Mali: Normal stage

March 16 – March 21

Border crossing completed, we arrived in a new country, Mali.  We had heard that Mali was volatile due to the Tuareg rebellion and Al-Qaeda activity (including the kidnapping and killing of Europeans) in the North, an emerging Sahel-wide food shortage, and an election in just one month.  We had debated coming here: Lee and I had already been here before, in 2005, but we thought it would be cool to see some parts again.  Also, we wanted to go to Burkina Faso before heading back down to Sierra Leone and by far the most practical way to get there was through Mali.

On the afternoon of Friday, March 16, we rolled up on Bamako, the capital of Mali, and – after we were informed that another hotel we had wanted, the Tamana, had no space – settled into the friendly confines of a hotel called Sahel Vert.  We had been going hard for a while on the road, and it was nice to have a break.   Over the weekend, I had a couple of late nights out on the town in Bamako’s Hippodrome neighborhood and enjoyed the small pool at the Sahel Vert during the day.  We were in Bamako in large measure to get visas: Burkina Faso (our next destination), Guinea (again, for the route back through), Mali (an extension on our 7-day border-issued visa) – and had to wait until Monday for embassies and the Malian immigration office to open. We also wanted to speak in person to someone at the American embassy regarding the safety of some areas we wanted to visit — Dogon Country, Mopti, and Djenne.

Mali started out well enough, including terrain near the Guinean border that featured an escarpment and traditional villages reminiscent of the legendary Dogon Country region.

Our first stop was the American embassy, where a friendly official told us with many reservations that the areas we wanted to go should be OK.  Among other provisos, however, he mentioned that Mali was a perfect storm, ripe for some kind of violence, and that we should remain extremely vigilant.  When we left, we concluded that we would go to Dogon Country, Djenne, and Mopti corridor for a few days, and then head to Burkina Faso.

Since we only had a one-week Mali visa, issued at the border, we could not go to all those awesome places without the Mali extension.  After three visits to the Mali immigration office in a 32-hour period, we were able to secure a one-month, double-entry visa.  We then turned our attention to the Burkinabe visa; at the embassy, we noticed on the price list that there was a group rate, which gave us a decent discount over the individual rate.  We asked for that, but the official told us that it was only for sponsored organizations with an official letter, blah blah blah.  We pled our case and tried the humor route with her but she said she sorry, nothing she could do.  She left to begin preparing our visas, and five minutes later she came back and announced that we could have the group rate, if we might be able to pay an extra 10,000 CFA ($20) to her as a gift. This would still save a quite a bit.  No brainer there – about half an hour later, we left with the group visa. Always nice to get the visa issued on the spot.

We only had the Guinea visa left to acquire; Lee headed off to another hotel, twenty or so kilometers outside the city, while I told him I’d rather stay, for the moment, at Sahel Vert.  So we parted ways; I took all the paperwork for the Guinea visa and told him I’d get it done and join them the following night up there.  But when I got back to the hotel, I quickly learned that there had been a mutiny led by mid-level soldiers, and that the Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré or “ATT” as he’s known, had been forcefully removed from power.  This soon became an official coup d’etat — and the events that followed would significantly change our plans.

Meeting the bikers

March 19, 2012

While perusing blogs in preparation for this trip, I read about people biking through Africa for months at a time.  I was impressed with their stories and wouldn’t rule out my own African bike trip someday.  But I hadn’t had a chance to talk to anyone actually doing in…until within a span of three days, in Guinea and Mali, I met two of them.

The first, an English guy, had been biking around Europe and West Africa for six months after starting the trip in England.  I met him in Guinea and spoke with him only for a bit and regrettably didn’t catch his name or get his blog address.  He had mentioned that he was making a documentary, which I would pay to see. He stopped for a few weeks at a time where he wished; he mentioned having spent considerable time in The Gambia and was on the way back there to see a girl he’d met.

This English biker, enjoying a rest here in Dalaba, Guinea, started his journey in London and has been on the road for about six months, mostly in West Africa.

He said he habitually stayed in villages. After a withering day of riding (he was visibly exhausted on the day that I met him) and after speaking to the village chief for a few minutes, he was typically offered a bed, dinner, breakfast, and friendly conversation.  The villagers were always happy to see a visitor on a bike, and were adamant about not wanting any money in return for their hospitality.

I lifted the guy’s bike and it seemed to weigh half a ton; he said he had gotten used to it despite being a pretty slim dude.  On a trip that demands efficient packing, part of his gear included a large guitar; he was part of a band in England and regularly took it out to jam with villagers who often brought out drums and other instruments to join in. He said the voyage had been surprisingly trouble-free. He told me he had incurred just one puncture, and that same occurred in the Pyranees in Europe, so none in Africa.  He appeared to be having a great time, but after The Gambia, he said he was on his way home.

The second biker I met, an Austrian named Georg, I got to know a bit better since we shared a hotel, the Sahel Vert, in Bamako, Mali.  Like the English biker, Georg started in England and had been on the road, mostly in West Africa, for about six months.  Georg also stayed in villages regularly, but preferred to sleep outside, “under the stars” as he put it.  His bike was even heavier as the load was “about half spare parts and tools”.

Austrian Georg Isola, here at the Sahel Vert Hotel in Bamako, has been on the road for six months, principally in West Africa. He started his amazing bike journey in London.

Georg had quite a bit to say about the perils of the road.  He had incurred six punctures, which I still thought was a small number.  He also spoke candidly of the loneliness and difficulty of the journey from a mental standpoint – having traveled alone for long stretches, I can identify with the emotional roller coaster he described and will continue to face.  He, however, has to deal with the added pressure of going through the experience on a bicycle, often not seeing another Westerner for long stretches.  Georg told me that on several occasions, he has thought about abandoning the trip and going home, and was planning on doing so in any event for a family obligation.  But, he said, despite all the difficult days, he was still planning on coming back – and biking to Capetown, a trip that he estimated would last another year!

I admire these guys.  Anytime you meet someone traversing the same ground you are, but on a bike instead of a car, it’s very humbling.  Some people think our overland trip is hardcore, but we have the plush interior of a well-prepared 4×4. These bikers are a couple of steps above us on the “travel adventure” totem pole.  They ply rough West African roads with absurdly heavy loads, in the scorching afternoon sun, when afternoon temperatures during dry season regularly reach 100 degrees.  They bike alone, with little or no security recourse, often for 100 kilometers or more per day.  It is they who are the truly hardcore travelers in West Africa.

Guinea: From the Fouta highlands to the Malian border

March 12-14

We spent, somewhat un-memorably, a day and a half in the city of Labe before heading to Dalaba, a town in the heart of the Fouta Djallon highlands.  If any tourists come to Guinea, this would be one of the highlights, but at the moment Guinea does not seem to be frequently visited.  We stayed at Hotel Fouta,which had a weird, dilapidated, 70’s vibe with one outstanding feature – an awesome circular terrace with a matching view.

With its stunning view, the terrace at Hotel Fouta was difficult to resist – yet these days usually empty.

On the way, we realized that we had a broken alternator, and upon arrival, once again had to set about making a repair.  We called up a mechanic who came, and over the next couple of days (which included him riding 55km to the town of Mamou to get another alternator), we eventually we got it fixed.  We also did some trekking in the area surrounding area, one of the few times we’ve actually done so on the trip.  (Now that we’re slowly moving out of the desert and Sahel areas, this may change.)  It was a good little day trek – we walked through pine forests, bamboo forests, a waterfall, and some villages with kids playing football.

Satisfied that his duties are complete for the moment, this brick maker along the bank of the Niger River, a few kilometers from the Guinean second city of Kankan, lets the kiln do the work.

The next day, we got back on the road towards the Malian border, but ended up staying in the city of KanKan after a long day of driving. The best part about that drive was a short diversion, around sunset to the bank of the Niger River.  While we were considering camping there, we ran into some brick makers and their kilns along the river.  They took time off from their intense efforts to talk to us.  As the kilns fired up behind them, they informed us that the bricks were for a new building project in the village that we could see nearby.  I asked them if we could camp in the area; they said it was probably fine but then also mentioned that it wasn’t up to them — we should talk first to the village chief.  As it was getting dark, we thought maybe the window has passed, and that next time we would get there before dark.

When these young footballers saw me walk through the surrounding pine forest just outside of Dalaba, they stopped playing and came over for a chat and this picture.

It is interesting to see a country so utterly devoid of travelers – even forgotten Guinea Bissau and parched Mauritania had more.  Sadly, it seems as if they had made some kind of effort in Dalaba and Labe some years ago that had in large measure failed – tourist offices were closed, trekking guides were hard to reach, and busted-looking hotels were vacant.  Other than the general benefits that come with a lack of tourists, Guinea has some positives:  Like anywhere in West Africa, people are welcoming and engaging.  The highlands in particular have cooler weather than pretty much anywhere else in the northern part of West Africa.  And the roads are made for 4×4 overlanding – plenty of them potholed and chock full of dust.  I wouldn’t expect tourists to flock here any time soon, but maybe a few more will come.

As mentioned in the previous post, (“THE  LONG ROAD TO LABE”), we had heard that Guinea’s military and police were rough on travelers.  We hadn’t experienced that yet – the border and most checkpoints had been pretty easy.  Until, that is, the Guinea/Mali border.  There, we got through about five offices with no issues, but we still had one more to go – the office right next to the border that checks the vehicle’s documents.  After looking at our paperwork, they decided we did not have insurance that covered us for Guinea, so we couldn’t leave Guinea.  (You’d think that if this were true, they’d want us to leave.) This was the first time on our whole trip anyone has raised this issue, and it was complete bullshit.  They made a series of truly absurd supporting arguments as to why we had committed “an infraction” (same basic word in French), a favored term for any — usually, in our experience, made-up — vehicle-related offense in West Africa.

Germans and Saudi Arabians have built wells in Guinea. Besides providing a ready-to-drink source of water (which I consumed on the spot, straight from the source), these wells help to cut down on malaria because Guineans spend less time near water sources where malarial mosquitoes lurk.

There were about ten military men and women in the border post office, and as usual it was tough to tell who was in charge.  They wanted about 20,000 or 30,000 CFA ($30 or $40), depending on whom we talked to; I, of course, took our usual line, insisting that zilch was a more just penance.  After I had debated the finer pseudo-points of vehicle insurance requirements in Guinea for about an hour, I decided at that point to engage in a somewhat risky strategy:  I told them that I had heard and read some unfavorable opinions about the Guinean military, especially about how they try to fleece or rob tourists, but that until now, no one had given us any trouble.  I told them that I had been planning on telling people that Guinea was fine, and maybe it has gotten better, but now I wasn’t sure because of the trouble we were being given. Some of that may have been misunderstood, but that at least opened the door for a friendly discussion with someone who seemed to be in a position of authority, and this guy soon thereafter – and amidst protests from his colleagues – just decided to let us pass into Mali without paying.  And that’s how we said goodbye to Guinea, though we might pass back through on the way to Sierra Leone.

The long road to Labe

Mar 10-11

Following some beach camping, we started along the long road to the Fouta Djallon highland region of Guinea, referred to regionally as “Guinea Conakry” to distinguish it from Guinea Bissau.  We had to rumble over the same crazy pot-holed road again (See “UP TO DAKAR:  THE WORST ROAD YET”), which we would have loved to avoid.  That we could not do so reveals just how few main roads there are in West Africa.

By about 8pm, we reached Kedougou, the last Senegalese town before the Guinea border, but the checkpoint was closed for the night.  When we saw an army of parked sept-places, which are seven-seat, long distance Peugeot station-wagon taxis, an institution in this part of West Africa – the same means of transport Lee and I took from Dakar to the Mali border seven years ago —  we realized that we too would be spending the night roadside.

Since we had camping equipment, we didn’t have to sleep in the Cruiser, but we needed a safe place to set up shop. When we got to the rope that signified that we could not go any further for the night, I got out and started asking where we could sleep.  An older guy working as a street money changer suggested that I speak to the Senegalese military.  I went in and met an officer named Seidu; after we spoke for a bit, he agreed to let us drive our car into the military compound, park overnight, and pitch our tents under a sheltered area.

We then arranged dinner by negotiaing an array of street sellers clamoring for the temporary border-dwellers’ business. We ended up choosing a couple of packets of goat meat, wrapped in greasy brown paper, and a communal bowl of yogurt and couscous.  I slept just on my sleeping mat, without the tent, which I am starting to enjoy more when I know I’m in a secure area.  The downside is that it requires a fair amount of mosquito repellent.

And suddenly it all turned to dust: Two dust devils swirled by as we surveyed the road ahead, one of Guinea’s many unpaved main thoroughfares, near the town of Kunsitel. To the left, mushroom termite mounds dot the savanna.

After a decent night’s sleep but no shower, and our second roadside bean and egg sandwich in three meals, we were ready to cross the border.  The Senegalese side was a breeze, and – in stark contrast to other Senegalese borders – everyone was friendly and efficient.  It was then time for the Guinea side. We had heard from our Senegalese military hosts that the Guinea military is a bit “hungry” and we had read that most crime against foreigners in Guinea is actually committed by military personnel or at least by those wearing military fatigues.  But no one asked for money.  Our biggest obstacle was simply red tape – we endured ten different offices in two distinct border checkpoints.  Soon after we crossed the first set of checkpoints, we saw a dirt road with a sign stating “36 km to Guinea Bissau.”  In the next town, because there were others coming from Guinea Bissau, we had to do the entire border process all over again.  4295

At least the road – newly constructed, wide-lane, and tarmac – was amazing.  But it didn’t last.  After another roadside village stop for a rice and chicken lunch and 6 fresh mangoes for 2000 Guinean francs (29 cents), we gave a guy a ride to the town where the paved road ended and one of Guinea’s infamous dirt roads began.  After a couple of hours on that road, we came across a construction site where a big Caterpillar excavator was literally making the road which had to cross over a small river filled with rocks.  I jumped in and took an impromptu bath.

Throughout much of West Africa, we wave to anyone alongside the road. Usually, our gesture is returned with a wave and a smile, as the children in this Guinean village demonstrate.

As the Cat had quit for the day, probably due to mechanical failure but who knows, we decided to be the first vehicle to cross the rocky river, giving the Cruiser its biggest test yet.  First I walked in the water to test the depth; it seemed all right.  We then started removing some of the more problematic-looking rocks.  After a final survey of the terrain, we were ready.  As over a hundred villagers and one Chinese project supervisor looked on, we played the guinea pig. Lee bounced across, deftly avoiding the remaining sharp rocks and deep holes, while I directed him with some help from village kids.  We got through, though we later discovered that we partially broke the exhaust mounting, quite possibly during that very rough crossing.

Guinea’s dirt roads didn’t have too much traffic, but most vehicles were packed to the gills inside and on top like this overloaded sept-place taxi. We regularly saw cows, goats, chickens, people, and huge amounts of luggage on the roofs of vehicles we passed.

After lots more driving on dust-covered, potholed roads, we finally arrived in Labe and ate dinner at a restaurant where people were watching a Serie A Italian football match.  We were by a wide margin the dirtiest people in the room.  With the night still young at 11pm, we finally found a place to crash.

Back to Casamance

March 7-9

After a month in and around Senegal, we are headed to Guinea.  We did not have to go through the Casamance region to get there, but some places are just worth re-visiting.  On our way to our favorite beach camping spot, we shot through a spectacular part of the savannah, with bright green trees and bright green birds called bee-eaters, up to Pointe Sainte Georges. There we arrived at the south side of the Casamance River, where we were immediately greeted by manatees goofing around in the water just a few meters from shore.

I discovered that the Casamance River, with its silt bottom, was a bit too fertile for a proper dip.

We were en route to our previous camping spot, on the beach on the Atlantic coast just north of Djembering to spend a couple of days.  We arrived at dusk only to see that someone else had taken our spot.  But it turned out to be a couple of cool Senegalese dudes who were just about to leave for the night.  When they bounced, they offered us their fire, which we used to cook some fish we had purchased at the market.

The next day I woke up to see a French guy fishing; apparently our camping spot is a coveted fishing area too because he reeled in a couple of large ones.  I discovered that the water had gotten a lot warmer in three weeks and that the waves were great for bodysurfing.  Later, we drove up the beach and grabbed a hoard of firewood; a sizable beach fire was the logical result.

Near the mouth of the Casamance, firewood is in nearly endless supply along the beach. We couldn’t resist grabbing a bunch of it to build the as-yet largest fire of the trip.

It was a great couple of days, with the fun mitigated slightly by the fact that I got a water bottle and a lamp nicked from my tent.  It must have happened in the morning, before I took the tent down, while I was eating some leftover couscous from the previous night’s dinner.  This was the first time that I can recall anyone stealing something from me on this trip.  It may have been a couple of Senegalese kids that an older French couple had warned us about, telling stories of far more valuable items having been stolen from them.

The driftwood campfire fire is definitely part of the Casamance camping experience.

I am looking forward to more beach camping, but we are soon heading inland to the highlands of Guinea, followed by landlocked Mali and Burkina Faso, so it may not happen any time soon.  We’ll be ready in Sierra Leone though, and the search for the utopian beach camping spot will continue there.

Cruiser repairs and more in The Gambia

March 1 – March 7, 2012

Leap Year day marked our exit from Dakar and a trek towards The Gambia, a tiny sliver of a country that divides Senegal, with its territory cut out along the Gambia River.  The Gambia was a former British colony and, especially along the Atlantic Coast, sees a large number of (mostly package) tourists, Brits in particular.  Gambia is small, reasonably stable (with its own long –serving dictatorial strongman, Yahya Jammeh), and relatively easy-going.  These attributes have earned it the title of “Africa for Beginners”.

This restaurant was across the street from a shop in which Lee and I waited for a guy to deliver an auto part that we needed to repair the Cruiser. 

We figured it would be fun to spend a few days in The Gambia, plus going around it sucks as we’ve discovered (See “UP TO DAKAR:  THE WORST ROAD YET”). But our main reason for stopping by was to make some repairs to the Cruiser.  Though I was able to communicate relatively fluidly in French by then, we figured that having complex mechanical discussions would be better done in English-speaking Gambia. Also, the Toyota dealership was far more accessible in the relatively small Gambian city of Serekunda than it was in traffic-choked Dakar, making our highly-necessary repeat visits possible.

We rolled up into eastern Gambia at dusk, took a small ferry across the river, and went through a huge number of checkpoints as we moved parallel to the coast for a few hours. We had no idea even which town we’d stay in, but somehow it always works out.  Following some poking around, we found a good-value guest house called One World in Cape Point, about a hundred meters from the Atlantic.  Because we got there on Thursday, we had to start repairs on Friday — and since the Toyota CFAO mechanics don’t work on weekends, the repairs didn’t get completely done until Tuesday.  This delay allowed us to see a bit of The Gambia.

Lee tries to figure out whether the front gasket seals have been properly replaced.

Cape Point and neighboring Bakau had its share of hustlers, and is a well-known bastion for aging European, again especially British, women seeking young Gambian dudes.  This dynamic was readily apparent at the all-inclusive resorts that dotted the beach.  I spent a lot of time walking around and in bars talking to local people: hustlers, fish mongers, shopkeepers, tuk tuk drivers, and people who were otherwise hanging out in or around the street.  The ability to do so in English reminded me of Sierra Leone, where anyone can just go around all day and have spontaneous street conversations.

We soon noticed that everywhere in The Gambia, there are signs lauding the great and wonderful awesomeness of President Jammeh.   If the propaganda is to be believed, he can apparently cure AIDS, is beloved by all Gambian women, and is a great unifier of Africa.  One sign, on the way to the capital of Banjul, implores Gambians to vote for Jammeh, stating that those who do not vote for him should stop “hating themselves”.  Leaving aside that the concept of voting is a joke in The Gambia because Jammeh runs unopposed as evidenced by the “election” last November, this guy has created one of the more cult-like presidencies of anywhere I’ve ever been.

I didn’t get a chance to go on a croc-snatching expedition with the French Steve Irwin, but I couldn’t resist grabbing this guy off a palm tree at one of the Atlantic coast resorts. I had to hold him tight because of his potentially nasty bite, but of course released him unharmed.

On the weekend, we ventured through southern Gambia toward the Senegalese border; a highlight for me was a visit to a small reptile “zoo” of sorts, a sampling of local reptiles a local French guy there had caught.  This guy and his family spend a lot of their time snagging snakes, crocodiles, turtles, and lizards — which they then maintain in cages and use to educate Gambians (for free) about them while charging foreigners a small entry fee.  I enjoy reptiles more than any other animals, having spent thousands of hours, both as a child and adult, even now, stalking and often grabbing them.  When he spoke about his expeditions catching crocodiles in the Gambia River and invited me along, I considered telling Lee that I would catch up with him in a few days.

Everything takes longer than you think it will, and in Africa, it’s almost always a lot longer. About three days after we had hoped, the Cruiser was finally done, and it was time, yet again, to back to Senegal.

Hanging in Dakar — Just in time for the big presidential election

February 22 – 29

I ended up staying at Keur Diame, a guesthouse in the beachside community of Yoff, a neighborhood in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, one of West Africa’s largest cities, for a week.  Lee was there for a few days, and then headed up to St. Louis; as I had been there twice already including recently, I decided to stay and chill.   I accomplished some work-related as well as trip tasks, and wrote some stories for this blog.  Using the impressive Google translator tool and a host of street, restaurant, and café conversations, I continued the French study.  I also fell into a morning routine of reading about African politics, running on the beach with a couple of German women, and body-surfing the waves. At some point during the day I walked, usually aimlessly, around the busy, sandy streets of the Parcelles Assainies neighborhood.

I was in Dakar, albeit away from the action, for the first major political event of the trip, the Senegalese presidential election.  In the only West African country to have never experienced military rule and a nation generally lauded for its stability and lack of coups, this has been the most tense election in Senegalese history.  In Dakar, several people had been shot dead by police during protests leading up to the election.  There was widespread fury over incumbent, 86-year old Abdoulaye Wade’s decision to run for a third term despite a two-term limit policy that was adopted during his presidency.

Given Wade’s advanced age and controversial insistence on a third term, is this ironic graffiti?

As though he is some sort of regal figure beyond reproach, Wade dismissed criticism and protests as “tantrums”, and stated that critical Europeans don’t understand don’t realize that he is the president and “father” of the country.  Africans weren’t buying this either.  In talking politics with people in West Africa, I learned that they are tired of the African tradition of leaders refusing to relinquish power even when they are legally obligated to do so.   In the Arab Spring era, and when information is ever more widely accessible on the Internet, the people seem to feel more empowered than ever to do something about it.

On the Sunday of the election, travel in and out of Dakar was banned on the Sunday of the election, and the police presence was conspicuous throughout the parts of the city I visited.  But at the polls, everything was peaceful.  Wade was booed in Dakar by a large number of people as he cast his vote amidst chants of “Get out, old man!”  Internet reports suggest he was extremely angry about the jeering. He won the most votes, but not enough to win a clear majority, and is widely predicted to lose to Macky Sall, the only one of 14 opposition candidates with enough resources to run a national campaign.  The opposition appears poised to rally around “Macky” (as he’s referred to in the ever-present election-season billboards) and bounce the old man from office.  Wade has stated that he’ll accept the results; I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the run-off later in March.