Casamance and Mali (well, Bamako really...)

Trip Start Sep 11, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Le Cactus

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Thursday, February 2, 2006

It seems like an awfully long time since we last posted an update, and although we've moved over 1000 kilometres, it seemed like we hadn't really done a great deal until we started to write this.

We spent Christmas and New Year in the Casamance, southern Senegal, exploring the area south of the river and staying in (or more accurately, outside) traditional "Casa a Impluvium" huts. It was all very relaxing, generally wandering through thick "jungle", skirting round mangrove swamps, and even hiring push bikes for a day to explore a little (very little) further a field. I think our bottoms have just about recovered - believe me, cycling over corrugated roads is not the most comfortable. We saw the New Year in at Cap Skiring, a beach resort catering mainly to French and Italian tourists and ex-pats from Dakar. Despite having an enormous Club Med and its own airport, the place was remarkably low key. Spent a week camping on the beach a few feet from the high water mark, selecting a new deserted(ish) sandy sweep of palm fringed bay to move to every couple of days. As the Club Med'ers in the main seem terrified of venturing more than 200 metres from the complex our only visitors were locals walking to work (always waving and exchanging Ca va's), the occasional 4x4, the string of tourists on Quad bikes passing twice a day being led by a very very bored looking guide riding side saddle and waving half apologetically every time he saw us, and several herds of beach dwelling cows. We passed the week having a holiday from our holiday, alternating between lying down on the sand, lying in the sea, and sleeping, with occasional bursts of reading, playing cards, and popping into town for meals (including the local speciality, frozen red wine, simply order, place in direct sunlight, and wait......).

Commenced our return journey up the Casamance on 4th Jan. Decided to do a policeman a favour and offer his "friend" a lift to the next town. Unfortunately the girl spoke no French or English, and sat looking terrified for the duration of the journey. Despite our efforts to converse she seemed highly relieved to arrive and be able to escape two strange Toubabs in an Ambulance (Toubab: as you may remember from last time: - white person in local parlance, shouted at us almost everywhere we go, particularly by small children, usually accompanied by pointing and a request for cadeaux). On to Kolda where we were fortunate to encounter our favourite Senegalese policeman. After perhaps foolishly been seen swapping driving duties whilst in the queue at his roadblock a week or so earlier, he became convinced Claire was somehow driving illegally and became quite annoyed that his lackey couldn't find anything wrong with our paperwork (we perhaps ratcheted up his ire by refusing to hand over the original documents, refusing to speak any French, and finally refusing to accept his insistent demand that we required a "Passe Savant" to travel in Senegal and were therefore liable for a fine/cadeau). Upon recognising us he muttered something along the lines of "watch her, she's too intelligent for her own good" to his minion before spending a relaxed 15 minutes studying all Claire's documents again in minute detail. The fact that I was driving seemed of no consequence, he didn't even want to look at mine. After what must be the 10th demand for us to produce the non-existent "Passe Savant" followed by our (now rather well rehearsed) refusal to accept the request as being valid or legal we were waved on once more.

Camped overnight in the bush (as we usually do) just outside Tambacounda to be woken before dawn by a strange noise outside. Not being wholly satisfied with my guess that it was a donkey, Claire peeked through the roof hatch to be confronted by the skyline glowing red, black smoke, and flames occasionally visible licking through the bushes. After an initial impulse to run away very quickly we realised the bush fire was passing us by and not being fanned by any wind so, kettle on, shower for Claire, while I fought my way bravely through flocks of fleeing wildlife to get close enough for a decent photo. Missions accomplished we returned to our journey across the rather flat, unpopulated, and bushy scrub to the Malian border.

A slight mishap at the border as we somehow managed to drive right out of Senegal and into Mali without stopping, slowing, or observing any formalities whatsoever, the complete opposite of every other border crossing we have so far encountered. Luckily the Senegalese customs had been inefficient enough not to have retained the essential part of Bronwen's Carnet document when we crossed from Gambia, so no reason for us to return and track down our missing exit stamps. Malian immigration and customs couldn't have been nicer, after we eventually tracked down the police post tucked away at the back of town down a dusty side street with no signs. Not only did they apologise for not speaking very much English (!), they also insisted on soliciting my opinions (as a well known football pundit) on Ireland's chances in the World Cup this year (I didn't realise they aren't in it until Claire pointed this out afterwards, luckily neither did the Gendarmes), and the relative merits of Aston Villa, Chelsea, and Arsenal. Unfortunately for me football is the opening subject of conversation in most situations, so I have had to pay more attention recently. Aston Villa is my adopted team (mainly because of the obscure link to Showaddywaddy) and we tend to become officially Irish on entering any non-English speaking country - if you look at your UK passport and pretend you can't read for a moment, you will see why. Formalities informally completed we rolled into Mali on a sweep of unusually smooth new tarmac, marvelling at the profusion of baobab trees, to the sound of the Bay City Rollers blasting from the stereo. All quite surreal, and destined not to last.

Our expectations having been set by the new road into Mali, we were somewhat disappointed to discover that the promised extension of this modern convenience has not yet materialised. Not only is the (supposedly) main route from Kayes to Bamako a narrow, rutted, corrugated, rocky, and bumpy piste for most of its length, it also frequently proves impossible to tell which direction to follow it in, or get any sort of agreement from locals as to which is the best track to follow. It took us nearly a week to travel the 400km, following the rather circuitous Kayes/Diamou/Selinnkegni/Mahina/Manantali/Kita/Bamako route. Apparently there is a new road somewhere, with white lines and everything, but buggered if we could find it, so we soldiered on along the worst tracks we have encountered so far. Brief stop in Medine where we were abducted by the local schoolteacher and taken on an hour long guided tour of the old French fort and surroundings, including complete history lesson on the Muslim siege of 1848(?) and the subsequent breaking of it by the French in a small boat bristling with Gatling guns (they don't like it up 'em, as Mr Jones would say). A planned overnight stop at the Cascades de Fetou was spoilt by the arrival of a few children who followed us around 2 feet behind, and refused point blank all our attempts to communicate. After their number swelled to a dozen plus, including donkey and a few older "kids", and they began to pee, point, and laugh in what seemed to be an increasingly more malign manner we decided to give up and move on. A shame as everywhere else in Mali we have met nothing but kindness and genuine interest, even from most guides and street souvenir vendors!
Our journey took us over the River Senegal and after 2 days of mixed piste finally arrived at a point where the road gracefully dipped down a concrete hardstanding and disappeared beneath the gently lapping waters. A shiny new ferry sat firmly moored to the opposite bank, 100 metres away. With superb timing we had arrived on the first morning of the 3 day Muslim festival of Tabaski, alone, 2 days from the nearest bridge, and obviously ripe for a little light financial exploitation. The ferryman appeared, and with the aid of a dozen accomplices and at least twice that many rather noisy children proceeded to open negotiations for the 5 minutes crossing at a hefty 70,000 CFA (about 75). After much laughter, and Claire dissuading me from immediately commencing the return journey to the bridge, we decided to camp overnight and reopen negotiations the next day after everyone had enjoyed their mutton eating celebrations and "normal" ferry service would resume. In the end we paid 12,500 CFA, we subsequently learned others have crossed for about 3,000 CFA. If you find yourself at this crossing try to arrive in a group of vehicles, bargain hard, and don't turn up on a public holiday!

Crossing finally accomplished, pictures taken with the now very happy and newly wealthy ferryman, and hippos watched from afar, we immediately failed to locate the correct piste down to Mahina. Eventually we accepted the offer of a "guide" who took us down some tracks which a year ago we wouldn't have cycled along, before arriving at the Mahina side of the Bafoulabe railway bridge. Whilst exchanging contact details with our "new best friend" (as is customary in these situations) he found it most amusing that Claire misspelled his name - Salif Keita. This meant nothing to us at the time, but we now see the joke - make a note, you will be tested on this later......

The week long journey turned into a very enjoyable expedition, we met some great people, had great fun trying to shame a 20 year old into accepting that he was too old to be hanging around with children begging for cadeaux, got used to seeing live sheep travelling past us bungee'd to the rear seats of mopeds, set a budding English speaker on the road to a new career with a now cherished pamphlet on country walks in Devon, watched baboons watching us watching them watching us, experienced the delightful sensation of sitting in a 3 tonne vehicle as it slowly spins on its axis whilst continuing to move forwards on corrugated roads, failed miserably to get a single one of the French ex-pat Paris/Dakar hangers on to wave at us as they sped past in air conditioned comfort, and finally, blessedly, about 20km from Bamako, found some smooth black tarmac.

We rolled into bustling grubby Bamako with contented smiles on our dusty little faces....

Our intention was to stay in Bamako only as long as it took to get some visas, then head deeper into Mali. Despite our guide book's description of the town as: "crowds, hostile traffic, and sludge filled sewers make an oppressive combination. Its bustle, filth, and heat make it a trying place" we rather warmed to it were there for a week and a half. Making the most of being in town, I enjoyed pizza for the first time in 4 months, spent a very pleasant evening in a Tex/Mex bar full of Russian prostitutes in high heels (Claire was the only woman there not working....) and generally wandered the busy streets taking in the thousands of roadside stalls, markets, museum, and trying not to look too closely into the sewer/storm drains.

We abandoned the Mission Lebonnaise in the centre of town as the novelty of the smell of urine and noise of rats wore off after a couple of nights, although we did meet some fellow travellers here - Peter and David bussing/hitching separately round Africa, Benny and Anja in their pink camoflagoued Unimog heading to South Africa, Bas and Craig, and numerous other overlanders/travellers. We shifted ourselves to Le Cactus 12km outside town, a small house/restaurant/camp site complex run by Canadian ex-pats Joan and Andre, where we made our base for forays into Bamako. Any of you reading this and heading for Bamako, it's a lovely oasis and only costs 200cfa to get a taxi brousse into the centre.

Highlights of our stay at Le Cactus have been many: Claire lost her voice for 3 days which proved amusing, particularly after a few drinks in the evenings; we met Mark and Marie-Jo ( and Mike and Julia from Sweden ( all travelling the same route as us and had a couple of fun nights with them. See you in Segou!

Joan and Andre looked after us extremely well. She has a seemingly never ending pool of anecdotes about her time in Bamako and Africa generally, including examples of the less pleasant side effects of long term anti-malarial drug use, and her acquisition from the local police of a written licence to shoot intruders on sight - but only in the arms and legs! Joan cooks a lovely steak and chips, and puts on a superb all-you-can-eat buffet on Sunday lunchtimes, in which we all indulged very enthusiastically. The campsite was very still and quiet afterwards..... She also cuts hair for free, which we both took advantage of.

Our main reason for being in Bamako was to get hold of the "Visa Touristique Entente", the semi-mythical visa that enables entry to Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina, Togo, and Benin all with one stamp. Despite some confusion, the VTE is currently available at the Ivory Coast embassy (not at the others, by all accounts. If you need one, it costs 25,000CFA and takes about a week. The IC embassy has moved and is now signposted off the same road as the Sofitel (Ave de la Marne) (keep walking for about 20 minutes) just past a patisserie and small market). Unfortunately after we applied chaos descended on the Ivory Coast and all visa applications were suspended for a few days, further lengthening our very relaxing stay at Le Cactus.

We finally picked up our VTEs a few days late, and returned to Le Cactus for one last night to find Liam (Hot House Flowers) and Paddy (ex-Bothy Boys) in the open air bar, having just returned from the Festival Au Desert in Timbuktoo with filmmakers Vanessa and Dearbla. Sometime later they received a summons on the mobile to an audience with perhaps the most successful and best known West African musician after Youssa N'Dour - one Salif Keita (remember our passenger from last week?) who we were by now very familiar with after several crash courses in Malian music. As their car failed to materialise, Bronwen was pressed into service as an emergency taxi to transport musicians, instruments, and cameras, to Salifs place a few miles away. We got to meet Salif in his studio/club before retiring to the bar and the return trip to Le Cactus.

So finally, after a week and half we make it out of Bamako to see a bit more of Mali. We had already decided that Timbuktu was too far to travel and the Dogon country just felt a tad too voyeuristic for us. But Mali's a big place so I'm sure we'll be kept busy!
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ianandjane on

Good to see the old girl is still going ...
Good to see the old girl is still going ...!
And Bronwen seems to be doing alright as well :-)
Mali sounds great.
Getting itchy feet back here in a frezing Cornwall -2 Celius today:-(

ianandjane on

Good to see the old girl is still going ...
Good to see the old girl is still going ...!
And Bronwen seems to be doing alright as well :-)
Mali sounds great.
Getting itchy feet back here in a freezing Cornwall -2 Celius today:-(

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