Mali: Tambacounda to Bamako

4th November - 21st November 2000


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I woke up early on Saturday morning in Tambacounda in the east of Senegal. It was still dark and the guesthouse, Chez Dessert, where I was staying was quiet and still. I had to be in Bamako on Sunday evening where I had arranged to meet my friend Joanna who was flying directly into Mali from London. It gave me about 36 hours to make this journey by road and rail. Matevz and Vesna, the couple of students from Slovenia who I met and travelled with from Basse Santa Su in The Gambia, had decided to stay an extra day in Tambacounda before they too would embark on the same journey. I walked through Tambacounda as the sun began to rise and the town slowly woke up; small piles of rubbish were burning in the street, their smoke drifting lazily in the morning air. I walked as far as the local taxi garage, about five blocks down a dirt side road from the guesthouse. The previous day I had tried to find the garage for transport to Kidira, the Senegalese border town, but had failed. I decided to find this local garage instead and from there, take a taxi across town; after all it was a long walk from the guesthouse, over two kilometres.

The taxi crossed the town in only a few minutes, there was still very little traffic around, and dropped me off on the road where I had searched yesterday in vain for the Kidira garage. The garage was down an alleyway, set off from the road behind the buildings. I had stood at this very same spot yesterday but had failed to see the garage. I found it hard to believe that I hadn't been able to find this place yesterday, despite standing almost at the entrance of this alleyway. I blamed the heat for yesterdays failings and walked down the alley and into the early morning chaos of the garage.

The place was heaving with people and vehicles. I quickly found a minibus making the trip to Kidira and bought a ticket and waited. Onions appeared to be the main cargo the minibus would be carrying this morning, apart from passengers. Sack loads of onions were loaded and tied down onto the roof with the passenger's luggage on top. It made me wonder as to the strength of the minibuses roof. This often happens while travelling in Africa; you see a vehicle and think I'm sure the designers never intended it to be used this way. In my case today I'm sure when the vehicle was tested they never loaded a ton or so of onions on to the roof to see how the vehicles road handling was affected. By the time all the cargo and luggage was securely tied to the roof the minibus had almost doubled in height.

It was a tight squeeze in the minibus for the 175km journey to Kidira. Once we had passed the police checkpoint on the edge of town we cruised down a good, tarred road running parallel to the railway line. The savannah landscape of well-dispersed trees and shrubs became monotonous after a while; herds of cattle roamed around this landscape grazing on the grass. The road was almost straight most of the way. We stopped at small villages of round mud huts to drop off some of the passengers, which at last gave the rest of us some room to stretch out. I finally dozed off in the heat for an hour or so and woke up as we were nearing Kidira.

The driver stopped at the police station on the outskirts of Kidira and waited for me while I had an exit stamp stamped into my passport. I was the only passenger on the minibus heading for the border. I climbed back into the minibus, which I think was continuing its journey north to Bakel, and was dropped off near the centre of town. I had now officially left Senegal but was still wandering around Kidira looking for the border. A local taxi driver found me and instinctively knew where I wanted to go and offered me his services. I climbed in and drove through town stopping on the way to pick up another passenger, call at his house to drop something off for his wife and buy a litre of petrol from a street vendor selling petrol in old wine bottles. Finally we left town the way I had come earlier and took a left turn and drove over a bridge across the River Falene and into Mali on the far banks.

It was five minutes past midday as the taxi pulled into a dusty square in Diboli, the Malian border town on the banks of the river. The driver dropped me off and drove back across the bridge to Senegal and the other passenger disappeared down a side street. I was left standing in the square on my own. My first priority was to find a border post or a police station to sort out my immigration papers. I thought there would be a border post by the bridge, but there was nothing and the local people cycled and walked freely across the bridge from one country to the other. I walked through the town looking for a police station. I immediately could see that I was in a far poorer country than Senegal. There was not much traffic moving on the roads, which were all dirt and the cars parked along the streets looked in a very bad state of repair. I found a main street and proceeded to ask some of the local people if they knew where I could get my passport stamped. I resorted to sign language, as my French is not so good, and showed them my passport while stamping it with my fist. A boy, probably in his late teens saw me and helped me out. He could speak English and showed me the way through town to the railway line where the border guards were sitting under a shady canopy waiting for the bi-weekly train to arrive from Senegal that night.

As I sat in the guard's office filling in the necessary paperwork I thought I was making good progress today. It was only about half-past midday and I had already covered 175km; it was only about another 100km to Kayes where I planned to pick up either the local or international train to Bamako. I began to think that maybe I could get further than Kayes today. I knew the roads were not supposed to be very good onwards from Kayes; I had heard conflicting reports about the road conditions in this part of Mali but guessed that I could be in Kayes by the middle of the afternoon and then decide what to do from there.

The boy who showed me the way to the border guards by the railway line had also just arrived in Diboli from Senegal and was waiting for the international train, which was due to pass through the town in the early hours of the following morning. He offered to let me stay at his cousin's house in town to wait as well for the train. I declined and explained that I wanted to get to Kayes this afternoon and from there, either pick up a train or continue my journey to Bamako by road. He then asked me if I would pay his CFA1000 immigration fee for him; he would pay me back when he met me on the train at Kayes. I tried to explain that the international train was a long train with many passengers on board; how would he find me to pay me back? He replied saying that he would be in the dining car and I could find him there. I refused and told him that if I couldn't find him he would feel terribly guilty at not being able to repay me. We left the conversation there and walked back to the square where I was dropped off earlier.

This square also served as the local taxi park. Parked here were a small collection of vehicles, which had seen far better days. Under a straw canopy, lying in a hammock behind an old dusty desk, the man in charge of the taxi park dozed in the heat. Spread around him under the shade were some makeshift beds covered in foam where other passengers also lay, sleeping while they waited for a taxi to depart. I asked the man in the hammock if any taxis were leaving this afternoon for Kayes. He said yes and took my money and dropped it into a drawer in the desk. I went and sat down to wait and watched life go by. Not much life was going by, every now and then a car or truck would go past leaving us in a choking cloud of dust; this was definitely a quiet town. In the slight breeze, which was not enough to take the heat out of the day, very fine ash drifted gently down onto the town.

The boy from earlier found me again and sat down to ask me where I was planning to go in Mali. I gave him the usual spiel, Bamako, Segou, Djenne, Mopti and Dogon Country. So of course he had another cousin in Mopti who was a guide, a very good guide; he gave me his cousins address in Mopti and I promised to look him up when I needed a guide for Dogon. I had been in the country for just over an hour, I was on the opposite side from Mopti (the tourist capital of Mali) and I already had details of a guide to take me to Dogon Country. I felt I must have broken some kind of record.

The hours passed and still I waited. Another man turned up, he was from Cameroon and was travelling with a friend from Nigeria. He had a small stereo and was playing a Bob Marley tape, which helped to ease the boredom of waiting. Finally at three o'clock a battered old covered Peugeot pick up truck pulled up and we loaded our luggage onto the roof and I climbed into the back and sat on the wooden bench. There were nineteen passengers plus the driver and his mate, seventeen in the back and the guys from Cameroon and Nigeria in the front. Immediately, as we drove out of town along the dirt road, I knew that this would not be the most comfortable journey of this trip. I was just glad to be moving again after waiting in Diboli for three hours and now just planned to get to Kayes by the end of the day. It couldn't take that long, Kayes was only about 100km down the road.

It wasn't long after leaving Diboli that we stopped at the police roadblock. There were no trees or shade and the driver parked the pickup truck under the baking sun while the police checked all our paperwork. It took a while; I was beginning to learn that things in Mali take a lot longer; but at least we still had Bob Marley for company playing on the little stereo. Finally the last piece of paperwork was checked and we all squeezed back into the truck and left for Kayes. The road was very rough and badly potholed, we were not making fast progress through this landscape of dry grass and baobab trees. Soon a rhythmic thumping noise came from the back of the truck; we had picked up a puncture. We banged on the roof of the cab to stop the driver, who didn't; we shouted and banged on the cab until he finally realised what had happened. By then it was too late, the truck was bouncing down the road on only three tyres.

We climbed out of the van and stood in a group staring at our misfortune. I went for a walk along the road. The source of the fine ash, which was drifting over Diboli, was now apparent; grass fires were burning all around us. The landscape sounded as though it had come alive as the dry grass crackled in the flames sending up plumes of ash into the hot, still air. The driver and his mate, whose role was one of general mechanic and ticket collector, managed to change the wheel fairly quickly, but then discovered our next problem; the spare tyre was fairly flat too. As we all climbed in the back the driver shook his head as the weight flattened the tyre. We all disembarked again and the driver decided to change the spare tyre with one from the front of the truck, as there was far less weight at the front of the vehicle. Meanwhile I walked into the grass and sat down in the shade of a large baobab tree. The guy from Cameroon came and joined me with Puff Daddy on the stereo for company.

Once we had finished swapping the wheels around we turned back to Diboli to go and pick up some new wheels. While the driver went off in search of a couple of wheels I went off in search of some liquid refreshment. I was becoming concerned that I may not have enough water with me for this trip, especially if we broke down again in the middle of the bush. Unfortunately there was no-where in town selling bottled water, so I refreshed myself with a cold coca-cola instead. At four o'clock we again left town on our adventure to Kayes.

This attempt to Kayes seemed to be going far better as we soon passed the spot where we had picked up our puncture earlier. The dust thrown up by the truck was choking and was being sucked into the back of the truck under the canvas canopy. The dust stuck to the sweat on my face and arms turning my skin the same reddish brown colour as the road. About every forty minutes we stopped to check the engine, to top up the water and the oil and also allow us to stretch our legs. It was very cramped in the back of the truck and once I sat down I couldn't move again until we stopped. The base of my spine was taking a pounding on the hard wooden bench as we bounced along the rough road; the branches of shrubs whipped my back as we made detours to avoid the potholes.

We were making very slow progress along this road and as the sun set we were still some way from Kayes. As the sun disappeared below the horizon behind us we stopped at the side of the road in the middle of the bush. It was time to pray. The women prayed on one side of the road, the men on the other side. The guys from Cameroon and Nigeria were Christians and sat on a bank by the side of the road and waited. I walked up and down the road trying to get some life back into my legs and watched everyone else praying to the sound of 2 Pac from the Cameroonians stereo. They were the only two people on this journey who had managed to stay reasonable clean; they had been sitting in the cab in the front; the rest of us were caked in dust. Still the guy from Cameroon now had a plastic bag tied to his head to keep the dust out of his hair, he looked quite comical. While we were stopped no other vehicles passed by us along the road; the traffic was very light.

We continued our journey in the dark; the headlights of the truck struggled to show us the way. We stopped at a small village to check the engine, again. In the dark some villagers appeared selling some basic foodstuffs; I found a lady selling bananas while the driver bought some firewood and tied this to the roof of the truck. We had been travelling now for almost three hours and were still some distance from Kayes. All the passengers got to know each other over the hours, a good comradeship built up amongst us. I found myself hanging out with the guys from Cameroon and Nigeria and also another guy from Senegal. We were all making the same trip to Bamako and planned to catch the train in Kayes the following day.

It was eight o'clock when we stopped again. I remember looking at my watch and the feeling of disappointment that it was getting late and here we were in the middle of nowhere, the landscape around us illuminated by the silvery light from the moon. The long grass by the side of the road rustled gently in the warm night breeze; in the distance the horizon glowed orange from a grass fire. My disappointment soon turned into a rather more grave concern. We hadn't stopped to check the engine; we had stopped because the engine had died on us. The driver and his mate stared under the bonnet at the engine with a small torch and shook their heads. The news was not good; this truck would be going no further tonight. There was nothing we could do, the guy from Cameroon went to the cab of the truck and got his stereo, which had been silent for the first time on this trip, and put on the Bob Marley tape. It lifted our spirits as we all stood around in the dark kicking stones and wondering when or how we would be getting to Kayes.

Ten minutes later we saw some headlights approaching down the road we had just come. An excited buzz grew amongst us; maybe we could hitch a ride out of this situation. When the van pulled up alongside us and everyone began talking at once I looked in the back of the van and my eyes almost popped out. The van was completely empty, not a single sack of rice or a passenger in sight. I must explain that in Africa it is very unusual to see an empty vehicle travelling along the road; either the vehicle is loaded up with so much cargo that the suspension springs almost break or they are crammed full of people like a mobile can of sardines. After much discussion it was agreed that for CFA300 each we could ride in the van the rest of the way to Kayes. We unloaded our luggage from the roof of our now redundant bush taxi and threw it into the back of the van and clambered in after it.

The van was no more comfortable than the truck; there was less room as we now had our luggage inside instead of on the roof. None of us could believe our luck at managing to hitch a ride so quickly; we thought we would be stuck there for the night. We continued at the same speed and eventually reached a police roadblock outside Kayes. My supply of water had now run out but at least we were nearly back in civilisation. We waited a long time at the roadblock; a convoy of trucks were passing the opposite way throwing up clouds of dust. The only light came from some fires burning beside the road and a few oil lamps. There seemed to be a lot of activity but it was difficult to see exactly what in the gloom and the dust. The police were intent on checking all our yellow fever certificates and after forty-five minutes they finally rolled the oil drums off the road and let us past. Only after about five minutes from passing the roadblock the engine of the van spluttered, coughed and then died.

We had run out of petrol. In the distance we could just see the lights of a gas station, so we got out and slowly pushed the van in silence along the road. Most of us could not believe the run of bad luck we were having on this trip of only 100km. As we pushed the van onto the forecourt I had hallucinations of the 'stop and shop' kiosks found at filling stations back home selling a wide range of cold drinks, sandwiches, crisps and chocolate. I made a dash for the small building on the forecourt. I didn't find the rows of glass fronted fridges filled with every soft drink you could imagine, or the shelves stacked with chocolate and crisps, or those chilled cabinets full of fresh sandwiches and pies. What I did find was a man sitting on a chair with an icebox on the floor with a few bottles of warm coca-cola and 7-up. That was good enough for me; as long as it was wet I would drink it.

Once we had refuelled someone noticed we also had a puncture; so while the driver changed the wheel I went back to indulge myself in another warm bottle of coke. Finally we were ready for the last leg of our journey into Kayes. After twenty minutes pushing the van up and down the road we finally managed to jump-start it the engine exploding back into life in choking cloud of black smoke.

The van dropped us in the centre of Kayes. It was difficult to see exactly where we were as there was no street lighting and all I could see was the confusion of traffic moving up and down the road, headlights peering through the dust. The four of us, the guys from Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal and myself jumped into a taxi to the railway station on the far side of town. The taxi dropped us outside the station building; it was now 23.00, it had taken me nine hours to cover the 100km from the border with Senegal. The other guys decided to sleep in the street outside the station that night. I made a split decision and decided to stick with them and sleep rough outside the station. A man unrolled a sheet of plastic for us to lie on and we joined about 150 other people camped out for the night waiting for the train, which was supposed to arrive at 07.00 the next morning. Around the taxi park, which was now my bed for the night, were numerous small stalls; they provided the only light we had from their kerosene lamps. The guys from Cameroon and Nigeria seemed to know what they were doing and soon found a shower room in the station. We took it in turns for one of us to look after our luggage while the others went to clean off the dirt and grime of the day's journey or to find something to eat and drink.

My first priority was to find some water before taking a shower. We were all exhausted and I lay down on our small patch of tarmac to sleep for the night. As I lay there my nose began to run and I felt as though I had a heavy cold; these were the symptoms of my long journey through the bush as my lungs tried to empty themselves of all the dust I had breathed in.

I woke at five the following morning at the call to prayer. It hadn't been the most comfortable of nights sleep, I now felt cold in the still of the early morning air. All around me bodies lay sleeping in the still semi-darkness of dawn; I stepped carefully around them as I made my way to the road. I walked down along the road following the railway line. Beside the road the luggage carts were parked, waiting for the train to arrive. When I looked closer I saw that in each cart a boy was sleeping under a sheet or blanket. I found the only toilets in the station, which were closed and locked up; I made use of a railway siding instead and then returned to my plastic sheet in the taxi park.

At 07.00 there was no sign of the train. By now everyone was awake and either sitting in small groups around the taxi park or were standing around the stalls eating breakfast. At 09.00 we received news that the train would not be here until midday. The ticket office was closed; I asked my friends when it would open so we could buy our tickets to Bamako. Apparently the office would only open when they heard the train approaching. This was the kind of logic that makes travelling in Africa either hell or good fun, depending on your frame of mind. It was becoming too hot sitting on the tarmac of the taxi park under the baking sun, which even at 10.00 in the morning was intense. The crowd that had spent the night sleeping slowly drifted off across a patch of wasteland behind the stalls and made camp under some large shady trees. I dozed here for the rest of the morning; even in the shade I could not stop sweating in the heat. At midday there was still no sign of the train.

Finally at just before 14.00 my friends woke me up. The train was approaching; the ticket office would open in a few minutes. I don't know how my friends arranged this but we managed to buy the first tickets as the office opened. It turned out we had bribed one of the station staff to make sure we were first in the queue. We each paid him a small amount of money, which was worth every franc, as there was now a chaotic crowd of people clambering to buy tickets as the train finally arrived at the station. An extra carriage was coupled to the back of the train for all the passengers at Kayes. I can't describe the heat inside the carriage as we waited to depart. Sitting in my seat my clothes were becoming quickly soaked in sweat; I had to stand up to allow the sweat to drip off me. After yesterdays experience of running out of water I went off to the stalls to buy another bottle to hopefully see me through this final leg of my journey to Bamako.

Eventually the train slowly pulled out of the station and we were on our way again to Bamako after waiting over fifteen hours in Kayes. It felt like I had known my friends I had travelled with from Diboli for a very long time; other faces in the carriage were now familiar after spending the night and half the day camped out with them; our carriage felt like one large family. As we rattled down the tracks through the savannah landscape the hot breeze coming through the open windows was just enough to cool us slightly. My friends went off to the restaurant car for a few beers; in return for their help over the last day or so I offered to stay in the carriage to keep an eye on our luggage. At the small stations we stopped at along the way the train was surrounded by villagers selling every kind of foodstuff you could imagine; fruit, nuts, bread, fish, kebabs, yams, eggs, tea, water. Looking out of the window of the train all I could see were the various trays of food passing by on a human conveyor belt.

When night fell we found ourselves in the only carriage without lighting. I found this to be a bonus as it was easy to fall asleep to the rhythmic sound of the train rolling along the track. In between periods of sleep I would stand by the window, the warm night breeze blowing in my face wondering if Joanna had arrived in Bamako and whether she would realise that when travelling in Mali, arriving half a day late was quite acceptable.

At 04.00 on Monday morning the train finally twisted its way into Bamako and disgorged the hundreds of passengers on to the platform. In the tumultuous crowd I stuck close to my friends as we tried to find an exit and a taxi to take us into the city. Outside the perimeter fence surrounding the station the city was quiet and still, a stark contrast to the chaos of people unloading their luggage from the train. We shared a taxi and drove through the sleeping city to the Hotel Lac Debo; this is the hotel I had arranged to meet Joanna in. My friends paid my taxi fare and we said good-bye; at last I had reached my destination after nearly 48 hours since leaving Tambacounda early on Saturday morning. It was just after five when I knocked on the door of Joanna's room.

I sat down; I was exhausted, covered in dirt and dust, my throat was raw from all the dust I had breathed in over the last two days and my nose was still running. I showered and went to bed and slept well into the morning. I was only about twelve hours late, not bad I thought, considering the journey I had just endured.

Continue reading this journey: Bamako to Sevare