After lunch we headed for Begnimato, our stop for the night. After trudging through deep sand, then making a stiff ascent up a creek valley, surrounded by beautiful rocks, forests and scenery, I started thinking maybe it was finally time for a ‘Sam-moment’. Our bike-travelling friend Sam Manicom, author of several books, had asked us just before departure to raise a beer in his direction when we found the most beautiful place in Africa. It was a hard hot hike in the dying sun, but so worth it. Begnimato is a beautiful village built on top of the escarpment, and surrounded by stunning rock formations. Tiemo got us into the campement, where many tourists were already gathering, then we raced with beer in hand to catch sunset setting over the plains. We sent our cheers towards Sam for what we think will be the first of many times in Africa. We sat on the edge of the escarpment, gazing over the far distant sand dunes, watching the sunset and the nomadic Fulani camp gathering their cattle into camp for the night. There were burial chambers in the cliffs below us, we could see pots outside them from where people bring up the ashes or each burial. It was a magic place.

We joined the village men in the ‘bar area’ for homemade millet beer, a very relaxed social occasion. And tasty too! It is brewed very quickly, I think what we drank was only a day or two old at most, and it was like ginger beer and fizzy. We joined the main village hunter and a friend, and drank from a calabash that was passed around between our group of five. We had another great meal in the campement, but there were a lot more tourists here – seems to be growing as we move along the cliff. Rain had threatened throughout the day, there was thunder at lunch, and it was cloudy in the evening. We had doubts for our rooftop sleeping but got through! Tiemo was really keen for us to take an extra day and visit another village called Nombori. He’d been saying it increasingly over the last 2 days – “I don’t know why I want you to go, I just really think you would like it!” I had developed a sweat rash through the day’s tough hot hiking, and we ummed and ahhed a lot because of that and the extra cost. But it is almost a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we’re having a great time, so we decided to keep going.

After a tasty traditional hot chicken breakfast stew, we started the next day with a tour of Begnimato. We first went to see the main hunter, who we had drunk millet beer with last night. We took photos of him with his son and their various captures, including a variety of monkeys and wild cats. They also had a young pet monkey, I have no idea why considering monkeys form a huge part of the hunters’ quota. Anyway I put my backpack down to take photos and Dr Otterboro, sticking his head out of my bag, freaked the poor little thing out. Everyone found this pretty amusing. We next visited ‘the big hunter’, the current hunter’s father. We got awesome photos of him proudly smoking his pipe then loading his big gun, but had a scarily Michael Palin moment when his gun exploded with a massive bang and smoke went everywhere! I literally stopped with my mouth wide open, the sound was so incredibly loud. The hunter himself completely cracked up into laughter, he thought it was an absolute hoot. I know it wasn’t supposed to happen like that, because shortly afterwards, we walked above the huts and saw him fire for some other tourists and it was much less impressive! He proudly showed us postcards that had been made of him, and sat for more photos. We walked above the town for a daytime view, and Tiemo pointed out how the Christians, Muslims and animists lived in separate areas of the town but in harmony with each other. We got to visit the little mud-walled church after chasing down the key, and saw fascinating pictures inside of an Arab-black Jesus - much more accurate in my opinion!

From there, we had a 7km solid trek to Douro, originally our end point for the trek. This was mostly along the top of the rock escarpment we had been following from below. We were able to see the famous Dogon onions growing up here, as there is a lot more water for irrigation at the top of the escarpment. I’ve grown very partial to these tasty little shallot-like onions! There were streams, dams, deep wells and trees all over, and I finally saw yam crops growing. Water is easier to hold up here, and much of the crops for the surrounding areas are grown above the cliff. There were beautiful views and valleys as we headed well across the rock-sculptured land, which was so beautiful. Along the way, we stopped in a small village called Konsou-ley for a drink. The man running the drink stop we visited played guitar on basically a open container and some string and got his tiny daughter to dance for us and a couple of other tourists. She was awfully cute, but I have to say she was pretty unimpressed with the whole thing! We walked to the escarpment edge to see the proper town, still perched halfway up the cliff-face. However, like elsewhere, people are slowly moving either up or down the escarpment to an easier life. It’s incredible that they have managed to live perched on this cliff for so many hundreds of years as it is.

We had lunch in Douro, which had all the feel of a proper city and easy vehicle access. After lunch, we trekked on to Nombori and it was sooooooo worth it! The walk itself was not too difficult, across beautiful rocky ground to start with, then descending down a very steep ravine. There were spectacular valleys and rock formations, and a deep rock cleft led us down into the village. The cleft had a very weird feel to it, and apparently the local people sing as they pass through to keep themselves safe. I guess I’m not alone in that feeling! The cleft opened out to the plains and a river, shallow enough to cross now but would be tricky when the rains come. There were fantastic Tellum houses above the current town of Nombori, still perched on the lower slopes of the cliff as they could not go higher and are on fairly level ground anyway. I had the most amazing shower experience ever, with massive bats emerging from either within or over the top of the escarpment. They sounded like fruit bats but I definitely saw insect-feeding behaviour from some. I wonder if fruit bats could possibly live in caves here, or were they just coming from trees above the escarpment? We were camped right underneath the cliff-face, so I’m sure some of the bats must be living within the old Tellum houses. I had seen signs of microbats through all the nooks and crannies of the rock cleft as we came down, I saw loads of poo, and we even disturbing them by talking as walked through tight passes so that they started chattering. I have so seriously been wondering what kind of bat research could be done in this area. I mean, what a place to live?! It’s beautiful, so different, getting to know these people more in depth and how they live in their world would be incredible. And then bats on top of it, and maybe finding out how they fit into their mythology (Tiemo had no stories for me, damn!). Now, how to scale those cliffs…quick somebody make me some baobab rope! The night was wrapped up with some dancing. A large tour group was staying in our campement, and the villagers put on a show for them. We got to sneak in on the side. We pushed Tiemo to dance, he so wanted to dance, people invited him to dance. He originally said no as he felt it was for the tour group and not about him, but he drank enough and eventually went in! Likewise, people invited us to join, but it wasn’t for us to take over from the tour group, they had paid so participating was for them, so we stayed put. It was great fun, if a little staged. I heard the troupe move on to the other campement later on. I just appreciate people are holding onto the dancing traditions and find a value in doing so.

I haven’t got around to mentioning the greetings! These are very long and very detailed, still going at a distance when you can barely hear - in fact all conversations are like that! Everything is yelled around the cliffs. The basics are ‘hello, how are you’, but that extends to ‘how is your family, mother, brother, uncle, donkey, sheep’ etc. Always the answer is ‘serow’ (fine) so the conversations are one-sided – one person starts, the other just keeps answering ‘serow, serow, serow’! Often a group will be part of the conversatin, so if Tiemo walks past a group of women and starts the questioning, then they all answer in unison. It is hilarious and endearing at the same time – just goes to show that our culture of ‘hello, how are you going’ and walking on without REALLY caring what the answer is is not so unusual! Tiemo is chatting and laughing and making silly jokes with people all the time. People think he is crazy! I have to say we’ve been very happy with having Tiemo as our guide. He seems to be well respected in the villages we visit, and people listen to him. He has been looking after us very well, and is a very good guide. Looks like our risk and gut-feelings paid off! I should note he is from the Dogon country himself, so these are his people and his country – it really adds something extra.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

She Says - Mali’s Magnificent Dogon Country (part 1)

19-20 October (written from notes taken while trekking – no, I didn’t carry the computer!)
Last night as it got dark, Xander was able to put the bike within the walled area of the auberge. Everyone around (where did they all come from?!) was a big help, using people power, sand ramps from the auberge’s 4WD, and a plank of wood to get the bike up the stairs. Wish I’d got photos! It happened so quickly I wasn’t prepared. Our room last night was too hot, the fan didn’t circulate very well so we didn’t sleep well. I think we’ll take the camping-on-the-roof option when we get back! We got started a bit late, got on the road at 8am, and headed for Djiguibombo, about 25km away along a decent dirt road past small fields of onions and other crops. I was happy with our guide straight away as he started telling us what we were seeing, about the small villages on the way, and that it was OK to stop if we wanted photos.

Djiguibombo was great. We stopped first to see the chief of the village, who also runs a small campement, where we had cold drinks and met several men and boys. We then had a tour of the large village. People were very friendly and willing to have their photos taken, usually in return for a few kola nuts, a caffeine-rich seed that is a desired treat and used to be found in Coca-Cola. After seeing intricately braided hair on women all over, I was able to finally take photos of one young girl – I hadn’t felt comfortable asking any other time. I asked Tiemo if I could pound millet with some women we passed, as I’ve been seeing it taking place in villages all over the country and have been really tempted to ask Xander to stop while I go try! Pounding millet was no problem with the older woman Tiemo asked for me, but he had to negotiate for photos, as we had run out of kola nuts but had more back in our bags. Tiemo had to promise to send some back ‘plus a small gift’ (I think 1000CFA), and he got a young boy to come back with us and run the errand when we were ready to leave. Pounding millet was easier than it looked, especially once you got into a rhythm. The seed heads are placed in a deep, carved wooden bowl, and a long thick stick is used to pound the seeds off the heads. The sticks are worn smooth after generations (or maybe just months!) of pounding, so no splinters to worry about. Like many of the villages we would see during our trek, there were a mix of religions including Christian and Muslim and the traditional animists. Tiemo said the local saying is each town is “30% Muslim, 30% Christian and 100% animist”, as they still hold tightly to their animist traditions, even after the influence of other religions. Making offerings or animal sacrifices is still an important way of life here. We saw the animist ginna bana, an offering area or altar with small alcoves for placing offerings, and holes at the top for birds to nest (trying to remember, I think the birds took away the ‘essence’ of the offering). When women are menstruating, they live in a separate hut, called the maison des règles, in a special part of the village, as they are considered ‘unclean’ to deal with normal duties. Another important building is the togu-na, a low roofed structure built on stone or wooden legs that the men use to discuss any problems, the theory being that no-one gets angry when they are sitting down!

After a rest, we started our actual trek. We followed the road for a while, then turned off over the rocks. We passed a small garden set up on the rocks, containing aubergine/eggplant, hibiscus, small papaya and baobab trees, chillis and calabash (like a pumpkin but used only for the hard shell to make bowls and water containers, etc). The garden was fed by water that collected into a pool on the rocks. We walked down to the edge of the escarpment, the lifeline of the Dogon people – wow, I didn’t know it was going to be like this! It’s a shame it was hazy from sand storms, but the view over the edge of the escarpment, down to the tiny village below, and across the sandy plains was stunning. Our first stop was a small stream that ran into a pool with trees all around it, like a little oasis. Then we walked up to the escarpment edge, and looked over to a larger stream and small waterfall and a bigger oasis of large trees, sweetly singing with dozens of birds and sounding for all the world like a tropical rainforest – here, at the edge of the Sahara desert! We followed the edge of the escarpment down a tiny cliff-hugging path into the forest, stopping at the beautiful pools within, before exiting onto the flat plains below the escarpment to the little village, Kani-Kombole. All through the pool area were tiny, bright red dragonflies, and I disturbed a group of bright yellow butterflies drinking from moist mud. Down here among the millet fields, it was very hot, as we had lost the cool breeze we’d had up on top of the cliff. We also found out where sesame seeds come from! I can’t say I’ve truly pondered it, but did wonder. Turns out they come from small thick pods on a little green plant.

We stopped in a small campement for what Tiemo called ‘a small shower’ (quick bucket of water over the head and arms, very refreshing!) and lunch, which was a tasty mix of spaghetti with tomato sauce and vegetables. This included the local sweet potato, which is more like a cross between the sweet orange sweet potato we know and a normal potato. After lunch came a rest period, as the heat is too much in the middle of the day for comfortable hiking. As it was already after 12pm when we arrived in camp (about an hours’ walking across around 3km), neither of us was complaining! We looked around the camp, which had carvings all over the place, examples of the famous giant masks, beautiful doors, etc. We set off again close to 4pm for a tour around the very pretty village, with its decent sized mud mosque (somehow more beautiful than Djenné’s giant version) and murky pond full of tortoises. We learned that the baobab tree is used for many things, including bark rope, leaves in sauces, and the huge pendulous fruit called monkey bread can be eaten when young and made into a maraca when dried. We also got to climb our first tree-trunk staircase, a rather tricky Y-shaped construction used to reach the roofs of buildings and best attacked sideways! We visited the chief and his tiny poky ‘shop’ of carvings, falling I love with a few large pieces we had no hope of taking away with us!

Leaving Kani-Kombole, we walked for about an hour (around 2km) across a reasonable sandy track through the tall millet fields to Teli, a gorgeous village with the old Dogon houses partway up the escarpment, and the even older Tellum houses set high above them, accessible only by ropes. I can’t describe the feeling when I saw those tiny round houses wedged into the cliff for the first time, this is what I came here for! I only know about this area from Michael Palin’s Sahara, and I love old cultures and architecture. While many of these buildings aren’t that old (Tellum only 11-12th century, Dogon in this area only moved down to the plains in the last 40 years) and have been well maintained, this is a truly traditional group of people, going about their daily lives with minimal influence from the rest of the world (yes, there were occasional TVs and radios). Depending on which story you hear, the Dogon people either gradually or forcefully pushed the Tellum people, supposedly pygmies, out of the region, and then used their houses to store the dead. Many of the old houses are now full, so the Dogon are moving around the cliff face to use other houses for storage. No-one’s really sure how the Tellum got up to their houses, but the Dogon have been using rope made out of baobab tree bark.

We spent the night in a lovely little campement, and were treated to music played by one of the staff on a 2-stringed banjo-like instrument, before enjoying a tasty dinner of chicken in a red sauce and couscous flavoured with peanut oil. Before dinner we were able to watch life passing by below the building, including watching kids dancing to another boy laying the banjo-instrument. I really enjoyed the cold shower that night, it was very refreshing to wash off the day’s dirt and sweat and enjoy the warm evening afterwards. The only problem was the slightly disturbing sensation of sharing my shower with 2 frogs...The campement was much better than I expected, a nicely decorated mud construction with carved wooden doors for the rooms, and clean and well-kept. We chose to sleep on the roof as the rooms are just too warm right now (cool during the day for resting but stuffy at night), so they set up with mattresses and strung a mosquito net between various points on the roof. Don’t think this is strange, it’s common to sleep on the roof in these hot places! We overlooked the village, and could see many different types of crops being dried on roofs around us – corn, chillies, peanuts, beans, and millet. Our sleeping spot looked directly at the old cliff village. I can’t believe I’m here! The place is just so different to anywhere I’ve ever been before, and more than that, the scenery has been stunning. I went to bed very happy, after listening to music and staring at the incredible array of stars above us, far away from the city lights – we haven’t seen so many stars since our last nights in Portugal.

The next morning, we woke early due to our outside location, but that was great as we were able to take dawn photos of the old village from the roof. We set off early to explore the old village in the cliff, being able to walk around the old Dogon houses and stand right under the Tellum houses. There was not a lot of evidence of use, but the areas are still used for occasional sacrifices/offerings, and of course access to the burial houses, so we were able to explore fairly well. We saw old sacrificial altars of monkey and bird skulls, stuck with mud onto the cliff face, and the painted altar areas. They use black, white and red geometric designs on the altars, as well as snake shapes. Sadly, there are very few holy men (hogon) still in the Dogon country. We were able to explore the famous granaries of the area, small mud constructions with thatched roofs and stilted legs, accessed from a small portal near the top, which is usually nicely carved in the newer villages. The views over the village and plains below from halfway up the escarpment were fantastic. We spent about an hour up there, poking around the little buildings. On the way out of town, we saw the town’s blacksmith working in his small open hut, although he hadn’t yet started on his day’s work so we couldn’t see him in action. We also stopped to see the local hunter, a very important person in Dogon villages. He had a great coat decorated with skulls and porcupine quills, and one wall in the compound was covered with skulls of various beasts that had fallen to his gun. We then had a very hot, dry, but short 1.5 hour/4km walk along the sandy plain to Endé, our stop for the day. Another ‘small shower’ from Tiemo greeted us in another nice campement, then we had lunch. There were more tourists closer to Endé – we saw one on the track and several in camps – and it is a reasonably well-visited place as there is vehicle access.

After lunch, we visited the various artisanal stalls around town, particularly as I wanted to find a wedding gift for my best friend who gets married next month. Tiemo told me it’s traditional to give something like a wall hanging or tablecloth, which was perfect as I had been shown some tablecloths in the campement, stained with indigo, which is a local strong export. I was fascinated by the processes of creating dyed cloths here, as I had seen examples in the Bamako museum, and was able to see the elements of, if not the actual, process from crushed balls of indigo plant leaves, to a vat of dye, to cloth tied and ready to dye, to of course the finished products. The cloths I saw were made by a women’s cooperative, by the women standing right in front of me, so it was nice to know whatever I bought was going back into that exact community. While I liked the thick raw cotton of the more traditional, handmade local cloth, our limited pack-size, carrying weight, and luggage room on the bike led me to buy a more commercial, but very light, cloth that was tie-dyed in a lovely diamond pattern. Hope my mate likes it! We also saw bogolan mud cloth being dyed. We had first seen this dyeing technique in Djenné, where we saw only the finished products. Mud is used to stain the cloth black, and dyes made from bark of trees such as acacia and baobab are used to create yellow and orange colours to make the rest of the pattern. This was always done on thick cotton, and came in a whole range of sizes and designs, many showing animals, village life or geometric patterns. I really liked the stuff and it was terrible not to be able to buy anything. However, it was just too thick and heavy and I don’t know what I would do with it anyway! I really liked the designs, so I settled for photos instead. The togu-na meeting place in Endé was a work of art on its own. The wooden pillars holding up the low roof were carved with people, religious figures from the creation stories of the Dogon people.

We headed up to the old village, and I was able to see an actual indigo plant growing. These plants are not cultivated, which I found very strange for such an important resource. Instead, people take seeds and sprinkle them around paths and let them grow wild. To think that blue dye was such a special item once and here they just let it grow wild! The old village was not as good as the one in Teli, but still very impressive. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage site (yes, we continue our WH touring through Africa!), and Endé is a popular village to visit. A lot of money has been put into renovating and protecting the old houses, however, they have done a lot of new work, so what you see is rather sterile and newly constructed. Tiemo pointed out parts that have actually been removed to put new buildings up. Not a good way to be protecting heritage! Tiemo found it very disappointing that their heritage is being altered like this. Once again, there was a great view over the newer village, and we had another wonderful view of the old village from our roof camp. I saw my biggest insectivorous bats ever that night, they were closer in size to some of the fruit bats we’ve seen but were definitely catching insects. We were not alone in camp that night, but at least it’s not the busy season. I can’t imagine what it must be like at peak time! Sleeping on the roof is very comfortable, and although it can be cool in the early hours, we are only sleeping in light liners and are plenty warm enough.

I carry Dr Otterboro in my backpack with his head sticking out so he can ‘see what’s going on’. This has caused a few funny reactions, with a man in an English shop getting a shock, and a woman shopkeeper in Portugal threatening to attack him because he was a rat! (although with a great sense of humour). Here in Dogon country, he has become my bébé (baby) because I carry him on my back just like the local women! They strap a cloth around their bodies that tightly wraps the baby onto their backs. The women then go about their daily business, working in fields or carrying things on their heads. Kids have to really put up and shut up here! Every time we go past kids in the villages, there are lots of hellos and asking for bonbons (sweets) and pens (reminding me alot of trekking in Nepal all those years ago). Then they see Dr Otterboro and start asking about my bébé! We’ve heard plenty of warnings to be wary of kidnapping in West African areas like Mali and Mauritania, and I have to say it’s a real danger in Dogon country - in fact I get kidnapped several times a day!!! Little kids love to grab our hands as we walk through villages and just walk with us. I’ve had as many as three kids clutching my arm at times!

Sunday, 18 October 2009

He Says – The third bed was just right!

16 - 18 October
I was exhausted we road for about 60k and I was dead. We went to Sevare with the intention of finding a place to crash for a couple of days. As we entered town it every hotel sign advertised internet. Excellent, a hotel with wi-fi is perfect! We checked the first, it had wi-fi, but it was not free and they would not let me park the bike inside. The second would let me park the bike inside but internet was down “due to the birds”- what ever that means.

The third was not to hot not to cold it was just right. Oh sorry slipped in to a drug induced illusion about 3 bears. All kidding aside it was perfect. It was a B&B run by a German woman, the bike came in side the compound the wi-fi was free, and breakfast was included. We even decided to take the more expensive room with its own bath to make things even more chilled.

I played on the net in the cool of our A/C retreat leaving the hotel only long enough to get lunch and back. I spent the afternoon on the net looking for a fix for Mapsource. After unsuccessfully trying to download a new copy from Garmin themselves I finally found a 4x4 forum that gave the instructions .. it took 3 seconds all it was a bad registry. For those that have the Mapsource error program 3579 the site’s url is here http://forums.lr4x4.com/index.php?showtopic=34019 good luck!

Later that night we went to a restaurant owned by the same woman. She met up with us there, and bought me my first beer in two months. Our retreat was magic. We struck gold as there was to be a live band playing that night.

The band played an interesting mix of traditional Malian, blues, and jazz jamming. It was a strange at times but cool. We did not stay too late and headed back to the hotel to get a good nights sleep. However, neither of us slept well.

The next day we barely left the hotel. We spent the day writing blogs emails and generally being lazy. It was wonderful. I was feeling better it was not the Lariam after all, just plain old fatigue.

We pack up and moved on late. But we only had 30 minutes to driving to get to the trekking starting point. We found a place to stay that was run by a Rastafarian, called Auberge Kensaye. As we pulled up I found out that the bolt holding the swing arm of Anubis together had stripped and lost it’s nut and was about ½ out. This could have been deadly. It was a lucky find.

Bouba the rasta hotel owner introduced us to a guide (actually official one). He was much better, did not ooze slime and was also much cheaper then his Djenne counter part. We agreed to a 3 night 4 day trek. Our guide Tiemoko Togo even ran out and got me a new bolt! It took me about 3 minutes to fix. We did little else that day save having the best tasting lunch we had had in months at a little café called “La Petit” and prepared for our trek.

At about 1900h we headed down for dinner in the restaurant at the Auberge , Bouba, called me over and asked if I would be happy to put the bike in the main hotel for the duration of our trek. I was happy to do this but it required me getting the 300kg bike up an uneven flight of 4 stairs. It was a challenge. I said we can only try and I fired up Anubis.

The first pass told me that the brut force of Anubis’s engine would not work. As my front tyre hit the first step the loose gravel that was the street just started to fly and I was digging in. We needed a ramp. This turned out to be no issue the 4x4 parked next to me had a couple of steel sand boards. We grabbed them and tried again. We started to climb but quickly my feet were too far off the ground for me to ride up. Then out of nowhere a pack of guys showed up and we lifted the bike in. It was easy with that many hands. As soon as it was done the men disappeared as fast as they arrived. I thanked the ones that I could see/find but most disappeared into the ether. My only regret was that there were no cameras there to record the spectacle. Tomorrow we trek into Dogon territory.

She Says - Bandiagara

18 October
A short drive after a slow start, we got to Bandiagara, the Dogon Country’s ‘capital’, by 10.30am and checked into Auberge Kansaye. It was the first place we looked at, but it sounded good from the guidebook, was cheap (8000CFA), and it had a good feel. Didn’t hurt it is run by a Rastafarian and the restaurant was playing Bob Marley! Speaking English, Bouba said we could find a guide through him, so we arranged a meeting to see what he was like. Our plan had been to follow the guidebook’s guidance and check out the local tourism office and make sure the guide was ‘approved’ by them. However, when Tiemoko Togo arrived, more mature than many guides and less flashy dressed, he also had a good feel, offered a better price than Alex in Djenné (20,000CFA per person per day) and we liked him! He understood our needs and abilities – I’m not good at hiking in heat or sand (we get both!) and our camera bags have little room for equipment. He assured us the hiking is not too difficult, we can stick to lower tracks and walking is fairly short each day, plus it is warm at night and there is plenty of accommodation so we need only our sleeping bag liners and pillows. We’re going with our guts here - hope it works out! We set off early tomorrow morning for 4 days – hope it’s not too hot!!! We have been able to pack well and small with our little camera bags, with a single change of underwear and socks, torch, basic toiletries and medkit. We have our Camelbak waterpacks, custom-fitted to our packs, and water is readily accessible along the way. Basically we’re loaded with cameras! I’m very pleased about this, as originally we thought we could not trek with these bags. Our gear and the bike are being stored for free so long as we come back and stay after the trek (no question there!). Our only worry now is how well I will be able to cope with the heat (Xander is very concerned after my little episode in Mauritania) and slow trudging through the sand!

As we drove to Bandiagara that morning, Xander had said the front wheel was feeling funny. When we arrived at the auberge, we found a crucial bolt in the back axle was about to slide out! This could have been major, dropping out the whole back end of the bike and probably sending us flying. After asking Tiemo, our guide, where we could by a new nut to replace the one that had gone missing, he very kindly ran out and got us one, as well as a new bolt as the original had stripped. Phew! In true Ozzie fashion, we gave him a beer when he came back for a drink that night. It turns out he’s best mates with the auberge owner, so we’re holding him responsible for our trek experience!

Have to note we had a fantastic lunch at La Petit Restaurant, the best meal we’ve had in long time, though not the cheapest – we’ll be back! Food is nice at the auberge – simple, tasty, and cheap and the drinks are large and cold!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

She Says – Holy Singing Bats Batman!

15-17 October
We headed for Mopti, having pretty much already decided to stay instead at Séveré, at the turnoff to Mopti, to have a bit more quiet and keep away from the expected hassle. This meant missing our first chace to see hippos but we know we’ll find them later! We both woke pretty tired yesterday morning, and by the time we travelled the couple of hours up to Séveré, Xander was getting exhausted. Little did I realise that I was exhausted too, until we eventually collapsed inside the luxury of Mankan Te B&B, run by a lovely German woman and wonderfully filled with local artwork (expensive but worthwhile - 26,000CFA per night, about 38 pounds). We had decided we needed a few days to disconnect from travel, to catch up on rest and things, before heading off on our trek. Xander hasn’t been sleeping well and it’s been showing each day; I’ve not been sleeping great either and the previous night’s poor fan cooling left me tired. We arrived in Séveré to find every second hotel advertising internet and/or wi-fi connections – brilliant! A few days’ resting with the net at our fingertips to help us sort out a few concerns – our GPS mapping programme had spontaneously decided to stop working a few days ago, and we are concerned about travelling through Nigeria, whether it is safe and if we need an armed escort as has been suggested by travel warnings and a fellow traveller we met in Nouakchott, or if we should ship from Ghana to Gabon. It turns out the mapping program problem was due to one of the map layers we used for Morocco, thank god for the net and fixes! We’ve got some advice from other travellers who have recently been through Nigeria and are considering our options, but several people have gone through without any hassles at all (damn those frightening government travel warnings!).

We finally got to see live African music - by chance we ate our dinner in the B&B’s associated restaurant and being a Friday night, they had a live band! We struggled to stay up and watch them, but they really hadn’t got going by the time we left. The meal was nice and the company was good. We had our meal early, then sat with the B&B owner and two girls working for the UN World Food Programme. It was interesting to get a chance to talk to people working here on aid programmes, after seeing so many signs about the many programmes of support that are going on in the country. We’re now feeling a lot more refreshed and ready to move on to the next big item on our to-see checklist – the Dogon country!

I have to note that the sweating bucket loads and eating street food diet is working very well :-) We’ve been eating in a delightful small Senegalese restaurant here, such tasty local food instead of Westernised restaurants. Everywhere we travel in Mali, we pass fields growing sorghum and millet, huge plants crowding right up to the roadside. Occasionally there are rice paddies, but these are mostly closer to the Niger River, e.g. around Djenné. And of course the ubiquitous flocks of sheep, goats and cattle. Horses are now very common, more so than donkeys, and seem to be fairly healthy – nice change.

And as for the title of this post, I am absolutely thrilled and amazed to have my best bat experience ever – singing bats!!! Small fruit bats are hanging in the trees in town at dusk and singing their hearts out! Going by the large white patches I could see on their shoulders and stomach, I think they may be epauletted bats. They hang in the trees, flutter their wings, and produce a sweet honking sound that is somewhere between the calls of a bird and a frog. At first I thought it was insects till I saw the flutters of wings, then put two and two together. We went out again tonight with the video camera to capture this amazing sound. I’m thrilled to bits, it’s the last thing I ever expected to see/hear!!!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

He Says - Mud and grumps

14-15 October
This was a travel day and not much else. We tried to leave Bamako at about 0800h. Our forays in to the city actually made it quite easy to find the road that we wanted. What our walking excursions failed to notice is that the road was one way. The wrong way. Luckily we also knew there was an other bridge. Unfortunately we had no idea how to go from this bridge to the that bridge or from there to road we wanted. 30 odd kilometres and one airport later we found the road as much by luck as anything else. Bamako stretched on for about 15 more miles before we hit countryside. The views improved immediately the land was a green but arid. But there were lots of trees and the bird and animal life improved. We still have not seen anything too cool but at least the birds are getting better. The most impressive being the weaver birds, and there very complex nests, we have also seen at least 3 types of birds of prey, unfortunately getting a good look is incredibly hard as you are roaring down a road on a motorbike. They take flight and are gone before you can stop. The lizard population has also increased dramatically. Both the 3D and 2D species.

We had no idea how far we would get and as we had no idea of the road condition. It turned out that we reached our minimum target by 1130h. We only stoped for lunch in a tin shanty restaurant. It was an incredible meal and cost us a whooping 0.70p. I know I know budget!! We ended up staying the night in a town called San, it was nothing more then a stopping point. There we met a German guy whom was visiting his sponsored child, and bringing lots of money (I saw a 50mm stack of US$50s) and gifts to the organization that arranged the sponsorship. He seemed happy to give away so much money….so I will refrain from any further comment.

We also met an American woman who lives in the British Virgin Islands and sells jewellery that she imports from India and Bali. I had no idea that these types business could be so profitable, she travels at least 5 times a year. I may need to rethink my career options.

From there we headed to Djenne, home of the largest mud mosque in the world. We had met a guy in the hotel the night before that called a head and we were met with. “Hey Welcome Australians”. We had an expensive tourist lunch that was gritty and mediocre at best. Tam wanted to book a guide to get us a little closer to the people, I was unsure but did it. We bargained the cost down from 10,000Cfa to 6000Cfa, with the main organiser (officially recognised or not) for the area. The tour was to start at 1600h. Amazingly our guide arrived at 1601h no Africa time here. The tour was okay but he was not really an enthralling orator, in fact you could tell that he did not want to be there. Taking this all in to consideration I actually really enjoyed myself. I was able to take some good photos, but mostly we were able to walk around the city unperturbed.

Djenne itself is an island that holds the largest mud mosque in the world, which also happens to be the largest mud building. It was interesting seeing the famous Djenne mosque, it has been in so many TV documentary that it was almost unreal. It was smaller then I imagined and unfortunately the market was not on that day. I was able to see spots that played pivotal rolls in M.Palin’s Sahara, and kept expecting to see either him or his guide just walking the streets, alas I saw neither. Later that night we met up with the same main organiser who was putting the hard sell on us to book a long trek with one of his guides. He was a slick dresser in his chino slacks and dress shirt with a little alligator on the front. He made my skin crawl and I really did not want to book anything more with him. It made me very unsure as to whether a trek later on was a good idea or not.

That night mapsource our GPS program went completely bonk. We were unable to open it to see what was wrong. All I knew was I had to get to the net to find out if I was able to fix it. I did not sleep a wink. This was unfortunate, but not surprising for over the last week I had been sleeping less and less every night. I was tired and grumpy and getting down about things that I should not have been. We both started to worry that it may be the Larium (our anti-malaria drugs).It is know to have these kind of side effects. If it was the drugs then I would have to make the decision to find an alternative drug (which there is none that meet our needs ..see above) or risk my health either physical by stopping or mental by continuing.

She Says - Djenné mud and maybes

13-15 October
Our last day in Bamako was quite enjoyable. After the previous day’s hustle and bustle and bike repairs, we had a pleasant meal in a Korean restaurant near the hotel. It was really nice food, but in a very upmarket setting, and prices were a bit more than we were happy with. However, we hadn’t really worked out how street food worked and when the little restaurants were actually open, and I didn’t feel up to street food really. So we compromised on two reasonably priced dishes. Portions were a bit small after the Chinese we had the night before – yes, you get all varieties of food here for the ex-pats! – but it didn’t leave me with the same slightly dodgy tummy…

The next day was for us to explore. Our guidebook noted that the National Museum is worth seeing, plus up the hill behind it are old cliff dwellings and rock paintings. We catch a cab to the museum and make our way up the road past the zoo, not actually heading for the cliff, but winding ever further up the hill towards the hospital and our destination, Point G. Feeling OK in the early morning though it was muggy and warm (we had heavy rain one night, even hail!), we trudged onwards and eventually came to a rough track that was signposted for Point G. We follow it around, surrounded by dozens of butterflies of at least 6 different species, from medium-large very pale green ones to tiny blues, plus a good number of dragonflies and birds calling all around. We couldn’t really see the birds, they stayed quite hidden amongst the bushes, except for the large birds that I assume are hornbills from their beaks – we’ve been seeing a lot of these since we arrived in Mali. The track continues past a building and we start to get into more cliff country – so the paintings are around here somewhere? We don’t have a clue where we are going, what we are looking for, and if there will be any sign of it anyway!!! We keep walking round till we are opposite the zoo and what we believe to be the Botanical Gardens (which they were). There’s definitely a cliff here and it looks like a point, but we see nothing to indicate where to go. Looking down, we see carvings on the top of a rock, but they definitely look recent. We decide the best thing to do is get down a level so we can try looking up the cliffs for any evidence of the paintings and dwellings. A rough scramble over rocks and through the grass gets us there. I have to admit I was a bit anxious because after 4 years in snake-free UK, I didn’t have my ‘snake senses’ back on full sensitivity yet! The cliffs were really cool, but no rock art or cave dwellings to be seen. After hunting around a bit, we give up and head for a large sign at the Botanical Gardens, and hope we will just be able to slip out onto the road somewhere. A couple of kids overtake us, just as we see a small sign indicating the rock paintings off to the right! The kids point out the path to us, we walk down, and eventually Xander finds a well-paved track leading up to the small sign, which we couldn’t reach from where we were originally standing. Great, something to follow! The track peters out as we approach a big fence. We stop in the shade of a tree and see some black and white paintings on the rocks here, but they look far too recent, down to dribble marks on the white painting like it had come from a paintbrush, but not so bad on the black painting. We follow the fence and use it to guide us up to the cliff face above, eventually finding several more white and black paintings. I THINK the black ones were real, but they seemed awfully fresh – who knows?! I didn’t know what to expect or look for. The style was very strange, lots of straight lines with arrowheads on the ends. I grabbed a few photos, and starving we made our way out to the large sign on the edge of the gardens. Sure enough, it was about the paintings! It noted the paintings can be very faint, so we still have no idea if what we saw was the real paintings or not. Oh well. Surprisingly enough, this sign was one of the only things we’ve seen written in English lately.

Following the lead of the kids we saw earlier, we headed through the Botanical Gardens and out the gate - no problem! We grabbed a couple of bananas from a lady on a street stall and walk back to the National Museum. While pondering whether the museum had a café or not, a security guard from a nearby building came over to talk to us in English, telling us where the museum entrance was and there was a restaurant but it was expensive. We headed back up the road to grab a watermelon from another street stall (well, wheelbarrow anyway!), and went back to the guard and his friend to share it. It was nice to be able to spend time with someone who wasn’t hustling us or causing a problem and just happy to chat, and to return some of the niceness we have been shown. Off to the museum, which isn’t as large as the guide book made it sound, but it had a very good collection of archaeological artefacts (mainly pottery statues and vessels, plus some arrow and axe heads), wooden statues and masks from various peoples of Mali, including the famous hugely tall masks of the Dogon people, who we are planning to visit if we can afford the hiking fees. The final exhibit was all about textiles, showing the different sources (cotton, wool, etc) and how pieces are created and used, particularly using complicated tie-dyeing techniques I had no idea about (and I rather like this stuff!). This area is where indigo blue famously comes from. There was also a good sample of 11-12th century fabric fragments taken from funerary grottos in the Dogon country. Being keen on sewing and handicrafts, I found this pretty fascinating!

We spent the evening catching up on a backlog of emails and internet work, plus uploading the now two-month-old Spanish blogs. We were particularly hunting for information on how to go about crossing through Nigeria, as we’ve heard it can be a bit testy there, and a guy we met in Nouakchott, Spanish Dani, wrote to say he’d been told an armed escort would be required. We’re looking into whether it may be worth shipping the bike from Ghana/Benin/Togo, around Nigeria and Cameroon (between which is a very bad road crossing), and into Gabon. It will cost a fortune, but so will a hired guard and accommodation and fuel each day. We hope maybe we can hook up with other travellers in a convoy to cut costs and increase protection if we go that way. We had a simple meal of street food stew to top off the day (yes, we found a little restaurant that was open!) and packed up for an early night.

We spent last night in San, a bit over 300km from Bamako. We had an excellent street food lunch in Segou, which was where we had originally planned to spend the night. However, we had travelled well and were not too hot, so we pushed on to make an easy trip into Djenné today. In San, there was a choice of two hotels and a campement, where we had decided to go but it was a bit of a construction site. They directed us to their hotel (Hotel Teriya) further up the road and we decided the place was nice and a good price (12,500CFA – about 18 pounds). We had a nice little round hut with a strong fan, cutting our costs from the air-conditioning we’ve become a bit too accustomed to! Dinner in the restaurant was delicious – fried chicken, a beef and onion stirfry/stew-thing, and really good chips. We chatted with a German guy who sponsors a boy through World Vision and visits him each year here, and a woman from the British Virgin Isles who is travelling here for a month. She runs a store selling jewellery and other bits and pieces that she sources from around the world, mostly from Bali, but now she will work on a Mali section. I was jealous of all the cool cloth and jewellery she was able to take home! Her guide contacted a guide friend in Djenné for us to talk about hiking in the Dogon country, and to possibly stay with him or get a tour of Djenné. Feeling very cautious about guides and hassle, we agree to meet him today and see what he had to offer.

We set off this morning a bit later than usual, but with only 130km to travel we could relax a bit. Expecting some dirt piste after the turnoff to Djenné, we actually hit it beforehand when a diversion was indicated. Apart from dust from trucks and other vehicles, we made it through easily along the 10km of dirt, and reached the Djenné turnoff, where it became a tarred road! We had to pay a tourist tax to enter the city, all properly set up with a roadblock and official receipts, then followed the road through flooded fields to reach the Niger River and an exciting new method of transport for us – a small ferry across to the island of Djenné. I have to admit I was feeling a little nervous as well as excited! It wasn’t a big trip, but you hear bad things sometimes about water crossings in third world countries. Anyway, it was absolutely easy, the bike was wheeled on without question and fees were all standard, but it just added a level of mystique to have to take to the water to get to our destination. We had some very persistent jewellery stall attendants talking to us while waiting for the ferry, but manage to shake them off in the end.

So now we’ve made it to the next big item on our to-see list – the mud mosque of Djenné. As we entered the town, a guy sprints over – “Hey Australians, are you here to see Alex? He’s inside!” We had made arrangements to meet somewhere near the mosque – “everyone knows me, just ask for Alex” – and Xander had already placed bets on someone grabbing us as soon as the big motorbike was spotted. We chatted with Alex in the restaurant he was in, and arranged a guided tour around town – 3 hours for 6500 CFA (about 10 pounds), more than we really wanted to pay but less than the 10,000 CFA that was his starting price. I only tried haggling for less content in the tour, but he dropped the price instead. Yes, me haggling, because Xander didn’t really care to have a guide, but I felt it would give us better access to the city and photos. We set up to meet our guide at 4pm, had lunch in the restaurant (unfortunately it wasn’t that great), and our guide took us to the hotel we had decided would be best as they had secure parking according to the guide book. Xander got to try his hand at checking out rooms, and was surprised to find the annexe across the road had smaller rooms for larger prices! We relaxed for a few hours in the lovely garden of the compound, taking photos of birds and lizards, and enjoying a good view over the town and river from the roof terrace. Have I noted that pretty much everyone spoke English here?! Such is life in a tourist town.

So mud construction is big in this area, we saw a lot in Morocco too. From mud bricks to a complete coating of mud, these buildings are almost fully reconstructed each year after the rains sweep much of the mud away. The Djenné mosque is very impressive, quite a large building with spikes of wood sticking out of it. We always thought this was some sort of design feature, but turns out it is for people to climb over the mosque to add a new layer of mud each year! The main towers and corner-points are topped with ostrich eggs, which (I’m trying to remember…) were for good luck. Our guide took us around the town, and using him as a buffer, we were more free to take photos of people and buildings. We had a few of people say no, though a couple actually retracted when they saw we were with a guide, so I think it was money well spent. A few kids asked for their photos to be taken, but it was so they could get money. One guy actually did some kung fu fighting in order to get us to take his picture - for fun! Hopefully we got some good shots through the town; however, it still felt rather awkward and difficult even with a guide. The walk only lasted 2 hours in the end, but we didn’t mind as we saw the entire town and got to look over it from the rooftops that should have been excluded from the tour, and honestly we didn’t have a lot to ask the guide to stretch things out! We bought a watermelon that Xander wanted (he’s such an addict!), which ended up being our dinner, and shared it with several others at the hotel. We meet with Alex again and talked to one of his Dogon country guides to get an idea of costs, difficulty of trekking, where will we leave the bike and luggage etc. Alex presented a standard 3 night/4 day hike all inclusive for CFA 22,500 per person per day – basically 2 days’ budget each day, which is reasonable considering the guiding, accommodation and food costs. We won’t commit though, as we want to check other guides (especially in Dogon country itself) and see what other options there are, and Xander felt Alex ‘seems like a slick operator’– I agree, so we are being careful! I already had my guard up while making negotiations for today’s guide, but it all worked out fine - anyway it’s a small island to run from us! So now we will head towards Mopti for a day or two, before heading down to Dogon country itself.

The hotel grounds here have been absolutely FULL of lizards! A man confirmed the name while I was chasing one along a wall – “his name is mugeira”. There have been loads of birds. We have weaverbirds building a nest in the hotel grounds, and have been able to watch birds at a small ground-level birdbath, which was loaded with frogs tonight. There were more tiny red birds – first seen in Nioro – these are a dull crimson with wings ranging between dusky brown to blue-grey, and come quite close if you sit quietly. As we have travelled across Mali, we have been seeing so many birds, particularly bright red ones of two varieties – one incredibly red like it was fake, the other a deeper crimson with a dark green band running around its body. Weaverbird nests are frequent. We’ve seen several trees full of them, incuding one over a waterhole that was being used for washing and bathing by some women. We stopped for photos, and the women were not concerned by our cameras, although we did try to make it obvious we were there for the other birds! Near the Djenné ferry we found nests that were huge tangled messes in the trees, and seemed to house several types of bird, even with a few small weaverbird nests attached! Other birds we’ve seen are: large hornbills; big crow-like birds with white on them like Australian currawongs; and large crow-looking birds with long tails and iridescent green and blue plumage when in the light, otherwise they looked black. Similarly, we’ve seen small starling-like birds. Butterflies and grasshoppers are common and Anubis seems to delight in eating them. Ergh.

Monday, 12 October 2009

She Says - Big Bad Bamako

10-12 October
Well, our initial happiness at being in Mali is being distinctly soured by staying in Bamako, the capital city. We arrived here from Nioro after a long hot ride, but nonetheless unexpectedly arriving, as we were all under the impression that the road would be mostly piste (dirt) and therefore take us some time to get here. We didn’t have a great start to the day, as Xander came out to start packing the bike, was told by the guardian that the bike alarm went off several times during the night and someone had been messing with the bike, then Xander found the rectifier warning light was on again. Thinking it was just because the battery was low from running the alarm all night, for some reason he checked the wring to the rectifier that he had previously repaired in Morocco, and found part of it had burned through again! He fixed it up, with some thanks to Ron for giving us a new roll of electrical tape after finding ours had crapped out, but now we’re just waiting to see what happens…Here in Bamako, Xander has cut open the plastic faring covering the rectifier some more (something he did a while ago to help cool the rectifier, a common problem on this particular bike), and now he is out adding some newly purchased flyscreen mesh bought in the Bamako street market to add protection and keep the airflow going. Please allow this to fix the problem!!?!?!

So getting to Bamako was easy enough, only a few patches where the road crapped out. We stopped for lunch in a small town, yummy fresh-cooked omelettes in baguettes. We ended up with a group of kids around us, all asking for presents rather insistently. Our trick of asking them for presents in return didn’t work as well as hoped! There was a guy sitting in the restaurant with us, who very amusingly kept telling us ‘Donnez-moi une cadeaux - Africa comme ca’ – Give me a present, Africa is like this – and would shake his head at the kids. Occasionally, an adult or the stall holder would shoo them off but they wouldn’t stay away for long! We started seeing a lot of signs for support projects from groups like World Vision and Christian organizations and couldn’t help but wonder if the kids are persistent about gifts due to the influence of aid organisations…The bike generates a lot of interaction for us from the locals, mainly big waves and smiles as we pass on the road, though some people are more sombre and stare but wave when we wave, others especially kids can go extremely manic when they see us! It’s certainly an advantage with the bike – no four-wheel-driver is going to get that kind of in-transit interaction with people. We’ve noticed that society is more ‘normal’ here, where men and women interact freely and are rarely separated, so we are now getting more interaction with women ourselves, from talking to them in the market in Nioro to getting smiles and waves on the road.

We had several choices of places to stay in Bamako, and two districts to choose from. Feeling fresh enough, we decided to try and find a hotel that sounded good but our book described as having an obscure location – ‘head west from the hippopotamus roundabout, turning off opposite the SNF petrol station’. Huh?! Well, obscure it certainly was! After suddenly finding ourselves in central Bamako, as seems to be the way with big African cities, we somehow managed to stumble across the hippopotamus roundabout – yes, it’s a roundabout with a giant hippo statue in the middle of it! We even found the SNF petrol station, but it all went wrong after that. We poked around, then got instructions from the station itself, then asked people on the street – there was no sign of this place. We gave up and decided to stay in the district well outside town, managed to find out what street we were on, and actually found the hotels we were after! After not being convinced by the security of the on-street parking at the first hotel we inspected, the manager told us about their sister hotel, Hotel Park, that has a locked parking compound. Better than that, it has a complete garden full of trees and little thatched huts with fans for sitting under. It’s an absolute haven inside a manic city! It’s costing a bit more than we wanted (20,000CFA – about 29 pounds), but the security helps and it’s not that expensive really (cheaper than the sister hotel!).

Managing to arrive once again on a weekend, we decided to look for the Burkina Faso embassy on Sunday, just so we knew what we would be doing this morning to sort out our next visa. Turns out the guidebook lied once again, and the embassy is no longer near-ish to our hotel but over the other side of the city centre – if it was ever over here! We worked this out in two ways – different address listed in the book to the map, and then searching on the internet and actually finding street locations worked well, and helped enormously this morning. So today we set off for the embassy, taking our first taxi, and getting waylaid on the way by a scam artist. Now it might sound pretty stupid, as we are wise to scams and have pushed away hundreds of wannabe guides and hustlers and people selling us things over the last few months. But this guy seemed genuine in his trouble and we thought we were protecting ourselves as it happened. Xander was also feeling that unless we take a chance to help people, how are we ever going to get these wonderful experiences we always hear from other people about how they got invited to stay with locals, etc. To sum up, he couldn’t get money out of a Western Union transfer because he was missing a code and needed to make a phone call to his girlfriend in Switzerland to get it. He said was from Ghana, and here only for a drumming festival. The guy should get an Emmy for his acting, as he honestly seemed desperate. Ghana is English-speaking, so we believed him when he said he couldn’t get help from the French-speaking locals. We figured it would be OK to help him as using a telephone boutique, which are everywhere, would be the only actual cost, then we just had to go with him when he got his money to get repaid. It started going wrong and we got suspicious – he seemed to speak with people, he buys cigarettes (no money?!), he asks someone to use their mobile, Xander gets distracted and I decided to allow the mobile call instead of finding a call boutique, the phone call works and he gets his code. Now suddenly he has to go find his friend to get his passport in order to get the money, and he changes from wanting to go back to the French embassy (near where he found us) to the Ghana embassy. He tries to make us catch a cab back, we refuse, but what I don’t understand is he stays with us and keeps walking. Eventually we part, us realising it’s a scam and the money has just gone to the guy with the cell phone, who our friend presumably gets a cut from – stupid us. The guy seemed genuine, nice and friendly with extremely good English. We make arrangements to meet him in two hours at the French embassy, but we already knew he was unlikely to show. At least we were only talking about 10 pounds lost, but I bet that was a lot for our friend and his mobile chum!

So we push on to the Burkina Faso embassy, as we felt we really needed to get there early and it was the only reason we left the guy behind. We get there and they tell us that the combined visa for Burkina/Benin/Togo/Niger/Cote d’Ivoire no longer exists. We read in our book that they try to tell you it doesn’t exist, but after repeated asking, an English-speaking woman tells us that visa option is no more. We had already read last night that we could get border visas for the main countries we want of the five, and gave up. It was only to save money, but also border hassle and to get long enough visas to stop and enjoy places without having to go and extend any visas. So be it! Frustrated but OK, we walk into town and visit the markets, including the artisans’ market where people have shops selling artwork but are also sitting there making it as you pass – leatherwork, wooden and metal sculptures, paintings, jewellery, etc. We move up to see the fetish market, basically supplies of dead animals for use in medicine and voodoo. We got to see a grisly mix of crocodile skins, animal feet, monkey heads, small cat pelts, teeth and bones. I have to wonder how many endangered animals are going down this path? Xander asks an old man if he can take his photo, he agrees, but then gets hassled by the nearby stallholder for including his products in the photo. They argue about money, Xander hands over a small coin, mistakenly handing him some Mauritanian ougiyas. The stallholder throws it to the ground in disgust – easy, Xander picks it up and walks off!

We decided to end the day and walk back to the hotel. Another English-speaking scammer tries his scam on us, this one a ‘jazz musician from Jamaica’ who has been robbed and is just trying to get to the airport. I’m not entirely sure what his scam was - maybe he was hoping we would offer to pay for the airport cab, maybe just internet time to get a money transfer as he hinted at that as well. He kept insisting he wasn’t a hustler, but we weren’t falling for anything. His story wasn’t event that good, nor his accent. We left him to go talk to the police again (Interpol he says – yeah, right!) after he refused to look for the Canada embassy with us, near our hotel we thought, as they seem to supply all the colonial-British embassy support. We had a long, hot, but OK walk back, even finding a pharmacy selling decent-grade mosquito repellent as we are getting low. There are several very Western supermarkets near our hotel, as it is the rich area where all the ex-pats live, but the DEET level of mozzie repellent is dismal. We found a Mali sticker for the panniers in the market, which made us very happy. It’s a shame we couldn’t find one for Mauritania, but Xander has left space for it so we can get one made later.