"Mali" Top 5 Page for this destination Mali by grets
Mali Travel Guide: 1,006 reviews and 2,873 photos
This was to be our first trekking holiday, and it would be a lie to say that we weren't apprehensive. Last time we went camping was as 17-year olds with the school, more years ago than I care to remember. How would we cope with the lack of basic facilities? Would we be fit enough? Would everybody else be nubile young things in their twenties laughing at us forty-somethings? How would the heat affect us?
Already at Paris airport we gelled with our fellow travellers - 16 in all - as we struggled to find the correct terminal for our onward flight. We certainly needn't have worried about the age issue - most of the other trekkers were in fact older than us. They were a great mixture of people, and we were the only married couple on the trip. As with any group travel, your fellow passengers can make or break a holiday, and these people positively improved the trip!
Before the trek, we spent two days in Djenne, acclimatising to the heat and taking in the fascinating sites of this World Heritage town. Djenne's most interesting attraction is its mosque, the largest mud brick building in the world. During our visit, a festival - Tabasci - was taking place, a time when sheep are sacrificed by the dozen. Although we asked several local people, we never did get an affirmative answer about the origin or the meaning of the festival, other than it being bad news for sheep! Michael Palin was in town filming a new series, so maybe he managed to find out more than we did. Look out for his program in the New Year.
The trek started from a small Dogon village called Sangha. As well as our English tour leader, we had a Dogon guide, 16 porters and a cook. So much for my thoughts of roughing it! By the time we got to camp at night, the porters had erected our tents, set up a table and chairs and while we waited for the cook to prepare dinner, there were bowls of olives and peanuts available. Children from the nearest village would bring crates of beer and soft drinks for us to purchase, and water was readily available, either bottles or from the local wells.
The Dogon people came to the area in the 14th century and built their mud brick villages clinging precariously to the Bandiagara Escarpment. Each village is laid out to strict rules and they follow a traditional lifestyle ruled by cosmology and animism. They have an intriguing culture; the architecture is fascinating and the scenery absolutely incredible. The people are genuinely friendly, and everywhere we went, the villagers would bring out their sick and injured, assuming that as whites, we must all be medicine men. With our limited knowledge and restricted first aid kit, we were only able to dress a few wounds and hand out painkillers, but it certainly made us feel like early explorers.
Most days we would start walking before six in the morning and in order to avoid the midday heat we enjoyed a long, lazy siesta before continuing for a few miles after lunch. Generally we walked 10-15 miles per day, up and down the 800ft escarpment. It was not a strenuous trek, but the extreme heat (46ºC in the shade) and sandy conditions, made it hard going at times. It was, however, the most extraordinary and fantastic experience, and I seriously felt that life would never be the same again. It certainly transformed the way we will plan our holidays in future.
The luxury of a four-star hotel in Mopti was extremely welcome after the primitive conditions of Dogon Country. Having a warm shower never felt so good, and going to the toilet in the night without having to unzip the tent to try and find the nearest boulder, was very agreeable. Mopti has a large and interesting river market where huge slabs of salt are sold after having been transported along the river from Timbuktu. Salt was once pound for pound worth more than gold, and large camel caravans still ply the desert to the salt mines.
The long and arduous journey to Timbuktu took three days of sitting on a motorised canoe called a pinasse, with nothing much to do except sleep, talk, eat, read and sleep. The scenery along the great Niger River was uninspiring, and the fierce sun relentless. We stopped at a few villages, including Niafounke, home to the great Malian blues singer Ali Farka Toure. Despite doing next to nothing for three days, I found this part of the holiday much more tiring than the trek. The dangerously low water level meant a lot of time was spent avoiding the sandbanks in the middle of the river, or getting us off the ones we didn't miss.
On the last night of camping on the river shore, we encountered a terrifying sandstorm. Several items were lost (including a tent), and while we were desperately trying to bury the rest of the tents in the sand to stop them blowing away, we were impressed to find that the cook had managed to rustle up dinner for 16! The food on the trip, although not particularly inspirational, was healthy and adequate, especially considering the conditions and the availability of produce. On the last night of the trek, the cook prepared a traditional Malian Meshwe feast for us, grilling the sheep that had walked with us for the last two days (the one that escaped the Tabasci Festival).
The bird life was great in Mali, but the larger animals disappeared some centuries ago with the cutting down of the forest. On the river we came upon several groups of hippos, and after hearing that they kill more humans in Africa every year than any other animal, we were a little distressed to discover a herd of them one morning close to our camp on the riverside.
You can't go to Mali without visiting Timbuktu, a city of so many legends, and the inspiration for numerous early explorers, most of whom did not make it back to tell the tale. Once reputed to have streets paved with gold, today Timbuktu can only be described as shabby. The hawkers are aggressive and the "friendly" children we encountered in the rest of Mali are only after one thing - your money! However, the ever-encroaching Sahara makes for great excursions to visit the nomadic camps of the Touareg, either by camel or 4WD.
So, did it live up to our expectations, and were we right to be apprehensive?
Mali is a poor country with an even poorer infrastructure. Although tourism is growing, especially in Dogon Country, you cannot class the area as a tourist hot-spot. You need to go with an open mind, a flexible attitude and be prepared for shortages of even the most basic amenities we take for granted back home. The lack of "facilities" did not pose as much of a problems as envisaged, as they say, you get used to it.
You do not need to be super-fit to enjoy the trek, but I'm glad I joined the gym before I went. After 14 blisters and the loss of three toenails, I will make sure that next time I go trekking I wear a pair of well-worn walking boots which allow for the fact that your feet swell in the heat. The heat did bother some people, and several holiday makers ran out of money before the end of the trip as most of your funds go on buying bottled water.
It was by far the most adventurous and exciting holiday we've ever had and we both loved it! I would recommend Mali to anyone who doesn't mind poor accommodation, monotonous food, blistering heat and peeing behind a bush in return for an exceptional experience and an insight into a fast vanishing and unique culture. It was definitely worth it!
- Pros:Amazing culture and people
- Cons:Lack of facilities
- In a nutshell:A Must Visit destination
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