Mali, mud, sweat and tears

After leaving Djifer on the West coast of Senegal, we had to retrace our steps back up the long penisular track to the town of Mbour, and then turn East towards Tambacounda, we thought this would be a fairly easy drive as it is shown on our Michelin West Africa map as being tarmac all the way. Well there is some tarmac, basically just joining up the massive pot holes! The Senegalese are trying to sort out sections of this road, but while they are working on it, these areas remain closed and so you have to follow quite lengthy diversions, that can be busy and quite muddy (we are here in the rainy season).

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The journey was over 500km, and took us over 10 hours, in places that tarmac was probably the worst road conditions I have ever experienced. The amount of abandoned lorries and other vehicles along this stretch is testimony to how tough that was. At times it was impossible to travel at any more than 20kmph. Oh and then there are the speed humps, I don’t think Ive mentioned the speed humps in West Africa before on this blog, well, they are extremely large, mostly unsignposted, and quite often along a fast straight stretch of road. But the worst ones are located on the exit from roundabouts, just as you start accelerating! What can possibly be the reason for these?

That night we managed to camp in the carpark to a hotel on the road into Tambacounda, it was our most expensive nights camping since leaving Morocco, after eventually negotiating a price of 12,000CFA (about £13.50) for both of us and Colonel K, but we did use their rather grubby toilets, and showers (we were saving our water for what was to come).

After an early start, and a quick breakfast we headed towards the Mali Border (our intention was to get to the Senegal side and camp there for the night), however, after Tambacounda to our surprise the road surface improved and we got to the border town of Kidira at about lunch time.

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 So we decided that we would cross the border into Mali, and head to Kayes (pronounced Ky). 

Why are these border crossings so complicated? The border here is a bridge over the river, so we pulled up at a Police Post before the entrance to the bridge, took our documents to the very friendly policeman, who took down all our details, and entered them into his ledger. He then informed us that we couldn’t proceed as we didn’t have a police immigration exit stamp and we would have to go to the main police station in the town to get our passport stamped. “Can we walk there?” we asked, “no, drive” was the reply. We then had to negotiate a 180 degrees u-turn in a crazy road and drive Colonel K through the narrow roads until we found the Police Station. Duly stamped, we went back to the bridge to the Customs to get the exit stamp in the Carnet de Passage. I’m sure this guy had never seen one before, and it was up to us to tell him how to fill it in and stamp it. Eventually we were on our way and over the bridge, towards the Mali side.

If we thought the Senegal side was chaotic, then what greeted us on the other side was complete mayhem, in front of us were queues of hundreds and hundreds of trucks waiting to cross into Mali. We have learnt that when there is a queue of trucks, you just go around them, and in this instance, this involved taking to the dirt down the side, and jumping this massive queue, until I got right up to their barrier. We stopped and took our passports to the Police/Military checkpoint next to the barrier, after a few questions, these were then stamped, and we were told to cross the track to the Douane (customs) office. Luckily there was a young lad there that spoke a little English (not many do in these parts), who explained that we needed to take the truck back to a building to have it assessed for customs as Mali does not accept the Carnet de Passage. This meant reversing Colonel K back through between the rows of parked trucks to the building we had earlier passed. This is why so many trucks were parked up, they were waiting for customs paperwork. As usual we were processed much quicker, as tourists, than the usual truck drivers, who I’m convinced are at these crossings for days at a time. The Customs office was manic, with so many people in there shouting, and working. But what got us through quickly in the end was the appearance of a fairly high ranking official in a Military uniform who said something that we think was to treat us kindly & not take advantage .We were charged only 5,000CFA (about £5.50) for our Passavant document. Once again no bribes were paid. Then it was back up to the barrier, documents checked (poor Jac jumping in and out of the truck), and we were through. In all it had taken us about 2.5hrs for this crossing, but in this heat and in these manic conditions it seemed a lot longer. Despite the much more military nature of the Mali border post, we were treated with kindness and respect the whole time by all the officials.

Things have changed in Mali, it wasn’t long ago (a year or so), that you needed a military escort to drive from the border to Kayes and beyond towards the capital Bamako, but these days things are much safer, and we were allowed to travel onwards on our own. We got to Kayes, and then turned South towards Kita, the idea being that we would stop for a couple of days at a campsite near the Manantali Dam. It was soon apparent that we would not reach this camp spot for that evening so we decided to find somewhere to wild camp for the night. This route from Kayes to Kita is made up of two almost equal parts, the first half is tarmac, the second half is piste/dirt track, but we had been told by an Italian that we had met a few days before that it was mostly a good piste in good condition so should be fine for our truck. At about 4.30pm we had to pull over as a torrential storm hit us on the road (still tarmac) and we stopped in a tiny village, until it cleared. The villagers were on there way back from the fields, and because of the rain, had just stripped off, so their clothes didn’t get wet!

This road is completely stunning with some fantastic rock formations and heavy vegetation, its very different to places that we had seen before on our trip.

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About 30km before the end of the tarmac section we spotted a huge radio mast and figured that there would be a track off the road to it and because of the tall vegetation we would be hidden from the road there. It was perfect, so we parked between the mast (a brand new one approx 50m high for mobile network, and complete with a huge bank of solar panels to power it). Our only neighbours being a few nomads with their tents/shelters about 200m further down. So after cooking dinner we settled down for the night. As soon as we turned the lights out, we realised that in the distance there was a storm somewhere and the lightening was almost constant, but there was no thunder so it was a way off and it wasn’t raining outside. The next thing I knew, was Jac waking me and telling me it was starting to rain, so we got up and closed the roof lights, but left the windows open for some air (it was about 32c in the truck), then we went back to bed. Again I was woken up by Jac saying that the wind was getting very strong saying we should shut the windows. Then Bang! The wind hit the truck like a train ramming into the side, there was rain pouring in through the window over the table area, and we both leapt over to it, pressing on the plastic black out blind trying to stop the water pouring in, Jac reached through the blind to find that the window was not there! It had been ripped off by the wind. The wind was severely buffering the truck, with it violently rocking on its suspension.

We spent the next 40 mins trying to stop the blind being blown in (this was the only thing stopping the worst of the weather now), but eventually the wind started to decrease, and we started mopping up the water with some tea towels, we would worry about the window later. I was at the sink wringing out the tea towels when I happened to look out of the kitchen window just a flash of lightning happened and couldn’t believe my eyes! I looked again, and again, and the scene was the same.

The huge mast was gone!

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 Luckily the massive structure had gone the other way, away from Colonel K, and when I ventured outside I found our window between the truck and the mangled wreckage of solar panels.

As it was pitch dark, with water everywhere, (and a danger of snakes) we decided that a full assessment of damage and any repairs would have to wait until daylight. Next morning showed the full carnage in all its glory.

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 We managed to refit the window (completely undamaged), and the only other damage was the tarpaulin that is covering the bikes on the rack got ripped, WE WERE VERY LUCKY! Ive never experienced hurricane force winds, but this must have been very close to it!

Next morning, having a laugh about the previous night now, and being shocked that the nomad shelters are still standing, we headed for the ferry at Bafoulabe. This ferry is at a junction of two rivers and the one ferry goes between three exit points. But we had been told previously that to get to the camp site you need to exit on the piste to Kita, so thats what we told the guy on the tiny ferry, “we want to go to Kita”. This later proved to be wrong, as to get to the camp site you need to exit at the other point (it was too late once we realised the info we were given was wrong).

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After exiting the ferry (just floating as we drove off, no tying up here), we got on the piste that was indeed very good for the first few kilometres, but there were soon lots of diversions where sections had been washed away, and new Oued (river) crossings were being built.

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After about two hours on this track, we came round a corner and in front of us was a large rigid truck that was sunk deep into the mud, with about 6 guys working frantically to dig it out. A quick assessment showed that there was room around the side of the stranded truck so we went for the gap, and with the deep mud slowing us, we ground to a halt, with the passenger rear wheel stuck deep in the glupe. Closer inspection showed that the lockers and entrance foldaway steps, had beached themselves on the side as we were pitched over at an angle. BUGGER!

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You can see how deep it is as these tyres are nearly 4 foot high.

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 We started digging, and digging and digging, to try to free the stuck wheel, we took it in turns to use the one spade that we had, and Jac also went looking for rocks to place under the wheel, we were getting no help from the guys who were with the other truck, who soon started jacking up the rear of their truck with a bottle jack dangerously balanced on some stones, so they could get under their rear wheels.

After we had been there about two hours, there was an almighty crash from the truck next door, and the rear of the truck collapsed off of the bottle jack, how no one was killed or seriously injured I really don’t know, Jac went very pale!

Eventually after quite a few failed attempts, we managed to get out using a combination of digging out, using stones under the wheels and using our front winch attached to the back of a broken down truck that was further in front of us.

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As you can see, once the other guys realised we had a winch, they were willing to help us. So we said we would help to pull them out.

So after a quick pee….

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We pulled them out, they were so pleased, lots of shouting, high fives, etc, it was only then that the driver told Jac that they had been there for two days, trying to get out, and the broken down truck had been there for four days!

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This is a brutal place. We spent four hours in the seering heat of mid- day sun, digging like mad, and sweating buckets, we were covered in mud, our trainers were caked, and the truck was filthy, inside and out, but we got out.Oh, and Jac got stuck in the mud up to her knees and had to ask one of the guys to give her a hand out!

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After that episode we decided that before we drive into anywhere that looks wet we would stop the truck, and get out and look at options before driving into any nasty spots. This served us well for the rest of the day, as there were other bad spots along this route, one with another abandoned truck stuck in the middle. But because of the time we lost with getting the truck stuck, and the vast distance that we still had to cover before we got to Kita, we decided to find another place to wild camp. Jac spotted a disused quarry just off the piste, so we managed to tuck ourselves away in there and settled down for a much quieter night.

After another early start we carried on along the piste, through many villages along the way towards Kita.

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Only once stopping at a makeshift checkpoint (steel barrels across the piste), with just one single soldier there to check the documents of anyone that may come that way. Jac jumped out and showed the usual stuff to him before he came out smiling and removed the barrels (you have to be careful with a camera in Mali).

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After several river crossings (bridges of different descriptions), and crossing the railway tracks many many times (just drive over the tracks), and through some nasty sticky patches, we got the Kita.

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 Just before we got onto the tarmac at KIta, we saw a guy standing in the middle of the busy track waving frantically at us as we drove towards him, it was one of the guys from the truck that we had pulled out, he climbed up the side hanging on to the mirror, stuck his hand in through the window and greeted us like old friends. 

After saying goodbye and finally getting on the tarmac we were soon at the peage (toll both), and had to pay the princely sum of 1,000CFA (approx £1.10) to drive the 180km to the capital Bamako, though we did also have to separately pay a local tax of 500CFA when leaving the Province of Kayes at Kita.

The road to the end of the peage section is very good and we covered it quickly, however when we got to the end of this road (about 25km North of Bamako), everything changed, it was like a border crossing, in as much as there were hundreds of trucks parked up, many being repaired, there was no tarmac, and all we could do was try to drive round or through the queuing vehicles. At one time we were helped by a guy on foot that spotted that we could use a petrol station as a short cut. Eventually we got to a barrier with a rather large policeman (looking like the prisoner in the film The Green Mile) there to stop us. We showed our documents and he waved us through towards the city.

Bamako is huge, its a vast sprawling city, and really is a city with two sides (like most African capitals), there are some stunning new buildings and memorials in the city centre, like the new Government Building (shown below), and most of the foreign embassies are new buildings, but there are also the more usual residential areas for the majority of Malians, and these aren’t so great.

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We arrived in Bamako, aiming to stay at Le Cactus Hotel, on the South side of the river as we ,picked up this info from another travel blog, however after eventually finding the overgrown entrance to the hotel, it was immediately apparent that Le Cactus has been closed for a very long time. We understand that it was owned by a foreign couple, and it might be that because of the troubles here, they might have felt the need to close up and leave there business behind. On the way back in towards the city (we were about 12km out in the suburbs), we spotted another hotel sign down towards the river, so we drove down the dusty track, and saw a nice big set of gates. So we drove in and went to reception, the guy made a quick call to his boss, and said we could park the truck there but could not stay in it, we would have to have a room. the deal was 26,000CFA (approx £28.50) per night for an air conditioned room with a hot shower (not that you need hot water here). So we took that, had a nice dinner on the terrace overlooking the massive Niger River that flows past us (this river amazingly starts South East of us here, towards the sea, then flows inland through Mali, and Niger, and then turns South again through Nigeria, before reaching the sea).

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We also arranged for a driver to pick us up at 7.00am to drive us into the city centre to get to the embassy of Burkina Faso to apply for our Visas , the trouble was when we got there (after first being dropped off at the Libyan Embassy!), we were told that as it was the last day of Ramadan the Embassy would remain closed that day (Friday), and wouldn’t reopen until Monday morning.

Oh well, after the last week we could do with some rest and the hotel has got a nice pool. By the way, I had a bottle of Guinness with my dinner, and believe it or not it was brewed under licence here in Bamako.

Once we got the wifi working here, we received the sad news of the death of Avis Ball, from the village where we live, I’ve known Avis and her family since I was a small child, and when we bought our current house there, Avis and Eric made us very welcome and helped introduce us to the “newer” locals. Avis was such a strong character and will be sorely missed. Both mine and Jacqui’s thoughts are with Eric, Jackie, and Clifford at this time.

 

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4 Comments on “Mali, mud, sweat and tears

  1. OMG you were so lucky im glad you are both ok fantastic written blog I felt I was there take care Rod

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    • Hi Rod, thanks for those kind words, we’ve just spent the last two hours “de-mudding” the truck, you can see why people build houses out of the stuff, it drys like concrete
      V

      Like

  2. I’m really enjoying your blog ,very well put together. I was sorry to hear about le cactus as I have stayed with the Canadian couple several times over the last 15 years . In bukina faso ,we stayed in a hotel called the pit stop or something similar for free it’s in the africa overland bradt guide and ghana green turtle lodge and big millys can not be missed real high lights of west africa , please don’t hesitate for any information about visas routes or places to stay all the best seb

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    • Hi Seb, yeah we were a little surprised to find Le cactus closed, we have made a note of Big Millys and Green Turtle for the Ghana stage of our trip. We are currently waiting in Burkina for our Visas for Ghana, 3 days it takes!
      thanks for reading
      Vince and Jacs

      Like

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