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Timbuctoo James, and don't spare the horses.

May 2, 2009

If, when the time comes, I am found to have been on balance a naughty boy, I could well find myself shuttling back and forth between Kaolack and Bamako for all of eternity. The evening before setting off (very fittingly Friday 13th), I managed to catch the weather forecast for the Senegalese leg. There was no mucking about with clouds, for there would be none, instead just a prediction of the temperature for each major town, starting at 22 degrees down on the coast, and steadily rising to 37 on the Malian border, from where I could only extrapolate in a general upwards direction. The forecast was followed by horoscopes set to music, and then a 5 minute long photomontage of flowers, mountainous landscapes, rural idylls and suchlike, after which a counter appeared in the corner of the screen and we recapped all that we had seen, counting up from 1 to 101 reasons why God is great. With such a tantalising prime time schedule I find it hard to believe that the nighteries of Senegal do any business on a Friday evening.

The bus from Kaolack to Bamako begins the trip in Dakar. To calculate the amount of time needed to negotiate the traffic on the way out of Dakar, one must write down a number between one and ten, times it by the roll of a dice, make the necessary corrections for wind speed, then add a couple of hours for good measure. When that's all done, screw up the piece of paper, chuck it out of the window and then set off and see what happens. Once the waiting for arrival, loading of luggage and general farting about was all out of the way we were only 3 hours late, enabling us to set off in the hottest part of the day. As luck would have it, the bus was already nearly full, so I managed to get a window seat on the side that would get the best of the afternoon sun, and was near enough to the back window to get the evening sun, with the poorly cooled engine directly below me for added comfort. As a bonus, the first 300km or so of road was being upgraded, so we were able to crawl along an adjacent temporary dirt road at 40 miles an hour in order to really reap the benefits of the sun's rays. After an hour or two my pores stopped sweating and began uncontrolably sobbing instead.

Things were not so bad, though, for the lady sat beside me had brought along a bucket of dried fish, a commodity that needs a bit of stifling heat to really blossom. Much later in the journey, so as to lift everyone's spirits, she balanced a potty on her knee, which her two year old daughter obligingly filled and then perched atop until the bus next stopped. It was a nice touch that she reached into her bag and passed around a can of perfume.

At around midnight we spent a pleasant hour or so waiting outside the Senegalese border post so that the officials within could give us a thorough demonstration of just how special their uniforms make them. Thus enlightened, we continued on to the Malian customs office, where the bus stopped and everyone got off. By the time I had worked out that we were here for the night, all the sleeping mats had been hired out. A voice cut through the darkness shouting "Hey, monsieur", and after a few repetitions I realised that it was directed at me and was coming from a kindly old chap who was patting half of his mat. Judging that the invitation to share was entirely honourable, I settled down for the night with my legs dangling in the dust.

In the morning, once the customs people had had a good look at all my dirty pants, we moved on to the Malian border post, where we learnt that here too men in uniforms (except that they were all wearing slightly different things) are all-mighty beings. I had not sorted out a visa in advance, and was informed with an enormous grin and a cheeky wink that I would have to pay for the infraction as well as the visa. Oddly I only received a receipt for the latter. With the week's beer money rounded up we were free to begin another morning, afternoon and evening of slow cooking, eventually rolling in to Bamako 32 hours after we had set off.

Whilst wandering the streets of Bamako in an attempt to get lots of important things done, like visiting the museum on the only day that it is shut, and fending off persisent hard sell of overpriced tours of Mali, I discovered a new hazard for those of above average height. The muscles of my neck and torso were doing far more work than they are accustomed to, and it dawned on me that his was because I was having to move my head out of the way of a constant procession of piles of cushions, stacks of cooking pots, mobile pharmacies, buckets of fish, and many other things besides, all balanced on the tops of peoples heads.

After a couple of days rest, it was ding ding, seconds away, round two. As the taxi rolled up to the gare routiere on the outskirts of town, I found it a little odd that there was a man holding the door handle and running down the last stretch of the dual carriageway with us. It was not until I had bought a ticket to Mopti that I realised that the taxi driver had sold me to what I would later be told was the worst bus company in all of Mali. It was a good job that I had arrived at 7am, for the bus was due to depart at bang on 10 o'clock. By around 11 the last ticket had been sold, clearing the way for the crew to start on important pre-departure tasks, including making sure that the engine worked and loading a three piece suite on to the roof, and by 1 we were on the road.

As well as the usual driver, money handler, and baggage loader, the crew this time also included a man whose job was to shout at people, which seemed to be very necessary at at least a couple of the 15 stops that we made en route. It was to prove absolutely vital after we pulled in for what at first seemed to be the 16th stop, in a town called San, about three quarters of the way to Mopti. Half an hour later he announced that the driver had had enough and was going back to Bamako, a decision that went down very well with all the passengers. After a lively debate a local minibus was found to take us onwards,and we all boarded. 5 minutes later we were back off again as it had been revealed that we would be paying for the ride. After a little more shouting and a near escalation into full blown violence it was agreed that it was the bus company's treat, and at around 1 in the morning we were moving again.

If the driver of the minibus has dreams of breaking land speed records I would strongly recommend that he finds another vehicle in which to try, for what he had had seen it's best days at some point in the long distant past. Two hours and 50km later, as the third breakdown was looking ready to happen, he finally gave up and pulled in alongside another bus, onto which we were all transferred. The last leg of the journey was uneventful, save for a one and a half hour stop 12km away from our final destination, and we arrived in Mopti, an 8 hour drive from Bamako, only 18 hours after setting off.

That afternoon, feeling that I had not quite yet discovered the point at which my spirit would finally and irrepairably be broken, I bought a place in a 4WD heading for Timbuctoo at 9am the following morning. Things looked good, as 8 of the 12 seats had already been filled. At 2 the next afternoon the 12th passenger sigend up, and off we went. The first bit of the journey was on a sealed road and so fairly quick. As we approached the turn off from the main road, the first rain I had seen since Morocco began to fall. It was accompanied by some spectacular lightning, coming from the general direction that the dirt road would be taking us. After a quick dinner of meat served in a piece of cement sack (a handy way to conserve the Immodium supplies) we were bouncing our way up the Route de L'espoir in the rapidly vanishing twilight. I remember once reading in a 4WD manual some very strong advice that a vehicle should be loaded so as to keep the centre of gravity as close to the ground as possible. But that was in Australia, and perhaps different laws of physics apply in Mali. I found the pitching and rolling alarming enough in the front seat, so Lord only knows what it was like for the baggage boy, perching atop a pile that was as high again as the landcruiser.

In the wee hours of the morning we reached the end of the 200km of dirt road and 500m through the middle of a rice field to discover that the last ferry had left some considerable time before. Having found someone to hire a piece of fence and a mouldy blanket from, we settled down on the bank of the river Niger for one of the best night's sleep in recorded history.

Somewhere in the Sahara, about a 4 day camel ride north of Timbuctoo, there is what at first glance looks like a traditional Tuareg encampment. Closer inspection reveals that at one end there is a two-storey air conditioned tent that serves as an office for the black-besuited Chinese managers. From the other tents a constant tap-tap-tapping can be heard day and night, as the workers hammer and whittle away to produce container load upon container load of rings, knives, pendants and all manner of other tourist tat that the Tuaregs then bring south to the fabled city. At least ten times a day the average visitor will receive an invitation to come back to the tent for a cuppa, with the unspoken promise of being able to look at and be cajoled into buying lots of jewellry. Just in case the ploy fails to work yet again, everyone carries a couple of handfuls of trinkets in the front pocket of their boubou. I finally gave in and bought something, but only because it amused me that I, James Brown, should be buying something from Mohammed Ali.

I was a little surpised that the journey back to Mopti began only 50 minutes later than promised. Returning to Bamako was fine too, despite my concern when the ticket seller replied to my inquiry as to the time of arrival with "when it please God". It was so fine, in fact, that I decided to use the same company to travel back to Senegal. But, just when I thought the chance had passed, they went and saved the best 'til last.

I thought I was being clever by buying a ticket to start the journey at the gare routiere, rather than from the company's own depot, for the nice man at the counter told me that this was where it set off from. The next morning, it all looked to be going well when we set off with only 5 people on board and more or less on time. Half an hour later we arrived at the depot and I was booted out of my carefully chosen seat, and our names were added to the bottom of the list for the actual bus to Dakar. Once again I would be left to pick at the carcass once the best seats, and most of the bad ones, had been taken. All of the relatively new buses, with comforts such as TVs, something that at one stage in its life was functioning air conditioning, and seats with padding, seem to be reserved for routes within Mali, so that all the old knackered buses with five seats per row can be used for international journeys.

When left to its own devices my mind often wanders into dark, morbid and occasionally bizarre territory. For example, having seen a shooting star as I lay awake in the Mauritanian desert, I began to wonder what the chamelier would do if he awoke to find that a meteorite had landed precisely upon my head. With a much more firmer rooting in reality, I whiled away a couple of hours on the journey to Timbuctoo assessing the ease of crawling out of a 4WD with a couple of broken limbs for each of the possible positions that the vehicle might end up in. The approach to the Senegalese border had me going through the various possible explanations as to why the man in uniform with the very large automatic weapon had boarded the bus and sat right at the very front. Someone suggested that he was merely doing a little power-hitching and I tried to tell that this was indeed the best explanation.

I am not sure that I fully understand the logic, but there must be a reason why all the buses are timetabled so that they reach the border when the customs offices are closed. Before I settled down for the night on an orthopaedically designed piece of concrete outside the Senegalese office, we had to contend with immigration. The general order of play is that an official waits at the bus door and collects all the passports as the passengers descend, and then spirits them away to the office where the next hour or so is spent poring over them to decide who is good for how much money. Everyone is then called into the office one by one to be told the result. During the course of the journey I had fallen in with all the other Anglophones on the bus, consisting of a few Nigerians, a couple of Gambians and a Liberian soldier of fortune. I was surprised to hear from one of the Nigerians that they reckoned I would get away scott free, as would all the Senegalese, whereas that he and his compatriots would be in the big money pile, but this did indeed turn out to be the case. One chap was not best pleased with his personal outcome, and traded insults with the officials as he emerged, which soon escalated into a vigourous bit of handbags at close range, after which he was dragged back inside and the door was slammed. Fortunately when he emerged ten minutes later it looked like he had only recieved a few stern words from the headmaster, rather than a soundly delivered six of the best.

To my great astonishment, we left the customs office quite a long while past first thing in the morning, and this delay, coupled with various stops at checkpoints to get more money out of everyone, and a lengthy pause at the end of which it was decided that the brakes were only partially rather than catastrophically failing, making it perfectly safe to continue. This meant that we would arrive in Kaolack late enough to make a connection down to The Gambia a bit of an uncertainty.

As darkness descended for the second time on the trip my imagination broke free of its morrings once again, and I began to dwell on the fact that I had not actually watched as my bag was being stowed in the bowels of the bus before we left Bamako. When at last we arrived my mood travelled steadily downwards as we spent twenty minutes checking and re-checking each and every compartment of the hold, and it looked as though my fears were real and most of my belongings had been left behind. The crew then remembered another compartment that they had forgotten about, and eventually my bag was found. Luckily the delay meant that I had a cast iron excuse not to continue with my Nigerian chums, who were planning to dash for the next border and spend another night on the floor if needs be. A poor excuse for a man I may be, but one night at a time is more than enough for me.

The last couple of weeks have been a little less hectic, but more of that anon. Bye for now.

Posted by jamesb at May 2, 2009 1:47 PM


Was it true or just a joke that the Tuareg jewelers have Chinese managers? Was this at Arouane? Solar panels for the air-conditioning?

Posted by: Leslie Clark at May 3, 2009 4:51 PM

James - really enjoyed reading all these. A new career looms. And (hope you had a) Happy Birthday!

Posted by: Francis and Ruth at May 6, 2009 9:37 AM

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