Mali: Bamako to Sevare
4th November - 21st November 2000
Bamako, the capital of Mali, is very much an African city. It doesn't have that European feel, which other cities sometimes have in African countries I had visited, a legacy from the colonial times. The city straddles the River Niger with the centre being on the northern banks. It is full of activity, large colourful markets selling everything you could imagine; and a few things you wouldn't imagine. Even along the streets, vendors set up their small stalls to do a days business. I spent my first day in the city relaxing; I needed to recover from my journey from Senegal. Most of the afternoon we spent in the air-conditioned luxury of the Grand Hotel, the smartest hotel in town just north of the railway station, making use of their Internet facilities.
The Hotel Lac Debo was not good value for money at CFA18,000 a night for a double room; on our first day there the water was cut off so we had to use a bucket from the hall. So on our second day in the city we went off in search of some cheaper lodgings preferably with running water. We ended up a couple of blocks down the road at the old Lebanese Mission. First impressions were good; there was a large courtyard area, if somewhat overgrown with weeds and shrubs, which made a nice area to relax in away from the bustle of the city. The room was basic, but that is what we were expecting. Over lunch at the Restaurant de la Paix, a cheerful, cheap eating-house near to where we were staying, I spotted Matevz walking down the road. I had last seen Matevz and Vesna in Tambacounda, Senegal before embarking on my long trip to Bamako. They were going to follow me the next day along the same route. I ran down the road after him. It turned out that they were staying at the Hotel de la Paix, above the restaurant. After catching up on our adventures since Tambacounda we arranged to meet up again later that evening.
A few hours later back at the Lebanese Mission Matevz and Vesna turned up with all their gear; they were having accommodation problems at the Hotel de la Paix and decided to move out. There was a good group of travellers staying here now. There were an English couple staying that night, Mark and Bridget, who were driving their Landrover from London to Cape Town. Bridget was due to fly back to London the next day and Mark was going to continue on to Burkina Faso. They gave us what probably turned out to be the best tip I would receive on this whole trip; they recommended a guesthouse in Sevare, a place called Macs Refuge. It was not listed in any guidebooks but they highly recommended the place, especially Macs home cooking. Later that evening an overland truck group arrived and pitched their tents in the courtyard. There always seems to be that sense of rivalry between independent travellers and overland truckers; that evening was no different as the overlanders made a good attempt at drinking all the beer from the small bar.
There is not that much to do in the city to warrant a stay of more than a few days; it is more a city to experience than to see. We did walk up to the National Museum one afternoon once the heat of the day had subsided but found the place closed. The staff were on strike over conditions and pay and manned a picket at the entrance. While strolling around the city I bumped into my travelling companions from my trip from Senegal; they were also staying at the Hotel de la Paix. It felt good to have been in the city for only a couple of days but already have met people in the street who I knew. After a couple of days the pollution in the city became a problem; it was a mixture of the traffic fumes, the dust from the roads as only the major streets were tarred and the smoke from cooking fires in the evening. I found the evenings worst once all the fires were lit. You could see the smoke hanging over the city like a choking blanket and it became quite unbearable. It was not long before we all began to develop sore throats and running noses, all brought on by the dirt in the air.
The city was not the cleanest or most hygienic. Open sewers ran along most streets carrying thick black water and rubbish with them in the general direction of the river. Men would quite openly stop in the streets and urinate into the sewers or up against a wall. Every street you walked down there would be someone urinating. You could say the atmosphere of the city was quite intoxicating.
Joanna, Vesna, Matevz and myself agreed to travel together as we were all headed in the same direction towards Sevare and Dogon Country. After three days in Bamako we took a taxi across the River Niger to the bus station on the south side of the city. We planned to break our journey to Sevare in Segou about 230km east along the River Niger. The bus from Bamako was a vast improvement to the road transport I had expierenced on my way from Senegal; the bus was quite modern and comfortable (although it was missing it's obligatory wheel nut). I felt a sense of relief at leaving Bamako, the pollution was really getting to me and it was great to once again be travelling through the vast empty spaces of the savannah. About half way through the journey we heard a large bang and the bus lurched to one side. I presumed we had picked up a puncture. The driver slowly brought the bus to a stop to investigate what had happened. After walking around the bus he climbed back on and drove slowly on with the bus leaning to one side. When we reached the next town we stopped for a while to assess what had happened. This gave us a welcome chance to get off the hot bus and stretch our legs and snack on some watermelon, which was being sold at stalls all along the road. We hadn't got a puncture, all the tyres looked fine to me; well some were bald, but they had air in them which was good enough for this part of the world. It appeared that the suspension had broken causing the bus to now lean to one side. There was nothing we could do to fix it so we continued the rest of the journey to Segou limping along at about half the speed we were doing earlier.
Finally late in the afternoon we arrived in Segou. At the bus station there were the usual collection of touts and hustlers that you come to expect. We committed a fatal error when taking a taxi to a hotel on the edge of town. We let one of these guys climb into the front of the car. I didn't want to be rude and chuck him out as sharing taxis is a common thing to do in most parts of the world; so we drove on to our intended hotel. On the way this tout started is spiel telling us that we should stay at the Hotel de France. We did our best to ignore him. The first hotel we arrived at, the Motel Savanne had obviously been upgraded since our guidebooks had been written and was now way over our budget. We took the taxi to the nearby Centre d'Accueil where our tout insisted it was impossible to stay. Of course our tout was wrong and we found a room for a fraction of the price of the Savanne. We hoped this would be the last we would see of our tout and that he would return to the bus station in the hope of picking up some other business there.
That evening I walked into town to buy a watermelon. It was a pleasant walk along the tree lined main street, Route de Bamako. Not long after leaving our hotel I heard someone shouting; I turned around and saw the tout running after me. He made his excuse saying that he too was on his way back into town, so we walked along making some uneasy small talk. I would have preferred to have walked alone in peace, but in Mali that dream seemed rather distant. Eventually we reached a fruit stall and I purchased my melon and the tout continued on into town. At last I could walk back in peace, but not for long. When people saw me carrying my melon they would shout and send their children after me to offer to carry it for me; even old men stopped me and offered to carry it for me. I refused their offers; I knew I had all ready paid a tourist price for the fruit and I really did not want to get involved in haggling over a fee for carrying a melon. All I wanted was a peaceful evening walk and after all the exercise would do me good.
The next morning we went off to explore the town. Our tout from the previous evening was already waiting for us at the gates of the hotel. Immediately at seeing him again I knew we were going to have problems today. We did our best to ignore him, but he followed us. We stopped and asked him why he was following us. He replied saying that it was forbidden for foreigners to walk around the town unaccompanied. We laughed and told him to get lost but he continued to follow us. As we took some photos he then informed us that it was also forbidden to photograph anything in the town. Eventually we couldn't take him anymore and when we saw a policeman down a side street we stopped and threatened to go and have a word with the police unless he left us alone. Of course he thought we were bluffing and he didn't move. Joanna could speak fluent French so it wasn't difficult to explain to the police that we wanted this tout to leave us in peace. The policeman called the tout over and had a few words with him and then sent him on his way. At last we were on our own and a rather embarrassed tout sauntered off down the road.
We walked along the riverbank into town. Along the bank groups of women were doing their laundry in the river, other people were bathing and children were just playing about in the water as children anywhere in the world do. Out on the river small boats were fishing while others ferried passengers to villages on the far bank. We spent the day wandering along the wide tree-lined avenues, the town still had the feel of an old French colonial town. During the colonial times this town was an important administrative centre and also the headquarters of the Office du Niger irrigation scheme. After stopping for lunch and a cold drink at the Esplanade Hotel on the waterfront we booked our bus tickets to Sevare for the next morning and returned to our hotel.
When I woke the following morning I was not feeling well. Something I had eaten the day before was not agreeing with me. It was not bad enough to stop me from travelling so we took a taxi down to the bus station where the others grabbed some breakfast at a street stall. The bus journey to Sevare was a long and hot one. By the time we arrived in the late afternoon both Joanna and myself felt exhausted and decidedly ill. Metvez and Vesna were still feeling okay so we soon concluded that it was the fish we ate yesterday lunchtime at the Esplanade Hotel that was the cause of our illness. (Metvez and Vesna decided to just have a plate of chips for lunch - a wise move in hindsight).
As the bus pulled up in Sevare at the turn off to Mopti, touts and hustlers chased the bus until it stopped. As we stepped off the bus the touts surrounded us. They were overwhelming and definitely not what I wanted to deal with in the state I was in. We had to fight to get through the crowds around the bus to find a taxi to take us to Macs Refuge, the guesthouse recommended to us while we were in Bamako. It was like if a flock of vultures had descended onto the bus; we were shouted at, screamed at, tugged, pulled and shoved in all directions as we looked for a taxi. When we found a taxi, only across the street, it felt like we had been battling for hours. After our experience in Segou of a tout jumping into our taxi we were determined to keep everyone else out of the car. It was not easy; the touts tried to open the doors and we desperately held them shut. One managed to get in the front of the car and we shouted at him to get out and eventually pushed him out of the car. It was a scene of madness; the touts surrounded the car shouting at us while we sat patiently shouting back at them. According to the touts Macs Refuge was fully booked, it was closed, it had burnt down; our only choice would be to stay at the hotel they were touting for. Our next problem was that our driver did not know where Macs Refuge was. It was then that someone, a respectable man in his mid thirties, well dressed, riding a moped pulled up alongside our taxi and asked us if everything was okay. He knew where Macs Refuge was and told the taxi driver to follow him. We left the touts behind, probably wondering why they had not been able to get any business from us, and drove to the far side of town where we found Macs Refuge along a dusty side street, literally the last street in town. We thanked the man on the moped and gave him a small gift for coming to our rescue; he disappeared back down the road and we never saw him again.
Mac greeted us at the gate and showed us to some rooms. After a long, hot, exhausting journey and the ordeal of dealing with the touts on our arrival in Sevare we could at last relax and unwind in the peaceful surroundings of Macs Refuge. After dropping my bag in the room I went and collapsed in a hammock out in the compound and lay there until the sun had set and dinner was served. There were three other travellers staying at the guesthouse that night, two Americans, Teresa and Tara and a woman from Denmark whose name escapes me now. The seven of us together with Mac and his kitchen help, and a few other dining guests who had arrived that evening, sat around a large dining table to feast. Laid out across the table were bowls of food, it was curry night and we could help ourselves to as much as we wanted. Unfortunately by now I had lost my appetite and could only manage a few mouthfuls of food before retiring to my bed, where I would stay for the next couple of days suffering from a high temperature and diarrhoea.
Mac was born in the Dogon region of Mali in the 1940's, the son of a couple of American missionaries who had come to West Africa during the 1920's. He could speak the local Dogon language as well as French fluently and had gone to school here. After spending some time back in America he had returned to Mali and finally settled down and opened this guesthouse. The buildings were in a walled compound made of local materials, mud and brick. During our stay he was constructing another building and each morning a band of workers would arrive and work through the heat of the day. I asked Mac how easy it was to find a plumber in Mali. He said it wasn't a problem, everyone you ask is a plumber; the problem comes in finding a good one who knows what he is doing.
On our second morning the other travellers staying at the guesthouse left to go hiking in Dogon country, we said goodbye to Metvez and Vesna. Joanna and myself were the only two guests staying that night. Mac looked after us and nursed us back to health so that after four nights we were both fit enough to head out to Dogon country ourselves. Joanna had only two weeks in the country and we had now lost quite some time. Looking back on it we couldn't have fallen ill in a better place, it was almost like being at home at Macs, which was just what we needed; there is nothing worse than being ill in some cheap run down hotel where you have to fend for yourselves.
Mac knew a lot of people in the area and gave us the name of an English-speaking guide in the Dogon village of Sanga and also arranged a four-wheel drive vehicle and driver to get us there. After loosing four days being ill we decided to throw some money at our transport options and take a vehicle straight to the heart of Dogon country.
Continue reading this journey: Dogon Country