Road to Bamako

We had a couple of good days in St Louis. The constant power cuts were beginning to be a pain though, although it didn’t effect the local pace of life (We had used our torches to help a hotel manager find his unlit joint that he had just dropped in the darkness!). We were shown around the town by a local guy, Cliff who knows absolutely everyone in St Louis. The music festival was pretty good, with some Senegalese bands playing a fusion of African rhythms and Reggae, but I really shouldn’t have been dancing. My feet had been badly bitten by mosquitoes in Dakar and I’d broken the skin by scratching the bites while half asleep. The cuts wouldn’t heal when I wore my boots and they got infected when I wore flip flops. My right foot ended up swollen and hurt quite a bit. I had to rest it for a few days and raid my medical kit for antibiotics before hitting the road again.

Laas was happy to wait for my foot to get better too, but as the days passed I was getting concerned that he wouldn’t leave himself enough time to get to Ghana and meet his girlfriend. We agreed that he would leave without me if the problems with my feet persisted. Eventually, I could walk around with my boots on without making my foot worse and we went out for one last night out in St Louis and made plans to set off the next day. Leaving wasn’t easy though, as having stayed in St Louis for over a week, we had made lots of friends who wanted us to say goodbye and it was almost 2 pm when we finally hit the road. We had decided to take the northern road to the border with Mali. We had heard that the road was not in good condition, but decided to do it anyway. On the way out we stopped to oil the motorbike chains. Laas helped lean my loaded bike on its side stand so that I could oil it quickly. The road was okay but it did have great big pot holes all over the place, that could be swerved around. We stopped to refuel when we noticed that my bike on its side stand was leaning over a lot more then it was before. Something must have bent when we oiled the chain. I enlisted the help of roadside mechanic, who removed the stand and then started to knock the frame back into shape with a mallet and a drift. However he gave up on the drift after a few seconds and to my horror he started smashing the frame with the mallet directly. At that point I stopped him and reinstalled the stand. It looked okay so I left him to reassemble it. Even though he had just taken it apart he couldn’t remember how to put it back together and i had to show how to do it. I should have mentioned this when we haggled for a fee after the work was done! (once again, always agree the price before!)

We rode on for another hour before it was time to find a place to camp for the night. Laas suggested that we just ride off the road and go about 100 m or so into the bush to a place where we wouldn’t be seen. This is how he and Eddy had been wild camping all through Morocco. It looked like it would be easy enough to find a good place as we had been passing through savannah with loads with trees for cover and short grass that would be easy to ride on. However, Laas chose to turn off onto a great big sand dune. This was no problem for him, as he had gained lots of sand riding experience riding the road to Choum in Mauritania, but for me, I just held the throttle open and hoped for the best. The bike sped up the side of the dune and was relatively stable all the way up until I stopped at the top to see where Laas had gone and I got stuck in the sand. I revved hard in second gear for about ten seconds until the bike started to move again, then it was slaloming downhill trying to stay in a straight line and upright. When I came to a stop, it looked like we had found a nice place, hidden from the main road by the dune although there was a small village nearby.

We started to set up our tents when two men from the village came over and invited us to stay at the village. I think Laas was tired and couldn’t be bothered with being hosted, but we agreed anyway although my main concern was how we would get across the pretty deep sand to the village, especially since it was now getting dark. We pushed through the sand to the village and were immediately welcomed in by the whole extended family, with the kids looking at us like as if they had never seen white people before. We were invited to stay in the main house (shed) but we opted to stay in our tents. The village was very basic and had no electricity. Everything was being done by torchlight and I could see people preparing food in one of the huts. The head of the family invited us to sit down on a rug in front of him then he started to chant his prayers. His praying went on for much longer than I’ve ever seen a Muslim pray for before, with each session lasting about 30 minutes. Laas suggested that he is trying to impress us with how devout he was. We were tired and just wanted to eat and sleep but before the food was served we were introduced to everyone in the village, and what seemed to be everyone for the villages nearby too. Everyone was very friendly and we got to learn some words in the local dialect which we put to good use thanking everyone for dinner. Eventually the food arrived and we sat in darkness around a big bowl of meat and pasta. The moon lit up the food pretty good but I still gave it a quick flash of my torch so that I could properly identify what I was about to eat. The family all ate with there hands and a bowl of hot water was passed around to clean hands before eating. Me and Laas were given spoons though, although in the dark, I dropped loads of food onto the floor. When the pasta was gone, more bowls of couscous and meat were brought out. It never looked to me like there was enough food to feed us all, and of what was there, we were being goaded to eat the loins share, which made me feel bad but nobody seemed bothered. We went to sleep shortly after food and in the morning we had more pasta for breakfast. We took some photos with our hosts as the head of the family got himself together to go into the town. It was funny watching him walk to the main road with his wife carrying his briefcase for him on top of her head.

We returned to ride the bumpy road, with our bikes seeming to bounce over the most severe of pot holes. After a lunch stop, we continued and after a couple of particularly heavy bumps Laas pulled over to check everything was okay with his bike. He immediately noticed that his tent wasn’t there. A local kid went to look for it on his horse, but we had only done 50 miles since lunch so I said lets go back to go look for it. I did a U-turn and waited for Laas to follow suit when I saw that his rear wheel was severely dented. I guess our bikes were not as indestructible as we had previously thought, and we road on with caution, also so that we wouldn’t ride past the tent without noticing. 50 miles went by with no tent. I suggested that we go back on ourselves as whoever picked up the tent may have seen us ride by and might want to give it back. We rode back but only made 30 miles before we really had to find somewhere to camp. This time we turned off the road onto grass which was great to ride on, and after 100 or so meters we set my tent up in the middle of the bush. Laas set about cooking a camp meal, something that I had only done a few times so far in the trip. Even though I like to cook, I can’t be bothered carrying food on the bike (except emergency noodles) and I’m never able to find the making of a decent meal from the random selection of food stuffs they have in stores. Its something I’m sure I will grow to appreciate but in the meantime Laas did an excellent couscous with tuna and tomato. You go to sleep really early when wild camping, cos after dark there isn’t a great deal to do. We watched a couple of programs on my phone and went to sleep about 8pm .
Waking up early is easy too, Daylight starting around 6 and the sun rising at 7. We were on the road by 8:30 and we made it to the border before lunch. The signs led us to a bridge over the river, which is the border between Senegal and Mali. We joined a queue of trucks but where then told to continue around the chain barrier and on to the bridge. Instead of doing a U-turn, Laas through the bike down a 45 degree dirt slope to get past the barrier. We rode across to the other side of the bridge, where we were waved through another barrier. That was it, we were in Mali! The problem was that we still had to get our carnet de passages stamped to show that we had left the country with our bikes.

We went back over the bridge and into the town. It turned out that the offices we needed where nowhere near the borders at all. We rode through the dirt roads of Kidira, which were in very bad condition and at times were as bad as any of the off-loading I’d done so far, just in an inner city setting. Shops either side of the road while riding through big sandy pot-holes! As we approached the customs office we saw a familiar Mercedes camper van. It was Chris and Jem. They had also been waylaid, as they had stayed in a nice village in a national park for a few days. They told me that there daughter had seen a shooting star the other day and had wished to catch up with me and Laas before her birthday (all together now, Awwwwwwww!). Chris helped us get through the paperwork, which was bribe-free and we went back over the bridge to deal with more paperwork at offices in cargo container-looking buildings that we hadn’t seen before. The road on the Mali side had a queue of lorries several miles long and even Jem had to take the off road route to get about. Its pretty funny watching a camper van bounce around in the sand, apparently the kids love the bumps! Malian customs didn’t recognise our carnets and we had to buy a laissez passez document which suited me fine cos it wasn’t expensive and it would be zero hassle to leave the country (in theory). We had to bribe one policeman. I was arguing with him but Laas just couldn’t be arsed with it and we only gave him a couple of euros each. We rode on en ensemble to Kayes which is the first major town in Mali. The plan was to pass through and find somewhere to stay on the way to Bamako but by the time we had got there and found some food it was too late to go anywhere else. We eventually found an auberge and settled in for the night. Jem and Chris had stocked up the van with loads of booze and a late night of drinking ensued. There were loads of other travellers at the auberge, some of which had been coming back to travel in Mali many times. It was great hearing their stories and seeing their enthusiasm for the place but Mali currently has a big problem with terrorists kidnapping tourists and it was very disappointing to learn that all the really interesting places (Timbuktu, Djenne, Dogon valley) are all unsafe at the present time. Tourists had recently been flown back to Bamako after 3 tourists where kidnapped and one was killed in Timbuktu a couple of weeks before.

The next day we decided how to get to Bamako. I wanted to take a direct route that involved a bit off off road but it wouldn’t have been possible for the camper van as it involved driving over a railway bridge. A German biker we met went this way but we set off on the less direct northern route. The road was in poor condition for the first part of the journey. The bikes handled it no problem but the van had to take it slowly through the potholes. There wasn’t many villages on the way to Kayes but outside we got to see some and Mali is a really poor country. In Senegal kids always come up and ask for money but its more like a game, in Mali the kids look a lot poorer and it was hard to find anything funny about it at all. I later adjusted to it and was able to have a laugh with them but it was hard at first. Me and Laas stopped for a drink at one town while the camper van. that was usually slower, drove on ahead. One guy was asking me to help him find a place to do a PhD in computer science in the UK, and if I would sell my bike to him when I go home. A couple of miles outside the town I realised that I hadn’t seen Laas for a while so I stopped to let him catch up. A few cars drove past before I realised that something was wrong. I turned around and rode back for about a mile before I was startled to see Laas’ bike in a grassy ditch at the side of the road. I was so startled in fact that I almost didn’t see Laas stood nearby giving me a thumbs-up. He had had a puncture and had decided to get off the road to fix it. I questioned his decision of using such a grassy place as a workshop as he had strewn all his tools all over the place and was going to lose them for sure. We moved the bike over to a flatter, clearer area and started work on sorting out the wheel. I lent him a spare inner tube as Laas hadn’t thought in necessary to carry spares for an across-Africa trip (sorry mate, but really?). Loads of cars and trucks stopped and offered us help. One guy stopped and even though we told him we were fine, he helped get the old tube out and pretty much fitted the new one himself, then left without asking for anything.

Helpful Malian guy fixing Laas' flat tyre

By the time we had finished the sun was going down and we hadn’t heard from Jem or Chris. None of our mobile phones were working as the sim cards we bought in Senegal, that where supposed to work all over west Africa, didn’t work! We would just have to catch Jem and Chris further down the road. I doubted that they would have made Bamako either that day as there was still over 300 km to go. We went back into the nearest town to eat before looking for a place to wild camp. We got some BBQ lamb and chips which is on sale all over the place in Senegal and Mali. The kid at the stall got pissed off that I bought bottled water from another shop and then tried to stiff me on my change by sensing that we were in a hurry and arsing around with our money. We waited and eventually got the change but by now it was dark and riding out of the town was a pain in the arse, with unmarked speed bumps to avoid. We turned off the road into the bush about 15 km out of the town. Off road driving in the dark was nerve racking, there were small ponds and lakes everywhere (are there Crocs in Mali?) and at one point, Laas rode through a field full of tall crops until we finally found a spot to stay. Having already eaten we just set up the tent and went to sleep. I heard some people wandering by about an hour later but they hadn’t seen us. We hit the road early the next day, hoping to catch up with Jem and Chris before we hit the city sprawl of Bamako where navigation would become more difficult.

We rode for about an hour before we stopped at a checkpoint, where gendarme handed us a note. It was from Chris, they had stayed the night at the checkpoint and had enjoyed the hospitality of the gendarmerie. They had been waiting for us there all morning but had to move on. We found them about another hour down the road, where they had stopped by the side of the road for lunch. Jem told me that he had been driving slow all day for us to catch up! There were some kids from a nearby village fascinated by the van but when two motorbikes joined the group, loads of kids came running across fields to come and see us. At one point there could have been up to 100 kids!

Zia enjoying the crowd of bemused Malian kids on the road to Bamako

It was really funny cos they kept running away as they saw their teacher ride down the road on a scooter. We decided to eat further down the road were we wouldn’t get so much attention.

We arrived at Bamako where the quiet roads through the bush turned into to busy town roads with congestion, pollution and lots of town drivers. We had to stay together as a group, as Chris was navigating from the van, but we had loads of drivers overtaking us for no reason. A taxi even hit one of my panniers when I was stopped at lights. There was no damage but he was beeping at me like I’d done something wrong. We went to the bank and then went to the Embassy for Burkina Faso. It turned out that we could get visas the same day, which was very good for Laas as he was running to a tight schedule. We dropped off our passports and went to find an auberge that had been recommended to us. We found it, and while Chris went off to find a supermarket (It was Zia’s birthday – Jem and Chris’ oldest daughter), Me and Laas got straight on the beers. After an hour, we realised that one of us would have to go back to the Embassy to get the passports, but by then we had left it too late. I was knackered, and couldn’t even be arsed to get out of my riding clothes, or unload the bike. I’d had about 3 or 4 beers before I finally moved from the floor and got changed to sing happy birthday to Zia. Later I met a group of young lads from South Africa who were sat nearby. They are all pilots that had been seconded to work for Malian Air. They fly small twin-turbo prop planes all over west Africa and had been involved in the evacuation of tourists from Timbuktu, and the UN from Kinshasa in the DRC, far more interesting then flying Bristol – Malaga twice a day I thought! As the night got on, I was drunk again, and when the kids went to bed, Jem wanted to go out for a wander. The auberge was nice, there was plenty of people who had come to Bamako to sell their cars, but there wasn’t any black people there at all! We wandered down the road and were directed to a street full of bars by some locals. We had a good laugh drinking and talking with people we met there. Some people we met spoke English and I learned quite a few words in Bambara, the most widely spoken of the local languages.

The next day me and Laas went for a wander around Bamako, which I thought was quite a pretty city, certainly a contrast to the rural areas that we had traveled through.

We walked about for an hour or so but were unable to find any restaurants or anything like that. I’m sure that there are loads of places selling food, but they rarely advertise themselves as the locals all know where they are. Of course there are some for tourists but these tend to sell overpriced poor attempts at European food. We have been going to the supermarket and mostly catering at the auberge. The supermarket has one of the only indications that it is getting near to Christmas as there was a few pieces of tinsel and a ‘joyeux noel’ sign on the door. It has to be said that I’m not feeling Christmassy in the slightest. I can’t think of a less festive place to be than in Muslim West Africa and I may well just not bother with Christmas this year. Still, the supermarket does have a good selection of single malt. maybe I should get a bottle and download a Bond movie or two to watch on Christmas day. Other than than trying to find things to do in Bamako,we went for food at the house of the family of the gendarme that Chris and Jem met at the checkpoint. It was fun meeting all his family and watching the kids play dancing games in the street. To kill time before the Embassy opens again, me and Laas changed the oil our bikes (I’m good for another 6000 km now) and I have been reading guide books. I haven’t brought any myself, and although I have a rough idea of the route I’m taking through Africa, I haven’t researched what I’d like to see along the way. Of course, the people and the travel itself is the big attraction but it nice to see some sights along the way.

Mosquito net clad beds in the Auberge Djamila, Bamako

By the way, just in case you are not sure, I am having a good time! Traveling in Africa is very challenging and frustrating at times but it is very rewarding.

5 thoughts on “Road to Bamako

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