From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



I don’t remember much about my flight from Casablanca to Bamako.  I remember boarding the plane (because we were all standing for 15 minutes in the air-bridge while waiting for the door of the aircraft to be opened).  I remember being impressed that I could stretch my legs somewhat in contrast with the morning’s cramped flight.  I remember having a dinner that included a tiny plastic sachet sample of tasty Atlas Mountain smoked trout, and I remember waking up suddenly to the cheers and clapping of fellow exuberant passengers as the plane touched down (bounced down?) safely onto the runway at Bamako.

The walk from the aircraft to the tarmac bus was further than the distance the bus had to drive to reach the terminal.  As we entered the terminal, even before going through the checks for Yellow Fever cards, passport control or collecting our bags, Andrew and I were greeted by the familiar smiling face of Mr Assou Segou, the organiser of our next few weeks of land travel who we had first met while travelling in Mali ten years ago.

Unlike ten years ago, it is now possible to obtain visas on arrival in Mali, and Assou had already completed our paperwork in advance.  Thus all we had to do was fill in our arrival cards, get receipts for the pre-paid visas, and walk straight past the lines for immigration to collect our bags.

As I travel over the next few weeks, I am trying out hotels for the planned study tour in January 2015.  We arrived at our first hotel, the Grand Hotel (located in the centre of Bamako) at about 2:30 am.  It is much more comfortable than the hotel we stayed in ten years ago, although we have foregone a lovely riverside location for a much more central city centre location with the extra conveniences that this entails.

We managed to get to sleep at about 3:30 am (or I did – Andrew wanted to catch up on his internet for quite a bit longer than that), and awoke four hours later at 7:30 am, feeling remarkably refreshed considering the limited and patchy sleep of the previous 36 hours.

After a solid if uninspired breakfast in the hotel, we met with Assou to finalise aspects of the itinerary, and then were formally introduced to our guide (Mama Kone) and driver (Harouna Dolo).  We climbed into the Nissan 4WD that will be our vehicle for the next few weeks and proceeded to the visa office to get our Malian ‘visas on arrival’ entered into our passports.  After filling in the paperwork, we were told that the visas would be ready on Monday – impossible for us as we will be leaving Bamako tomorrow (Saturday) to travel upcountry.  Fortunately, a small un-receipted fee was sufficient to get the passports by 4 pm this afternoon, but it meant our initial plans to get another visa today for later travel had to be abandoned.

The up-side of spending less time sitting in the visa office of an embassy was that we had more time for exploring Bamako, and we made the most of it.  The last time I visited Mali (ten years ago), my time for exploring Bamako was very limited and I had time only to explore some of the old colonial area of central Bamako (ironically, the area near where our hotel this time is located).  Today, we saw lots of fascinating things, and with one minor exception that I went out of my way to include, everything today was a new experience for me – unrelated to anything I had seen during my previous visit.

Our first stop was to the north of the city centre at the edge of one of Bamako’s three high hills, called Point G, near the Medical School.  A lookout provided a vast panorama over the city of Bamako which, although impressive, was nonetheless partially obscured by the heavy layer of dust from the Sahel that usually sits over the city at this time of the year.

After taking in the vista, we descended the hill and called into the National Museum of Mali.  I am not usually a bit fan of museums, but this museum provided an excellent introduction to the cultures and traditions of Mali, with impressive exhibits on pottery, wood carving and textiles, interspersed by excellent video footage showing initiation ceremonies, dances and other aspects of Mali’s many tribal cultures.  The grounds around the museum were also impressive, being an oasis-like parkland of verdant, cool, green vegetation featuring miniature reproductions of some of Mali’s most impressive buildings and structures.

Our third stop was perhaps the least impressive of the day.  It was the Prehistoric Park, located just across the road from the National Museum.  It featured three small cave-like grottos that until recently were used for storing armaments by the army, but are now attempting without any success whatsoever to describe archaeology and human evolution.  The crowning glory of the Prehistoric Park was a large cement statue of a brontosaurus (a species that was never known to inhabit West Africa) because, as it was explained to us, one of Mali’s former Prime Ministers considered himself to be an archaeologist.

Things improved quickly after that, and the next two visits were outstanding experiences.

The first of these visits involved a drive of about half an hour south-west from the city centre to an area known as Kalaban Coro, located on the southern side of the Niger River which flows west-to-east through Bamako.  Beside the river we found hundreds of wooden boats that were being used to bring sand from further along the river to Bamako to be sold for use in making concrete for construction.

The owners of the boats (or their workers) go every evening to collect the sand from the bottom of the river, and then return each day to unload the sand, carry it from the riverside to dumping areas (women’s work) and then shovel it (men’s work) onto trucks for transportation.  The work was obviously hot and tiring, but the scale of the operation was nothing short of awe-inspiring.  An entire temporary community has sprung up on the riverside to support the sand industry, including boat builders and food stalls – temporary because when the wet season comes, the river rises and everything has to move away until the river level drops again the following year.

Getting to the second place for the day that I classified as “fascinating “ meant re-tracing much of our earlier drive back through central Bamako and northwards to a point near the foot of Point G.  Here, at the foot of the escarpment, a large community of metalworkers has formed into a co-operative known as the “Cooperative des Forgerons et Ferblantiers ‘Jama Jigi’”.  For a small entry fee, we were guided through this vast complex of laneways and tiny open-sided shelters housing every aspect of metal working that might imagine, with the explicit permission to photograph anything that we wished.

And this was indeed a truly photogenic experience!  The noise was deafening and the working conditions were tough, but the visit provided the most wonderful insight possible into labour-intensive, capital-starved manufacturing that was producing a vast array of products under very challenging circumstances.  I have included only a tiny sample of the photos I took at ‘Jama Jigi’, and the photos fail to do justice to the heat, noise, smells and atmosphere of the place.

Towards the end of our walk around ‘Jama Jigi’, we came to the area at the very foot of the escarpment where there was a huge dump of waste metal.  Some men and young boys were scavenging through the waste, collecting pieces of metal that might be useful, and burning pieces of metal to remove unwanted materials (perhaps insulation from electric wires – I’m not sure, but the smell of the acrid, black smoke brought the word ‘toxic’ into my mind).

All too soon, it was time to head back to the hotel as Mama and Harouna had some preparation to do for tomorrow’s drive.  We returned to the hotel at 3:00 pm, but we were due to meet again at 3:30 pm to drive back to the Immigration Office to collect our passports and visas.

We used the half hour to see the one place today that we had visited when we were here in 2004 – Bamako’s Railway Station.  Built by the French, the station served only one train which ran (very slowly, at a maximum speed of 20 km/h) between Dakar and Bamako a few times each week until the poor condition of the track forced its closure a few years ago.

I was keen to see the station again, partly because I love looking at colonial architecture in former colonies, and partly because I was fascinated in 2004 to see that the main clock on the front of the station had been replaced by what looked like a small clock from someone’s kitchen.  I was interested to see if the kitchen clock had been replaced during the ensuing decade.  Answer – the kitchen clock is still there.

We returned to the hotel only a little after the appointed meeting time of 3:30 pm, and proceeded directly to the Immigration Office (if being stuck in gridlock traffic can be described as ‘proceeded directly’), arriving at 3:58 pm.  After a wait of precisely two minutes, the passports were handed to us, as promised, with our still-warm Malian visas included in them.

After returning to the hotel, we followed Mama’s recommendation and had dinner in the hotel – African style chicken for both of us, followed by ice cream for me and a coconut tart for Andrew, topped of by some excellent coffee to finish.

Day 7 - Casablanca, Morocco to Bamako, Mali


3 January 2014