Bamako to Niamey: 1,680km and 8 days of Sahelian fun

27 11 2008

[Dogon Country: Morning stroll near Ende]

I’m back home in Dosso after a nice break from Niger.  Nearly two weeks ago, my friend Russell arrived in Niger.  It was his first trip to Africa and he was my first visitor since I arrived here in January.  The first night we didn’t do much.  I accepted a few gifts from the US: Cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin and corn bread (for thanksgiving) along with two bottles of wine, marshmallows, and some Lindt chocolate truffles.  Then we headed to dinner at a nice Lebanese restaurant for hummus, baba ghanoush, and lamb kebabs.

Although Wednesday was our departure day for Mali, our flight wasn’t until nearly 9pm, so we had plenty of time to visit Niamey.  We started the day by changing some Euros to CFA for an amazing rate of 650 CFA per Euro with no commission.  Next we checked out all of the locally available produce, meats, and grains at the Petite Marche and then walked through a portion of the maze-like Grande Marche.  After the markets and a refreshing lunch at Amadine’s, we headed into new territory- the artisanal center and the Grand Mosque.  Both destinations had received mixed reviews from some volunteers but I genuinely enjoyed them.  The Wadata artisanal center has a large two story boutique feature virtually all types of Nigerien crafts, all with fixed prices that are totally unreasonable.  Behind the boutique a large complex houses artisans and their   creations which are also for sale at negotiable prices.  A 15-minute walk from the center is the grand mosque.  As long as you are willing to contribute money to the mosque and the guard, you can get a complete tour including a climb up to the top of the minaret for great view of Niamey.  The inside of the building was beautiful, especially an intricately carved stairway at the front of the men’s prayer area.  After the tour we walked around the tree covered mosque grounds and headed to a restaurant just behind the olympic pool for a coke and a panoramic view of the Niger River just before sunset.  Our next stop was the Niamey Airport for our Air Senegal flight to Bamako.  The security for the flight was a little lax and I had set low expectations for the flight itself.  I was pleasantly surprised.  A shiny Boeing 737 was waiting for us at the gate, the flight left about 15 minutes early, and they served a full dinner with drinks to all passengers.  The flight was only 1.5 hours, but the wait for our luggage seemed nearly as long.  Finally our bags arrived and a shuttle took us to our hotel in the new ACI 2000 district of Bamako.  The hotel, which opened earlier this year, was a modern work of art for West Africa.  Stainless steel and glass stairs illuminated with color changing LEDs connected all the floors and the entire establishment was overflowing with modern furniture and decorations. 

The best part of the hotel experience was breakfast.  The first morning I enjoyed: coco krispies, scrambled eggs, a ham and cheddar sandwich on thick slices of fresh bread with lettuce, tomato, and mustard, bacon, smoked ham, 4 other types of cheese with croissants, sautéed potatoes, fresh fruit, a crepe with sugar, and strawberry yogurt with four glasses of fresh squeezed OJ, sparking water, and a latte.  It was a $20 breakfast buffet, but I definitely think I got my money’s worth.  Thursday was our only day in Bamako.  We stopped by the artisanal center, walked past the fetish market and the grand mosque, found a nice panoramic view from the top of a riverside hotel, and visited the national museum for a few good exhibits, a great performance by a local percussion band, and some delicious fried plantains.  For dinner, we went to a riverside hotel and then headed back to our hotel to prepare for an early departure the following morning.

The following morning we met our driver in the lobby and waited for our Dogon Guide we ended up picking up outside of the city.  He was unable to get to the hotel because of the traffic.  In the mornings traffic is stopped for miles waiting to enter the city. Bamako has a lively music scene and a decent museum, but beyond that it’s a busy, crowded and very polluted city, especially during dry season when clouds of dust and smog hang over the city on non-windy days.  Anyway, by about 9 we were out of the city and on our way to Djenne.  The village of Djenne is located in the inland-delta region of Mali and is still surrounded by water this time of year.  We crossed the water by way of a ferry and arrived at the mud mosque shortly before sunset.  The mosque in Djenne is the largest mud structure in the world.  Built in the late 13th century, it was used until the early 19th century and reconstructed in the early 20th century.  Supposedly a French fashion photographer filmed scantly clad models in the mosque a few decades ago, resulting in the current ban on non-Muslims coming into the mosque.  However, with a small “contribution” to the mosque, our guide was able get us in.  Once inside, the considerable size of the structure became apparent.  Exactly 100 large pillars supported the roof over the area where the men come to pray.  Since it wasn’t prayer time only a few people were there praying or just relaxing in the dark, cool, and very peaceful atmosphere.  From the mosque, we headed to Mopti for a hearty African meal and a good night’s sleep at the YAPasDeProblem Hotel.

[Djenne Mosque: shadows on the inner courtyard]

[Mosque at Kani Kombole]

Saturday morning we headed out towards Dogon Country, first stopping in Bandiagara to visit our guide’s family and buy some kola nuts as gifts to village elders.  Despite having a car, I figured we would still be hiking for the most part.  However, almost all of Dogon country is accessible by 4×4.  Our first stop was Djiguibombo, where we stopped for a brief tour and Russell’s first taste of real African food.  We tried a very thick pounded millet dish with baobab leaf sauce and drank some tea.  Our guide, Num, pointed out the different grain/vegetable storage huts for men and women along with the meeting areas for elders.  From Djiguibombo, we drove down the escarpment in a steep winding road that was in surprisingly good condition.  We made a brief stop in Kani Kombole to look at the mosque.  We got out of the car near the Teli waterfall, which was nearly completely dry, and continued on foot to Teli.  In the village, we took a long lunch overlooking a panorama of Tellum and Dogon cliff dwellings (see below).  The Tellum people were the original inhabitants of the area prior to the 14th or 15th century.  They were hunters, built their houses very high in the cliffs where they produced some of the oldest cloth and wooden objects ever found in sub-Saharan Africa.  The Dogon people were cultivators who cleared the land for agriculture which eventually forced the Tellum out of the region.  According to our guide, the descendants of the Tellum now live in eastern/southern Africa and sometimes return to the area to perform rituals.  The Dogon people also have a rich history and culture in which sacred rituals and masks play a pivotal role.  After lunch, we climbed up to some of the lower Dogon and Tellum cliff dwellings and then headed to Ende where we had dinner and slept on the roof at one of the campements.

Sunday, there was some indecision about our itinerary for the day that ended up being related to the presence of sand dunes between us and our destination, Dourou.  We began by climbing the escarpment to Begnemato.  It was a beautiful hike that passed by a stream, and unique rock formations while providing.  We entered the village as music flowed from the local church and continued to the edge of the cliffs where we were greeted by clear views of the valley and the plain beyond.  The villages on top of the escarpment share more animist beliefs than those below, but Begnemato was divided into three distinct areas for Christians, Muslims, and Animists.  Nearly every village we visited had a church, making Christianity much more prevalent than in Niger.  Islam is still the principle religion with a following of about 80% of the population.  After we climbed back down from Begnemato, our carefree stay in Dogon Country slowly came to a close.  We had made the decision to go back up the escarpment via Djiguibombo and come back down via Sanga to avoid the perilous sand dunes.  However, at the last minute we ran into another guide and some villagers who insisted that another sand free route existed.  So we headed into the grassy plain with one of the villagers guiding us through the bush for a good 30 minutes only to arrive at a sea of sand dunes.  We got out to assess the situation while our driver decided to just go for it.  He doesn’t make it far and after more than an hour trying to get the car out with wood, rocks, and pottery shards, we head to the village with our guide to search for assistance and some water.  We gave our guide 20,000CFA to pay the villagers with and while they’re working on the car, we continue to walk to a small village a few km from Nombori.  Long story short: the car shows up with the guide asking for 10,000CFA more and my wallet missing from the car.  Not knowing who to trust, we returned to Sevare instead of heading into Gao directly, ditched our driver and refused to pay our guide the extra 10,000CFA.  The drive back out of the valley and up the escarpment the following morning was great.  We passed through nearly a dozen villages and saw hundreds of cliff dwellings along the way.  Last fall I saw a variety of cliff dwellings in Arizona.  The dwellings of Canyon de Chelly reminded me a little of those in Dogon.  However, I was especially impressed by the large number of cliff dwellings found in Dogon Country which can be seen almost constantly along the more than 200km of cliffs.  I only saw about half that.

[Dogon and Tellum(top) Cliff Dwellings in Teli]

Monday afternoon our driver left us at the bus station where we purchased spot ticket on a Toure bus to make the 500km trip to Gao.  The 1pm bus left closer to 3pm which may have been a blessing in disguise, since we missed the hottest part of the day.  The bus did not have a ventilation system or windows that could be opened.  Even after the sun set, it was like riding in a sauna on wheels.  The trip lasted 12 hours.  Luckily I had my fully charged iPod, so we pretended that we dancing at the club instead of slowly crawling across Africa in an overcrowded sauna bus.  The road to Gao is lined by some of Mali’s most impressive rock formations.  Even on a moonless night, you could appreciate their grandeur against a backdrop of countless stars.   Eventually we arrived at Gao where our passports were taken by the police.  We decided not to worry about it and took a taxi to the local Peace Corps house where we slept for a few hours on the roof.

Tuesday, we experienced Gao.  I met some of the Peace Corps volunteers in the region who recommended a few activities.  I also exchanged radio scripts with one of them since Malians speak Zarma in the easternmost part of the country.   We began our outing with a visit to the Police station where our passports were waiting for us.  The region has occasionally has seen some conflict between the government and Tuareg rebels so security heightened.  While Peace Corps Volunteers generally get to keep their passports, it is not uncommon for the police to hold tourist passports while they are visiting.  We continued our tour of Gao with a walk along the river and a visit to the daily market.  The market was a good representation of those found throughout the region selling a variety of food, fabrics, and household goods.  Afterwards we ate an egg sandwich, took a nap and then visited the Tomb of the Askias.  The tomb was built in 1495 by the first Askia Emperor and according to our guide was originally constructed uniquely from mud and wood brought from Mecca.  I climb to the top of the tomb, which at one point requires crawling on your hands and knees, affords great views of Gao and the 60 meter sand dune across the Niger river.  La dune rose, was our next stop.  Earlier that morning we had arranged a boat ride with a friendly guide named Ousmane who we met up with a few hours before sunset.  We bought some loose tea and mint for the trip and located his boat.  The trip across the river took longer than I had imagined – about two hours.  We saw lots of birds, especially yellow-crowned bishops and Goliath Herons.  The sun set as we crossed ad we ended up climbing the dune in the dark.  The ride back to Gao was with the current so it took about half as long.  Away from the lights of the city, we could enjoy the night sky once again made more brilliant by the moon’s absence.

Wednesday, we headed out before dawn to catch the 7am bus to Niamey, which probably left closer to 9.  The trip to Niamey lasted about 8 hours and included 3 passport checks.  Luckily the bus had windows that opened!  Back in Niamey, we had a very nice dinner at Restaurant Tabakaday and enjoyed a real, hot shower.

Thursday, we headed to Dosso, first stopping in Koure to see West Africa’s last heard of Giraffe.  We happened to arrive at almost the same time as the new group of Peace Corps volunteers that were still in training.  I introduced Russell to my advisor, Haoua, and she introduced me to all the new volunteers.  It was a great day for giraffes.  Within a few minutes we saw nearly a 10th of the total population of about 150 giraffes.  A 4×4 had brought us from Niamey to see them, but we continued our journey by bush taxi.  After about another hour we arrived safely in Dosso.  For dinner I was inspired by the evening’s previous French dinner to make Ratatouille.  We went to the market to collect ingredients and stopped by the radio station to meet some of my co-workers and distribute leftover Kola nuts from Dogon Country.  Dinner turned out well and I also enjoyed a big hunk of the sharp cheddar cheese Russell brought from the US – mmmmmmm  cheese. 


Friday, we headed back to Niamey on the bus.  We picked up a few gifts at the artisanal center, visited the Peace Corps bureau where I got my flu shot and then headed to the national museum.  While I had already been to the museum several times, this visit was especially enjoyable since my PCV friend Rose gave us a tour of all the animals.  She is a volunteer there and knows all the animals personally.  At the snake exhibit, there was a guy with a couple pythons out.  I asked if there were any Cobras in the exhibit and he said, yes, there is one in the bag next to your arm.  I immediately moved several meters back as he proceeded to take it out and play with it for a while.  He insisted that he and he alone was protected by traditional medicine from any bite he might receive.  I left the Museum with visions of Cobras dancing in my head and enjoyed a farewell pizza with Russell before I accompanied him to his late night flight.

Now I’m back in Dosso getting ready for Thanksgiving and the arrival of my dad next week.  For Thanksgiving Day I won’t be eating turkey, but I am planning to enjoy Guinea Fowl, cornbread dressing, squash soup, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie!  I let you know how it turns out.  I hope all of you out there have a great thanksgiving.




5 responses

27 11 2008

Great photos

30 12 2008

Hi Adrian,

I am planning on renting a private vehicle and Malian chauffeur who will drive us from Gao-Niamey this January. I have received severeal red flag alerts from colleagues about this road even though I have heard from the locals it is safe. I can’t find any information about the road online. Seeing as though you did it just last month, can you please let me know how that road was, and if it was safe?


6 01 2009

Well first I have never actually been to Mali or Niger. But the road from Gao to Niamey, at least it is south of Gao. East or north of Gao would be more dangerous. But I think it would still be a risk to travel alone. And remember Tillabery is on that road and was the site of a Nigerien rebel attack a few months ago. That is also the area in which the Canadian diplomat was kidnapped by the MNJ last month.

6 01 2009

This road has been recently paved so travel is quick and painless. I would
describe the region as being on a higher level of alert than the rest of the
country (frequent ID checks). About 6 months ago we were officially not
allowed to travel on this stretch of road as PC volunteers. However that
travel restriction was lifted since the road is now considered safe. Even
travel to Timbuktu is generally ok. It is just travel beyond that is not
recommended. Safe travels!

21 05 2009

nice picturs.

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