Friday, February 01, 2013

My Mali - Part One

Folks today I am writing about one of my favourite African countries, Mali, in the first of three posts.
Why? Well it's been in the news of late:

From the BBC -

Mali crisis: French-led troops 'enter Timbuktu'
French-led troops in Mali have entered the historic city of Timbuktu encountering little resistance, French and Malian military sources.
But there are reports of thousands of ancient manuscripts being destroyed, with video footage of the library showing charred books and empty boxes.

French President Francois Hollande declared that the joint forces were "winning this battle".
They have been pushing north in their offensive against Islamist rebels.
They seized Gao, north Mali's biggest city, on Saturday.
Islamists seized the north of the country last year, but have been losing ground since French forces launched an operation earlier this month.
Most militants appear to have moved out to desert hideouts, says the BBC's Thomas Fessy in the capital, Bamako.
The advance came as African Union (AU) leaders met for a summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the key issue at which was Mali.

This week, French troops with a small contingent of troops from Mali moved into the north of the country to take towns back from terrorists. This was sparked by the siege in Algeria that claimed over thirty hostage lives, nine or ten of them were Japanese. So, that’s been big news here in Japan. What you may or not know is that the terrorists are based in northern Mali, and the gas plant where the siege took place is not that far away in Southern Algeria. It is hard to imagine a place so remote, almost completely desert, where something like this could happen.
From what I’ve read, Al-Quaeda now have a base in this part of the world, and as I wrote a few months back now, terrorists had basically taken control of much of the north of Mali, including the famed ‘Timbuctu’.
If news reports are to be believed, the French and Malian armies were greeted with cheers from the locals when they moved in. I never went as far north as Timbuctu, time didn’t allow, but two people I was travelling did, and many tourists went there. This was in 2007. It’s a little confronting to think of such a place changing so much in five years.
Mali was a wonderful place to travel, a real highlight of West Africa. I crossed the border from Burkina Faso with the first item of the ‘to do’ list being ‘Dogon Trek’. The Dogon Escarpment appears like a big cliff face near the ocean, without the ocean within 1000 kilometres. It’s flat and continuous on each part, the top and the bottom.
Scattered around the base and the top are villages every few kilometres. Life is basic there, there is no electricity save the use of car batteries to power lights, and every building is built out of mud. Despite many tourists visiting there, sleeping on rooves (as we did) and eating pasta, the atmosphere is still rather authentic. Tourism has become very important to the villages, but life goes on. Women pound millet, doing the bulk of the villages’ physical labour, and the men hold councils to decide what’s best for the village. Yes, sexism is alive and well!
For the tourist,  finding a guide is the first thing to do when you arrive there. If you head to nearby towns such as Bandiagara you will surely be approached by someone, or enquire through your guesthouse. Prices are negotiable and I can’t remember what I paid exactly, however having a group is obviously much cheaper than doing it on your own. In a group of four I’m sure we paid well under forty-fifty dollars a day for our guide, who we had met at the Burkina Faso border making things a little easier for us. The money pays for most things, including meals and sleeping.

Trekking is easy in as much as it is flat, except for the two hour climb up the escarpment in an area water has made walkable. (no climbing rock faces at all!) The heat was intense in the middle of the day, maximums around the low-40s (celcius) in November, so you walk in the morning and late afternoon, and from 11-3pm you have lunch and rest each day. Guide books and indeed guides recommend buying some kola nuts, a local nut, to give as gifts to village leaders or important people. Most guides won’t let you go without them, and they need to be of a decent quality.
We did a three day/two night trek. That seemed a decent length. The guides will cater to what you want, from one to five or maybe more days. The escarpment is long so there are many villages to walk to and visit. It’s an amazing cultural experience, a beautiful, mystical and other-worldly part of this planet. Lying on a roof top looking up at the stars as you fall asleep is possibly the major highlight. I visited a school, met a village medicine man and blacksmith too. I don’t remember a negative experience in my time there.
At the conclusion on the third afternoon, we had a jeep waiting to take us into Bandiagara and we could shower again. The red sand of this part of the world has a tendency to stick to you! This town is not particularly attractive to be fair, but the hotel was rather nice and about 15 dollars per person twin share – the name, naturally, escapes me.
Next post I will move on to the northern most port of call I had in Mali, Mopti, and talk about the one place more amazing than the Dogon Escarpment, Djenne.

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