The Bong In Your Reggae Song

OFFICIAL advice from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is against all travel to most of Mali and all but “essential travel” to the southern part of the country.

Quite what constitutes “essential travel” is not clearly defined, but when our path round the coast is blocked by the decision to avoid the countries hit hardest by ebola and the north of the country is a no-go area, heading through the capital Bamako is pretty essential for us to continue our journey around Africa.

And after a week in the country, it has proved a fairly essential part of the trip.

Clear reminder - Why we were diverted through Mali in the first first place
Clear reminder – Why we were diverted through Mali in the first first place

It helps that our Bamako base for the last five nights has been stocking up its fridge with beer deliveries and can provide a decent range of meals and cocktails – the latter reserved, largely, for the nightly happy hour.

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What road? – One of the smoother parts which greeted us on the journey through Mali

Spending too much time in the bar has not always been the best idea for those in mosquito tents who had to scale a rickety wooden ladder (made even more precarious by me breaking one of the rungs, leading to a welcome banishment to the main garden) to sleep on a roof overlooking the adjoining German Embassy.

But after such creature comforts and death-defying journeys to bed, we are relaxed, well rested, clean, clutching Nigerian visas in our passports and itching to get back on the road as we turn south again to head to our Christmas rendezvous with a beach.

Mali had already made an impact before we pulled up into the capital as the word road took on a whole new definition.

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Watching on – Oasis recommend you wear your seatbelt at all times. Yeah, right

It was pretty smooth sailing as we headed over the Senegal border fairly easily – fortified by a woman selling very welcome baguettes full of cooked meat outside the police station as we waited for our passports – and into Mali on reasonable roads.

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Waiting for the ferry – Karla meets the locals as we prepare to cross the Senegal River

The surface held up to our shopping stop in the main western town of Kayse (where we discovered that while choice may not be wide, it is very affordable, and that Malians seem to enjoy little more than parading in great moped convoys) and beyond to our overnight bush camp.

So being thrown around could not really be blamed for the upset stomach which created a long, dark night under the stars and ensured there was little chance of me joining in as the first dents were made in our well-stocked beer eskie almost straight after breakfast.

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Cooling off – Making up for the lack of a shower in the Senegal River

The roads continued to be fine until we hit the Senegal River ferry crossing, the wait for which was enlivened by the reaction of crowds of children to their pictures appearing on our cameras.

It was smiles all round as we rolled onto the ferry, but one or two of them may have disappeared as we rolled off.

The road had certainly vanished.

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Cheers – Martyn, left, and I toast our arrival in Mali. Yep, let’s say that’s what we were doing

Steve had warned us that his previous journey along this route had been slow and arduous – and he insists it is much better now – so we should have been prepared.

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Tough job – Steve, above, and Joe, below, have another taxing day on the River Niger

At times, we followed the old railway track, while at others we picked out the only narrow gap available through the trees, ensuring we had to be alert in the back to dodge the protruding branches and leaves – not always with a great deal of success – while crossing a series of dried-up streams and rivers ensured for a bumpy afternoon (when remarkably little beer was spilled).

At least once, the road disappeared completely, forcing a quick about turn and detour through some bush to rejoin the former railway line.

No sooner had we actually found a stretch of road than Steve pulled off onto another SAM_0727track, but this time with a purpose, a stop allowing us to cool off (and make up for a few days without showers) with a swim in the Senegal River.

A pretty idyllic way to spend the afternoon and we could have stayed there a lot longer, but for the need to press on towards Bamako.

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Local transport – Up close and personal after a few beers in Bamako

A sore back – not helped by a tumble down a bank as we hopped off the bus for a comfort stop – cook group duties (an ambitious pasta bake which pretty much paid off) and the lingering effects of the upset stomach ensured my first night at The Sleeping Camel on the banks of the Niger River was rather more subdued than those who headed out to a local nightspot.

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Local landmark – The footballing hippo near the hostel. Nope, no idea either…

While those of us who remained set about building a solid base for our bar bills and settling in to our new surroundings, those who ventured out came back with tales to tell of a fairly riotous evening. Well, those who returned before breakfast did.

And so began a relaxed few days as we extended our stop to sort out more visas, a stream of trips to the bar for more cokes, beers, cocktails and food mixed in with film and trivia nights at the hostel, plus a variety of excursions ito check out what downtown Bamako has to offer.

On first sight, not a lot. But it is a bustling, noisy, dusty – typical African – city which rewards those who take the time to look around.

One journey into the markets even produced our own spirit guide who went by the unlikely name of Bob Marley, the rasta from Mali, who may not be too good a judge of how far a couple of hundred metres is, but was certainly true to his word in pointing out a good place to have lunch – although quite what he had during the lunch break we can only guess at, judging by the state of him when we bumped into him again later.

His recommendation – the same one given to a group for their meal that evening – was rather more successful than the one given to a party of us the next night.

There was nothing wrong with the look of the place the taxis dropped us outside, nor what was on the menu nor the prices. They just didn’t serve alcohol.

So instead of dining at one of Bamako’s top restaurants, we stopped for a beer in a dark shack over the road and ate outside a cafe with a mixture of their own food and bags of meat (goat, we think) picked up from a street vendor down the road.

But our final stop was the highlight of the evening. Titi Marmite’s barely qualified as a bar, more a small store next to a general shop selling cans of beer on what basically constituted a traffic island, complete with a few plastic chairs outside and locals on mopeds zooming on and off the road on either side.

It was basic, cheap, great fun and was once more met with smiles and a friendly welcome from the locals.

Which was more than can be said for the taxi rides home, which headed out of town before we finally convinced them they were going the wrong way and a lengthy debate ensued about exactly where we wanted to go.

Reto’s fairly polished French and my scratchy interventions discovered that our driver not only had no idea where The Sleeping Camel was, but seemingly denied all knowledge of the German Embassy, the nearby Pont des Martyrs and even the Niger River. None of us attempted a translation of “turn left at the footballing hippo”.

Our group trip the next night, to mark Linda’s birthday, was rather more successful in finding our way around – starting with a relaxing, sunset boat trip down the Niger with eskies full of cold beers helping to get things off to a flying start.

A blissful way to spend an early evening, but reminders of just why we are not really meant to be there lurk as jarring pillars of reality – the impressive building courtesy of cash from Gaddafi’s Libya next to the home of a former president sentenced to death three times, standing side by side on the river with the rubbish-strewn banks among which many of the locals live, wash and do their best to exist.

A few more beers followed over a couple of other stops as we were ferried around town in one of the ubiquitous green vans that carry the locals around, invariably with at least one of two people hanging from the open doors.

Our evening came to an end, at various different times, with some live music that bid us a tuneful farewell to an unexpectedly vibrant, essential stop.

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Twisting Your Melons Man

IT is a mark of how far we have come in the course of five weeks that a local riding out of the dark into our bush camp on a big red motorbike wanting to take our picture was barely enough for us to bat an eyelid.

To say nothing of a return to bush camping after almost a week of relative luxuries being met with a certain relief and sense of moving on again.

Who needs the nice things in life? We were back on the road and reunited as a group after being scattered around the attractions of our campsites in St Louis and Dakar.*

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New home – My one-man mosquito tent, complete with blanket

Back on the road we have been, clocking up the miles across Senegal and, courtesy of some roads which hardly qualify for that description, rather slower through Mali.

And with it came the return of bush camping.

Any qualms any of us may have had about sticking our tents up in the middle of nowhere – basically, anywhere off the road that allows us to set up our temporary home, light a fire and get out again the next morning without anybody noticing or being put out by our presence – have long since vanished and they have become something we are all pretty well drilled in.

Particularly now the weather has picked up after the rains and fluctuating temperatures of Morocco.

Much of the last week can be classified as hot to very hot, sparking a widespread decision to turn to the one-man mosquito tents which spent the first few weeks clogging up our lockers.

And having settled in to our new homes, those of us who can spend the nights looking through the mesh at the stars are only likely to head back into the sturdier two-man tents when the rain returns, especially as they take seconds to put up.

While the tent has largely done its job and kept the mosquitoes out, my reputation as a magnet for annoying buzzy, biting things has proved well deserved and the backs of my legs are covered in scabs and bites.

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Camp visitors – A few of the locals wander into our Lac Rose camp

After a few days of relief, a new batch of itching does not bode well for the next few days.

But let’s rewind to when they really started to make their presence known on our first stop in Senegal at Zebra Bar, near St Louis.

Having settled our bar tabs, we headed off with the words of Steve and Joe ringing in our ears that this would be the last time we would have such a well-equipped campsite for weeks to come (Namibia seems to be the place we have to wait until we come across any further creature comforts).

In the end, we had to wait all of a few hours.

It wasn’t planned, but then neither was finding our intended campsite in Dakar had gone upmarket and couldn’t put us up, eventually pointing us in the direction of another site half an hour or so out of town at Lac Rose.

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In-depth exploration – Our day out in Dakar uncovers some hidden sights

Initial disappointment at waving farewell to the diners, restaurants and bars which surrounded our intended stop was washed away as we found our new home came complete with showers, wi-fi, a restaurant (well, they did pizzas and omelettes), a bar, a TV showing football and not one, but two pools.

And over the course of the next couple of days we explored pretty much all it had to offer, celebrated Terry’s birthday with a party which ended in and around a pool in the early hours and made it off site to explore the adjacent lake – high in salt, it allows you to float and also appears pink in the right light – and Dakar itself.

It’s not the prettiest city, but like most places, the welcome was pretty much universally friendly and the stocks of bracelets, clothes and, possibly most importantly, beers were all replenished.

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Hitching a ride – Goats on a van

But there’s only so much luxury one can take and we headed east from the most westerly point of the entire journey.

And as we headed east towards the Malian border, the roads began to become more of an adventure with Ale’s excellent English vocabulary being supplemented by the word pothole as Steve did his best to avoid the worst of them and the numerous lorries that had fallen victim to the worsening surface.

Home for the night was amid some tall grass off a narrow track and, having had one local sit and watch from a safe distance behind the truck for much of the evening, a group of us settled in with a few beers around the campfire.

And then our new friend arrived on his big red motorbike, laden down by kit and speaking French which we strained to make some sort of sense of, native French speaker Michael seemingly struck dumb by the effects of a near 48-hour Pokemon marathon.

Eventually it became clear – he wanted a picture. Of him, of us, of the truck and all combinations of the above. We sent him on the way with a couple of Oasis stickers, he left us a water melon and an invitation to come for coffee in his village in the morning.

Strangely, can’t see the same happening if a truck full of foreigners set up home in a field back home.

Sadly, we were unable to make it across the nearby railway line to honour the invite, but what could have been a lengthy, uneventful day on the truck was broken up by a series of incidents to keep us entertained among the bumps.

(A couple of intrepid explorers did attempt to find the village the night before, fuelled by a few beers and the sound of distant drums, only to take a slight detour off the track for a comfort stop and not find their way back to camp until after three hours wandering in the bush. They were finally lured home by the sound of snoring.)

SAM_0617Steve was responsible for two, running back down the road for the first to retrieve a green chameleon from the middle of the road for a few photos on the back of the truck and later heading off behind a tree.

Anxious to see what he would return with this time, we had resigned ourselves to the fact he was just answering a call of nature when he reappeared up the tree in pursuit of the baobob nuts he had seen hanging from it.

But possibly his starring role of the day came in our brief stop in the town of Tambacounda.

For reasons of cost and practicality (with five vegetarians in the party and ice not always available), meat has been in pretty short supply in our evening meals.

So when Steve unearthed a great slab of steak and offered it to anyone willing to stump up 500CFA (about 70p), he nearly got flattened in the rush by the carnivores.

And money well spent it was too.

* Easy to make remarks like that about luxuries when that paragraph was written either side of strolling the few yards to the bar of our base in Malian capital Bamako to add another ice cold Coke to my bar tab. And happy hour is approaching…

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Ice Cold In Zebra

“Here’s to alcohol. The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” – Homer J Simpson

IT is perhaps unfair on Mauritania that our race to the border had pretty much the entire truck willing Steve to put his foot down and start the bureaucratic ball rolling well before the reported early closure time.

Our desire to get to Senegal had us all up, packed away and sat on the truck well before the scheduled 6am departure.

Mmm... beer - The promised land
Mmm… beer – The promised land

The lure was quite simple – a bar full of ice cold beer on the other side of the border.

Not that we need a drink you understand. We functioned perfectly well without a single drop in Mauritania and with very limited (and expensive) options after the first few days in Morocco.

But the prospect of sitting down and relaxing with a cold beer has been growing, along with expectations of what was lying over the Senegalese border, as our enforced abstinence went on.

By our last night in Mauritania, even wandering over the road to buy a Coke and attempting to get rid of our remaining ouguiya produced a frisson of excitement.

That is selling Nouakchott a bit short. There’s not a lot there and what there is is in need of some serious TLC. There certainly is not many places to spend those Ougs – the odd soft drink and trip across the road to Ali Baba’s burger joint accounting for most of the expense.

But the welcome we received from the locals was almost universally warm from people not used to too many tourists walking through their markets and streets (one money changer stopping me just to talk about his two-hour layover at Heathrow).

Saharan farewell - The first in a string of crossings of imaginary lines
Saharan farewell – The first in a string of crossings of imaginary lines

Still, the lure of what lay ahead ensured we were itching to get back on the road south as soon as our Senegal visas were safely stamped and secured in our passports.

And we could almost taste the first cold beer as our dash to the border before it closed – reportedly at 2pm, but that seemed to get earlier while we were there –  headed on to the final few kilometres through a national park.

From the arid, largely dusty, sandy landscape of the previous week or so, we suddenly had greenery, water and plenty of wildlife – mainly feathered, with the odd warthog thrown in – to watch as the miles rolled by.

Not that quickly, mind you, as the roads were little more than tracks, but there was plenty of high spirits as we, almost to a man, stood, watched the passing scene and snapped away happily.

IMG_2920Right up until the point when we thrown into each other. Once we had stopped moving, it was to the realisation that so had Nala.

More alarmingly, she was resting at an alarming angle and we were piling out of the back in a hurry.

199Quite what Steve said as he surveyed the situation is not repeatable, but his attempt to miss a series of bumps that would have given us some serious air time in the back had seen the left side wheels catch the softer earth and be dragged in.

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Off road – Nala at a rather alarming angle as we lend a hand to get across the border as soon as possible

As Steve surveyed the situation and we tried to sneak a few shots without him noticing, the occasional passing local stopped to offer a mixture of advice and stating the bleeding obvious, until one van driver pulled up and insisted he could help.

One look at his van had us worried about its future if his offer to pull us out was accepted, but as we cooked in the heat, options ran out and the clock ticked towards the closing of the border, which was looking the most likely spot for us to pitch our tents – if we could get out of our current hole.

So with Nala hooked up to the rickety van and a group of us adding a bit of extra weight with a shove, Steve gunned her into life and, thankfully, she shot out of her sticky spot and back onto all four wheels.

Stopping briefly to rustle up some remaining Oug as a thank you (for some reason, our offer to trade Ale was not taken up), we raced back on to the truck and Steve took the direct route over any remaining bumps – one bit of hang time producing an uncomfortable landing on a seatbelt holder.

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More sand – Zebra Bar had the odd attraction

And with everyone concerned on both the Mauritania and Senegal borders keen to get home at the end of the day, we were through in pretty much record time and, via a quick stop to change money in St Louis, headed to the promised land at the Zebra Bar.

Run by a Dutch couple, it provides an oasis for the tired and jaded overlander – beach, calm estuary to swim in, wi-fi (ish), showers (who cares if they are cold when it is that hot?) and even western toilets.

And beer.

Plenty of ice cold beer.

Mass selfie - Matt, front and centre, captures the enthusiastic response to the first cold beers for more than a week
Mass selfie – Matt, front and centre, captures the enthusiastic response to the first cold beers for more than a week

The race to be the first at the bar (not including Steve and Joe, who didn’t even pause to let us off) may be the only won by me on the entire trip.

Wish this next section could report on a couple of days and three nights crammed with activities and excursions into St Louis, but no.

Others did make it the few miles down the road for one reason or another, but the bulk of the time was spent relaxing around the campsite, complete with resident monkey, the beach, in the water and at the bar.

And behind it, as we helped ourselves from the fridge, chalked up another tally on our tabs and considered doing something a little more energetic.

And it’s the thought that counts, surely?

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