Mali is dry. Very dry. So
dry that when you piss you check to see if it's drying before it hits the
We are travelling in the
dry season, which in Malian terms is relative as it's always dry. The
Harmatan, a wind that blows down from the Sahara at this time of the year,
adds to the misery by drying out the very lining of your lungs while you
sleep, so that you wake and start the day by coughing hard dry flakes of
phlegm all over your breakfast.
Add to this a diet that
consists of sand with everything and you suddenly realise what people mean
when they talk about becoming as one with the desert. I had always assumed
it was something more spiritual than literal...
We spend a couple of days
experiencing the utter simplicity of Tuareg life as part of a camel tour
(the furry kind). Camels are fantastic. Once you overcome a natural fear of
the big teeth and grumpy noises you begin to appreciate what characters they
One morning I accompanied
our guide to catch our camels which are left to wander overnight. Even with
hobbled they manage to travel a great distance. We are staying in a Tuareg
village, and from our stockade of thorns we set out optimistically. So
optimistically in fact that I don't bother carrying water. An hour later I
am a wiser man. I learn that Tuareg villages are spread out over great areas
as befits nomads, even settled nomads. I learn that the Tuareg can travel
swiftly over sand without feeling the heat or thirst. I learn that camels
can be highly elusive, though when caught do not try to escape, but launch
into torrents of grumbles as you grab their tender lower lip between finger
and thumb and hold them still by it while the guide removes the hobble rope
and ties it around their lower jaw. And I learn never to go wandering in the
Sahahra without water.
Timbuktu, Mali 13/02/03
On 9th February I crossed
the border into Mali at Kadira with Sven the Crazy Swede who I found
in Tambacounda after he missed the train to Bamako.
We knew we would be
driving long hard days to get to Bamako, spurred on by the thought of Roxana
slowly shrivelling in the unforgiving African sun due to lack of creams.
The first day started at
0630 just before sunrise with a hurried reveille and a quick snack before
checking the vehicle and setting off for the border. In a surprising lack of
hassle and no baksheesh we completed the formalities. Driving all the rest
of the day and long into night took us through Kayes and then North along a
new tarmac road that took us to the border area alongside Mauritania before
abruptly ending and turning into a sandy piste. The Mali map that had cost
us all of £4.00 at Stanford's was, it turned out, overpriced by at least
four pounds. We rough camped for the night in beautiful desert under a
canopy of stars and silence.
Setting off before dawn
once again we set off through villages going through the morning rituals of
hauling water from impossibly deep wells, and the timeless activities of
marshalling cattle for the days grazing - our road now was little more than
a sand track, often too narrow for our car to pass without being scored by
thorns the size of six-inch nails. After crawling along deeply rutted sand
trenches we finally arrived at Nioro at around midday.
After a little
bureaucracy due to Nioro being a border town, and still no baksheesh, we
resumed our journey, taking an amazingly constructed road South East; we
gazed in awe at the smart new signs, the broad deserted highway, and above
all the potholed that complemented the massive corrugations; all of this
observed from the track alongside the highway as the surface was simply
impossible for anything smaller than a ten-ton truck. This road gave way to
a 75km construction site which was at least better surfaced, before - joy of
joys - a smooth new tarmac road (sans signposts) that took us all the way
Our destination was the
Catholic Mission which offered safe parking and cheap rooms, but smack bang
in the middle of Bamako I managed to head the wrong way down the main
one-way street. "Ooops - this could be expensive" I thought as I way flagged
down by the Police. A polite officer took over the passenger seat, and
explained my misdemeanour. However, instead of a Dakar style fine we ended
up getting a police escort through the maze off streets to the Mission - and
at this point I knew I was definitely going to enjoy Mali.
After a refreshing night
and a quick stop at Roger's Phenix Land Rover Garage in Bamako for oil
checks we set off over the causeway towards Mopti, and enjoyed fine goudron
(tarmac) all the way to Sevare where I dropped off Sven who was bound for
Dogon country. It was a shame to lose such a pleasant travel companion,
particularly as I knew that the piste to Timbuktu was drawing close.
Luck was with me, though
- when I stopped for directions at Douentza I was given a bunch of dubious
directions, so I checked with the only Tubab I saw in town who told me that
an American was looking for a lift to Timbuktu - that's how I met Herb, who
has found a positive side to a few
curve balls that life has thrown him, and gone travelling.
As dusk fell we were well
on our way, but with some 100km of piste ahead of us before we hit a
difficult sand section. I decided to stop for the night to take advantage of
the morning sand, and we camped uneasily due to rumours (put about by a
scurrilous hotel owner touting for business in Douentza) of Tuareg bandits.
When we unsurprisingly
emerged form our tents unscathed at dawn we returned to the piste, and with
my tyres down to 1.5 bar we set off for the ferry across the Niger. After
half an hour we met Paul and the Truck, which was the perfect excuse for a
tea-stop and exchange of news. Next along the way was Carl on his bike, and
by this time the piste was becoming more of a social occasion than the
expected gruelling journey - and before we knew it we had reached the ferry.
An hour later we were
over the Niger, the compressor was flatly refusing to pump above 2 bar, and
the Land Rover Own Brand foot pump was doing bugger all, so we gingerly
limped into Timbuktu on half-flat tyres. Finding Roxana and Richard was easy
- I simply asked for the smelly Romanian with a smelly Englishman in tow,
and we were led to the local very expensive and very slow internet cafe.
And then there were