That's Senegal over and
out and a very nice welcome into Mali. It was certainly the easiest
border crossing yet. The various official parts of the crossing
spanned a distance of 70km, four different venues and our first
However, there were no back-handed charges, lots of
smiles, handshakes and helpful advice about the road ahead. Some of
the officials we found asleep in the shade. The chief of police in Keneiba, Mali, interrupted our
passport stamping 'session' with him to try on his new
outfit for Military Day on 20th January. It was hot and slow but we
had no particular deadlines as we had planned to sleep in Kenieba,
so we were happy to go with the African timing, which really is the
key to getting through these crossings without getting het-up. And
if the way we have been treated is indicative of Mali, then I think
we're going to love it.
The only problem we faced was the 'campement'
in Kenieba looked and felt decidedly seedy so we were left with no
option than to drive out of town to try and bush camp.
A few kilometres on we passed a gendarme stop (i.e. straw hut
with recliners) with three friendly gendarmes who looked like they were there to stay
asked if we could camp there and they said no problem. This was
fantastic. We were in a beautiful, free spot with three impromptu
Malian bodyguards. They made a fire and we joined them for tea, chatting
about life and Mali. It was a wonderful experience and we felt very
blessed by the warmth and openness of these real Malians with whom
we had managed to share a moment in time.
Total Driving Time: 12
hours. Total distance covered: 120 km
Needless to say, the
going was tough. The French call it a 'piste' but we have started
to get irritated by this expression as it means anything that is
not tarmac. Now, what we have discovered is that a 'piste' can
range from 'very good gravel or dirt road with an average speed of
60kmph' to 'horrendous rocky, mountainous, sandy,
nothing-that-at-all-resembles-a-road and should have a 4x4 warning attached to it'. We found ourselves on the latter.
Let's just say that it was one of those experiences that you begin
to enjoy when it's over and a story that you re-tell as it gives
you good 'piste-cred' in the overlanding world. Most of the time,
if you can excuse the dreadful pun, we were feeling pretty, 'piste-off'.
The up-sides were that we realised what the Mpudi is truly
capable of and we saw some beautiful rural Malian villages
Things continued to be a bit stressful as the light was fading
fast and we really wanted to get to Manantali where we were hoping
to stay. We had heard via the travellers grapevine that the
hydroelectric power plant in the small town of Manantali is owned
by Eskom and run by South Africans. Like a mirage in the distance
we both spent the day dreaming of falling upon South African
hospitality, boerewors and ice-cold Windhoeks at the end of this
Sadly, this did not materialise, but, unbelievably (or not if you believe that God is looking after
us, which He most certainly is), as we turned up, in partial
light, there was yet another retired French couple setting up
camp in a gravel car park! Amazing - especially as the
accommodation we had heard about in Manantali turned
out to be a travellers tale. The spot they had chosen was also
within sight of some more Malian gendarmes - our new best friends -
so we went to say hello and they assured us that they would be
there all night.
So we headed to bed, weary, hot, and very, very dirty, covered
in the red sand of Mali but very grateful that we, and the car,
were in one piece and that once again we had some friendly French
neighbours for company.
Oh the glorious sight and
smooth feel of tarmac! Oh the speedometer that goes over 10mph! Oh
the joy of the predictable road!
We made it to Bamako on an excellent toll road that could have
been surfaced in gold for the sheer delight that it brought us. We
shared it predominantly with donkeys, cows and bicycles as there
really don't seem to many cars in Mali, between cities at least.
At one point we were amused to see an apparently empty donkey cart
going along the road and then realised that the owner was asleep on
the cart whilst the donkey made his way home! Who needs self-drive
technology? Get a donkey.
Driving into Bamako was challenging. To drive in African cities,
one needs to have at least six eyes to look out, simultaneously,
for pedestrians, motorbikes, traffic lights, gendarmes,
donkeys, chickens, cows, dogs and potholes. We made it
though, to this wonderful place ' The Sleeping Camel'. It's a brand
new auberge run by three Brits and one Australian - hoorah!. We
decided to take a room - our first since Spain - in an attempt to
get clean. It's the best money we've spent and such a treat to have
a real bed and an en-suite bathroom. Our skin is gradually returning to its
(Note to travellers - this place is an absolute gem and well
worth a visit - www.thesleepingcamel.com. It is friendly,
laid-back, comfortable, clean and cheap. The food in the restaurant
is excellent and brilliant value. There is free wifi, a cheap laundry
service and it is in an excellent location. The owners will go the
extra mile to help you out with local and embassy information.
Staying here enabled us to really enjoy Bamako and we stayed much
longer than originally planned.)
We ended up being in Bamako for six nights, partly because of
complications getting our Ghanaian visa and partly because we found
it hard to drag ourselves away. We fell in love with the friendly,
crazy hustle and bustle of the city and enjoyed the relaxed feel of
The Sleeping Camel. Bamako straddles both banks of the Niger River
with two bridges to connect the city. The river is impressive and
beautiful and the sole reason that this area of Mali is as
developed as it is.
We also had the opportunity to meet up with some people working
for YWAM (a Christian mission organisation) and therefore get to
do things which we hadn't done for a very long time - be invited
into people's homes and go to church. These experiences made such a
change from the perpetual world of overlanding when you feel that
you are constantly an onlooker and rarely get the chance to spend
time with people who are immersed in the community. We enjoyed a
meal out with Jean-Patrick and his family and a meal in the home of
an American couple - John and Julie - who had came from California
to Mali ten years ago to work as missionaries. They inspired and
challenged us greatly with their stories of how their whole
perspective on life has changed and how much they love being in
On the Saturday, when we got up, Matt, the Australian owner of
the Sleeping Camel, asked us if we wanted to tag along in their bus
on their outing to Siby - a town about 45km from Bamako. They were
thinking about setting up some day trips for travellers so we
benefited from getting a free ride on their reccy.
Along with all the owners and four other back-packers
we drove through the vibrant street market in Siby and walked up to
some stunning rock formations with expansive views across the bush.
At the top we found five local boys who were keen to show us
around. They said they were all brothers, but not in the same
family. We didn't quite work this one out!
The elder of the boys said he knew the way to the water
falls which we had also hoped to find, so we agreed to take him in
the bus to show us the way. They all merrily entered the bus as if
it was a school outing and proceeded to join us for the day which they absolutely loved. It was about 17km to the falls where we
all had a dip and a sunbathe in the refreshing natural pool. I
don't know if the boys had ever been there but they loved the
water, took the opportunity to wash and did some fishing. I had to
keep silencing the teacher voices in my head - 'have you done a risk assessment for this
trip?' and 'are the parents of these kids worrying about
where they are?'. This is Africa. No risk
assessments here. Just the ability to be spontaneous, use your
common sense and have a great time. Europe should take a leaf out
of this book every now and again.
We have certainly been missing church and our trip on Sunday to
a local congregation was fantastic. The service was in French and
Bambara so I attempted to translate into English for Neil. There
was a very friendly atmosphere, we were made to feel completely
welcome, and we were pleasantly surprised by the prompt running of
the service - 8.30 to 10.00am. After some reports we thought we may
have been there all day!
The rest of our time in Bamako was filled with three trips to
the Ghanaian embassy, walks around town, a visit to the National
Museum and a trip to the local music festival, which was happening
on the banks of the Niger River.
With our Ghanaian visa
happily in hand after having to wait longer than we initially
planned, we drove north to Segou. It was a bit of a shock to be on
the road again but it was an easy and pleasant drive with a lunch
stop under a baobab tree.
We arrived at our hotel car park in
time to grab a taxi back to the banks of the Niger River to watch
the sunset. It's such a magnificent river and the source of all
life, food and community development for hundreds of
kilometres. The sun peeped through the dust-filled sky to shine on the
water and we watched fisherman in their pirogues, laying their nets
for the following day.
We made the decision not
to drive North to Mopti and decided instead to spend a night in
Teriya Bougou, an eco-tourism project set up by a French priest in
the 1970s. We
were there by 11.30am and it was a beautiful spot. It was also
great to know that the money we were spending was going directly
into community initiatives, such as a local school, renewable
energy sources and primary health care. We slept a proportion of
the afternoon away, enjoyed the pool and took an interesting tour
with a local guide.
We also enjoyed meeting yet another friendly
retired French couple who kindly shared their red wine and Breton
caramels with us - what a treat!
A lovely relaxed start to
the day and a pedalo ride across the Bani River. We didn't need to
be in Koutiala until late afternoon so we enjoyed an extended
lunch stop under a tree in the bush. All this French company is
clearly rubbing off on us.
We had been put in touch with Sylvana
and Samuel through Jean-Patrick in Bamako. It was fantastic to be
in a home this evening and such a welcoming one at that. Sylvana,
from South Africa, and Samuel, from Mali, and their two children
Gideon, 9 and Anne-Marie, 7 were all wonderful hosts.
Neil were both equally excited to have some fellow South African
company and we were treated to full African hospitality with piles
of the best food in a long time (frikkadels, nogal!). With two English-French speakers,
one English speaker and one French speaker, our conversation was a
wonderful amalgamation of language and interspersed with
We slept in their garden with their three dogs at the foot of
We felt at home this
morning as we were woken by the familiar sounds of a
call-to-prayer, a few persistent roosters and a yet another braying donkey.
such docile animals, donkeys certainly have the capacity to make
the most horrendous noise.
This is understandable given that Malians work them so hard. We
have seen quite a few being beaten with sticks in order to make
them comply. This apparently is a big problem here in Mali and
there are even adverts on TV saying 'do not hit your donkey... too
Sylvana took us to the YWAM base in Koutiala and we enjoyed
being shown around the primary school, which currently has 350
pupils and a much greater demand for places. I certainly
experienced a tug at my heart strings! However my mind still
boggles when I see a classroom of 50-60 pupils in rows, using chalk
boards as their only resources.
We watched the mothers sitting under the trees in the play
ground area, preparing simple snacks, which the children buy during
their break. Incidentally, the play area was infinitely better than
the one we had in London, with its large sandy area and lots of
shade provided by huge mango trees. That beats the concrete jungle
We wandered into town to experience market day and quickly got
hot and bothered so decided to spend the rest of the afternoon
back at Samuel and Sylvana's. We are adapting to local customs and draped ourselves
under the trees in their garden.
Samuel made us Malian tea and taught us how we should slurp it
very very loudly to show our appreciation (darn it, just when I
thought I had weaned Neil off that habit). We sat and chatted the
afternoon away and enjoyed having time just to enjoy people. The
evening was ended with a wonderful braai prepared by Samuel and
also revelled in the blissful realisation that when someone asks us
'where do you live?' we can always answer 'here' and
when they ask us' what do you do?', we can always answer