The best of western Africa – Mali, Wojciech Dąbrowski, Gdańsk, Poland

Map of Mali
Map of Mali

After
passing 11 countries between Lagos and Dakar I thing that it is
Mali who have best places of interest in this part of Africa. There
are diversity of landscapes, rich folklore and historical landmarks
to see. Apart from truck expeditions you have a choice of two
methods to explore Mali. First is to establish small group of
Travellers and to rent 4WD car with local driver. In such case
travel agency provides camping equipment, basic food and fuel and
the cost will be around 100 USD per day per person. Second method
is to travel around using very crowded local transportation. That
is how I explored Mali. It cost me some 25 USD a day and gave me
opportunity to taste quite different Africa.

From Bamako to Djenne

Capital city has not much to offer. It is worth to see National
Museum and then take the taxi ride uphill to the view point for
nice panorama of the city and the river (if it is not harmattan
day). I stayed at basic but inexpensive Maison de Jeunes (youth
hostel). They charge 3000 for single room with fan.

Bamako acts as a gateway to the whole country. But remember that
there is also direct “side door” to the most interesting Mali
areas: gravel road from Ouahigouya (Burkina Faso) to Koro on the
doorstep of Dogon Country. Daily truck is passing border on this
route and it cost 2000 CFA.

Mosque in Djenne
Mosque in Djenne

But most people start from Bamako going east. On the route to
Timbuktu and Dogons it is definitely worth to make a little detour
to Djenne one of the most impressing towns in West Africa.
During the 15th and 16th century it was
a important trading center. The highlight of the town is Grand
Mosque prettiest and largest example of mud-brick Sahelian
architecture. Entrance is restricted to the Moslems but for a small
fee (500 CFA) you can enter the roof of the opposite house to take
excellent picture.

It is worth to be in Djenne on Monday morning. It will give you a
chance to see colorful market in front of the mosque. Djenne has
also labyrinth of narrow streets to explore. If you will accept one
of the ever-present guideboys (for 1000) he will show you
outstanding buildings, coranic schools, workshops etc. In Djenne I
stayed at Le Campement hotel (13.000 for double with bath and fan)
but there is also option for tight budget Travellers: “Che Baba”
who charge just 2500 for the mattress on the floor.

Mopti & Dogon Country

Dogon County
Dogon County

Mopti is large commercial town and main
transportation hub for eastern part of Mali. There is not much to
see regarding monuments (mosque and surrounding old streets are
only tourist objects) but the “must to see” is port on the Bani
river very picturesque with dozens of long pinasses and piles of
calabash, mat and other goods. What is irritating in Mopti that
there are hordes of touts they will follow you everywhere. They
will offer of course to be your guides to nearby Dogon Country…

Tuareg and author
Tuareg and author

Arriving from Burkina we found our Dogon guide in
Koro. Or in fact he was waiting for the truck coming from
Ouagihuiya. His name is Oumar Guindo and I can recommend him to
other globies. After hard bargaining we fixed the price: 11.500 CFA
per person per day in the group of 3. It is important to make sure
what is included in the price: guidance, meals, entry to the
villages, overnight stays, porters and final car transfer to
Bandiagara.

Escarpment where Dogon live is 150 km long. Villages to visit are
both on the upper and lower level. Between levels there is limited
number of country roads (at Dourou at Kani-Kombole) and paths.
There are no signs on the paths so sometimes it is not easy to find
the way guide is very useful. Walking on your own is possible but
require good map and much more time). Those who travel through Mali
by rented car usually come to Sanga on the upper level and make one
or two day excursion to the villages on the lover level.

Due to limited time and money we spend in Dogon Country three days
only.

Day one: After first night in Dourou on the top we
made round trip excursion down to Nombori (some 5 km each way).
Walking shoes are required. Landscapes are excellent. In Nombori
apart from traditional stone granaries and houses we accidentally
had opportunity to see mask dances performed for other group
(performance took about an hour and they charged from us 5000 CFA
for taking pictures well worth the price). After return to Dourou
we saw there in the afternoon colorful local market (markets are in
the afternoons and on irregular schedule so it is not possible to
plan such visit ahead). Late in the day we took 7-km walk south to
the village of Begnimato where we stay overnight. In the villages
you have a choice of sleeping in the stone or mud-brick house (mat
or hard bunk only provided) or on the roof. Mornings are cool so
sleeping bag is useful. Do not expect any electricity to charge
your batteries.

Day two : After very basic breakfast (millet cakes) we
visited local school (donations are welcome) and walk 10 minutes to
the viewpoint on the escarpment. Panorama from the cliff is
impressive if not disturbed by harmattan dust. Back in Begnimato we
walked 10 km down to Ende large village at the foot of the
escarpment. There are even basic guesthouses and nice artifacts on
sale. Each part of the village has his own togina shaded men
meeting place with beautifully carved pillars. In the heat it
require some effort to reach abandoned ancient houses at the foot
of the cliff. Sand is everywhere…

Day three : After one-hour walk along dozens of baobab
trees we reached Teli with nice mosque, quite large “maison de
passage” and ancient dwellings hidden under the cliff even better
preserved that those in Ende, with intriguing paintings. Continuing
our trek at the foots of the escarpment we reached village
Kani-Kombole. Then climbing uphill 5 km we finished our trip in
Djiguibombo (7 hours from Ende). Djigibombo has interesting stone
houses especially that where local quack treats his patients.
Prearranged car took us to Bandiagara and another
bache (pickup) – to Mopti.

Be very careful accepting local food. Be sure that your
chicken-rice is fresh and well boiled or fried! Stomach problem are
common as it is hot and sanitary conditions are poor. Sealed
mineral water is available in every village but you will probably
get only half bucket of water to do your morning and evening
toilette.

Overland to Timbuktu

Broken bus
Broken bus

Town of Mopti is natural gateway for the people
who head to legendary Timbuktu. To get there (If you do not have a
car) you have a choice of plain (2 or 3 times a week 50.000 CFA one
way), boat (rather irregular schedule: 8000, 2-3 days) or 4WD
vehicle. For single me was not so easy to find seat in the car.
There is travel agency who charge 260.000 CFA for 3-days round trip
landcruiser expedition to Timbuktu. I was lucky to be in Mopti on
the market day so it was possible to find truck carrying local
people. They charged from me 30.000, but at the end of the trip my
local companions said that they have been charged 15.000 only. Yes,
that is Mali Do not believe touts until the car will move. Ask for
ticket if they want payment in advance!

It took us 20 hours by our old landrover (mainly by night, loosing
the way several times) to reach the bank of Niger. Usually there is
ferry crossing in the wastes. But sometimes (as it was in our case)
the ferry is broken and you are forced to use small pirogue to
cross the river (1000 CFA). Then, from the pier on the other side
another vehicle for 3000 will take you to Timbuktu which is still
21 km away. On the outskirts of the oasis there is control post
where all foreigners must pay 5000 entry fee. As a reward you have
free access to the city museum.

Camel ride to Timbuktu
Camel ride to Timbuktu

Timbuktu was off limits for
Europeans until 19th century. Timbuktu is very hot place
with there old mosques in Sahelian style, mud brick houses, nomad
tents and small market. There are also marked houses where first
European explorers stayed. But the main attraction could be camel
ride to the Tuareg camp in the desert. After bargain you can do it
for 8000 CFA per person (half day, with unlimited pictures). You
ride the camel, they will show you their tents, offer a tea and
souvenirs (for extra CFA). Yes, it was a highlight of my stay in
Mali!

PRACTICALS

Cool period lasts from November to March but is period when dusty
wind harmattan blows from the desert reducing visibility. Rest of
the year is very hot. Light rains occur from June to September. I
suggest May and October as a best time to visit Mali.Visas are required and not possible to arrange at the
border. While in Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu tourist must go to the
police post and register his passport. They charge 1000 CFA for
this procedure. It is better to follow the rule due to frequent
road controls.

Tourist information Planing your voyage you can use
Lonely Planet (“West Africa on a shoestring”) guide. In Bamako
there is tourist information office but do not expect too much.
Basic knowledge of French is recommended. Internet resources are
limited. See more my pictures and maps athttp://kontynenty.tpi.pl/s3entravel.htm

Money: Franc of West Africa (CFA). 1 USD is worth
approx.700 CFA

Sample prices:

Twin room with fan in the inexpensive guesthouse 13000 CFA. Minibus
or pickup rides: Bamako-Djenne 5000, Djenne-Mopti – 2000,
Bandiagara Mopti 1200+500 for backpack. French baguette 150, coke
200 CFA, big bottle of beer 1000, mineral water 600, postcard 250,
entry ticket to the museum 500.