Actually, Christmas 2008 was spent wandering around Dogon villages with Christmas dinner at Sévaré, where I cleaned up after three nights camping. For I was on a fifteen day Exodus tour of Mali over the holidays, just before people poured in for January’s Festival of the Desert celebration north of Timbuktu.
There were three stages up to Timbuktu: bus to Dogon county, trekking in the Dogon country, boat to Korioumé (port for Timbuktu); on the return, we drove but the first part of that was on an unbelievably unimproved dirt road that took most of a day’s drive - we were in a M-B vehicle that was a cross between a Safari truck and a Hummer. (There are twice weekly flights that will likely increase as the new Sofitel hotel is completed.)
The trip started in the capital, Bamako; with thirteen others, mostly Brits but with a couple of Canadians, a Japanese and myself, we traveled north via Segou (where the Festival of the Niger is help in February) and Djenne to Mopti, where we veered off to Dogon country.
Djenne has this magnificent mud brick mosque, the largest mud brick building in the world. I was able to get inside and it was extraordinary. Monday market was packed with people and it was difficult to move around. The next night was at Sévaré, the bedroom community for Mopti, a busy port on the Niger. Before tackling the Dogon, we spent a morning checking out the very active market and port, with motorbike, people and goat washing occurring next to docked boats.
While we had camped atop a roof in Djenne, serious camping began in the Dogon country where the trekking began. Now all, that is all but me, had signed on for this trip because of the camping and trekking. They were serious campers and trekkers. Me? I signed on despite the camping and trekking - and wondered how I would survive both. All fourteen of us managed nicely, thank you very much.
The Dogons had moved off into their own territory to avoid the Muslin majority where they remained isolated until the thirties. They are now Muslim, Christian and animalist - all living together peacefully. Lonely Planet lists the Dogon country as one of the top-10-places-to-see-before-you-die.
The Dogons’ villages are above and below the 150 meter Falaise de Bandiagara, which is a serious climb both up and down. But the views are exceptional and for some of the villages, the only way you can visit them. Paths link the villages with occasional primitive ladders often the only way to cross chasms. We spent several days, less the noonday sun, traipsing from one to another. The villagers were friendly, eager to sell their craft work. The children were almost overwhelmingly friendly.
Camping was at campmonts, organized camp grounds, with our crew including cook, traveling in the 4+4 meeting us at specified times with food and tents. Campmonts were basic, some more than others. One had facilities of a sort; others simply provided a semi-private hole in the ground along with a large oil can jerry-rigged for a shower.
We came back to Sévaré for a respite before more basic camping in conjunction with the three day river trip via traditional pinassee - engine powered wood long boat with fixed seats in front and thatched roof covering the mid boat placed “thunder box”, a square red metal container, which contained the toilet, which was set up several steps and left you observing yourself suitably enthroned for there was a fair sized mirror opposite. (Thunder box was name given the somewhat portable toilets used by the Brits stationed in India during Kipling’s time - it seemed to fit our facility.)
During the day, we would stop at villages for a break and to check out the markets. At night, we would stop at a clear area and pitch our tents. We continued to travel with the cook who could put together a meal on the boat and bring it to the camp site. Both nights, we built a fire but no marshmallows! The last village visited seemed the most authentic: less Western garb and no gasoline powered machines. Just donkey and man power pushing/pulling the carts.
Then for two nights at Timbuktu. The Old City is, while dusty, picturesque. Mud bricks which have to be restored at the end of the rainy season were still used though some buildings were of sandstone. There were three magnificent mosques, several museums and the residences of several of the explorers who made it to Timbuktu. Outside the old city, it is the usual basic African town, with a series of ramshackle shops and mostly unasphalted streets.
Three of us spent an afternoon with a young Tuareg tribesmen (they wear blue scarves covering their faces and have a history of past conflict with the authorities - Algerian, Malian, Nigerian, whoever!)) who was a leather worker and familiar with the local Museum of Ancient Manuscripts. He took us to his family’s place for tea and then out to the dunes so we could see the sun set over the Sahara desert. The Tuareg still camel caravan salt across the Sahara to Timbuktu, where it is placed on a boat to go down the Niger to Mopti, where it moves onto a truck for further distribution.
We worked our way back down to Bamako via Sévaré and Segou. This time, we explored Segou a bit:, walked abut the old French Colonial mansions, now used by the government for offices and/or residences, .sauntered along the river bank and saw where the Festival of the Niger would be held. Segou seemed to have some charm. Sévaré did have a bar where New Year’s Eve could be celebrated. But we almost didn’t get there: bus broke down - fuel line blockage - but after an hour of activity, it got fixed. Ah Africa!
It was at Sévaré I ran into Kate and The Mog. Kate is a Brit, in her 30s? 40s? who had traveled from Scotland, through the Ukraine, into Southern France, then Morocco and on into Mali. She and a companion operate the Mog, a camper on steroids. The cab and chassis are M-B, made for the German Army while the trailer is custom done - a self enclosed unit with all facilities There is a tent packed in on top and a motor bike attached to the back. Check it - and her - out at www.mogonthemove.com. I gave her my card and told her to call if she wanted another companion.
General Impressions: Mali is a poor country, mostly Muslim. Infrastructure is very basic, more so than Ethiopia . Exports are cotton, gold and the music. And with the music comes tourism. I did see several other tour groups, one Asian, in the Dogon country and ran into some Americans on their way to the Festival of the Desert.
Now is the Mali tourist season: they make it in during these few months and then, there’s nothing. Our guide who spoke four languages, trained as a teacher but could not find work as an educator for there was no money to pay him. He told me doctors, who are in sore need, work as tour guides as there is not the money to hire them.
French naturally, since Mali was part of French West Africa, is the official language but there are half a dozen tribal languages. As an English speaker only, I had some difficulty and was bailed out by the kindness of others in the group.
Food was ok. For the most part, I ate vegetarian with some excellent white fish on two occasions. Otherwise, vegetable sauce and pasta, cous-cous or rice. Breakfast, as you would expect in a French influenced country, was roll, butter and jam with sometimes, cheese, and always, Nescafe. In self defense, I carry my own herbal tea.
Exodus says in their trip notes that hotels are simple but clean but showers may be cold, the roads can be particularly bumpy and dusty and the heat makes the trekking tiring even though it is not difficult. These are fair statements. But I found it all worth while to see a rather unique country and to earn my T-shirt: I have Been to Timbuktu and Back!
Details: Flew over via Air France: SFO to Paris, then Bameko. Return, Bameko to Paris to Seattle to SFO - the Paris-SFO flight was overbooked. Airfare was $2622.77. The tour cost $2656 which included about half of the meals. Adventure Center handled all the bookings with their usual competence.