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Camel ride – Don’t do it!

Last updated on February 5, 2020

So what is Timbuktu like? Well it is a huge, mostly run down town. You can see how it was once the centre for learning and trade; it is big and busy enough. Yet lack of trade has lead to it being neglected and I get the feeling that people are just trying to make a living from its past glories.

The salt train of camels from the salt mines still comes in but it is too hot at this time of year and so we are unable to see them. There are many of the Tuareg people about; they are desert nomads dependent on their camels and trade. Now days they seem to target tourists trying to sell genuine Tuareg spears, jewelery and something they call the Timbuktu cross. The streets are dirty and it is hot and dusty, there is not much to do and the boys went sight seeing while I stayed behind. There are some explorers houses to go see but when the boys came back dehydrated, irritated and generally exhausted, I was glad I did not go. I had seen enough the day before when we were driving around looking for a campsite.

There was an official “cameleer” chap at the camp who would arrange a ride into the desert for us to go see a traditional Tuareg village. We thought this would be a good opportunity to try out a camel ride and JW wanted to take photos of the Tuareg people. So turbans on head (according to our guide a necessity – later we found out it was just an excuse to sell us some) we climb on and go for a ride. Let me tell you now there is nothing gracious about a camel and yes you will look like a complete idiot. You cannot keep your balance and sit properly and keep having to shift around to get comfortable. It takes most of the journey to get used to the motion, then just as you get the hang of it you realise that your rear end has been worn through and that you would rather walk the rest of the way home. Yes my bottom was sore for a day or two but I did like my camel, he was not as disgusting as I had been led to believe. But until they invent a better saddle I will take Jenny any day. The strange thing is that your feet rest on the Camels neck, so there you are sitting on the camel with your feet on its neck; surely there is a better way.

Then when we get to the so-called Tuareg village we get put on a mat, not shown around. Then 6 traders display their good and expect us to buy now. This goes on for about a half-hour with them looking expectantly at you and you refusing. Then some woman shows up and plunks a few notes on some instrument and wants you to pay her. Total rip off but that is not all, when I get off my camel the notice my saddle is broken, now on the way back to the camel it is suggested I give the chief money for breaking the saddle. I wonder how many people fall for that. Having not given them extra money or buying from the traders, the journey back was very quick with not time for photos or to look at the scenery. Straight back no messing about and when we would not tip them at the end they would not talk to us or accept our thanks. Well that was a sour end to the day considering we had paid good money for the ride.

Well not to be put off by surly Tuareg people we made a plan that involved sheep, potatoes, onion rings and gravy. Now JW and Ludwig grew up on the farm and so when they met up with other South Africans in Mali (before meeting us) they arranged to have a sheep slaughtered. So JW is traveling with a sheep in his fridge, notably his is working better than ours is. So he kindly defrosts some lamb chops and we chop some onions into rings, I make gravy and boil potatoes. Then JW hauls out his Cadac braai _ this is a SA gas barbecue – and we proceed to have a barbecue. It was finger licking good and we would like to thank the boys for being so generous and well organized.

Leaving Timbuktu is easy and after getting our passports stamped by the police we head south. This way is much shorter and the going is good. Spent some time at the ferry waiting for more cars so that we could pay less but after an hour we went over anyway. Then we hit sandy, deeply rutted road and this is where I chicken our completely so Simon takes over driving. Most of the road is like this and then later we hit a graded road after passing some road works. It is weird to think that the journey to Timbuktu took 3 days yet when they finish this road it will take a few hours. JW is one organised young man as we are beginning to realise. He let down his tires for the sandy roads and then had to pump them when we hit the gravel, so out he gets – foot pump? No. Hand pump? No. – a compressor linked to the engine and in 20 min he has perfectly pumped wheels. We have to remind ourselves that envy is a bad thing.

We camp 30km out of Douentza where we get on the tar road again; this is our last night together and in the morning we need to decide which way our paths will take us. I decide to bake bread and so mix it all together and leave it to rise in the potjie (cast iron pot). It rises beautifully and I am so proud, then into the hole in the ground it goes with hot coals, 40min later we open it up. Simon and I cannot see the bread, as it is dark but we should still be able to, all we see is black. So Simon gets the torch and we look inside, the bread is so black it is the same colour as the pot. Much hilarity later and Ludwig the sweetie is convinced we can still eat it. So he breaks it open using some force and there is the inside, undamaged. The boys proceed to eat the inside bit and I am convinced they are trying to humour me. But Simon gives me a piece and it is quiet good, so less coals next time. This did cause a little crisis as the bread was dinner for all of us but we managed to convert some smash into an edible meal.

Arriving early in Doentza we stop to get the spare fixed, there is a man roasting meat in a clay oven. Then he does something that no one else in West Africa has done for us; he gives us a taster. This is a cleaver man and the meat is mutton and has been done to perfection, melt in you mouth. So for breakfast we each have a portion of meat. We have decided to stick with the boys until Mopti and then go our separate ways. The road is tar and easy going, at Sevare we hit persistent traders who stick their wares through the windows. We do not stay long and move onto Mopti fearing more of the same. Mopti traders are passed out from the heat and we do not see many. It is 43 degrees today and we are wilting fast. We go for a walk around Mopti that is a dirty port town where the water edge is a dumping ground. There are many salt traders there and the huge slabs of salt are interesting they look like paving stones. We stock up on veg, it is silly I know but I get so excited when we find something like good fresh carrots. Then we say goodbye to the boys as they head for the Dogons and we aim for Djene. We do not get to Djenne that day as we find a trader with a great little store that you can snoop around in without him trying to sell you things. Upstairs he has an amazing collection of beads and he has made a museum that you can visit free of charge. We spent a lot of time in this little shop. We find a door we like but will come back later on our way to the Dogons. We bush camp that night and we are getting good at it, it also saves money.

The next morning we go to Djenne, this is the town that has the biggest structure made out of mud, in the world. It is a mosque and every season the entire village has to replace the outer banco layer that is washed away by the rains. It houses 5000 people, which is more than the population of the town. On the way there we pick up a Spanish guy going our way. He has been waiting on the side of the road since 10pm last night waiting for transport to the town and at 9am the next morning we are the first going that way.

Djenne is a lovely little town and you can walk around quite easily, we had to shake a few hopeful guides but that was all. The rest of the town’s people just greeted us and went on with their daily business. All the houses are made of mud with intricate wooden shutters; we found a woman’s co-op where we bought some mud cloth. It was one that both Simon and I liked; we have been looking for some time. Mud cloth is cotton woven into 10cm wide strips and then they sew these together to make a square shape. They then used local dye and mud to colour the cloth. This was a good day to visit the town as when we arrived all the people were covered in mud as they were busy putting on a extra outer layer on the mosque. Half the mosque was wet from the recently added mud and everyone was mud covered but grinning. They told us that today is the day they put their new prayer mats in the mosque and so a reason to celebrate. After walking through the town we came back to the mosque, it was dry already; such is the heat of the sun in this part of the world. Then the Spanish guy took us to lunch to say thank you for the lift, he ordered a local favourite and Simon decided to have the same. It was pounded millet made into a stiff porridge; it is accompanied by boabab sauce. This unfortunately looks like and has the consistency of snot. You take a spoonful of the millet, put it in the sauce and then eat it. It is tasty and you have to put the image of snot at the back of your mind.

On the way out of town you have to cross on the ferry – same for coming in – and there we found most of the villagers bathing. Having finished this contribution to the mosque it was now time to get clean. There was a wonderfully playful atmosphere like a day at the seaside. Saying goodbye to the Spanish chap we headed off North to the Dogon country, on the way we drop in by our trader and buy a door. This takes some time due to negotiation and we also find a shop selling cordial, loo paper and olives. Go without for some time and you will understand the novelty of these items.

The Dogon region is unlike anything else in Mali, they are people who keep themselves apart and are proudly Dogon. Some are Christian; others Muslim but they still follow their animistic ways of worship. This influences their dress and the way the build their houses. I imagine you could take a guide and spend a week just exploring this region but we have no such inclination and don’t like guides. Arriving in Bandiagara we expected to be swarmed and no sooner had we stopped than the young men came bounding over. Well imagine our surprise (after being repeatedly warned about these aggressive young men) when he offered to show us the official office of the Dogon guides. He then apologized that he could not offer us his services as his English was not good enough but that at the office we could meet other guides and decide who was best for us. Wow, now that was unexpected. We declined the use of a guide and he let us go after providing directions to Sanga the next village on our list.

It is amazing that the minute you enter this area the landscape changes the architecture changes and the facial structure and clothing changes, just like going to another country. The doors and windows are carved panels of wood and a replica of this is what we bought from our trader. We just drove through and looked while driving, you can stop but then you have to pay the chief to look around and can incur other expenses. Anyway neither of us wanted to and were happy just driving through. Getting to Sanga we were a bit worried about the next stage of the trip as it is marked as walking only but the guy (guide) in Bandiagara said there was a road, as did the Dutch guys we met in Bamako. The road goes down the escarpment from Sanga at the top to Banani at the bottom. We were pleased to discover that there is indeed a road and that the tricky bits have been cemented to make them easier to navigate. The downhill is quite steep and we were grateful for this. Coming this way allowed us to see the cliff face dwellings below, which the Dogon live. These are a series of dwellings dug into the cliff face made by the people before the Dogon. The Dogon refuse to live in the abandoned dwellings but have built their homes below them. So you get to see the old places and then the distinctive small round huts of the Dogon below. This all from our vantage point high up the escarpment. Yes there are photos.

Getting to the bottom we headed for Kundu-Gina a place the Dutch guys had told us about and though the campsite is great if you just have a tent, there is no place for a car. So after a very satisfying lunch of couscous and tomato sauce, we moved on. Going from village to village it is all much of the same and unnecessary to see each one. Gong well until we hit Nombori where we hit sand and lost the path. A villager got in the car to show us the way, turned out to be a 100m away and then would not get out but wanted to guide us to the next village. You could see the dollar signs in his eyes. Gentle persuasion got rid of him and we set off. Thick stand and hard going until 800m outside the village we hit a very steep incline and could just not get over. What made matter worse was having all the boys from the village catch up with us and insist they could help. With Mr. helpful insisting on guiding us while the boys all touched the car, banged against the body work and tried the doors, strange lot. All Simon wanted to do was let down the tires and try again but this guy kept saying something about it being worse at the top. So he and Simon walk all the way to the top some 200m in the blistering sun, then reaching the top he points to the bit we could not get past and says that it is the difficult bit and the rest is easy. Well thank you Mr. helpful but we knew that already. So back he comes and lets down the tires and off we go, no problem, and happily waving goodbye to that lot.

The next village was Yawa and after we were supposed to be heading South East to Burkina Faso but were heading back to Bandiagara instead. So turning around, at the top of the escarpment at this point, we found a gap between the rocks. Going through we came across a large flat area surrounded by rock, they we stopped, grateful for this hidey hole. The dust, heat and hassle of that last village was too much and we welcomed the peace and quite.

Now the wheels were flat and so out came the new hand pump. Simon connected it to the wheel and putting his foot on the pedal to steady it, pulled on the handle. I burst out laughing as the entire handle came away in his hand. Another pump shaken apart by the road. We both just laughed, it was so funny cause he was all set to do the hard, slow task of pumping the wheels and now we had no pump. We sorely missed JW and his compressor at this point. That is the forth pump to fall to pieces when we have tried to use it. At least our sense of humour is improving. That night it rained our first rain this year.

Early Saturday morning we reach the border town of Koro where the helpful inhabitants keep informing us that our tires are flat – duh! It is market day and town is busy so we stock up on fruit, veg and bread. Get someone to pump the tires and head for the border. Easy exit out of Mali and even easier entry into Burkina Faso. Now let me tell you the minute you enter Burkina you will notice a distinct difference. A very good transport system. Good roads recently graded then later tar. There are buss stops at all the villages with people waiting, not that many taxi’s and you can see the good buses on the road ferrying people. By good I mean roadworthy. We headed to the capital Ouagadougou, pronounced Wagadougou and known as Waga by the locals. On Saturday evening we found a quiet spot to camp, there were villages nearby but Burkina is so populated that you have no choice. Sunday morning and we got up late, it was still quiet and no one came to bother us so we decide to stay. We know the campsite in Waga is a total dump and we cannot be bothered to drive closer to Waga only to have to find somewhere else to camp tonight. So we decide to stay put and the day goes by, we do have some inquisitive visitors but they do not stay long. First the two boys walk by, then later they are back with their friends. Then the girls come and investigate. Later some women pass on their way from one village to another; they stop, ask a few questions, and laugh at my answers. One ran away when I came closer to talk to them, her friends all laughed at her. Then that night a man came on a bicycle and asked who we were, where we were going. Happy with our answers he returned to the village, it was like a social call to make sure we were okay.

Our only reason for going to Waga is to get a Ghana visa so tomorrow we set off early and hopefully we can get it by the end of the day and then head off to Ghana. We have time to make up because we spent so much time in Mali. We hope to meet up with Ludwig and JW as we don’t think they would have made it in time to get their visas before the weekend, so we hope to meet them at he Ghana embassy in the morning.

Published inAfrica Overland

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