Updated On: August 13, 2006
Route: Kayes-Sanga -View Route
Miles Traveled : 1,834 miles
Cumulative Distance: 12,644 miles
Current Weather: Cool and rainy
Wildlife: We're back in camel country
Activities: Bush wacking, mud flinging, river crossing and village hopping along the road less traveled to Bamako

 
  Kayes, Mali - July 26, 2006
(Jim Writes): When possible, we start the day off with a morning run. This morning I set out along the main road just outside of our campsite. It was a short run, only 30 minutes, however it was memorable. Not because I ran particularly fast, or far, or because the scenery was particularly beautiful. Rather, as I ran past small thatched roof villages, donkey carts, and women walking along the side of the road with large baskets on their heads, I felt like I was running the Boston Marathon, or perhaps the Ironman. Only, instead of hearing the roar of the Wellesley girls, I was spurred on by local villagers chanting with great enthusiasm: toubab, toubab, toubab! The were clearly entertained by my morning workout and I found as much motivation in their singing and chanting as I have in any race! And so faster I went turning out a strong workout.

Back at the campsite we packed up the truck and hit the village well to fill our jerry cans before departing for the Mali border. On the way to Kayes, we stopped off at Tambacounda to fuel up the truck and search for a post office. Fueling up the truck proved simple. Getting to the post office was another matter. Our map made it seem so easy. Just a left, then a quick right, then another right followed by another right and we were there (in theory anyway). In practice, it was market day and after successfully navigating through the narrow streets that comprised the first three turns, we found ourselves on a narrow street smack dab in the middle of the bustling market. Ahead of us the path was clearly blocked by fruit stalls, vendors, pedestrians, goats, chickens, and donkey carts. By the time we realized that our path was blocked, the market had closed in around us and there was no hope of backing back down the narrow street in which we had entered. As we sat there, trapped by the market, I was reminded of rule number one of driving in Africa: “Patience will keep you out of trouble!” And so we sat, trapped by the market madness, trying to find a way out. We had only two options: 1.) Wait for several hours until the market dispersed or 2.) Slowly push forward hoping to carve a new path through the crowd. We chose option two and hoped for the best. I shifted into first and slowly crept forward fully expecting the crowd to start yelling as I inched towards their vegetable stands and live stock. Instead, much to our surprise, we received many smiles as everyone kicked into action moving their respective piece of the puzzle into place. Carts wheeled to the side, people dispersed, livestock scrambled (well, more like our bull bar lovingly nudged them out of the way). We moved forward, advancing 5 meters or so before we encountered a more challenging obstacle. A donkey cart was also hemmed in and trying to go in the opposite direction. After a brief game of chicken, more pieces of the puzzle shifted and we tried to pass each other. As the donkey cart passed, there was so little room that the cart hit our side rail and actually bent it upwards about 2 inches. With some work we finally scraped by each other and slowly inched on. It was terribly nerve racking, however everyone was incredibly understanding and helpful and we finally made it. No, not to the post office. We just made it out of the mess we’d gotten ourselves into. Happy to be free again and with a storm brewing on the horizon, we scrapped our mailing ambitions and decided to head for the border.

After battling torrential rains, we finally arrived at the border just before 2pm. Again, we encountered no hassles. We registered at the police check, headed into town to get our passport stamped, and then hit customs for the carnet. Painless.

On the Mali side, we were met by friendly customs officials who welcomed us to Mali and quickly processed our carnet. Their only question: “Why would you want to come to Mali during the rainy season?” Next it was off to the police post where one officer processed our passports while another interrogated us, asking us to produce literally every document we had. It was a bit comical as he asked us to produce documents we’d never heard of. We presented our best guess at what we thought he was looking for and he’d study it intently before handing it back. He’d then ask for another unfamiliar document and we’d hand him the same document again. He’d study it intently as if it was a completely different document than before and would then hand it back. We went back and forth this way several times until he seemed satisfied, or thoroughly confused, and said we could go.

Once on the road, we reflected on our border experience, noting that we were struck by how friendly the Malian officials were. Nothing like we’d encountered in other countries. With another border crossing behind us, we went about searching for a place to bush camp for the night. As we scanned the countryside along the road to Kayes we couldn’t help but notice how wet the ground was – flooded in many places, muddy everywhere else. This reduced our off-roading options, as the risk of getting terribly stuck in the mud was pretty high. Nevertheless, we eventually found a small muddy track that headed off to the north from the main road. We followed the track for a half-mile or so into a secluded forest. There we found a giant Boabab tree and made camp for the night. It was a beautiful, peaceful campsite, hidden from view in a scenic, lush green setting. A perfect evening camping in the African bush.

 
     
 

Somewhere in the Bush - July 27, 2006
(Jim Writes): For us, Africa is all about searching for the road less traveled so when we found out that the road to Bamako was now 75% paved and the other 25% was a smooth fast dirt track, we were more than a little disappointed. Craving a bigger challenge and an opportunity to get off the beaten path we searched for another route. We poured over maps, scoured previous overland routes, and talked to the locals. What we discovered is that the road less traveled can be difficult to find when it’s submerged in thigh deep rainwater. Nevertheless, we persisted. The southern route through Kita was impassible. We know because we gave it a go and determined that our snorkel was in over its head and we’d need an amphibious military vehicle to go the distance. And so our search continued as we spent half the day talking to locals about other possible options.

By mid afternoon, for better or worse, we’d made our selection. A small track, scarcely discernable on our Michelin map, from the tiny village of Dangounta Kimara to Kita about 180 kms away. Once in Kita we could pick up an improved dirt track for another 180 kms to Bamako. When we spoke to locals in Kayes about the route they said “Impossible! There isn’t even a road connecting our village to Kita and if there was it wouldn’t be passable.” Other villagers that we passed weren’t much more encouraging. When I asked if there was a piste connecting their village to Kita they said that there was a small piste (OK, now we’re talking). BUT, while giving us that look that says “what are these two crazy toubabs thinking”, went on to say that it was very bad, a donkey path really, which was flooded in many places and would be very difficult. We prodded further by saying that we understood it would be very difficult, but needed to know if it was possible in a fully equipped 4x4. To this they replied that it might be possible, they didn’t know for sure (the hard part about talking to the locals is that most don’t have cars so it’s hard to get a good answer). However, they suggested that we could start down the track stopping at each village along the way to ask if it was passable further ahead.

And with that, we had the seeds for a plan. We sat down and mapped out our approach. The 5 primary concerns were navigation (i.e. let’s not get hopelessly lost in the Africa bush), fuel, vehicle breakdown, and food/water.

Navigation:
We decided on a two pronged approach: 1. ) We’d follow the track closely, stopping each and every villager we met along the way to ask “Where is the route to Kita?” (rather than ask - Is this the route to Kita?). This provided a decent system of checks and balances since we realized that there’s always a bit of a language barrier (partly because many speak little or no French) and there’s likely to be several wrong answers given along the way. 2.) We’d set the GPS to track our route so that we could reverse out if we got lost.

Fuel:
We loaded up on enough fuel to easily carry us well past Bamako plus carry us all the way back to safety from any point should we get lost and have to backtrack.

Vehicle Breakdown:
We had all of the requisite spare parts, fluids, and tools but there’s still an inherent risk that something will break in the middle of the bush that you can’t fix. We calculated that at the furthest point we’d never be more than 90 kms from help should we need it. That said we could always walk out or hire a donkey if worse came to worse.

Food/Water:
Not really a major concern as we have enough food on board to feed us for about 2 years, plenty of water to sustain us for a couple of weeks, and plenty of rainwater to refill the reserves.

Communication:
No problems as our Sat phone was powered up with Matt’s number on speed dial

With our bases covered, the basic strategy was simple. Take it slow, protect the vehicle at all times, and stop often for directions.

With that, we set off down the track, with half the village standing behind us shaking their heads in disbelief. We made good progress for the first 100 meters or so and then we hit our first obstacle--a thigh deep river crossing. Ugh. Who knows what it’s going to be like as we get further along. After checking depth we slowly waded across happy (sort of) to be on the other side. From there the road dissolved into a sometimes difficult to recognize donkey path. And quite fittingly, the only traffic we encountered all afternoon were donkey carts and villagers going it on foot. For the balance of the afternoon we slowly plodded, scarcely faster than walking pace. Navigation proved every bit as challenging as we’d anticipated and the track every bit as bad as the villagers had said. We stopped often to ask directions and everyone we met was incredibly surprised to see us, but very friendly and helpful. Kilometer by kilometer we inched our way through deep mud, flooded sections, ditches, and narrow sections where Betty’s paint job took a hell of a beating. It was thoroughly nerve racking and by the time we found a place to camp, shortly before dark, we were completely spent.

We setup camp deep in the middle of nowhere in the Mali bush. It was beautiful and after a relaxing dinner we enjoyed a spectacular lightening storm before turning in, worn out after a rough day on the road.

 
     
 

Bamako - July 28, 2006
(Jim Writes): We woke up just after sunrise eager to push forward. Before setting out, we decided to take a quick run down the track, partly for exercise, partly to check on what was in-store ahead. Running along, we came upon five men, three on a donkey cart and two on horseback, heading in the opposite direction and we decided to stop and ask them for directions to Kita. The driver of the donkey cart, a young man with an old shotgun slung over one shoulder, replied by saying that we were on the track to Kita. We thanked them and then set off again into the bush listening to their hysterical laughter as they disappeared down the trail behind us. I’m sure they’re still talking about us as you can only imagine what they must have been thinking when two toubabs appear from out of nowhere in rural Mali, dressed in running clothes, and ask for directions to a village some 80 kms away as if we’d lost our way on the Mount Vernon Trail in Washington, DC and were trying to find our way back so that we could finish our morning run and grab an iced latte from Starbucks.

Back at the truck we quickly packed up, eager to make some headway. It wasn’t long after we hit the track that things got muddy and we found ourselves cutting straight across a flooded field. On the other side of the field was a small village of mud and thatched houses and just outside the village we found a, quite out of place, bush taxi (the only vehicle we’d see on the entire journey) stuck along a particularly muddy section of track. Between Betty and the stuck bush taxi was a deep ditch that looked like it had severely eroded during the recent rains. We parked the truck and crossed the ditch on foot to offer a helping hand. Having been stuck since the previous day, the driver eagerly accepted our offer. The first order of business was crossing the huge ditch. This proved to be no small task as the ditch was about 10 feet deep and the track through it was badly torn up. After a quick walk through it to survey the situation, I gave it a go, narrowly escaping unscathed as a large section of dirt broke way under Betty’s weight and the truck lurched to the left before slowly crawling back up the other side.

Once we reached the bush taxi, I stepped out, only to find our front right tire flat. Ugh! Why is it that every time we stop to lend a hand we seem to get punished? (example: yesterday we helped someone re-inflate their tire, but today ours is flat!) As it turns out, we’d fractured the steel wheel which was now hissing loudly as air escaped through a small crack in the rim. Hmm. I tried to remind myself that the cup is really half full – after all, at least we weren’t in the middle of nowhere..... Damn, that’s right, we were precisely, exactly, in the center of nowhere Mali!. Well, I guess that’s what the two spare tires are for. Anyway, we decided it was best to go ahead and recover the bush taxi first and then sort out our busted wheel. So out came the winch and five minutes later, the bush taxi was out of the muck and back on firm ground.

With the bush taxi recovered, I turned my attention back to our bum wheel, which was still hissing loudly. Rather than putting on the spare, I decided to re-inflate it and see how long the air lasted. That worked out well, as once the tire pressure got low enough the crack seemed to seal itself shut and the leak slowed to a slight hiss.

Before parting ways, we picked the driver’s brain for as much information as possible about what lay ahead. He indicated that the road was very bad for several more kilometers, but after that it got much better and we should be alright.

And so we were off again, bouncing, splashing, slipping, sliding, rattling and scraping our way south towards Kita – nursing our cracked rim the entire way. We stopped again and again for directions. Probably 2-3 times per kilometer. Everyone was incredibly friendly, the friendliest we’ve encountered in Africa, and happy to help. We continued with this pattern for the next couple of hours before all at once, just like that, we were dumped out onto a wide smooth dirt track. The bush taxi driver said something about the road getting better ahead but we didn’t know what he meant. As it turns out, a newly grated dirt road had recently been cut through the bush straight to Kita.

From there, it was relatively smooth sailing at a comparatively brisk 40 mph the balance of the way to Kita. When we reached Kita we passed straight through as we continued on to Bamako. OK, I should back up, we didn’t exactly breeze through. We were stopped at a police checkpoint where we were interrogated by an overly zealous hard-ass cop wearing the fancy police barret and dark shades who demanded we hand over a document that doesn’t exist and when we didn’t produce it (because it doesn’t exist) he searched the vehicle and then took the documents that we did produce and disappeared into his shabby hut. We followed close behind and began a dance which has become all too familiar to us. He was aggressive and tried to intimidate us while we did everything we could to show we were calm, friendly and unaffected. Finally, he caved. Possibly because Sheri gave him a big smile which said we’ve played this game many times before and know you are completely full of shit. Who knows, but most importantly we were on our way again. No bribes paid. All documents back safe and sound.

The rest of the journey was long, a bit bumpy, and generally painful, however we still managed to make it to Bamako around 5pm – some 2 days sooner than we’d estimated. We entered the city in a heavy downpour. As we’re quickly learning, the wet season comes with many fringe benefits. One of the most useful benefits is that when it rains everyone heads for cover, leaving the streets relatively free of the usual malay of pedestrian, motor bike, bicycle, and donkey cart traffic. This made finding our campsite, located on the opposite side of Bamako, relatively painless.

 
 
 
 

Bamako - July 29-31, 2006
(Sheri Writes): Having arrived 2 days early meant that we pulled into the capital late on Friday afternoon and the embassy for Burkina Faso was already closed for the weekend. This meant that we’d have to wait until Monday to get our visas. We passed the weekend by lounging about, taking care of miscellaneous to-do’s, catching up on the website, devouring everything on offer at a local patisserie and praying that our daily dose of doxy would hold up against the ravenous malaria infested mosquitoes that inhabited our campsite (on a side note, somehow I’ve been decimated by hungry mosquitoes while Jim seems to go completely unscathed – not fair).

Ready to upload some updates to the website and catch-up on emails, we hit a local internet cafe. As is often the case in Africa, the proprietor took the opportunity to try and eke out a bit more profit from the foreigners. He originally quoted us a price of 500 CFA per hour, but when we returned, and started to hook-up our laptops, he decided to double it to 1,000 CFA/hour saying it’s more to use our own computers. Having been through this routine more than once, we started to pack up our laptops to leave. This prompted a quick rethinking of his pricing policy and the price quickly reverted back to the original quote. Fabulous. We unpacked our things and got to work.

When Monday arrived, we caught a taxi into Bamako to get our visas. We’d been told that the embassy had recently relocated and therefore others were having some trouble finding it. Indeed, our taxi driver seemed a little confused however, after stopping a few times for directions, he managed to get us there. 2 ½ hours later and 56,000 CFA’s poorer, we had our visas and were on our way. If only everything was this efficient in Africa!

After a quick stop at the US Embassy to get the latest security information for the area around Timbuktu and Gao (areas that have been plagued by vehicle stealing Toureg bandits in recent years), we made our way to the bustling market, where we strolled past vendors selling fetishes including dried crocadile heads, monkey hands, animal skins, and bones. Tempting as it was, we resisted the urge to purchase a rotting monkey head, and instead went in search for a nearby patisserie, highly recommended in Lonely Planet’s now very out of date West Africa Guide. Our search turned into a snipe hunt and our salivation to sweat as we looked in vein for yet another restaurant that’s now closed.

With our longing for French pastries unfulfilled and Jim suffering from the effects of a 24 hour bug, we decided to cut our losses and head for home. Back at the campsite, we rested up for a bit before hitting an open air patisserie/cafe popular with expats, where we enjoyed a relaxing dinner complete with ice cream for dessert.

 
     
 

Segou - August 1, 2006
(Sheri Writes): We woke up to very heavy rain and surprisingly very cool temperatures. For the first time, in a very long time, we were cold --- and we loved it! We quickly broke down the tent, getting soaked in the process, and made a bee-line to the campsite’s hot shower (Yes, our campsite had a hot shower in an air conditioned room. Talk about living it up). Dry and clean again, we were ready to leave Bamako for Segou. Before heading out we stopped by a local tire shop so that Jim could do a bit of damage control on our now ailing wheels. With our problems mounting – we now have one bad tire and one bad wheel, Jim’s goal was to simply consolidate the damage. Instead of having a good tire matched to a cracked wheel and a bad tire (tire we put a gash in while stuck in the mud in Senegal) matched to a good wheel he wanted to take the bad tire (which we’d patched and tubed in Gambia to make it a workable 2nd spare) and match it with the cracked rim. That way, we’d have 5 good tires and wheels and one workable, albeit not ideal, 2nd spare, to hold us over until we can sort out replacements. Now, that was the concept. Explaining this to a shop mechanic in French was the trick. Somehow, standing in the rain, Jim walked the mechanics through the plan, using his best French and a simple hand drawn diagram to get his point across. And it worked! Within 20 minutes, they’d swapped everything out and we were on our way to Patisserie Amandine, where we enjoyed a couple of very large, delicious chocolate covered doughnuts and two cappuccinos—a luxury we don’t see very often!! Afterwards a quick visit to the internet cafe and then we were off to Segou. The drive to Segou was uneventful, but a nice drive nonetheless. Thanks to waypoints from Dutch Courage, we found the campsite with ease and quickly made a dinner of tomato soup and instant potatoes with cheese before heading to bed.

 
 
 
 

Djenne - August 2, 2006
(Sheri Writes): We were up early for a run through Segou’s dusty backroads. With pleasant temperatures and blue skies, it was one of the more enjoyable runs we’ve had on the trip. After the run we took a stroll through town and were impressed by the large, tree-lined streets and grand old colonial buildings. Remnants of Mali’s French past. Segou is a peaceful, laid-back place, void of the ever-present requests for “cadeaux.” After a walk to the Niger River and a visit to the market to buy fruit, we headed back to camp, stopping along the way to buy fresh grilled corn from a woman on the side of the street. Once back at the campsite, I rubbed the edge of my left eye and then experienced the most horrible, burning pain in my eye. The pain quickly intensified and I rushed to flush it with water. When I wiped my face with a towel, I noticed a lot of gooey mess coming from my eye. Thank God for the medical kit. Jim rummaged through it and quickly found some eye wash. After a while it started to feel a little better, but still not right. It’s times like these when you’re reminded of how self-reliant you have to be. There is no medical safety net just down the street to bail you out if things go wrong. Just you and your medical kit. A little unnerving when your eye is spewing gew and hurts like crazy. My only comfort was that my vision was still OK.

Eventually, my eye began to improve and we decided to continue on to Djenne as planned. It was a beautiful drive which took us past tiny mud and thatched villages. The surrounding countryside was green and lush from the heavy rains. A stark contrast to the brown semi-desert image we had in our minds. In order to get to Djenne, we had to cross the Bani River on a small, three-car ferry. After sorting out where we were supposed to queue, we were greeted by Djenne’s finest guide (no really, he told us that he was Djenne’s finest guide), who warned us of our imminent doom if we entered Djenne without him. We assured him that we would be just fine on our own, but asked for his card should we find ourselves on death’s doorstep. To our relief, the ferry ride was brief, giving him little time to plead his case. Once on the other side, we left him in a trail of dust as we headed for town. Once in Djenne, we negotiated narrow dirt streets flanked on both sides by the high mud walls to our campsite – Chez Baba. Chez Baba is one of those special campsites that’s surrounded by a high mud wall but still manages to let everyone in – toutes, hustlers, and all. Camping there was like a never ending turn style in which we were hassled and hustled by people trying to guide us, sell us stuff, buy stuff from us, wash our clothes, receive our clothes as gifts, and so on. To say this grows a little old is an understatement! On the positive side, Chez Baba is in the center of town, very close to the Grand Mosque and various food stalls. Even though it was dark when we arrived, we took a short walk through the center of the village to get oriented and grab some from one of the small food stalls setup in the market area in front of the Grand Mosque. Dinner is only worth noting because it was so lackluster – we paid 25 CFA per spoonful for something that resembling spaghetti which we ate with our hands from a plastic bag. Throw in a few beignets and that was our dinner.

 
 
 
 

Djenne - August 3, 2006
(Jim Writes): This morning our plan was to watch the sunrise at the Grand Mosque, the largest mud building in the world. To make sure we didn’t miss it, we got up early, too early in fact, as when we crawled bleary eyed out of our tent it was still pitch dark outside and the sun wasn’t even thinking about showing up for another hour. By the time the sun actually cast it’s warm glow on the mud walls of the mosque, nearly 3 hours had passed. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful sight which we watched from the rooftop of a nearby mud house overlooking the central market square. As striking as it was, somehow the light just wasn’t right for great photography and several hundred lack lust photographs later, we climbed down from the roof and set out to explore the rest of the city. The balance of the day was spent wandering along a labyrinth of narrow dirt streets flanked by the high mud walls of magnificent homes, many decorated with elaborate Moroccan doors and windows. Children were everywhere singing, dancing, and playing soccer in the dusty streets, fisherman were casting their nets from long pirogues along the Bani river, butchers were preparing newly slaughtered cattle and goats for sell in their stalls, and women were walking on their way to the daily market with large, full pots balancing on their heads. With the sun moving low on the horizon, we worked our way to the opposite side of the city and climbed a narrow staircase to the rooftop of another mud house, nestled discretely among a sea of similar houses, and looked down upon the busling city below. It was a relaxing end to a magical day in one of West Africa’s most unique places.

 
     
 

Mopti - August 4, 2006
(Jim Writes): It rained heavily last night, so this morning the streets in Djenne were virtual rivers filled with thick, slippery mud. Early this morning, with it still raining, Jim set off to have another go at photographing the Grand Mosque. A short time later I joined him and together we watched as Djenne slowly came to life. Women waded through ankle deep water, portering their loads to market, while children played in an endless sea of mud puddles. With no sign of the weather improving, Jim turned his attention to photographing some of the wonderful children we met along the way. Fascinated by the camera, their candidate expressions and innocent curiosity made for some wonderful photographs.

As we waited patiently in hope that the light might improve, I stared at the mosque, amazed that a mud building could withstand such heavy rains. Constructed entirely of mud, the mosque has giant wooden beams that jut out from its sides. These beams support ladders and planks used during annual repairs which take place at the end of the raining season. Several villagers explained to us that it’s a wonderful time, a great party in which thousands of people come together to repair the mosques crumbling walls and restore it back to life. It’s an impressive sight, beautiful in any weather.

As Jim and I were plodding along, trying to avoid the deepest puddles, I was caught completely off-guard and ran head first into the corner of acar’s open trunk lid. The impact nearly knocked me to my feet and needless to say, the huge knot on my head was quite painful. A little shaken, I went back to our camp to regain my composure before returning to the village to explore further. Now I know what it means to see stars.

Before departing for Mopti, we returned to the mosque to watch one of Djenne’s great events unfold, the Friday afternoon call to prayer. Friday is the holiest day on the muslim calendar and hundreds of beautifully dressed men and boys in colorful robes flooded into the mosque. Outside young boys bathed their hands and feet before scampering inside to pray. It was a spectacular site which alone made our journey to Djenne worthwhile.

Afterwards, we loaded up the truck and departed for Mopti. After a long wait for the ferry, we were soon on the other side of the river and in Mopti a short time later – arriving at Mac’s Refuge around 6pm. Just behind us was a shiny white Toyota Hilux piloted by two Brits – Bert and Jane, loaded to the brim with medical supplies which they were hand delivering from London to a local orphanage. They’d driven the distance straight in just a matter of weeks and were a bit road weary and tired after their long pilgramage. The balance of the evening was spent getting to know our new friends over beers and a wonderful, relaxing dinner. It was a relaxing evening filled with great conversation. We immediately hit it off with Jane in particular, a cheerful school teacher at a boys prep school in England with an insatiable love for travel. We talked until we could hardly stay awake and finally retired to bed.

 
 
 
 

Mopti - August 5, 2006
(Sheri Writes): To our delight, we learned that our camping fee included a delicious breakfast (and it should have – the camping fee is an outrageous $18 for a cramped spot in a parking lot). For the first time in months we feasted on pancakes with a choice of four different kinds of homemade syrup, homemade yogurt, fresh fruit salad, hot chocolate, coffee, bread and delicious homemade mango jam. Needless to say, we were in heaven. Our breakfast, if we eat any, usually is nothing more than bread and jam. We ate till we felt like we were going to burst!

After breakfast, Jane and Bert departed for the orphanage where they will stay through Monday morning. Before they left, I was talking to Jane and a lightbulb went off. It suddenly occurred to me that Bert would be driving a near empty truck back to England. Jim and I acquired a camel saddle off a nomadic camel herder in the Mauritanian desert which has since become quite the albatross. We’ve carried it almost 3,000 miles as we’ve tried in vein to ship it from Senegal, The Gambia, and Mali. The cheapest quote we’d received was well over $200 for the slow boat with no guarantee it would even arrive. Frustrated by months of driving a cramped truck that reeked of camel sweat, we were on the verge of burning it in a grand bond fire when I decided to ask Bert if he’d be willing to transport it to England for us. He said yes and Jane even offered to store the smelly thing in her house (I suppose it would be better than storing a live camel in your house but only a little bit). Jim and I were ecstatic!! A million thanks to both of them! Best of all, it gives us a reason to visit Jane again. And, if that wasn’t enough, Jane generously gave us a bunch of supplies (floss, sun screen, anti bacterial soap, the whole thing!) that she no longer needed since her trip was coming to an end. I was ecstatic---it felt like Christmas!!

We said our goodbyes to Jane and Bert, sad to see them leave. After showers we drove into Mopti to do a little research into taking the public pinasse up the Niger River to Timbuktu. The drive into Mopti was typically chaotic with narrow dirt roads and all manor of goats, chickens, cows, and people crowding the streets. Our half-hearted effort ended up being more about checking out the city than researching boats and we returned to Mac’s knowing little more than before we set out. We’ll try again tomorrow!

 
     
 

Mopti - August 6, 2006
(Jim Writes): We’re starting to learn why people stay at Mac’s Refuge. It’s not Mac, the Refuge’s somewhat infamous proprietor who’s been described by countless other travelers using such adjectives as “rude,” “pompous,” “snippy,” “self important,” and “condescending” (which I believe is kind). It’s definitely not price, as it’s not a great value and one of the most expensive places we’ve camped since we left England ($9/per person/per night to camp in a cramped parking lot). It’s not the reliable electricity which cuts out frequently – the product of a mouse problem, which has dug it’s teeth into the electrical wiring. Rather, it’s the fascinating people who seem to pass through, drawn there by what I don’t know. This morning was no exception and we had breakfast with a likeable Australian couple, Matt and Joe, who are currently living in Ghana. Matt’s a screenwriter (currently writing for Ghana’s new hit sitcom “Dorm Girls”) and professor at the University of Ghana and Joe’s an Ophthalmologist doing a rotation at the hospital in Accra. Following an enjoyable conversation at breakfast, we walked with them into town where they headed for the internet cafe and we hopped a local bus to Mopti’s port.

Thanks to Betty, most of our experience with the dangerously over stuffed buses which are usually overflowing with chickens, goats, cattle (yes, we saw three live cows strapped on the roof of one such bus) people, bicycles, produce, luggage, and everything else imaginable, has been dodging them in traffic. Today we were lucky enough to be the first one packed onboard a dilapidated white bus with two seats in the front and a large cargo area in the rear with a bench running around the outer wall and two tires placed on the floor in the middle. After we were comfortably aboard, it was like a flood gate opened and they started loading people on like it was a slave ship. Every time it looked like the bus was full and we were ready to roll, the ticket-taker would start searching the street for more passengers. They kept loading people on and, much to our dismay, each new passenger seemed to be bigger than the last. At one point, I thought Jim’s 9-lives had finally run out as a very rotund woman came crashing down on top of him, hardly noticing his comparatively tiny body as it disappeared beneath her. 45 long, painful minutes later, the last bit of cargo was winched into place and we were ready to go. Fortunately the ride was only 15 minutes and, after excavating Jim, we set out for the harbor to do some more digging into pinasses to Timbuktu.

To give you some background. We were torn as to how to get to Timbuktu. The purest in us said that we should take the classic overland route – an adventure in itself. The more adventurous side of us said we should get a birth on a public pinasse. A masochistic experience under the very best of circumstances, most travelers who’ve done it say it was horrible and they’d never do it again. Basically, for three days (commonly it takes several more as the boats frequently breakdown) you are crammed onto a dangerously overstuffed pinasse (kind of like a very long dugout canoe) tightly alongside people, chickens, goats, and other cargo. There are no luxuries like say water, seats, personal space or protection from the sun, rain, mosquitoes, and flies. It’s kind of like voluntarily going camping on a slave ship. Comfort is generally not an option, so the trick is to get a birth on the boat that’s least likely to sink (yep, they regularly sink) and try to get a spot as far away from the engine as possible.

Intrigued by the idea, we set out to learn more. Without the luxury of a ticket booth, signage, or any information indicating where to buy tickets, how much they cost, or even which boats are headed to Timbuktu, it’s a little easier said than done to do your homework. Moreover, with no official ticket office, buying a ticket basically requires you to head down to the docks in search of a middleman. Middleman however is a bit of a misrepresentation as the type of people you’re most likely to run into at the port in Mopti are cash hungry hustlers. Once you’ve found the most trustworthy (read: least seedy) character you can, you start negotiating stowage on whatever boat he has ties to. This alone can be problematic as all pinasses are not created equal and, after having watched many pinasses pass down the river loaded so heavily that water was all the way up to the gunwales, we wanted to find a larger pinasse that at least appeared, to our untrained eye, to be capable of making it to Timbuktu.

Our search eventually took us to Bozo Bar, a popular restaurant located next to the harbor, where we sought out a Malian that Mac said might be able to help us. At first, this seemed like a promising lead however before long, he brought in his own middle man, exactly the type of dubious character we’d tried to avoid, to broker a deal. Discussing the details was maddening. We asked specific questions about boats we’d read about in Lonely Planet, schedules, and prices. The more questions we asked the less comfortable we were with the answers. We never could get a straight answer about the schedule and they knew nothing about the boats listed in Lonely Planet. Instead, all discussions seemed to lead back to his friend’s boat, which incidentally wasn’t available for us to see. After a while we started to feel like we were chasing our own tails and the whole thing seemed to reek of poo. The longer the conversation carried on, the more I could picture us paying too much money for what promised to be the worst birth on the smallest, least seaworthy boat in Mopti. We decided to sleep on it.

In the meantime we had a delightful lunch overlooking the Bani River. Afterwards, Joe and Matt joined us and we collectively decided to take on a more modest adventure. We hired a small pirogue to explore the nearby villages the following day. With our adventure calendar now full, we passed the balance of the afternoon sipping cold beers and watching the bustle of Mopti’s harbor.

Back at Mac’s, we joined Jane and Bert for dinner. It was another delightful evening with new friends. Over dinner Jane eagerly told us about her stay at the orphanage and about the adorable young boy that she had sponsored. It sounded like a wonderful experience which only increased our own interest in potentially adopting a child in Africa. After dinner, we invited Jane and Bert to join us on the pirogue the following morning. Jane and Bert had a surprise for us as well, before retiring to bed, they gave us another gift.....Peanut Butter!!! After mentioning our many failed attempts to find peanut butter in Africa, they generously produced a jar of England finest spread from their truck. Again, it felt like Christmas! It’s the little things that make all the difference when you’re so far from home.

 
     
 

Douentza - August 7, 2006
(Jim Writes): After a stormy night in which we were out of our tent at 4am, concerned we were about to be struck by lightening, our alarm woke us at 6:00. A couple of taps on the snooze button later, we dragged ourselves out of bed to get ready for our morning pirogue trip down the Bani River. At 7:00 we joined Matt, Jo, Jane, and Bert for breakfast at the Refuge before calling two taxi’s to take us into town. The taxi ride to the harbor was a memorable experience. Hands down the least roadworthy vehicle I’ve ever stepped foot into, it was stripped completely bare inside and out. Literally, just a rusting shell with four seats, a steering wheel and a gear shifter remained. None of which seemed to be securely bolted to the chassis. To start the engine, the driver rummaged through a jumble of loose wires until he located two live ones which he rubbed together to fire the ignition. When this didn’t work he called upon us to give it a push. This got us as far as the nearest gas station where the driver stopped for a liter or so of gas. The engine stalled again during our “in-flight” refueling and we repeated the entire process over again – this time with what seemed like an entire engine overhaul thrown in before we were back on the road. We repeated this procedure again on the way to the harbor as it stalled it’s way along the dusty market road leading to the water. We finally arrived, having felt like we’d really accomplished something. We’d actually made it into town!

The pirogue trip turned out to be a more relaxing, less interactive journey. The weather was pleasant as we slowly poled our way up the Bani River, past tiny mud and thatch villages. Life seemed to center around the Bani’s mocha colored waters as women washed clothes and bathed along it’s banks, men cast nets from fleets of fishing pirogues and children splashed and played. It was an enjoyable trip, which took us to the convergence of the Bani and the Niger Rivers before heading back to Mopti.

Afterwards, Jo and Matt said their good-byes and headed for Djenne while Jane and Bert took off for Bamako. Eager to get off as well, we packed away the tent, took a quick shower, grabbed lunch and, having decided to travel to Timbuktu through the desert rather than up the Niger, climbed into Betty and setoff for Douentza, our destination for the night.

The landscape on the drive was beautiful. Lush green vegetation, rocky mountains, and flooded rice fields. About 90kms into our drive we got caught in a terrible storm in which we could hardly drive at all. Finally however, we reached Douentza. Finding a hotel was a bit of an adventure. We started by entering the GPS waypoint for Raid Expeditions Chez Jerome, a campement recommended by other overlanders. As we passed through town, we unfortunately grabbed the attention of a hustler who jumped on his motorbike in hot pursuit. He caught up to us just as we arrived at the campement and quickly ran inside ahead of us so that he could tell the proprietor that he’d led us there (and of course should get a commission). This isn’t the first time this has happened (in fact it happened just a few days ago in Djenne) and I don’t have much tolerance for it as the commission usually seems to get tacked onto our rate. That said, I called the hustler out on it, which of course pissed him off and caused a huge ordeal. In the end, we decided to take another place just down the road at Camp Hotel Falaise,
as the whole thing became more hassle than it was worth.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Timbuktu - August 8, 2006
(Jim Writes): With our preferred route now flooded by the heavy rains, we were required to take the “easier” track from Douentza. By easier, I mean to say less challenging rather than good, as the track was a badly corrugated affair with frequent washed out sections and mud holes that didn’t allow us much time to enjoy the beautiful desert landscape, now covered in a layer of lush green grass from the recent rains. 140 long, bone jarring miles later, we reached the southern bank of the Niger River. Crossing the Niger was an experience in itself. The only option is a small barge ferry and our first challenge was finding the ferry “terminal.” I use the word terminal really more to amuse myself as there’s no terminal, harbor, dock, or structure of any kind. Infact, there’s no signs referencing a ferry, no ferry personnel, and for that matter no road leading to the place of embarkation. Our only clue to the ferry’s existence was four Toyota Land Cruisers sitting conspicuously along a lonely stretch of river in what can best be described as the middle of nowhere. We joined them and waited patently in hopes that a ferry would soon turn up. After a relatively short wait of about thirty minutes, the ferry arrived and we watched as it struggled to position itself close enough to shore to offload it’s cargo. With the help of a motorized pinasse, it managed to get within twenty feet or so of land. This seemed close enough to satisfy the boat captain who then lowered two thin steel ramps and signaled for the three trucks that were onboard to offload. Each crawled down the narrow ramps, entering the waist deep water with a splash, and waded to shore.

Once the ferry was empty, the captain signaled to begin boarding and, as if wading into the water and climbing up the narrow ramp wasn’t enough, he requested that each truck board backwards. The first two trucks made it up without incident however the third Land Cruiser, a 79 series pickup, fell off the ramp half way up and the truck slid precariously back into the water creating a bit of drama. As each truck boarded it looked less promising that there would be room for us and by the time the fourth truck was loaded our hopes were dashed as there was only enough room left for a donkey cart. With the ferry full, it reversed its engine and slowly disappeared down up the Niger towards Timbuktu.

We passed the next hour by playing with a handful of small children from some nearby mud fishing huts. It was an enjoyable visit and before long we could see another ferry coming down the river. When the ferry arrived it was empty and after watching it repeat the painful process of landing, we boarded, without incident, accompanied by a lone man and his donkey. Once onboard, and underway the captain showed us the ticket prices. As it turns out, there’s a flat fee of 15,000 CFA per boat, which is evenly divided by the number of vehicles onboard. Since we were the only vehicle we got stuck with the entire fare. Ouch!

An hour later, we arrived at Korioume and drove backwards down the thin metal boarding ramps and onto shore. The drive from Korioume was short and we soon arrived at Hotel Camping Timbuktu, our campsite for the night. It was now late afternoon and after getting settled we walked into town to do a bit of exploring. With our enthusiasm somewhat tempered by what we’d read in our guide books,, we wondered along Timbuktu’s dusty streets trying to imagine what the place must have been like at the height of the camel caravans. Situated on the edge of the Sahara with camel caravans arriving laden with salt, it’s still a magical place, however much of it’s former luster has fa ded and like Djenne, we were met by touts and hustlers peddling their wares. The delivery was almost always the same. A man, or even young boy, greets you on the street in full Toureg dress and says “ Where are you from?” They then begin running through a list of countries. “France, England, America, Japan……..” Instead of completely ignoring them, we always got a kick out of saying Japan since it seemed so obviously ridiculous but, without the slightest pause, they’d reply “Welcome to Timbuktu. I am Toureg. I just arrived from the desert. Six days by camel.” This introduction was quickly followed by an attempt to show you their “authentic” Toureg jewelry and other souvenirs which they desperately want to sell. It’s as if the entire city attended a Moroccan boot camp on how to hustle.

 
 
 
 

Timbuktu - August 9, 2006
We got up around sunrise in hopes of catching good light to photograph some of Timbuktu’s mud mosques. Conditions weren’t perfect but we had a nice time nevertheless and enjoyed exploring the city’s mosques and labyrinth of narrow winding alleys flanked by mud buildings. Afterwards, we drove into the desert just north of town. The balance of the day was spent exploring the surrounding area and taking photographs.

Shortly before sunset, we struck up a conversation with Abou Bacrine, a local man we met while photographing the Sankore mosque. We learned that he was a Toureg from Techek who splits his time between his village and Timbuktu, where he makes a living through herding camels and making jewelry which he sells to merchants at the local tourist craft market. After a lengthy chat, which included a detailed synopsis of the differences between mouton and chevre, he invited us to join him at his camp just outside of town for tea. Inside the camp we found a large dome hut fashioned of sticks covered in animal skins. Outside the hut there were a half dozen or so people lying on mats, some sleeping while others were chatting over tea. Abou rolled out a large mat and gave each of us pillows so that we could lay under the stars and rest as he prepared tea. As we lay gazing at the stars, we chatted with about desert life, about the introduction of tourism, and about the decline of the salt caravans. He explained that the camp was run by others from his village as a sort of communal living arrangement for the growing number of Touregs who split their time between Techek and Timbuktu to make business with tourists. He went on to say that he pays one salt slab per year in rent. Our conversation continued late into the night. An enjoyable end to an interesting day in one of the world’s most fabled cities.

 
     
 

Mopti - August 10, 2006
(Jim Writes): Up early, we set out at 8:00 to make the long journey back to Mopti. When we arrived at the ferry we were queued up behind a line of other four wheel drives, all waiting patiently, some for over three hours, for their turn to splash into the muddy Niger and board. As we waited we learned that, a couple of hours before, an overland truck managed to get stuck in the mud while offloading on the other side of the river and subsequently one of the two ferries was now stuck as well as they tried the free the truck.

After a long wait the ferry finally arrived and as luck would have it, we again found ourselves the fifth and last vehicle in line. Fortunately, this time the captain decided to make a little extra cash by, in true Africa fashion, cramming five trucks where there’s only room for four and charging us 3,500 CFA. The ride across was relaxing as we passed hippos resting in the river and small mud villages along the banks.. Once on the other side we were the first to offload and headed south along the rough dirt track towards Mopti. Things went smoothly until just outside of Douentza, where heavy rains had left the road completely submerged in water and a giant overland truck was stuck in the the middle of the road blocking our path. The only way around took us through deep water which concealed an even deeper ditch. Before we knew what hit us we went nose first into it (our fault for not checking first), hitting with so much force that I thought for sure we’d done all kinds of damage to the truck. With the engine stalled and the front end submerged halfway up the hood in water, we figured we’d have to spend the next few hours digging. Fortunately I was able to restart the engine and after slipping it into low range and locking the diffs, I applied some gas and somehow Betty managed to claw her way up and out of the mess. We were so surprised that we’d gotten out that we just sat there for a minute gaining our composure in complete disbelief. Once away from the water I got out to check the damage. Everything was caked in thick mud, but the only damage I could find was that the bottom of the bull bar was bent.

Happy to have made it out unscathed, we continue on with the only other challenge being a long flooded area of road just before entering Douentza. The remainder of the drive from Douentza to Mopti was an easy journey along paved roads and we arrived at Mac’s Refuge shortly before dark. Tired, we were feeling lazy and opted for the overpriced dinner at Mac’s rather than heading into town for cheaper fare. At dinner, we met four American’s who were passing through on their way up to Sanga where they planned to take a three day trek through Dogon country. As we chatted over dinner, we learned that Shelton, a friendly, easy going native of Alabama, was a diplomat (and ultra marathoner:) currently assigned to the US embassy in Bamako. Amy, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, was a Ph.D student at Johns Hopkins University currently conducting research in a small village south of Bamako. Kati, an energetic ultra marathoner and outdoor junkie, was with the US Army on her second assignment in Africa and Wes, a Washingtonian, was also a diplomat at the US embassy in Bamako. It was an enjoyable evening with new friends.

 
     
 

Dogon - August 11-13, 2006
(Jim Writes): Our plan for the day was to have a quick breakfast and then head south to Sanga our jumping off point for a trek through Dogon country. In Sanga, we’d been told there was a mission where we could leave our truck and arrange a guide. Dogon is the name of a famous tribe that inhabit the cliffs and area surrounding a beautiful plateau not far from the boarder of Burkina Faso. At breakfast, we were joined by Shelton, Wes, Amy, and Kati who, when they learned we were also planning a trip to Dogon, invited us to join them on their trek. Having enjoyed getting to know them over the previous two meals, we gladly accepted and after some quick preparations, were met by our guide David and headed south in a two vehicle convoy to Sanga.

Once in Sanga we had a quick lunch while David made final preparations and then we were off, accompanied by a large armada of teenage boys who were hopeful we’d quickly tire under the weight of our tiny lightweight daypacks and request their service as porters. Our walk took us approximately eight miles as we descended from a high plateau through picturesque mud and thatch Dogon villages perched precariously on the cliff faces. Below was a stunning valley covered in lush green grass and dotted with ancient boabab trees. It was a hike characterized by steep descents and ascents, stunning scenery, and interesting Dogon villages. Shortly before sunset we arrived in Koundou where we retired to the roof top of a mud building to eat and sleep for the night.

After a memorable night sleeping under the stars, we got up early to start the long walk to Yendouma. The trek was beautiful as we ascended another high plateau, along the way passing through a remarkable Dogon village dangling on a steep cliff and through a narrow slot canyon carved by a beautiful turquoise river. From the canyon, we scrambled up a small hand made ladder to the summit of the plateau. From the top we enjoyed an amazing panorama of the remarkable landscape below. From the plateau we descended again, passing through Yougapiri, where we stopped for lunch in route to Yendouma, our stopping point for the night. Along the way, we had an opportunity to get to know our new friends better as we chatted about everything from life back in the states to the US government, diplomatic affairs, running, photography, travel, and all topics Africa. Talking to Amy was particularly fascinating as we learned about her life in Niger and her current research in Mali. In Amy we found a wealth of knowledge about modern day Africa and found ourselves chatting for hours on end about genital mutilation, rural heathcare and malaria, education, and the many other issues facing modern day Africa.

After wading through a murky river, past women washing their clothes, we finally arrived in Yendouma. Once settled Kati, Amy, Sheri, and I walked down to the weekly market to have a look. A small but colorful village market selling all the usual things from soap, to indigo cloth, to food stuffs, we picked up the beignets and Amy and Kati picked up a couple of indigo clothes before heading back to our rooftop camp. Back at our campsite, we spent the balance of the evening good conversation over dinner and a few beers.

A leisurely and beautiful walk through a dramatic landscape characterized our third and final day in Dogon. It was a wonderful way to end a memorable journey. Back in Sanga, we stopped for lunch before starting the picturesque drive back to Mopti. Along the way we stopped at Songo, where we hiked up to a cave to view some interesting Dogon rock art before returning to Mac’s Refuge where we spent our final night in Mali