Monday, September 14, 1998

Hot as Sahel!

Hi everyone

We're back! After a 6 week silence, we've re-emerged here in Bamako, Mali where, to our amazement, we've found a proliferation of cyber cafes with the cheapest internet access in Africa if not the world ($1-60 per hour)!

We last wrote from Abidjan, the gleaming, sophisticated capital of Cote D'Ivoire. Immediately after sending that e-mail we headed North towards Burkina Faso stopping off at the bizarre town of Yamoussoukro for the night.

What makes this town unique in Africa and the world is apparent to all from more than 10km away. Like an apparition, the giant, shining dome of a church larger than any other towers over the horizon transfixing both traveller and local in awe. But it is only when we visited the gigantic Basilica de Notre Dame later that day that we fully appreciated its immense grandeur. Built in the late 80's by former President Boigny, the Basilica is a near replica of St Peters, just bigger. Surrounded by 7 acres of marble paving, the whole area exudes a powerful aura of peace and we spent nearly 2 hours wandering around the giant building and its grounds. It cost an astronomical $400 million to build which almost bankrupt the country (only 12% of which are Christian!) - but then who remembers how much the equally wasteful pyramids cost to build...

Basilica de Notre Dame, Yamoussoukro, Cote D'Ivoire

We continued on our way north, winding our way through the beautiful, lush Ivorienne countryside admiring the incredible agricultural production which has resulted from the government's focus on the agricultural sector for the past 30 years.

After a few days we were crossing the border into Burkina Faso and entering the country's second biggest city: Bobo Dioulasso. There we camped for three days exploring the city's culinary delights and basically revelling in the fact that there is absolutely nothing to do or see in Burkina Faso which suited us just fine!

We were forced out of our idleness by a bizarre occurrence that has since been common throughout the Sahel. Having crossed the equator 8 times on this trip one would have expected us to have been swamped by a tropical rainstorm on numerous occasions throughout our journey in the equatorial regions. But, amazingly, it was here in Bobo that we were completely flooded out for the first time. Our tent and everything in it was soaked to the core and even after a day of drying, when we swung our already heavy backpacks on to our backs on our way to Ouagadougou, the water added a few unneeded extra kilos.

As luck and our travelling spirit would have it we found Harri, a Burkina Peace Corps volunteer we'd met in Benin on the same bus heading to Ouagadougou and we chatted, catching up on news all the way to the capital.

Ouagadougou is a low, sprawling Sahelan city with just a hint of chic beginning to emerge. It's a bustling place crammed with mobylettes (that try to run you down given the slightest chance) and coffee shops. Dodging the former and frequenting the latter occupied most of our days with welcome breaks being provided by the arrival of Yael (Dave's Ghanaian gymnastics instructor...), shopping for the world's most colourful pants, and visits to the American Recreation Centre courtesy of Peace corps. The Ouaga night life is legendary and we sampled some at the Sahel Bar where the live band was accompanied by 5 or 6 impromptu drummers who just arrived with their drums and enhanced the pulsing rhythm that had everyone including us on the dance floor.

After 5 totally relaxing days the three of us headed north towards the Sahara and the frontier town of Gorom Gorom. The last section of the journey was treacherous due to flooding caused by the heavy rainy season showers and can only be covered by 4x4. We managed to organise a lift on the back of a pickup with the Assistant District Commissioner (known as Mao Zedong) and proceeded to churn our way through the mud and even to push the vehicle through 2 rivers more than 4 feet deep. The bizarreness of the situation is perfectly illustrated by the fact that on the other side of one of the rivers sat a bemused desert nomad and his camel watching us trying to prevent the pickup from being washed away by the river. And all this is going on in what's supposed to be the edge of the Sahara!

Eventually we arrived in Gorom Gorom, wet and bedraggled and found rooms at the local guest house.

Gorom Gorom is unique in Burkina with its incredible array of colourful inhabitants. The Peul/Fulani are a cattle herding people with heavy tattooing and facial scarification. The Peul woman are probably the most beautiful we've seen with large, black tattoos over their mouths and beautiful jewellery. The Mossi are Burkina's major ethnic group and are remarkable for their history as the only nation over the last 1000 years to not only resist the imposition of Islam but also the only nation to successfully defend themselves against the enormous empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai. The Tuareg are the famous desert nomads wrapped in indigo robes and turbans who have for centuries run trans Saharan camel caravans swapping desert salt for daily necessities. The Bella were the Tuareg slaves before but are now free and continue their nomadic existence although to a reduced extent. A visit to the Gorom Gorom market is a colourful experience with all these diverse groups present selling anything from camel milk and traditional soap to Chinese batteries and Nescafe.

Yael and Dave took camels to explore further and wandered round the arid countryside visiting the tiny Peul/Fulani settlements and the Bella nomads before climbing onto the only hillock that breaks the massive flat expanse to watch the sunset.

Dancing at sunset, Gorom Gorom, Burkina Faso

Soon we were heading South again to Ouagadougou to say sad goodbyes to Yael who flew back to Ghana and then onto England while we travelled north-westwards, attempting a little used route to Mali. After spending a night in a tiny town called Ouahigouya we caught another bus on to the village of Koro in Mali so ending our 2 week stay in Burkina Faso.

In Koro, after struggling to get the local transport syndicate to sell us a ticket on to the next town at the normal price (a recurring problem in Mail it turned out...) we finally caught a battered pickup known as a bache to the town of Bankas - the launching point for a visit to the amazing Dogon country.

The flat plains that dominate this region are broken just north of Bankas by a bizarre escarpment that juts out of the earth as a series of cliffs 135km long. In the 13th century the animist tribe known as the Dogon people, after being harassed by Muslim tribes, fled into these cliffs and built the most incredible villages on the sheer faces of these cliffs. Over the years, visiting these cliff villages has become quite a tourist attraction which has inflated prices in the area phenomenally. We met a number of travellers (even hard bargaining Peace Corps volunteers) and on average they were paying their guide $30 each per day! Our guide, Amagara Gindho, (who we were paying $7 a day) said it was not unheard of for a guide to earn $4000 for a four day trip with a couple of Japanese tourists! Go Africa!

Hiking in Dogon country is pretty straightforward. During the day we walked from 15 to 20km at the foot of this beautiful escarpment winding our way through numerous tiny Dogon villages stopping now and again to relax and enjoy the ritual 3 glasses of strong, sweet tea which our guide performed half a dozen times a day. We would stop at a village in the evening and after showering in one of the numerous waterfalls falling down the face of the cliffs we'd cook dinner then fall asleep on a mat on the roof of a house. In the mornings we'd be woken at sun rise by flies buzzing our faces and after breakfast we'd be on our way again.

The first night we slept in the village of Teli. The next morning we climbed up to the now uninhabited cliff village where we learnt about the incredibly difficult lifestyle the Dogon endured there. Their lives were a constant hassle having to climb up and down the steep cliffs to work in the fields below and to fetch firewood explaining why now, in times of peace, most villagers have relocated to the plains. The cliff houses are made of mud and have bizarre rectangular pyramid shapes with log supports jutting out in all directions. These houses and the numerous granaries are all connected to each other by a series of rocky step paths that wind their way along the cliff face. The Dogon developed all sorts of weird contraptions including a clever locking mechanism for their intricately carved wooden doors as well as door hinges.

A cliff-face Dogon Village, Mali

Above the Dogon villages, though, are even more amazing settlements. High up the cliff tiny mud dwellings are visible in the rock crevices, so precariously placed that it would take professional rock climbers with ropes to reach them. These diminutive houses belong to the enigmatic Tellem pygmies who vanished long ago. No one appears quite sure how these tiny people scaled the cliffs to reach their homes: the locals say they used magic while some people postulate that ropes were used. Either way, the Dogon look at the Tellem as being quite mystical and when we explained that we'd spent so much time with the pygmies in the Congos they begged us to tell stories about them. Our tales of how much stronger the pygmies are than the normal sized Congolese threw them into fits of laughter and they sat enraptured as we told them what we knew of the pygmies' jungle culture.

The second day we scaled the escarpment and spent the night in the village of Bengnimato which is perched on the edge of the cliffs with a sweeping view of the plains below and the bizarre rock formations and cliffs on either side. we spent another beautiful night on the roof and then spent most of the morning chatting to the diverse collection of tourists around the breakfast table.

Mud mosque, Dogon country, Mali

The 3rd day we headed back down the cliffs to Ende which is where our guide, Amagara, lives. There we partied the night away making copious quantities of tea and being requested to play our rave/trance music over and over again. We also bought superb mud cloth tops and jester-like hats which we paraded around.

The next morning we climbed up the cliffs to the abandoned village where the ancient Hogon (animist priest) still lives. He spends his days crouched amongst his animal remains, weird fetishes and a strange assortment of pots, poles ropes and masks which he uses to cure medical and spiritual problems. He's a strange old guy who gets pretty happy when people come to visit - his wrinkled, leathery face breaks into a wide smile displaying all his skew, brown, crayfish teeth. After trying to talk for a while we bid him farewell and he returned to his tranced state, fiddling randomly with his bizarre collection of paraphernalia.

After meeting Amagara's family and saying goodbye to the friends we'd made, we walked the 12 odd kilometers back to Bankas again, so ending a memorable 4 days in Dogon country.

The next day on our way to the town of Mopti we befriended a kiwi couple, Dwane and Kath, and as is typical in Africa we ended up travelling together for the next week. After arriving in Mopti we bought tickets for a 4x4 due to leave for Timbuktu in a few days time. Being rainy season all the dirt roads in the region have been pretty much destroyed and we were extremely lucky to find a vehicle going to Timbuktu at all. So, after a fairly debaucherous few days in Mopti mostly spent feasting in the superb pastry shop and chatting to the weird assortment of travellers, we packed our bags and headed over to the truck park to catch our 4x4 to Timbuktu. At least that was the plan.

When we arrived, we found that the vehicle was being repainted and were told that we'd probably leave that afternoon. However, despite our regular visits to the mechanic's garage where we pretended to be VIPs demanding the speedy completion of the job, we eventually realised that this vehicle wasn't going anywhere. Dejected, we decided to leave for Gao in the far North of the country where we could hopefully catch a boat down to Timbuktu.

So the next morning found us ready and waiting at the truck park at 7am only for one incomprehensible delay after another to hold us back till mid-day. Eventually though we were on our way and about 30km from town we were busy passing through the customary military checkpoint when a soldier demanded to see our registration stamp from Mopti. Now this region of Mali has got a bit of a scam going whereby tourists are told that they need to have their passports stamped in all towns and are charged a false fee of $1-60. Having crossed both Congos as well as Nigeria without paying any bribes, we were pretty confident that we wouldn't get caught by this scam. So, imagine our disgust when all the other passengers were forced off the minibus and the driver was ordered to take us back to Mopti to get this stamp. Imagine, too, the rage we were in when the policeman demanded the "fee" knowing that we couldn't fight it out with him because we were delaying everyone else on the minibus! So, yes, the wanderers have paid their first bribe!

It was 2pm when we finally got going again, squashed like sardines in the backseat of the bus. As the sun began setting we passed through the most amazing landscape of flat, Karoo-like desert broken by monstrous rock formations pointing sharply skyward. Dotted on the horizon were countless buttes similar to those which have made Arizona famous although the Malian ones, we were told by Dwane, are far more impressive. It soon became obvious that we had again been duped by idiotic ticket salesmen who, throughout Africa, can never tell you the truth about how long a journey will take. In this case we'd been told 5 hours and it was pretty clear that we'd need a miracle to get us there in less than 12. At around 10pm , the minibus stopped for the night, so we rolled out our mattresses on the side of the road and slept until sun rise when our journey recommenced.

Eventually we reached Gao, found a rooftop room to sleep in and collapsed exhausted. Gao is situated on the Southern edge of the Sahara and is the ancient capital of probably the most powerful African empire ever: the Songhai empire. It's inhabited by the Songhai, Malian and Algerian Arabs, Fulani nomads and Tuaregs. It's very life blood is the amazing Niger River that must have the most bizarre course of any major river. Starting only a few hundred kilometers from the sea in Guinea, this river makes an amazing loop into the Sahara passing through Mopti, Timbuktu and Gao and then turns South through Niger and finally enters Nigeria where it empties into the ocean at the Niger Delta. In its upper reaches in Mali and Niger, gold is common (the women here wear giant gold earrings) and its mouth at the delta is one of the richest oil deposits in the world which when added to its precious desert commodity cargo - water - makes it one of the wealthiest rivers in the world.

Gao is damn hot!

In the mornings we'd walk into town and look around but by 10am it would be just too hot and so we'd siesta until late afternoon when we'd cruise into town again to eat. One evening the 4 of us took a pirogue up the river to where the massive red dunes start and watched the sunset from there. But other than that we did very little in Gao - just tried to survive the heat.

Dwane & Kath, Niger River, Mali

Dwane and Kath were on their way to Niamey in Niger while we were still determined to get to Timbuktu. So when a riverboat arrived, the two of us said the umpteenth sad goodbye, climbed aboard, threw our sleeping mats on the deck and prepared to leave. Naturally, 12 hours later we hadn't moved an inch and when we finally did get going it was at half speed due to one of the engines breaking down. Congo riverboat part II!

We spent 4 days chugging down the river to Timbuktu. The landscape was desert dunes much of the way, broken occasionally by desert, nomadic settlements of a few dozen people who'd wave furiously at us as we sailed past. Surprisingly, the river is lined with green as rice and animal fodder is grown in the shallow waters along almost its entire length. Every day or so, we'd reach a bigger town where we'd stop for a few hours to load goods much to the excitement of the village kids who'd clamber aboard the boat, run around like mad things terrorising the passengers then screaming with joy they'd leap off the boat into the river below.

A nomad's riverside home, on the way to Timbuktu, Mali

We'd spend most of the day reading, writing and listening to our walkmans and would sleep on the deck with the other 4th class passengers. We happened to be surrounded by some mothers and their kids, so every morning at around 5am we'd be woken as they busied themselves with cooking and cleaning despite the unrepeatables which we uttered freely begging them to shut up. The Muslim religion is great and we've come to appreciate it's many virtues on this trip but it's this praying at 5 o'clock in the morning thing that will ensure that we never become practitioners of this religion!

Eventually we arrived at the port around 18km from Timbuktu called Koriame at around 3am where we slept on the riverbank and the next morning got ready to catch a vehicle into town. Here for the first time we encountered the pervasive Timbuktu problem: triple pricing. Now in most of Africa raising prices for white travellers is common but if you know the price and tell the person so, they just laugh and agree. In Timbuktu however the people simply refuse to accept our money unless we paid triple! We sat for 4 hours at the port watching vehicle after vehicle carrying passengers on to Timbuktu but were told uniformly by the drivers that our price was three times more! Eventually we managed to get a ride on a truck carrying sacks of beans and perched high on top of these bags we entered this legendary town that throughout history has proved so difficult to reach. The first European to do so and live was Rene Caille in 1826 long after most of West Africa had been conquered by colonial powers and even he was forced to flee for his life when he was discovered.

But even then Timbuktu was long past its hey days in the 15th century when everyone could read and write and the city had its own university attracting Muslim scholars from all over the Arab world. Although it was never the capital of the immensely wealthy Mali Empire it was still an enormously important trading post for the lucrative trans Saharan caravan trade where Mali's salt and gold were swapped for Asian, Arabian and European commodities brought across the Sahara by camel.

The Malian Empire was so wealthy that when King Kankan Moussa made his pilgrimage to Mecca he gave away so much gold as gifts in Egypt that the gold based currency there was nearly destroyed for 20 years afterwards. The king travelled with an entourage of 60 000 people and had a new mosque built every Friday for him to pray in! His military exploits in the region were legendary and during his reign as king there could have been few richer kingdoms in the world. How ironic it is to see that Timbuktu's literacy rate once perfect is now just 34%.

Timbuktu is now nothing more than a dry, dusty, desert town of low mud houses and two tourist hotels. These are exorbitant but we eventually managed to organise to sleep in a local restaurant fairly cheaply. Lance was really ill with malarial-like symptoms so he spent most of his time in Timbuktu passed out while Dave sat writing postcards or fending off Tuareg men trying to sell all sorts of Tuareg paraphernalia. A substantial portion of our time was spent fighting with various restaurateurs who flatly refused to sell us food at local prices but eventually after 2 days of headaches we found a woman who was prepared to treat us as just another client and charge us accordingly. In doing so, she reconfirmed the fact (as far as we're concerned) that corruption in Africa is definitely a male thing!

Timbuktu, Mali

Dave was invited by a friendly Tuareg guy to have tea on the outskirts of town where the Saharan dunes spread into the distance. We sat sipping tea, talking about the amazing lifestyle of the Tuareg and comparing travel philosophies. These people certainly have a uniquely dignified way about them which we've seen in no-one else anywhere in the world.

However, Timbuktu is a place where nothing is ever what it seems, and we discovered later that the mythical Tuareg camel caravans don't exist and by many accounts never did. In fact, the camel caravans that still head out annually to the desert salt mines of Taoudenni are run by nomadic Arabs who are distinctly different from the Tuareg in that they speak Arabic not Tamanshek and who claim that the Tuareg never ran caravans but were always goat herders. Our limited research seems to back up this theory as early accounts of caravan journeys in the 14th century involved Moroccan Arabs and not Tuaregs. Either way, the Tuareg now make their living selling cheap jewellery and impressive knives and swords. Some enterprising Tuaregs even arrange for tourists to join an annual "Tuareg" caravan heading north even though it is truthfully an Arab caravan.

After 3 days in Timbuktu - the city of deception and intrigue - we caught another riverboat heading down to Mopti. After 4 days on this noisy boat spent sipping tea with some Malian Arabs we befriended and chatting with an American marine called John we arrived, exhausted, in Mopti where we boarded a bus immediately for Bamako.

We've been here in Bamako for the last few days recovering with John in his friend's house enjoying the good food and the world's cheapest Cybercafes.

Tomorrow we head for Senegal in search of that elusive trans-Saharan route. We even considered trying our luck with the faster yet less secure Algerian route, but that was finally closed off to us by the embassy who refused to issue us visas. So it looks like its got to be Mauritania after all (not Moritavia by the way Kevin), where we can hopefully hitch onto an overland vehicle going North. Either way though, we've got our sights firmly fixed on London now and we are sure to use our fifteen months of resourcefulness to get us there. The next time you hear from us will probably be on the other side of that sand-mass they call the Sahara, so make sure you renew your subscription in time to hear about the final African escapade of the wanderers. In case you've forgotten, the subscription price is merely one interesting e-mail from you. Chain letter jokes don't count by the way.

love as always

your African Wanderers

Dave and Lance

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