Saturday, 24 January 2009

19: Meandering through the Sahel

Despite having decided on taking a few days respite from Rocinante prior to my arrival in Bamako, after a couple of days off I had the urge to get moving again. Perhaps it's because you move so slowly when cycling that you quickly feel the need to keep the momentum up. After you have a chance to relax and catch your breath, there is a sudden realisation that you're in the middle of a very large landmass and that you have to inch your way across it day by day - literally 'inch', if you're referring to Michelin's regional map of north and west Africa.


Wheezing my way out of Bamako's dust and diesel fume drenched atmosphere, I took the main paved highway to Mali's third largest town, Segou, a little over 200 kilometres northeast of the capital, through the country's principal cotton-growing region, and located as all important towns in the area are, on the banks of the region's lifeline - the Niger river. From Segou, I left the paved road and headed across the inland delta formed by the Niger and Bani rivers, towards the famous medieval trading and religious centre at Djenne. Off the main roads, my Michelin map reverted to hypothetical scenarios and the relationship between the markings on the map and the reality on the ground widened to biblical proportions. Once again I found myself pushing Rocinante along sandy pistes, and at times having to wade across stagnant irrigation pools that appeared uncomfortably similar to those described in my guide as prime breeding grounds for bilharzia-bearing liver flukes, otherwise known as schistosomiasis. Yet another long word that you don't want to catch.

Market day in the Dogon country

The delta is the main rice growing region in Mali and the season's harvest had been gathered over the previous weeks. Villages were sited relatively close to one another and one occasion I ended up pitching the tent outside the house of a smiling farmer when I couldn't find a secluded spot away from the villages at nightfall. Unable to communicate through any mutually shared language, we passed the evening over the communal bowl of millet porridge, while the fellow pointed at various animals and objects that surrounded us in the dark, slowly reciting their names for me in Bambara. This time of year is tough on the lungs and respiratory illnesses are a common problem with all the dust aruond, and his five children were coughing and spluttering all evening.

Looking out from a cliff dwelling in the Dogon escarpment

I continued downstream from Djenne to Mopti and Sevare. The former situated at the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers, and as such has been an important trading settlement since before the colonial era. The two towns are also the focal point of Mali's tourist industry, with direct flights between Mopti and Paris, enabling those on two or three-week excursions to arrive close to the attractions of the Dogon country, or within just a day's drive of the Sahelian El Dorado of Timbuktu. The latter a mere 400 kilometres by road and piste from Mopti, was indeed tantalisingly close. The final 250 kilometres of piste, however, is a virtual cul de sac, given the difficulty of the pistes further on, as well as the threats posed by banditry in the area. On a bicycle it would probably have taken almost two weeks to get there and back, something my visa wouldn't allow. Next time perhaps!

The cliff dwellings at Teli village

From Mopti I swung southeast towards Burkina Faso and its capital, Ouagadougou, and left the Niger behind for the time being. Before leaving Mali, however, I spent three days being guided around the southern part of the Dogon country. Historically the Dogon inhabited cliff dwellings in the face of a 200-kilometre long escarpment that rises up dramatically from the Sahelian plains. These days all the households have relocated to either the plains below the cliffs, or to villages built on the plateau above. Many of the animist beliefs and practices of the Dogon have been fused with both Islamic and Christian teachings but they still remain a vital part of Dogon culture for many. In recent years the villages have become the prime tourist destination in the country, with people flocking to explore the natural beauty of the area and to witness a culture that is in perpetual adaptation in the face of time and tourism. The couple of days spent in some of the villages, shepherded by my knowledgable guide Bouba, a Dogon whom I had met in Sevare, provided a brief but fascinating insight into a culture that is attempting to balance the economic potential of tourism, a decline in traditionally important aspects of Dogon culture, and the ever-present desire to follow the path of modernisation, particularly amongst the always impressionable youth.

Watering the onions

The border with Burkina Faso lay just a day's ride from the base of the escarpment, across flat plains that stretch to the horizon. The harmattan was once again whipping up a dust storm that slowed progress dramatically as I pedaled the 50 kilometres between the final Malian checkpoint and the first Burkina counterpart, past sparse villages whose inhabitants eke out a living in this harsh and ultra-dry landscape. Burkina's population is, unsurprisingly, critically dependent on food imports, and as such they have been very badly affected by the massive increase in the current price of staple goods.

By the time I reach Ouahigouya, a large town 200 kilometres north of Ouagadougou, my departure from the traditional plate of rice and onion sauce to a paper bag of grilled meat at the border crossing town of Thiou, has meant that I have had to exchange my saddle for the toilet for a couple of days. It's back to rice after this. Meanwhile, my initial destination of Ghana rapidly approaches and decisions about the next stage of the trip need to be made in the coming weeks.

The sun sets behind the Dogon escarpment

Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso

Trip distance: 11,176 km

Monday, 5 January 2009

18: Dancing at the crossroads - Malian style

Rocinante stands in the shade after crossing the border into Mali

After posting my last entry on Christmas Day in Tambacounda, I was chatting with the owner of the internet cafe when a local photographer came in and turned my stomach with photos of those who had been killed or injured in a riot that had occured between police and young men in the nearby mining region of Kedougou. In a story familiar to many mineral-rich areas of the continent, local youths were apparently frustrated between the obvious wealth of the resources being extracted (gold, iron, and marble, in this instance) and the situation of poor living conditions and high unemployment levels that they find themselves living in. The AFP and UN news service documented the riots.

On a much happier note, the ride across eastern Senegal and western Mali, although marred by the predicted warm easterly harmattan that blows off the Sahara at this time of the year, was a very enjoyable journey through impressive baobab woodlands, scrubby savannah and small villages. Apart from the town of Kayes, on the Malian side of the border, the region is sparsely populated and distances between the larger villages made the trip reminiscent of the cycling through Western Sahara and Mauritania. Bush camping presented no difficulty in the area and it was merely a case of pulling off the road when I was feeling tired and avoiding the shepherds returning home with their flocks at sunset if I wanted some peace and quiet.

New Year's Eve...

My reckless riding across thorn laden ground finally caught up with me this morning when I discovered my fourth flat since the start of the trip. Closer inspection of the tyres revealed several more thorns that I pulled out with a tweezers and pliers. By eight thirty I was on the road and heading east. The already troublesome headwind had picked up overnight and the noise in my ears was now loud enough to drown out positive thoughts as I struggled forward. By midday I was dreaming of my local supermarket again, gleefully skipping down the aisles and throwing all sorts of delicious items into the trolley with great abandon. Reality struck home, however, when I cracked open another tin of pink, "mechanically separated" chicken.

Early in the afternoon I made the crossroads town of Diema, where the main routes for Mauritania, Senegal and Mali's capital Bamako intersect at a ramshackle collection of chop houses and small boutiques. I sat down in front of the shop where I had stocked up on packets of purified water that has a very odd smokey taste to it, and downed my second tonic water of the day. The shop was owned by three brothers from Bamako who had come seeking to make their fortune at this outpost in western Mali. As I munched through some roasted mutton served up on a piece of brown paper, I chatted with Amidou and his brothers about their business venture, my trip, and Malian music. The latter being blasted out at decibels that were high enough to make the shop front feel like it was pulsating along with the rhythms from Salif Keita and other Malian musicians. Earlier in the day I had been calculating that if I happened to be sleeping in my tent when the clock struck midnight this evening, it would be the fifth consecutive such New Years Eve that this had occured. This is surely a very poor show for someone in their mid 20s, so when Amidou offered me a section of his concrete floor and if I would like to join them for the evening, I readily accepted.

Amidou and Ibrahim

I had sat very contentedly watching the world go by when Amidou carefully suggested that I might want to bathe. Looking at my dirty arms and legs and filthy clothes, I admitted that he probably had a point so I accompanied him to a public bathing area nearby, where after collecting a bucket of water from the well, you took your own cubicle and could wash down under the warm sun. I donned my usual set of crumpled outdoor fatigues from the front pannier and was greeted by Amidou who had dressed up like a pimp, complete with shades, clearly all set for a night of revelry.
Diema, western Mali

After a stroll around the crumbling, adobe-type town centre, we headed back to the shop where tables and chairs were laid out in preparation for the evening and twinkling Christmas tree lights switched on. Six protesting chickens were sourced from somewhere and tied together at the feet into two bundles, they all had their necks sliced open and were prepared for the pot. I asked Amidou if he drank alcohol and he informed me of his very liberal approach to Islam that seemed to extend beyond just the consumption of alcohol, and included frolicking with the working girls who had also arrived in Diema in the hope of earning cash from the passing truckers. Both alcohol and sex were available, he assured me, and if I wanted either then I just had to give the word. I settled for a cold bottle of Mali's Castel. We sat in the makeshift bar, complete with red lights and lace curtains, being blasted out of the place by a music video of a one-legged Hip Hop dancer from Cape Verde. Just one bottle of beer was enough for Amidou, however, and we headed back to the shop where a crowd of people had gathered. The midnight hour itself would have gone unnoticed were it not for the fireworks that flew out of a building across the road and briefly lit up the night sky. By 2 am, unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I slunk off to the back room to lay out my mat and bag. Almost immediately, however, Amidou came in looking for me and told me that dinner was about to be served. I reluctantly headed back to the gyrating mass in front of the shop and I was duly handed the best pieces of chicken, far more than my fair share, to ensure that I wouldn't go to bed on an empty stomach.

Evening shadows in western Mali

The following morning I said goodbye to Amidou and his brothers and headed on to Bamako, a four day journey that swung mercifully south out of the wind and down to the banks of Niger River. Bamako is a dusty town with a decrepit appearance in parts, but nonetheless, such hubs have become beacons of light offering rare luxuries, such as fresh fruit, supermarkets and internet. There's also a great music scene and I've been catching up on some local acts over the past couple of nights, but I'm also looking forward to getting back out there under the stars.

Bamako, Mali
Trip distance: 10,323 km