What we know
Timbuktu. Sahel Region. Dogon
By way of one last bomb crater of a pothole, we bump our way into Mali.
There is no obvious difference to our surroundings. The tall grass and the silent running Niger on our right are still with us. At the first village, we refuel and top up our water. Lighting a large fire to keep the Mali brigade of flies at bay we camp early. (Pitch number forty-eight) Dinner is excellent a la Fanny. The rummy game named ‘Mossy Slap’ to the Cricket Chorus is won hands down by Florence, snoring is participated in by all.
Morning greets us with the usual backdrop of African sounds. A crowing cock calling its flock to early revel pinpoints the nearest village in the long grass. The ever-present cicadas crescendo is pierced by the call of a bird every four or five minutes tells us it is time to arise.
In a few weeks, we will be turning south long before the Niger does the same. It’s time to start our Malaria pills.
(Top TIP: As you know there is loads of advice to be had on Malaria. We found that the best advice is to cover up at feeding times and to soak your mosquito nets in neat DEET. A Mosquito coil, or Avon beauty cream, which has an element of deet, has limited value. Don’t get bitten – cover up. Take out Masta medical membership they fly in blood to you if needed. (See – cd for further information)
Our tablets are Chloroquine and Paludrin. Larium was not an option for us due to the length of the journey. Malaria is carried by sixty different species of mosquitoes. It is not restricted to humans, birds, lizards, rodents, monkeys, and other primates suffer from its effects. There are about one hundred million cases a year with one percent being fatal.
It comes in four flavours, Tertian, malaria-mild, Jungle, fever-malignant, Quartan, hidden for weeks. One of Africa greatest killer alongside Aids, the bullet, starvation, and the like it remains one of the greatest hang our heads in shame achievements when it comes to the Developed world aid packages.
What would one week of bombing the whole joint with Mossy nets cost? A fraction compared to too days cost of flying out designed dinner to American troops in Afghanistan.
Eradicated from Europe it is on the way back with twelve thousand cases reported in 1997.
Bamako the capital is on the bow clinging to the lifeline of the country the River Niger. Situated at 12° 38N, 7° 57W in the south-east of Mali’s one point two million square kilometres. (Ireland 70,000km, England 224,000km) A one-legged wheelchair hustler guide in the city centre points us to a parking spot.
Our knowledge of Mali is as minuscule as its vastness, but we were not expecting a city of new buildings, nightclubs, modern hotels, streetlights, pavements, traffic lights, and parking meters. Not to mention supermarkets supplied daily by Air France.
Slipping into the first bar we come upon to slake my thirst I can only wonder what Mongo Park and Rene Caillié saw when they visited it in the eighteen century.
Inside the bar, the late afternoon heat is enhanced with cheap perfume from the cliché of old bar trollops mixed with the stale smell of urine. The blended scents waft their way upwards to a slow circling ceiling fan. We have hit the wrong bar for a cool beer. A rapid downing and hasty escape with a large sigh of release has us in the Patisserie Phoenicia for a spot of lunch.
Here we had escaped the den of iniquity only to be hassled by every passing street vendor that spotted us through the window. In the bar we were at least recognised as a family and left in peace now we were being offered the best grass to view Timbuktu with cream to relieve camel piles after you get there. We settle for directions to the best hotel, which rewards Florence’s strained patience with a large swimming pool.
By early morning we have left the unseen pleasures of Bamako in our wake. It was named after Bama-Kong a hunter of heroic dimensions says, Fanny. “He was given permission to name the town by the Bambara Empire after he killed an elephant.” All enlightened we arrive within four hours at Ségo Mali’s second largest town also ruled by the Niger River. In a Lebanese hotel, it is my turn to spend the night locked to the loo seat.
Next day with me rather drained Fanny’s lecture continues. Ségo situated at the head of the Niger’s inland delta is a port after which the river spreads a cobweb of channels, marshes, and lakes, as far as Timbuktu.
The Shale Empire of the Sahara stretches without boundaries some four thousand five hundred kilometres from Senegal through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso Niger and Chad, and onwards to Sudan > A mere two point five million square miles of homicidal sub-Sahara lands. Between the early 1960s and 1980s, this region suffered the worst drought of the 20th century.
Worldwide is it estimated that fifteen to sixty-seven million acres of land are lost each year to desertification. Colorado alone in the USA lost over one million acres of topsoil in 1990. The Shale is at the heart of most African major environmental emergency.
Before leaving Ségo for Djénné we luckily run into some English tourists how are kind enough to take a package of African dolls back to Florence’s Williwaw club in the UK.
(Top TIP: If you are travelling with a toddler it is an idea to make a tangible tie to home base. We formed an African club in Florence’s school called the Williwaw Club. Before leaving I gave a talk on our trip and each child was allocated an animal contact name. The idea was for the club members to write care of American Express at designated cities where Florence would pick up their mail. They could track, our progress, ask questions etc. Florence in return would send item of interest, and letters answering their queries. For a young explorer such as Florence, it is a wonderful method of encouraging her to keep a diary. Its rewards are invaluable.)
They say that the exploration of the world is over. There is not a centimetre left of it to be discovered. I say that man has to discover himself first before he can see what he sees, only then he will be capable of new discoveries. It is for the young to see the world before he or she is cloned into thinking that all natural beauty, animals, birds, insects, trees, and the like are only products to be exploited to satisfy the sofa Television public.
The Savannah surroundings of our last few days now slowly give way to treeless arid scrub. We decide to leave the Niger, which during this time of the year makes the choice of a route to Timbuktu, or Timbucktoo, or Tombouctou, or Timbuctou.
Faces with impassable marsh, soft sand, dykes, sand filled ruts, dunes, and dead ends all of which we can do without Tim buck whatever will have to wait.
Not so bad as it’s once legendary reputation these days has been reduced to a stamp on the passport. Tin- Buktu in Arabic may stand for “the well of Buktu” and in the Songhoi tongue the word means a Hollow)
The footsteps of Gordon Laing, René Callié, Heinrich Barth and Oskar Lenz, together with billion camel’s footprints have long disappeared.
“If I were a castaway on the plains of Timbuctoo, I would eat a missionary – cassock, band, and hymn-book too” (Samuel Wilberforce 1805 – 1873)
I suffering from a dose of Montezuma’s revenges am in no mood to eat anything as we leave Ségo and the Niger River to join the Bani one of its major tributaries to Djénné. From here to Timbuktu or for that matter from Montezuma to Timbuktu will have to wait for the final decision till we get to Mopti.
Five hours of driving brings us the first view of Djénné. Founded in the 13th century, as a trading centre it remained unchanged to this day. First inhibited in 250BC it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1988. Somewhat a remarkable achievement to its unbeaten spirit of endurance, its irrefutable life force against its hostile surroundings it remains closely associated with Timbuktu. Our Lonely planet 6th edition hardly rates it worthy of a mention. It matters little, as our deep knowledge of Mali does not let us down.
A small ferry takes us across its surrounding waterway. Djénné is so far removed from what we have so far seen of Mali Bamako architecture that we expect to see Sinbad arriving from the surrounding desert on his flying carpet. Another word our first views have us by the short and hairies, spell-bound.
Driving over the town dykes right in front of us nestling behind its large mud walls is a large Mosque. Baked to perfection, fresh out of the kiln with no sharp edges or angles to be seen anywhere. Exalted in rank it towers above a cowpat of grey clay smooth surrounding buildings. The Mosque the largest mud structure in the world imparts a sense of no permanence. Its smooth façade is lorded over by three towers of over eleven meters high with an ostrich capping each tower. Wooden beams poke out of its mud walls giving a feeling that it could be washed away in any downpour right in front of your eyes.
As to how the whole place has survived a mere century or two, never mind making it on to the top five hundred and eighty-two World Heritage Sites list leaves us flabbergasted.
Entering the town gate (there is only one by terra firma) we make our way to the Campement. This is the only place in town to stay. Using months of ‘Get lost’ tactics on a swarm of guides we install ourselves on the roof. Pitch number 49. Camp beds, pillows, sleeping bags, mossie nets, torches, makeup, bags, books, are all unloaded and huffed up to the roof by the chief puka sahib – me.
Florence and I can’t wait to go off and explore so we leave Fanny sorting out the sleeping arrangements, and set off down one of the dusty narrow passageways on foot. We have not gone far before we come across an Arab of Tuareg presentation (indigenous people of the Sahara. Controlled the Trans Sahara caravan routes – founders of Tomboctou in the 14th) sitting outside a Moroccan style doorway. Resting against the mud wall alongside him is an old flintlock Lawrence of Arabia long barrel ivory stock rifle.
I invite him to fire his gun for a Photo for Florence. Before we could say Jack Rabbit, he is on the feet pouring gun power from a small pouch and ramming a ball down the barrel. There is a tremendous bang and flash that makes both Florence and I jump out of our skins. Where the ball went is anyone’s speculation. What is absolutely certain is that he is as pleased as punch. Displaying a set glittering golden teeth he pats Florence blond hair with distant memories of day’s gone bye.
Returning to our rooftop we are once more descended upon by Mali tourist guides. SMERT Mali official tourist organisation has given these tenacious individuals a license to spoil its countries main attractions. Aggressive in their insistence to accompany you for a fee we see them as pests that we could do without. (Officially one of them is supposed to guide you around the town whether you like it or not) We resolve to give them the slip in the morning.
(Top Tip: SMERT guides destroy the exquisite aura of Djénné architecture and will blemish you soaking up of the true nature of this once Trans – Saharan trading town. If you can avoid them do so)
Under a net of stars, a wonderful and welcome nights sleep is had by all. We awake to find the roof full to capacity. Several land cruisers and a green Mercedes have arrived during the night for the market. Djénné Market although small has to be one of the liveliest in Africa so described by René Caillié in the 19th century in his Travels through Central Africa to Timbuktu.
It took him three years to reach Timbouctou his journey halted by five months of illness. Disguised as a beggar he stayed two weeks to collect the ten thousand French francs prize money offered by the Geographical Society of Paris to the first European to visit Timbuktu and come out alive. Some Scot named Alexander Laing had beaten him by a year. (He did not live to tell the tale because he was bumped off shortly after leaving the place.)
The market spread out on the ground is in front of the Grand Mosque against the backdrop of the surrounding mud-baked houses all surrounded by water set in a vast desert has the appearance of a Max film set.
Large Mali hats float through the air like small flying saucers. Gold earrings big enough to moor a small boat dangle from vale covered heads all adorned with the colours of the rainbow. The small alleyways that lead from the Mosque are crammed with incoming and outgoing produces borne head high.
The market is a long way from the large supermarket of this world where time itself and nature are resources to be continually exploited in a ghost-like culture > where cultural distinctiveness is placed second to the demands of globalisation in order to meet the demands of a wholly commercial society. – Buy one get one free.
Here everyone knows his customer and every customer knows his vendor. The checkout benefits not just the shareholders but imparts an all-embracing cultural experience, full of bonding, information, energy, and above all offers a dignity of difference that celebrates deeper things than get and spend. Here one gets a sense that your life is part of a greater narrative. There is a meaning to one’s existence, which empty, pleasure-maximising utilitarianism lacks.
Leaving the girls to barter I decide to take a wander. Armed with my hard-core tourism badge – my camera I set off down one of the many narrow streets behind the Grand Mosque. Restraining my trigger photo finger is an effort. Every door, every corner, every passing load warrants a shot.
Emerging from the city wall on to the dyke I arrive at a ferry crossing. Large Pinasses and smaller canoe-like pirogues are busy ferrying the waiting people, bundles, animals, and bikes across to the town. Every boatload carries all of Mali’s cultures. Watching I reel off two films before I know it.
On the far side of the dyke, the land stretches away as far as the eye can see into the vast treeless shimmering sands. Clouds of approaching far off dust marked incoming traffic some of it at a gallop. I venture down to the water edge and hop abroad one of the returning empty boats. Closing the opposite bank I am poled through clutches of awaiting woman, long-horned cattle, horses and camels. Long before we reach land massive bundles of firewood are thrown aboard securing their owner’s place for the return trip.
Stepping ashore completely ignored I walk towards one of the incoming dust clouds. Sir Dave Lane was going to be proud of this shot. A deux vaches long horn drawn cart is approaching at speed. Kneeling right in its path I prepare to capture its whip whirling driver, its vapour trail of rising dust.
I had forgotten all about those western movies one sees as a young lad you know those John Wayne cattle drive flick when all those long-horned steers stampede and bellow their way to the waterhole. My two approaching critters had long got the smell of water and no kneeling tourist was going to stop them. I jump aside baptised in dust completely forgetting to press the camera gotcha button.
(Top TIP: Bring a small working digital camera. 7.1 pixels and learn how to use it before leaving.)
Returning on a small pirogue I find the girls waiting. We are about to continue our tour when there is a crescendo of shrieks. One of the arriving large canoes has deposited its passengers prematurely into the water. The yelling is not throwing me a boy I am drowning its get your effing hands off my bundle in a variety of different tongues. Each woman having spent days scavenging the vast expanses of treeless territories for every twig. Firewood is more precious than gold or the risk of drowning.
The ensuing struggles look refreshing and we can see why Sunni Ali ruler of Songhai who drove the Tuereg from Timbouctou and destroyed the Mossi and Dogon tribes spent seven years in siege of Djénné walls.
With all the action over – midday has us by the throat. I get a bollixing for being capless and having no sun lotion on. (Top TIP: Wear a hat in the noonday sun.) Half not wanting to leave I lag behind Fanny and Florence as they make their way back into the mud walls. In a flicker of the eye, they both disappear up one of the maze of narrow streets.
Emerging on the Market Square now a volcano of colour I find Florence attempting to buy a wonderful necklace of polished stone. “Its Mum’s birthday tomorrow” I am saved by the bell. No amount of haggling could secure the necklace so we settle for some smaller items. The main present will have to be from Dogon Mythology our next port of call. This means sweet damn all to Florence so while she and her mother are knocking back a bottle of Tombouctou recommandée pour toute la famille (Insert: Bottle label) I slip back into the fray and purchase the necklace.
Over dinner, we receive an invitation to join Karen and Chris (the green Mercedes OverLanders) to meet up with them in Bankas, one hundred and fourteen kilometres to the east. They are in possession of a letter of introduction to a Dogon Guide who has worked with the Dogon people for some years. We need no convincing the chance to avoid the SMERT Mali official tourist organisation guides is an absolute yes if we are to enjoy the Dogans.
( To be continued)
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