The idea to go on another trip started in my head a little closer to my last trip
than usual this time. It was partly due to the fact that my employer changed the
terms for saved overtime - we would only be allowed to save max 100 hours after
the new year 2011. So what would I do to use up that excess saved overtime? Another
trip would be nice...
I started looking for group travel of the kind that I like - no luxury but instead
going to interesting places that are not overwhelmed by tourists. I have travelled
with swedish company Läs & Res before and it was in their catalogue that I found
what I thought sounded real interesting - a trip to Mali in western Africa.
Mali is situated just south of the Sahara dessert - in fact the northern parts of
the country is dessert while the southern part is much more fertile land. Mali has
no coastline, but instead it is brought to life by rivers and especially the Niger
river. Mali has a rich history - the Ghana empire, Mali empire and Songhay empire
dominated the region between 400AD to the end of the 16th century. Those of us living
in the western world are often surprised to find that rich cultures existed in several
places in Africa long before europeans made their entrance, but that is more a reflection
of the western attitude towards Africa than anything else.
Mali is today a stable democracy, and its people are proud about that. The
consensus when talking to people was that things are improving in the country.
It was a nice contrast compared to how things are back home to see people being
Not everything is perfect even in Mali. The swedish foreign office changed its
travel recommendations only a couple of weeks before we started our trip, and
they recommended not to go to the northern part of the country, including
Timbuktu. I started investigating the situation, taking to the foreign office,
my insurance agency and so on. I finally decided I would go on the trip, but
depending on the situation might not go with the group to Timbuktu. Three others
decided not to go, leaving just four brave (?) travellers. Once I was there I
never felt there was an unsafe situation and I participated in the complete
made a round trip to many interesting parts of Mali, starting in the capital
Bamako, going north via Segou to Djenne, were the most interesting part of the trip
started. Living a few days in a small village at the banks of the Bali river, hiking
in Dogon country, travelling by pinasse on the Niger river to Timbuktu, visiting
the Toureg people in the dessert and finally visiting the musical people of the
Kela village were other highlights.
There are so many things and so many memories that a journey like this creates.
This page, despite being longer and containing more pictures than would be
ideal, is only a scratch on the surface. If you want the full experience you have
to go there yourself!
After some of the seven original travellers decided not to go due to the foreign
office recommendations about the Timbuktu are, there were only four of us left.
We happened to arrive on the same Air France flight and were met by our guide
Amadou and our driver. They took us to the hotel where we would stay for the
night, as well as when we later came back to Bamako. The hotel standard was
simple but okey. After a good nights sleep and some breakfast we started the
drive to Segou.
Our guide, Amadou,
waiting for us to get some money from an ATM.
The planning of the first few days travel - to Segou, San and Djenne - was good
since there wasn't too many hours driver each day. It was quite hot so already
these days we started to get used to the sweat on our bodys.
People sitting under a tree, a common sight by the road
Typical view of the road from Bamako, through Segou and San to Djenne
Man telling us how they dye textiles in a handicraft centre in Segou
An interesting stop on the way from Segou was the visit to the
Ndomo center, where there they explained how
the traditional Mali handicraft textiles were made. We even got to try to make a
small design of our own! There was the possibility to buy some textiles if you
Children an a village that we stopped in
Djenne is an old town located by the Bani river. It was founded in the 13th
century and was a major trading center, even competing with Timbuktu. It is
famous for its mud buildings whose architecture is full of meaning. It is also
our guide Amadous home town! That meant that we could guide us in a very good
way, tell us about the houses, the people and the traditions of Djenne.
When the water is high, you cannot get to the town without passing over water.
Our minibus had to be taken across by a small ferryboat.
The most famous building in Djenne is the mosque. It is the largest mud building
in the world and it is also a very impressive sight. It was built in 1907 on the
site of an older mosque built in the 13th century. Note that it like all of the
mud buildings are damaged by the rains every year and has to be renovated by
applying new mud to it. Sometimes there are worse damage to from the rain to the
mud buildings and whole walls may collapse. It isn't strange that the this way
of building was deserted, but it is very lucky that the unique nature of Djennes
mud buildings has been recognised and that they are preserved.
The famous mud mosque of Djenne
The mosque is located by the towns central square. On the other side of the
square is the market were things from the surrounding region is possible to buy.
One afternoon I was in the hotel when the sky grew dark. That was the start if
the worst thunder storm I've ever experienced. There was not one second without
lightning and it lasted for quite some time. The rain came down hard and the
thunder was constant. It is amazing what mother nature can do!
Children in a Koran school
A strange sight at first...
...got an explanation
Mud buildings in Djenne
Old man resting
Djenne is certainly worth all attention, but on our agenda was also a three day
visit to a small village called Sirabugu. In the village, people of three
different ethnic group live together. The Bozo are traditionally fishermen, the
Fulani cattle breeders and the Bambara farmers. They lived in separate parts of
the village but seemed to intermarry.
We were picked up in Djenne by some people from the village in a Pinasse - the
common type of river boat. After an hour or two we arrived in the village. There
were people from all around coming to see us and greet us. Especially the
children were enthusiastic about it all!
On our way to Sirabugu in a Pinasse
A warm welcome to Sirabugu
After the welcoming we were shown were we were to stay. They had built a little
hostel for visitors like us. We could choose to sleep indoors or on the roof. We
chose the latter - but since it could be a little cold in the morning when the
fog rose from the river, we put up tents that we had brought along. This was the
first of many nights that we slept on roofs, although later on in the Dogon
villages we would sleep with only a mosquito net between ourselves and the
Staying on the roof of the campement
Once we had settled in, we were taken for a little tour around the village. Se
started in the part closest to the river where the Bozo lived. They were
fishermen that mainly used what the Niger river could give. Close to them were
lived the Fulani. They are traditionally cattle breeders. A little bit further
from the river lived the third group, the farmers called Bambara.
As I understood it, there could be some friction between the different groups in
order places, competing for land, but in this village everyone lived peacefully
together and even intermarried. The village chief spoke proudly about that.
Woman with her children
Children in front of the well
Girls making flour
The women of the Fulanis have a tradition to get tatoos, especially around the
mouth. This is done around puberty, but I didn't understand if there was any
deeper significance to this.
We on a second tour around the village we visited the school.
Children in the school
Surprise guest teacher!
We were lucky enough to be in the village one evening when they were having a
feast, celebrating (I think) the successful harvest. There was music, dancing
and such going on but they had also put a lot of effort creating animals out of
hay and other things. I'm sure there was a deeper meaning to this that I
unfortunately have forgotten.
Just before we decided to go back and get some sleep they fired an old muset in
the air as part of the performance. What noise, what amount of smoke!
We returned to Djenne in the morning the third day. We climbed a small horse
cart and off we were. It was market day in Djenne and we people were going there
to sell the products that they had - food, wood and other things.
Women going to the market in Djenne
In Djenne the minibus and driver waited for use in order to take us on the first
step to the next major experience of the trip - the hike in Dogon country.
Before starting the hike in Dogon country we had a night in a good hotel in
Bandiagara, the town closest to the Bandiagara escarpment or falaise which is
the dogon mainland. Since we were now going to have to carry our own luggage
during the five day hike, it was time to repack. When I was done, my small
rucksack was quite full. In retrospect I should probably have left more things
behind, but it is difficult to plan when you don't know what the terrain,
conditions and arrangements will be. There were thing I left that I would have
needed, but that worked out thanks to my fellow travellers.
The Dogons arrived at the Bandiagara escarpment in the 14th or 15th centery.
Before them, the Tellem people lived in the area. The Tellem are know mostly for
the houses that they built on the rock face and the caves that they made to bury
their dead high up the steep cliffs. These can still be seen today.The Tellem
disappeared after the arrival of the Dogon, noone know where to or what happend
to them. Maybe the landscape changed when the Dogon cultivators arrived, making
it difficult for the Tellem hunters to survive, or maybe they were driven away.
The Dogon were traditionally naturalists, although nowadays both Islam and
Christianity are present.
During the hike we had an local guide, but Amadou was still with us as well.
Our Dogon guide in front of the house of the village elders
Already on the first day of the hike I was hit my an inconvenience - my hiking
boots started falling apart! They were a pair of Meind boots that I had
purchased before my trip to Peru in 2001. Now it seemed that the rubber material
in them had dried out and started to crack. When we had lunch I tried to have
them repaired by having the soles glued back on, but that didn't last long. My
noon the next day, in a village on the plateau it was time to leave them behind.
Since they had been with me on every trip I had made since 2001 it was like
leaving behind an old friend. Ok, I may be exaggerating slightly there, but it
was still kind of sad...
My boots had fallen apart completely when I left them on the second day of the
Now I only had my sandals left. They are good for walking but the cram-cram was
a problem. Cram-cram? Plants with really sticky leaves that aren't very nice to
come into contact with then your wearing sandals...
We were walking along the falaise the complete hike. We started below on the
plain, ended the first day by climbing up to the plateau, continued there the
next day and then climbed back down and so on. The plateau was quite rocky and
you had to be careful where you put your feet. The plain was a but dusty and the
trail was often like walking on the beach. We had to take the heat (>40 deg C)
into consideration so we woke with the sun and started walking as soon as
possible. Between noon and three a'clock we usually rested in a small campement
in a village before we continued the second half of the days walk. We had to
arrive before dark since when it became dark it was really dark.
Walking on the plain
We started in, or rather on, small hostels called campements in the villages
that we passed. We slept under the stars on top of the buildings with only a
mosquito net to cover ourselves. There very basic possibilities to take a shower
(usually taking water from a bucket and pouring over yourself) and the toilets
were often of the "hole in the ground" viarity but that was no problem. The good
thing was that even though there are tourist hiking in the area, we were far
into a rural area and met people in their everyday life. That is what I really
like to do on a trip like this!
On the falaise
After a couple of days the heat started to be a problem for me and I lost some
strength, but with some help from the local guide and my fellow travellers - and
some extra salt intake - I could go on.
I had never seen a man ride a cow before, but I guess there's a first for
Friendly old man in one of the Dogon villages
Resting after a long, hot days walk
Mali is famous for fabric died with indigo.
The village of Tereli had a very special experience for us.
There is is possible to get to se the traditional dances des masques, were dancers are dressed
in different masks, each with a specific meaning based in the traditional naturalist beliefs.
Traditional dogon Dances des Masques
The different masks are filled with meaning,
based on traditional naturalist beliefs
The dancers taking a brake after finishing the dance
Although it always is a strange feeling watching people showing their heritage
to tourists, I can really recommend taking a pause to watch these dances. Try to
make sure that you have a guide that can explain the meaning of the different
masks and the performance in total.
What is there to say about Mopti? It's a big town and it's on the Niger river.
Wandering around the market can be interesting and looking at the craftsmen
building boats is nice as well. Although Mopti was nice it was not one of the
major sights of the journey.
Goat being washed in preparation for being sacrificed
As usual in countries like this, the food you eat i the small simple restaurants
is no problem. Neither is the food in the small villages that are prepared with
simple means by the local women. Hotel restaurants in the tourist hotels are
however places you should be careful in. The last night in Mopti I ate something
in the hotel restaurant that upset my stomach and made me extremely weak the
next few days. Unfortunately it affected the rest of the trip a little bit as
well, so be warned!
It was now time to take the natural transport route - the Niger river - to that
famous town of Timbuktu. In the second day we would cross the border to the part
of the country that the foreign office adviced against, so I was a little
anxious about that as well, even though the guide assured us that it was no
problem. It turned out that he was right.
It is a pity that I more or less completely missed out on the views on the first
day in the pinasse on the Niger. I was lying down trying to sleep when I wasn't
throwing up or climbing to the back of the boad where the simple toilet
arrangement was located. Oh well, things like these just have to be endured.
After a night camping on the river bank I felt a little bit better and I could
at least start to look around.
We stopped a few times along the way, sometimes to take a look at a village,
sometimes to get some food from the market. At one place we first stopped to
look at the market, then we went to the other side of the river. There we found
a big parking place! Well, it was not for cars of course, but instead for
donkeys and camels. People left their animals there and then caught a ride with
a boat to the market on the other side of the river. Cool!
Donkey and camel parking on the river bank.
After a second night camping on the river bank we arrived at Timbuktu.
The town of Timbuktu has a long and interesting history as a center for the
trade routes in the Sahara region, but also as an important centre for islamic
learning. As we arrived we went to a hotel and waited for a little while before
we met with a representative of the Tuareg camp that we would stay in over the
night. It was quite close to town but getting there was still an adventure,
since we were riding camels there!
I got up onto my camel and to start with everything was as expected. Then we
stopped while they were correcting a saddle for one of my fellow travellers. The
man that had been walking beside my camel went to help. It was then that my
camel decided it wanted to lie down. Have you seen a camel lie down? First it
bends the front legs, meaning that its back tilts forwards significantly. Then
it bends its back legs and finally bends it front legs even further, settling
down. I was caught by surprise when suddenly everything was leaning forwards. In
order not to fall off I grabbed the tall front of the saddle. Then the saddle
broke and I fell forwards onto the camels neck and on down on the ground! I was
unharmed, but was mostly afraid of how the camel would react to such a weight
falling onto his neck. Fortunately it was pretty calm about it.
Me riding a camel to the tuareg camp, minutes
after I fell off.
After changing the saddle and getting back up we continued to the turareg camp.
It is clear that these nomad traders nowadays live hard lifes. They were
friendly and proud but clearly in need of all the income they could get. Our
visit made a small contribution to that end.
Back in town in Timbuktu, it was clear that the travel recommendations of the
western foreign offices had a serious impact. There were very few tourists in
town, something that obviously hit the locals hard. They all tried to sell
something to the few tourists left, but they never were too pushy or aggressive
in any way. I really hope that the tourists will return so that they can
contribute to the locals making a decent living.
Original well around which Timbuktu was founded
Famous mud mosque of Timbuktu
We left Timbuktu in a more modern way than we arrived. The plane to Bamako
stopped in Mopti where we had to wait for a while since the US military was
practicing parachuting over Bamako! Eventually we arrived in Bamako, only to
continue the next day to the southern parts of Mali were we were to stay in the
small village of Kela. There we stayed in a small but comfortable campement.
In the first evening, the locals arranged a small concert for us, something that
I enjoyed very much. The second evening the local youth gathered together with
the owner of the campement and spontaneously started to sing and dance. That
almost made an even greater impression than the performance the first night.
We made a small excursion one day to a golf mine. It was owned by a company but
one could pay to get the chance to dig for gold. Conditions seemed pretty harsh
and my guess is that it would be hard to made the fortune that people were
Climbing down into one of the holes in the gold mine
These days were a bit more relaxed and comfortable compared to most of the trip,
something that was a good thing. Also I still had some small stomach problems
that drained me of some energy so the opportunity to take it easy was very
The last day and a half was spent back in the big city, Bamako. It is a very
african city is its mud streets and mix of buildings. It is very busy with lots
of traffic and people everywhere. My fellow travellers liked it, but
unfortunately I'm not a fan of big cities generally and Bamako didn't appeal to
I had an extra day in Bamako before my flight left so I decided to book a room
in a luxury hotel (normal european business standard) and let myself just relax.
In hindsight I probably should have used that last day to get some final feel
for Mali, but at the time it was very good to sit by the pool and read a good
book. We had experienced so much already that I guess I was already full and had
to digest everything before I could be receptive to new input.
I must thank our tour leader and guide, Amadou Thiocary, and the local tour operators
Mali Travel Tours. Amadou did a great
job during the whole journey, taking care of use while proudly showing us his country.
If you ask for him, you can't go wrong.
Just like most other trips I've been to, this one isn't for everyone. If
your idea of a good vacation is a luxury hotel by the beach with pools and everything
included then this is not it. If however you find such a vacation dull and boring
and want to see the world, meet people of a different background and learn new things
about both past and present, then Mali has every possibility to satisfy your dreams.
All text and pictures except maps Copyright Staffan Nilsson
2010 - 2011
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
My travel pages have had
visits since the first one came up in 2002-04-06