Mali Diary - georgeandreou.net

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Saturday 1 November - Bamako

After meeting our tour company representative we arranged taxis to visit Grande Marche. Like most African markets this was busy, colourful and hectic. We walked through, briefly stopping to look at leather goods, wooden and metal sculptures and jewellery but the one thing I noticed that I hadn't seen in other African markets where the animal skins and bones. Near the monkey remains there were glass bottles filled with yellow liquid that I didn't want to think about. One man showed me a shop selling leopard and cheetah fur, while outside people worked on crocodile skins. After the market our taxi took us to Point G, a hill overlooking the entire city. The sky was heavy with pollution and dust which did little for the views. Later that afternoon, when the temperature dropped a little, I took a taxi to another market, Marche de Medina. I found that I was the only tourist there and got many strange looks that seemed to ask what I was doing here. One small child cried when they saw me. I had a wonder round for an hour or so before returning to the hotel.

Sunday 2 November - to Djenne

We boarded our 4x4s and drove for several hours, stopping at San for lunch, through the savannah landscape of the Sahel. Once out of the capital the rural African scenes flew by; tiny scattered settlements, women carrying loads on their heads and babies on their backs, men riding carts pulled by donkeys or cattle. Children waved as we drove past, many adults as well. We arrived at the ferry port on the Bani river as the light began to fade, the scene here was very pretty as pirogues shuttled back and forth across the river. We arrived in Djenne and settled into our basic hotel.

Monday 3 November - Djenne

I got up early to walk around the town. It was nice to see the place before it became crowded and noisy, traders were preparing for the huge weekly market, an event that draws people from all over the country, as well as from neighbouring Burkina Faso. I walked through the dusty back streets and arranged with a local boy to climb up to a couple of roofs to get a better view of the famous mosque. As I was to discover, sunrises in Mali were generally a disappointment. The dust forms a thick layer on the horizon that hides the sun completely from view for almost an hour, so the golden light I was waiting for never appeared. Back to the hotel for breakfast and then a guided tour of the town. Many of the buildings in Djenne are of Moroccan style, with the elaborate and distinctive window designs. The architecture that appears in most buildings in Sudanese, including the great mosque itself. Children would follow us wherever we went, most wanted to shake hands, or grab hold of a finger while walking with us. The river banks were always busy with market goers waiting for pirogues to take them back across the river. In the heat of the day, between 11am and 2pm we would normally retreat to the shade. I wanted to have a final walk around the market before we left Djenne, and at 3pm we boarded the pinasse which was to take us to Mopti. This was a great experience, very relaxing and peaceful, in contrast to the activity in Djenne. We passed tiny villages with palm trees and saw lots of egrets, and also a couple of eagles and even a hippo. We lunched on the boat and arrived at our camp site on the river bank before sunset.

Tuesday 4 November - to Sevare

We set of early and continued our journey for another few hours on the river. We stopped at two villages on the way, to the delight of seemingly all the children that lived there. At one village we visited a school and saw them singing through the window. Some wanted to show me their books from Qur'anic classes. We arrived at Mopti in the afternoon and boarded a minibus to our hotel in Severe, a short distance away. In the early evening we had a tour of Mopti market, our guide showing us the various items for sale, including the pottery and the huge salt tablets that are dug up from lake beds in deserts hundreds of miles north from here, and brought here on camels on a journey that takes several weeks. We also saw a boat making factory where several workers were busy on different parts of the pirogues, from the timbers (which were being heated on fires to allow them to bend) to the steel nails that hold them together.

Wednesday 5 November - Dogon Country

A minibus took us on a bumpy ride through the town of Bandiagara to the first of the villages in the Dogon Country. We arrived at Dourou mid morning and relaxed there until 3pm when we set off for our first walk through the village. It was a very picturesque village with the small mud huts with straw roofs that are used to store grain. These were to be a common feature of Dogon villages but this village, at the top of the escarpment (most were built on its slopes) was one of the nicest. Another common feature are the baobab trees, which I loved. They have an amazing presence with their huge trunk and creeping branches. The bark is used to make rope, the fruit used in cooking and the flowers are used as medicine. In the village we saw some women making indigo fabrics and we were shown how the plant is used to dye the material. We continued through the village and along the rocky plateau before descending down the edge of the escarpment which gave us excellent views of the plains below. We sat for a moment listening to the sounds of the villages below us. We arrived at the village of Nombori before sunset and settled into our campement for the night.

Thursday 6 November - Dogon Country

The cockerels began singing at 2am and they were still noisy when we woke at 6am. We set off along the bottom of the escarpment and arrived a couple of hours later at a village for lunch. We rested here until the heat subsided. Before we left I had a quick walk around the village and walked up to the chief's hut which was in a great location overlooking the village and the plains below. We then continued to Tireli village where our campement was. Our guide took us on a walk around the village and showed us the various parts, including a menstruation hut and a place for children with behavioural problems. Above us, high on the cliff faces were ancient dwellings (reportedly made by the Tellem), now used for the burial of important people.

Friday 7 November - Dogon Country

We set off at 7am to the next village, Ireli. We walked through ponds full with water lilies, plantations with workers busy harvesting, mainly millet, plenty of baobab trees and children playing or walking to school. On the way was Amani, a village with a heavily populated crocodile pool nearby. We had lunch at the campement and rested there before returning back to Tireli. It was market day today and we stopped briefly at the market before going back to the campement.

Saturday 8 November - to Sevare

This morning we were heading out of the Dogon Country. We began our ascent through the escarpment early, taking our time as the distance to walk was quite short. We met our minibus at mid morning and drove back to Sevare, arriving in the afternoon. Went for a walk in the evening but there's not much to see here so took the opportunity to use the internet and catch up on news.

Sunday 9 November - to Timbuktu

We set out in two 4x4s and drove east to Douentza, through the dry and dusty savannah. Camels began to appear in the bush. After a short stop for lunch we continued north on a corrugated and very dusty dirt road up towards Timbuktu. It was about three hours and with the dust entering the car it became quite unpleasant. By about 4pm we reached the ferry port at Korioume on the Niger river, and we played with the children in the small settlement while we waited for the car ferry to arrive. When we reached the other side we noticed it had become much greener here. The river provided irrigation for large rice paddies. From here it was another 12km on a good road to Timbuktu and we finally arrived shortly before sunset. I quickly dumped my things in my room and went for a walk. I love desert towns and Timbuktu was as good as I expected, though quite a bit larger and more developed than I thought. The main roads are paved but everywhere else is sand. The buildings too are all sand coloured. There are noticeably more Tuareg people here with their distinctive turbans with veils often covering their mouths (it's considered disrespectful to show your mouth to people of higher status). The sky seemed clearer here and there was a nice sunset that night.

Monday 10 November - Timbuktu

We had a tour starting at 8am but I went out early for a walk. I went to the Dyingerey Ber mosque because it was close by and then walked down some of the back streets, watching women baking their morning bread in their clay ovens which are outside many of the homes. Although some of the streets were ugly, others were very nice. The newer buildings are built from limestone bricks which brighten the place up. Our tour took us to all three mosques in the town. My favourite was the Santore mosque and we were shown the houses of the explorers who made it to Timbuktu. We also visited the museum which housed cooking instruments, jewellery, tools, samples of the various crops used by local people and even showering stools. We ended the tour with a walk through the market. One thing I notice about this town was that it seemed a lot more prosperous, consistent with its history as a trading town. Their were more luxurious items for sale in the markets, TVs, carpets and after shaves, items I'd not seen elsewhere. Later that afternoon we drove a short distance into the desert and mounted our camels for a 45 minute ride to the Tuareg camp. It was nice passing the tiny settlements surrounded by endless sand on the way, but the Tuareg camp itself was a disappointment because it was all about selling us souvenirs, rather than finding out about the Tuaregs' way of life. I was distracted by the surroundings and managed to escape for a while to get some pictures of the setting sun.

Tuesday 11 November - to Homborio

It was an early start to catch the ferry to take us back across the Niger river. The three hour journey back south was much better this time because we had the windows closed and the air conditioning on. Another lunch stop at Douentza and then we headed east for a few more hours to Hombori. On the way we passed what has been described as Mali's Monument Valley, huge rocky outcrops that extend sporadically for miles along the road. During a stop in Hombori market to pick up some food I watched the market goers as I waited inside the vehicle. Then we drove to our campsite at the foot of the famous landmark known as the Hand of Fatima. It was a pretty setting for our last camping night of the trip. Nearby there was a small settlement with huge herds of sheep and cattle. I went for a long walk along the highway, people were returning from the market on foot or on donkey cart with their shopping, giving me strange but friendly looks.

Wednesday 12 November - to Segou

We had a long day of driving ahead of us. We left at 7am for the first stage of our journey, 300km back to Sevare. After an hour's rest we continued to San where we had lunch. The final leg to Segou took another two hours, and we arrived around 5pm. It was one of the nicest hotels of the trip, though it was a few kilometres from the centre of town. I went for a short walk to have a look around before heading back to the hotel.

Thursday 13 November - to Bamako

Before leaving Segou we visited a Bogolan factory (translates to 'mud cloth'). We were given a demonstration on how the fabrics are dyed with three base colours, red, blue and yellow from three bark, indigo and another type of leaf respectively. Mud is used to create the blacks and another mixture is used for the whites. We were each given a piece of fabric to decorate with our own designs. Then we had a look at some other shops before setting off for Bamako, and we arrived in the noise, traffic and pollution of the capital around 1pm. We had the rest of the day to relax before catching our flight home late that night.

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