Mali - Kidira to Bamako

February 17, 2004

I am in Bamako

Yes, I have actually got here to Bamako. I am exhausted. I am in fact so tired that I can't even bring myself to blog about the journey here! I will go and eat something and then come back, if I can ever find this internet place again!

bamako market
Bamako market
Photo - Ali

Bamako is not without it's charm, although I can't exactly figure out what it is at the moment. The only ATM here is not giving me money, so I have to cash the remains of my traveller cheques, and work out when to fly home. That is the business for tomorrow, to find a travel agent. I heard rumours that you can get pizza here...

February 17, 2004

The Journey to Bamako (part 1)

The Journey to Bamako started very well, and then rapidly descended into what could only be called a 'long, strange journey'. Actually, it could probably be called all sorts of other things, but I'll stick with my current definition.

I managed to find the Peugot Taxi to the Mali border at Kidira, and I purchased place number 5, meaning that we only needed to wait for 2 more people. These were slow in coming, and a bloke came up to me and asked me in English if I wanted to chip in to get the taxi going. Sounded good to me, so I agreed. He then went on to ask me to explain to the other passengers in French, what we were doing. It dawned on me that he was not local, and he turned out to be Nigerian. He also turned out to speak not a single word of French at all, and to also be going to Bamako. I ended up spending the next 24 hours with him, and being the fool that I am, I can't remember his name. This means that for the purpose of this entry, he will be referred to as MNF (My Nigerian Friend).

Anyway, getting to the Mali border was the proverbial 'piece of piss' (easy). Three hours later, we had arrived. The first problem was finding the immigration people. They seemed to have hidden their sheds down random side steets. We got ourselves stamped out of Senegal, and then found the bridge to Mali, and over we went. MNF was asking me why they don't have the immigration posts at the actual border. He had actually come this way 8 years before from Nigeria to The Gambia. Now, for the first time, he was going back. He said it was 3 days from Bamako to Lagos, but once he got to Burkina Faso, people would be able to understand his native language, and it would be easier for him. For the time being he was speaking to everyone in English, which I found quite funny to watch, because everyone just stared blankly at him.

kidira near border hut
The border hut is around here somewhere
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

Anyway, we found the Mali hut, and while I filled out a giant form, the immigration officer was extracting a bribe from MNF, as his paperwork was not quite in order.
'Why are you giving me a hard time, I'm going home to see my family', said MNF.
He was met with blank stares, some mutterings about people not speaking French, and a request for five quid.
'When they see a Nigerian, they always want money', said MNF.
Meanwhile, back on my side of the desk, the officer was asking me for a photo.

the senegal mali border
The bridge between Mali and Senegal
Photo - Joao Pedro Leitao

He looked rather surprised when I produced one, and I sensed he had lost his opportunity to extract a bribe. As we were on our way, Tunisia won the final of the Cup of African Nations football. All we had to do now was get to Kayes, which was allegedly 2 hours away. The journey, starting at 3pm, fell into several distinct stages...

Stage 1 - Waiting
We found the guy with the vehicle, which was in fact an old French water van. We paid our money, plus extra for the front seat, which was quite wide, and then we waited for 2 hours. More people came. Off we went.

Stage 2 - The False Start
We drove for 2km, then the van conked out. MNF said he knew about cars, and it was the spark plugs. He said the driver was 'no mechanic'. The driver walked back to get some spark plugs. MNF said the driver was 'not too clever'.

Stage 3 - Slow Driving
By 7pm we were on our way again, albeit at a very slow pace on a dirt track. MNF said the car was 'no good'. We talked about tourism in The Gambia. Darkness fell.

Stage 4 - Very Slow Driving
We were now proceeding at a criminally slow pace. We got a flat tyre. The jack didn't work very well. It took a while to change the tyre. We carried on. I noticed the headlights weren't very bright. MNF said the battery was 'no good'. The engine kept cutting out. The battery was so flat, we had to push start the van every time it conked out. 'We will not make it', said MNF.

Stage 5 - Incredibly Slow Driving with no Lights
Finally, the battery refused to power the headlights. The solution was a guy on the roof holding one torch, and me holding another torch out of the passenger window. It didn't exactly illuminate the road. We were crawling along. It was getting towards 11pm.

Stage 6 - Walking
Yes, finally the van gave up entirely. 'This car is going nowhere', MNF said. I enquired as to the distance from Kayes. It was about 3km. I told MNF.
'Shall we trek?', he said. So, trek we did. Us and about 7 others, finally arriving in Kayes at 1am.

We checked into a hotel, and MNF said he was leaving the next morning on the 12 hour trip to Bamako. I said that I had reserved that day for sleeping, so the next morning we parted company, leaving me with a whole day in Kayes to imagine the horror of the 12 hours to Bamako still to come...

February 18, 2004

The Journey to Bamako (part 2)

And so it was, that the second day of the long voyage to Bamako began at 6.30am with breakfast. By 8am, I had found the transport garage. By 8.30am, I had a ticket, and was told the journey was 11 or 12 hours. Not only that, but I had paid extra and bagged the all important seat in the front.

The vehicle to be used, I would call a 'fortified monster truck bus conversion', or FMTBC for short (not that short really?!). The FMTBC had giant wheels, and a bunch of very small seats rammed in the back. The cab of the FMTBC, being a kind of truck, was pretty wide, and had 3 seats. One for the driver, one for the 'police checkpoint document giver', and one for me.

The distance to cover was 400 miles, and previously would take 2 days, but the European Union had very kindly financed a new road, which made the journey possible in a day. This is why the daily trains had stopped running. I didn't mind this, as I heard the train was awful.

We didn't set off until about 11.30am, which didn't bode well, and once underway I realised that there was pretty much 3 small towns in the whole of western Mali. I was glad I had come prepared with croissants.

At this point, I would like to urge the European Union to put their skates on, as they haven't finished the middle 200km of the road. The driver seemed to double his speed when we got to this part, which was exciting for about 3 minutes as we flew over the ruts in the FMTBC, but then became very scary when it was dark, and I admit to shutting my eyes in fear for a short period of time.

Once I had assesed that perhaps the driver wasn't about to go flying off the road, I quite enjoyed parts of the journey. I was very happy with my comfortable front seat, and felt only mild twinges of guilt about the old foreign lady who was scrunched in the back. My justification formed several levels - First of all, she hadn't even shown up till 11am, so I deserved the front seat for being early and buying it first. Second of all, she was part of a Catholic Mission, so she had God to help her through the journey. Finally, I figured that she had probably had plenty of time to rest because she lived here, whereas I had been through long and stressful journeys. My guilty feeling was vanquished.

So, to cut a long story short, as Spandau Ballet would say, we got nearer and nearer to Bamako, stopping only 3 times at small villages for food. It became pretty clear that '12 hours' was in fact a great work of fiction. We arrived at 4am.

So, I gave the name of a hotel to a taxi driver. He claimed he knew it, and then off we went. We arrived and rather than 'Tamana Hotel', it says 'Jamana Hotel'. 'What the hell', I thought, 'Maybe it's spelt wrong?'. As I get out of the taxi, I am set upon by a bunch of women offering me massages and other kinds of things which I am sure you can imagine. I explain that I am tired, and proceed to check in. Being very thirsty, I see if I can get a coke, and I am directed to a bar in the hotel. It's 4.30am and it's full of drunk Malians. I get my coke and leg it, finally sleeping at 5am. I sense this is not the 'small, friendly hotel' mentioned in the book. I am right, and the next day, I check out, and move to the real 'Tamana', which is a little island of paradise here in Bamako.

Now I feel kind of jet-lagged and I haven't even been on a plane...

February 18, 2004


What has Paris got to do with Africa? You might well be thinking that right now. In fact, this whole region is incredibly geared towards France, with French the common language, and many trade and cultural links.

A good example of this, I noticed today when I went to ask about flights home. To go to London is over 650 quid, yet I can fly to Paris for only 235 quid. Guess where I will flying back to?

In fact, I decided today that two and a half months is quite long enough to be wandering around in Africa, and I booked my flight to Paris for Sunday.

So, the days of the Africa Blog are numbered.

It took me 3 hours to change travellers cheques today. Quite impressive, even by African standards. There's not many touts here, which is nice, although I must be weakening, as I was persuaded to buy a wooden monkey.
Yes, a monkey made of wood.

Bamako is like a giant version of the Holloway Road Nags Head flea market, only it's not so upmarket, and not quite as clean...

bamako melons
Melons in Bamako
Photo - Ali

I'm finding it quite a challenge not to get run over. I find a good solution is to take taxis everywhere. I found a Swedish detective story translated into English in the hotel. It's an enthralling read, some detective named Becker (not Ted Danson) goes behind the Iron Curtain. Maybe it's just Beck (not the singer dude), rather than Becker (not Boris). I can't remember. It's called something like 'The man who went up in a cloud of smoke'. Look out for it. Written in 1968. Set in Budapest and Stockholm. What more do you need...

February 19, 2004

4 Days Left

As the time has arrived that the Africa Blog has 4 days left to run, I thought I would reflect on the trip, but in the absence of a mirror I will just say some things instead.

I've found it pretty hard going a lot of the time, which is not to say I haven't enjoyed myself a lot as well, and it's certainly been interesting. Aside from the guys who make their living hassling tourists, the people here have been nothing but kind, polite and friendly. Considering how rich I am compared to almost everybody here, there seems to be very little resentment, and very low levels of crime.

I've found it hard being on my own a lot, as there are not many other people around who can speak English, and my French is regrettably not up to conversation levels. I am also very grateful for being made to learn at least some French in school, as without knowing any at all, travel here would have been made much more of an ordeal (if that's possible!!)

bamako river avenue
More of Bamako
Photo - Ali

The difficulty of travelling here, it seems, is that there is not much middle ground. There is cheap (not as cheap as you might think) and rough, where you are crammed into a tiny battered car for hours on end, and sleep on a dirty mattress. Then there is the other extreme, where you hire a car and driver, go on tours, and stay in posh hotels in the cities. There is not too much in the middle, and the middle is where I would prefer to be, being a little old for all the hardship, but not quite rich enough for the other option. Although, if I had come for less time I could have come in style.

Anyway, I finished the Swedish book. The butler did it. Well, no it wasn't the butler. The book had a crap ending. I have nothing else to say on the matter.

My flight is with 'Trans Africa Airlines'. Never heard of them? A little research shows that they are the brand new carrier for Mali, since Air Mali has now ceased to exist apparently. My only hope is that they maintain their airplanes better than they do their cars...

February 21, 2004

The Fear

The Fear is deep inside. The Fear comes in the morning. The Fear knows when you are a long way from civilisation. Yes, a few times I have had The Fear.

What happens is this. You wake up feeling a bit rough. You are hot. Your stomach feels funny. You know you are supposed to take a long journey today. You know that journey is miles from decent towns and cities. You think, 'What if I get the shits?', 'What if I've got malaria?' , 'What will I do then, in the middle of nowhere?'.

A slow panic arrives. You consider postponing the journey for a day. You sit on the toilet. Nothing happens. You stand under the fan. You think, 'Have I got a fever, or is it just hot?'. You think, 'Shall I go, or not?'.

These are the symptoms of The Fear, and although usually mild, I had quite a bad attack when I left Senegal for the 2 day trip to Bamako. I actually almost went back to the hotel from the taxi garage.

Of course, most people are not as easily visited by The Fear as me. I happen to fairly often feel crap in the morning, whether I'm in Africa or not. In reality, I never got malaria, and I didn't even get the proper shits. 3 times only in one day, and a bit runny. That's it. So, all of The Fear was unfounded.

Next week, It will be my privilege to wake up and feel like crap, knowing that The Fear will not be coming after me anymore. Bye Bye The Fear.

February 22, 2004

The End

I went to the airline office this morning, where they provide a 'pre-departure baggage check-in service'. This means you get to stand outside in the hot sun for an hour or so, while waiting to get to the desk in the shed outside their offices. It does, however mean you don't have to go through all that hassle at the airport itself, meaning there's much less chance of missing your flight due to ineptitude by the check-in staff. My bag received much derision because it had a hole in the top, and also only weighed 7kg. I have no defence for this state of affairs. I am truly sorry.

I am going to the airport at 8pm, leaving only 6 more hours for me to be run over, robbed, or catch malaria. Actually, I have seen the way the French drive, and been to the Gare de Nord. Meaning, that in my opinion, all of the above are much more likely to happen in Paris. Even the malaria, as I'm not safe until 4-6 weeks after I get back. Yes, those little parasites take a while to hatch out in your liver.

It's been a relaxing stay here in Bamako, as I've been reading, eating and sleeping, and I'm in what you might call the posh part of town (i.e. there are some restaurants).

It's very hot actually, and this may sound strange, but I kind of forgot that it is cold in Europe, which is only 6 hours north of here. I guess that's enough to make the difference. Speaking of which, I just read that the Pentagon says Britain will have a Siberian Climate by 2020. Great! We can all move to Mali. I thought the problem was global warming, not global freezing, so I suppose I'd better read the article again.

Moving swiftly on, I have noticed that when you go into a shop here you don't just walk in and say, 'A coke please'. You say, 'Hello, how are you?'. Then you shake the hand of the shopkeeper. He says, 'Fine, how are you?'. You say that you are fine, and perhaps you ask if his family are OK and so on. I tend to skip this part, as it is against my extreme nature of Britishness to be this chatty to shopkeepers. However, you can't miss the handshake and 'How are you?', as that would be very rude. It's kind of nice, if not a bit time consuming. I'm thinking of trying it out in the Argos on the Holloway Road.

Well, that's it. The Africa Blog is over. I've very much enjoyed writing it, and hopefully some people have enjoyed reading it. Maybe there is even a person out there who has read it, that doesn't even know me. That would be a miracle of the internet!

So, Paris awaits...

February 24, 2004

Getting Home

Now, I know I said I had made my last entry in the Africa Blog, and it is true that as I sit here typing, I am not in Africa. But as the journey home started in Africa, I am going to recklessly include the Africa Blog logo, and I hereby declare this entry part of the Africa Blog. Any objections must be submitted in writing, with full details of your very valid reasons.

So, the journey started at the airport, and it wasn't much of a journey to start with, as I had to queue up to actually get into the airport building. This involved a fun half hour being subjected to requests to buy CDs, tourist junk, and change money.

Once inside the airport, the queuing was fairly minimal due to the baggage check-in I had performed earlier in the day. The airport, although small, was equipped with fairly modern furnishings. Well, OK, they were modern in 1975, which was when they built the airport. It had been opened by a colonel, according to the plaque on the wall, and had an uncanny resemblance to Digbeth Coach station in Birmingham. I doubt whether Birmingham City Council managed to get a colonel to open their bus station, which just goes to show the state of public transport in Britain today.

The other rather interesting sign on the wall said - 'Any person making inappropriate comments regarding firearms, explosives or hijacking will be subject to arrest and prosecution'. I resisted the great temptation to shout 'I've got a bomb! I've got a bomb!'. I hope they can't get me now for writing 'inappropriate comments'.

The exit formalities went smoothly enough, although I was a little distressed to discover tourist junk sellers on the other side of immigration. Surely that can't be right? In their infinite wisdom, a final security check was performed just before we went up the staircase to the plane. This resulted in a 45 minute wait on the runway. Maybe they only like queueing out of doors.

The next thing you know, I was in Paris at 6am. Paris is really nice. I forget that sometimes. I took the TGV to Calais. I felt like I was on the paradise train. What a lovely train. The following boat to Dover was less lovely, but still not bad. I met a retired American, who spent his retirement wandering around the world, and gambling in casinos. He was very interesting to talk to, and he insisted on buying me lunch, which was very nice of him.

In case you are wondering why I didn't take the Eurostar, the very good reason is that you 'can't just turn up'. Well, you can actually, if you bring a whole wodge of cash. Non-advance-booked Eurostar fares are over 200 euros.

Anyway, I got the National Express bus to London, which then hit a pheasant and broke the windscreen. If you have a joke in mind about keeping the pheasant for dinner, then you are not the first, believe me..
That really is the end of Africa Blog.


View the route taken...

The Trip to Africa The Route
Tangier - Casablanca Casablanca - Sidi Ifni Sidi Ifni - Dakhla
Nouadibhou - Atar Atar - Rosso
Rosso - Banjul Banjul - Kidira
Kidira - Bamako