Mali: Sahel Journey
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Epilogue: The Saga of Mali


More than any other Bicycle Africa program, Mali gives us more than we bargained for.  More often than not participants find these unexpected "adventures" the best part of the trip -- at least the most memorable.  For the guides there are just another tuft of gray hair.  Here is the saga:

Indelible, from 1992, is lurching our way into Djenne on a road that could have been nominated as the surface of the moon. We vowed not to ride out. There was a sense of relief when we found a boat captain who would putt us in a motorized canoe, to San, in six hours. Twenty-three hours later we reach San, and instead of an uneventful six-hour tale we had a twenty-three hours story complete with mid-river mechanics, baling buckets, midnight meals and a half-nights sleep on the river bank at some un-named (to us) village. Any dreams of finding the fabled city of Timbuktu just weren't going to happen!

The road to Djenne was paved in early 1993 so it is now relatively painless to ride in and ride out. Good thing, because the motor on the canoe was yet to be repaired. But Mali still had a few capers: We can let cycling into Songo after dark and high temperatures below the escarpment roll off our shoulders. But the cloudburst west on Niongono, that was more like a dam-burst, is a little hard to dismiss. Between being delayed an hour, the road turning to mush and progress reduced to one-mile an hour, the sun setting and loosing our way among the multitude of tracks, it was quite an ordeal. (It is high improbable that we took the most direct route, but we'll never know.) Fortunately, we found Somadougou, the stars came out, we got washed and dinner, and bedded down on the roof. Unfortunately, it started to rain again about three hours later. One not-so-happy-camper was heard to roar over the rooftops of Somadougou, "Curse you Murphy." I don't know what language Murphy (as in Murphy's Law) understands in Somadougou.

We had hope to get to Timbuktu in '93, but were thwarted by misconnect on the schedule between the plane and the boat!

In 1994, we had no major problems following the tracks through the Dogon Country and there was no cloudburst. Even the prospects of getting to Timbuktu seemed to be improving -- until the secessionist war by the Tuareg started to heat up and three days before we were schedule to fly into Timbuktu the rebels started lobbing rocket propelled grenades into the city. We took the opportunity to discover the backwater town of Sofara and had a great time.

Did I forget to mention that those of us coming from Senegal got the train-trip-from-hell? The group was arrested as we entered Djenne for not having a [white-people] licenses for the bikes. This included a simultaneous run-in with the Djenne police/guide extortion racket. Later on the trip, the all-night bus odyssey from Mopti to Bamako included a change of bus before we ever left the station and being turned back at the first checkpoint for two hours of bureaucracy. But this turned out only to be the beginning. We made it through the first third of the trip and maybe got a little sleep, before the axle broke. All eyes open, we limped into San. After taking several post midnight hours to determining all the welders had gone home for the night and couldn't be found, and we negotiated for van -- a fine machine except that it was 40 degrees that night and the rear windows were broken out. We huddled together sleepless as the wind blew through at 60 miles per hour. By the time we reached Bamako we were physically only four hours late. Mentally we were much more wasted.

Which brings us to 1995. We solved the problems associated Djenne by electing to give it a pass. There was no bus trip from Mopti to Bamako because we were going straight through the Dogon Country to Burkina Faso. And the weather was hot but generally manageable. We were even all set to visit Timbuktu -- arriving Thursday morning by air and leaving Thursday afternoon by boat. It should have been a flawless trip.

We weren't a day into it before the flaws started to appear -- Bamako guides are now practicing extortion but the flight to Timbuktu went fine. Bicycle Africa had gotten to Timbuktu -- we just couldn't get out -- the Thursday night boat was nowhere in sight. After a couple of extra sandy Timbuktu meals and a sandy Timbuktu sleep we woke-up Friday to learn that it had been determined that the boat also would not arrive that day or the next day. In fact, no one was quite sure when the boat would arrive. The next plane was Sunday. So having eliminated exit by water and air, we were pretty much left to an overland exit. That meant camel or Land Cruiser. We opted for the nine passenger Land Cruiser (13 Bicycle Africa bodies, the driver and his assistant). We were assured it was about a six-hour trip. The first ten miles to the river is paved, but it's a 250-mile trip. Of the two large diesel engines on the ferry neither worked. On the far side the ferry could only get within 100 feet of the shore so they drove the Land Cruiser off the boat there. Thirty not-so-certain-minutes later it was on shore and we all waded after it. For over one hundred miles until we reach the national highway there is no road, just intermittent tracks through the sand, scrub and acacia bush. For most of the night 11 people were inside and four people rode on top. Some people thought this was one of the most exciting experience of their life. If there is a moral to the story it is don't plan to leave Timbuktu by boat if you need to keep a schedule, and don't plan to leave overland because experiences like that just can't be planned.

Nineteen hours and four flat tires later we arrive in Mopti, almost back on our original schedule -- but our bike which had come up from Bamako on a bush-taxi had been impounded by the police ten miles away. Except for the inconvenience it only cost us a few nice smiles to ransom the bikes.

By the time we got to Koro some people were wondering why we had gone to the trouble to retrieve the bikes -- this was the route that avoided the bus to Bamako. Although we had been told that the road that makes the descent between Djuguibombo and Kani Kombole had been improve much of it looked distinctly like one of the pictures of human skin magnified a thousand times. We spent as much time hauling the bikes downhill as riding them. We would have been better off in time and distance traveled carry the equipment down the trail that goes over the cliff. Even at the bottom, Mali continued to test our mettle with deep sand on the road. Fortunately we got some great help from local bicyclist who help us navigate some harder packed alternative routes. We cycled through villages and hamlets in the morning, sat under trees and in villages at midday and finished the mileage under the setting sun as temperatures start to drop in the afternoon. We no small amount of grit everyone made it through the worst to Koro. Some people thought this was one of the most exciting experience of their life.

So what is in store for the future? Amazingly enough, another Mali trip. But, starting with the boat trip, always accompanying the bikes when they have to be moved, never trying to cycle below the escarpment until the roads are roads, cutting the mileage of the cycling days nearly in half, and flying in and OUT of Timbuktu near the end of the trip. And we will be back on a bus between Mopti and Bamako. WAWA (West Africa Wins Again)!

In 1996, the trip started out smoothly enough, will not considering the airlines lost a bike, but that can’t be attributed to Mali. Cycling from Bamako to Koulikoro is scenic. Everyone arrived in plenty of time to eat, drink, check-in and stow the bikes. The riverboat shoved off only slightly late and everyone dozed off to the sound of the throbbing engine.

At wake-up it was all too quiet. The engines were silent. The boat was immobile, courtesy of one of the rivers unpredictable sandbars. We had been stopped since early morning and the crew’s efforts to reverse the engines were to no avail. Young men waist-high in the river worked at the bow trying to persuade the boat free with large logs.

Over breakfast theories were traded about escape attempts-maybe we wouldn’t get to Mopti after all. Could we bike along the shoreline? How much food was on board?

When the crew eventually herded all the passengers to the back of the boat in order to raise the bow the situation seemed desperate. But thanks to our men in the river, prying, heaving and splashing the boat eventually slipped free. A cry rang out, congratulations were traded all around and off we went.

The eight-hour delay became a sixteen-hour difference by the time we reached Mopti. We docked early in the morning after an extra refreshing night sleeping on the boat, hopped on the bikes and rode to Sofara. The schedule was hardly affected.

Of course the flight to Timbuktu is always event on the cold-war vintage Soviet turbo-prop planes. And even that was comfortable and safe-with the exception of several cockroach sightings by the squeamish. For 1996, you could almost say everything happened when and how it was supposed to happen-by Mali standards.

In 1997, Mali wasn't messing around. The boat didn't show-up. Fortunately there was fair warning that it had broken down but this meant an overland to Mopti. This was accomplished on schedule. Pulling adventure out of the jaws of complacency, the group was talked into taking a "short-cut" between Sofara and Djenne. It may be a short cut for a donkey, but not a bicycle. The sandy road created a long day of push-bicycle Africa. The one day adventure and late arrival had a domino effect because it created success late starts and late arrivals and too much travel in the afternoon heat. Through the group persevered and found a reasonable numbers of laughs. But add to the list of don'ts for Mali, no short-cut to Djenne.  On the positive side the mafia nature of tourism syndicate in Djenne seems to have disappeared.

1998 - Let just say the boat didn't get it together this year.  Instead of taking the boat to Mopti and heading to Djenne from the east and then going into the Dogon Country, we took a bus to San and headed to Djenne from the west, before doing the regular irregular program in the Dogon Country.

1999 - All the ugliness that used to be tourism in Djenne has disappeared and reincarnated itself in the Dogon Country.  A local guide who was pissed for not being hired to lead our group had the entire group arrested.  The police seem to side with us, our own guide was worthless and the local official in charge of promoting tourism sided with the opportunity for extortion.  It took several hours to sort this out, during which we sat in the shade and read.  But by the time we started riding the sun was high in the sky.  Fortunately the construction of the road down the escarpment is well along so we could ride further than we expected which helped make up some time.

No plane to Timbuktu this year because the president had commandeered it to go to Abidjan for a meeting.

2000 - The road down the escarpment is finished, but the plane to Timbuktu was more than 24 hours late.  Those who persevered only saw Timbuktu for about an hour before they had to get back to the airport.

2009 - The boat departs after dark and it is late enough the most people retire to their cabins fairly quickly.  No one is quite sure what happened shortly after that, but the engines were off and the boat was up against the far bank of the river -- that would be off course.  By the time sunrise teased us from the cabins in the morning the boat was three hours behind schedule.  For the next day and a half, while we were on the boat, it kept getting further and further behind schedule at the few time points we had.  By the time we reached Mopti we were about six hours late.  It was after dark, which meant no sightseeing circuit of Mopti and a night ride to the hotel -- not the preferred ride.  We a great crew we were up on time the next morning and back on schedule.  All went uncannily well until we crossed the Bani River.  High water inundated the firmer lowland road to we headed for the highland road.  It started out firm enough but became increasingly fluffy as we came to the first village.  Bicycles and bicyclists on a horse cart, MaliUnder any circumstance there probably would have thought that we were crazy, but in these circumstance they thought the we were mad and insisted that we take a horse cart.  Our challenge was to figure out whether the horse cart was just an income generating activity or whether the road was as bad as they said for the next fifty kilometers.  If the road was as bad as they reported we then had to figure out what was a fair price for the horse cart, considering they had a monopoly market. In the end we settled at a price.  I guess you could say it was what the market would bear, but as is so often the case it was not what we ended up paying -- it is like the extra fees charged by the airlines. In any case the horse cart was a good advice and we arrived in Djenne around midday.  It is hard to say things went like clockwork after that; it took time to arrange accommodations in Somadougou, we waited for hours for our host in Niongono, accommodation, meals, the Internet and everything else took longer than even a veteran African traveler might have expected in Bandiagara, who knows why the bus back to Bamako left Sevare five hours after it was schedule to and lost six hours in the last two hours of the journey into town, etc. -- whose watching the clock anyway.  This was a smooth trip.

Happy cycling wherever your front wheel takes you.






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