Since leaving you in Kankan a month ago, we’ve cycled just over 1000km, but most of our time has been spent off the bikes! We made our way through eastern Guinea, into Mali following a rough track along the banks of the Niger to Bamako, and then south-eastwards again to Sikasso, only a few kilometres from the Burkina Faso border. Leaving the bikes there, we headed back to Bamako a couple of weeks ago to meet Luke’s parents, who had flown out for a short holiday. Travelling around the country with them for ten days gave us the chance to see parts of Mali we would have missed, as well as catching up with news from home and spending some time together – seven months ago in Andorra feels like a long time ago! We are now in Bobo-Dioulasso, a couple of hundred kilometres inside Burkina Faso, where we’ll spend a few days before pressing on to the capital, Ouagadougou.
After meeting Luke’s mum and dad at Bamako airport and spending a day in the capital, we caught a bus to Segou, a smaller, quieter town 200km on down the river. It was there, as we were looking for a hotel, that we met (or rather were found by) Ibrahim, a guide working for a local company called Balanzan Tours. At first we reluctantly accepted his offer of a hotel, as it did seem better value for money than most, and the following morning we looked him out again as we wanted to visit some of Segou’s nearby attractions by pirogue. Ibrahim proposed an all-day trip which would take us upriver to visit Segou-Koro, the original village founded in the 18th century, and then along a smaller branch of the river to Kalabougou, a small village famous for its pottery.
We had a fantastic day messing about on the river, well, sitting back and lazily watching the world go by to be more precise. The villages were fascinating, especially seeing all the stages of pottery production. We were able to find out lots about local wildlife as well as the names of indigenous trees, as Ibrahim had completed an eco-tourism course! The balanzan or karite tree is particularly abundant around Segou, but you might be forgiven for not knowing that its nuts produce shea butter, a popular ingredient in moisturisers and cosmetics in the West. It’s not all for export though, local women favour shea butter soap for washing (themselves and their laundry). In the markets throughout the region you see trays of this soap for sale, formed into pale, grapefruit-sized spheres which look a bit like balls of wholemeal pastry flecked with butter!
We finished the day with a meal in a restaurant and ice cold beer…two things we can rarely afford on our usual budget! Impressed by Ibrahim’s knowledge and attentiveness we decided to visit the Dogon Country with him as our guide. We broke the journey in Djenne, famous for it’s massive mosque, winding alleyways and beautiful architecture. Luke, reunited at long last with his stolen camera (well, a replacement) was overjoyed at all this photogenic material. The following day we pressed on to Bandiagara, the trailhead town for the Dogon Country.
For three days, we walked between the stunning villages of the Bandiagara Escarpment – a ridge of sandstone which cuts across eastern Mali, and runs for several hundred kilometres. This unique landscape of plateau, cliff and plain, was inhabited originally by the Tellem and, from the fifteenth century onwards, by the Dogon following their flight from eastern Mali where a jihad was being waged.
The Tellem dwellings are quite incredible. They are built in niches, on rock ledges or under overhangs on the cliff faces, sometimes 100 metres off the ground! The Tellem dwellings, viewed from the sandy plain below, look like neat rows of pottery vessels, arranged along a rock shelf by some former giant inhabitant. The modern Dogon villages, no less attractive, are generally situated on the plain, but this is apparently a relatively recent relocation. In the last century the Dogon no longer feared Muslim expansionism but had to contend with the French occupation, and in fact some sites were abandoned as recently as 30 years ago. As a result the cliffside dwellings are remarkably well preserved and, as these former dwelling places have ritual significance, the walls are periodically replastered and crumbling roofs re-made to halt their demise. The wealth of information we were given about Dogon architecture, social structure and practices sadly can’t be fitted into this update! We would probably get the details wrong anyhow, so if you are keen to know more you’d be better off reading the works of anthropologist Marcel Griaule, a Frenchman who spent decades (rather than a few days) living in the Pays Dogon! Below are some of Luke’s photos to whet your appetite, though.
Back on the bikes, and talking of appetites…the one outstanding feature of rural Mali has been that mango trees abound – they are rapidly becoming the arboreal best friend of the expedition! Every village in eastern and southern Mali seems to have at least a dozen of these glossy-leaved trees and we have timed it right as the fruits have been ripening over the last month! Tiny, mottled, orange ones and huge, perfumed, green and pink specimens are arranged on little roadside stalls, varying in price according to the quality of the fruit – from less than a penny to a massive 10p… and they taste so much better than the overpriced ones you can buy (if you’re well off) in Britain.
There must be a trick to mango slicing, though, as we always end up covered in orange pulp, and with a quantity of skin and stone that seems to far exceed the volume of the fruit we started with – no wonder the kids regard us with a mix of amusement and horror! When they aren’t observing us they are often busy on their own mango quest – knocking down fruit with incredibly long bamboo poles, topped with an evil-looking hook. We doubt the concept of pocket money is widespread here, and so many kids don’t have the necessary penny to spend on non-essentials like a couple of mangoes. Lack of refrigeration and jam jars and the cost of all that sugar means producing mango jam or chutney on a commercial scale is not feasible, as a shopkeeper in a little village near Bamako told us. You could sympathise with him in his frustration – with 200-500 mangoes per tree there’s no way all the fruit can be eaten by the local population before it starts to rot! Impatient kids crunch the unripe green ones, and no doubt end up with stomach ache later… On our first full day in Burkina Faso we saw enormous piles of unripe fruit being loaded into crates and then onto lorries, perhaps bound for a foreign supermarket or a pulping plant.
Aside from the sumptuous fruit, mango trees also provide wonderful shade thanks to a dense crown of dark green leaves. We are not the only ones to seek these cool spots at midday, and are often joined by long-legged sheep and podgy goats (happily munching the mango skins we have thrown on the ground), dozing chickens, and donkeys as well as fellow humans – every creature desperate to escape the beating sun. Even under a mango tree the temperature rarely falls below 35 degrees Centigrade until the late afternoon. At dawn it’s a “mere” 20 degrees…. Despite all this sunshine we have sadly decided that it is time to admit defeat with regard to our solar panels. We had high hopes of being able to charge all the necessary batteries for GPS, head torches, notebook and radio using solar energy and in this way to be a bit more green. The ever-present dust, our inability to angle the panels on the bike (they work best when rays strike the panel at 90 degrees) and, perversely, the heat have all contributed to much-reduced efficiency. So much so that we couldn’t meet our energy needs and kept having to resort to having the storage battery recharged in garages where the test to see if charging is complete is generally to touch two bare wires together and see how far the sparks leap… We were pretty disappointed to say goodbye to the panels – sent home with Luke’s parents – as they have been with us for more than 11,000 km, since the day we left Greenwich. A massive thank you to Fran at Select Solar for her patience and support while trying to find a solution.
Given the hot climate it’s perhaps not surprising that the military and police officers stationed at road checkpoints and border crossings are often asleep! Crossing our 11th international border on 6th March, we encountered no less than four Guinean checkpoints and two Malian checkpoints in one 20km stretch! We almost had all our panniers unpacked by two young and eager customs inspectors before their superior said it wouldn’t be necessary (phew). We jabbered on about how sad we were to be leaving Guinea (true enough) – such a beautiful country, we said, so perhaps that endeared him to us! Then we had to wake up four men in uniform dozing beside their sub-machine guns before we could get past a control post, but not before a rotund official (also snoozing) took an eternity to transfer details from passport to ledger, while spilling ash and green tea all over everything. Finally we endured a half hour monologue from a pastor’s son who chastised us for not having a bible in our panniers before finally allowing us to pass….. It was a long afternoon.
Yet more police time was expended on our behalf about a week later, as we left Bamako. After crossing the rather impressive bridge over the Niger River and trying not to get run over by passing trucks we were stopped by traffic police and told we would be fined! The crime? Not using the bike lane! We were incredulous – what bike lane! But sure enough, 5 metres back was a barely legible sign and a slip road onto a cycle path – the first we have seen since Spain! We told them this and as soon as they realised we had cycled all the way from Europe, decided there was no option but to let us go! They just had time to ask for our names (saying they would pass them on to Malian TV as they would be sure to want to interview us…!) before we cycled off at speed, fearing a change of heart. In Kankan just before we left Guinea we were also let off after having Luke’s bike impounded (handcuffed to other seized vehicles) after inadvertently cycling down a one-way street. So, cycling may be hard work at times but every cloud has a silver lining.
In contrast to all these overkeen officials, we couldn’t find anyone to rubber stamp our exit from Mali/entry into Burkina Faso when we left the former on
Wednesday 30th March. We deliberately picked a minor border crossing to avoid traffic and hassle, but at one point the piste we were on became so narrow and sandy that we thought we might be lost, or at best, that we might be following a river bed by mistake! We did come to somewhere marked on our map of Burkina, but never found a Malian border post. We have been continually fobbed off and referred on by Burkinabe police, who seem not to have a clue what an entry stamp might be. Hopefully, as Bobo Dioulasso is a major town (Burkina’s second biggest, in fact) we won’t have to wait too much longer!
We didn’t waste too much energy worrying about any of this at the border itself as the scenery was far more interesting – rocky outcrops, lush vegetation, towering trees, streams full of croaking frogs, piglets cooling off in oozy black mud and villages with tall, tapering granaries
build of terracotta-coloured mud – like chimneypots topped with a pointy straw hat. All of this was a bit unexpected. Burkina (or maybe it was still Upper Volta in the older textbooks!) always ranked high in those lists of statistics you got given in Geography lessons. Statistics referring to aridity, poverty, infant mortality, low life expectancy, malnutrition etc. We’ll have to see how the rest of the country shapes up but so far it is refreshingly unlike our unconscious expectations. Perhaps we won’t be finding out much if we try and speak the local tongue, though, as there are apparently sixty different languages spoken here! We were just getting to grips with basic Bambara in Mali! Our Rough Guide at least has the words for “water” and “thank you” in More (one of the commoner languages) so hopefully we won’t be totally incommunicado…
That’s all for this update! We’ll once again be having some time off the bikes after we reach Ouagadougou, as Anna flies home for a fortnight for her sister’s wedding while Luke babysits the bikes! From Ouaga, it’s a short hop to Ghana and then on through the tiny states of Togo and Benin as the wet season begins in earnest. It will be time to dig out the waterproofs again…