A journey without maps

I left Kedougou into the unknown. I had heard about a new road connecting Kedougou with Kita in Mali, but it is not to be found on any map. In the past maps, and especially the information provided by locals has not always been reliable, but here it was just a pure guess.

 

Touristy Senegal pretty much finishes in Kedougou. And there, actually, the tourist infrastructure was largely used by people who were there for business. Large scale mining of gold and iron ore is planned in the area, that’s why, I heard.

 

The road wasn’t difficult to find and it was all new, the painted white lines barely dry. My estimate was that it would take me a week to Bamako, roughly guessing from the distance on the map and past experience. My planning was poor though. The first day I cycled over hundred kilometres to the border. Albeit this was a nice achievement that day it left me with considerable fatigue for the next few days.

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There is not much beyond Kedougou. A few villages, and lots of emptiness, all surrounded by the never ending sea of Savannah. There are no more brick houses, just mud brick round houses. There is no electricity, no running water, not much on offer in the occasional shops. Some fluff is flying in the air and stuck to bushes, the wild cotton, I learned.

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The border crossing was fairly easy, I was stamped out, crossed the bridge. Mali officials claimed my visa was expired, but I got there finally. Another sign of the lack of tourists is there is no more asking for ‘cadeaux’.

 

The first day in Mali saw a strong Harmattan. The Harmattan is a dry and dusty trade wind blowing from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea. During strong events the visibility is severely limited and the sun is blocked.

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With better visibility the route would have been quite attractive. It got hilly, and finally seriously mountainous. There was nothing signposted as such but I am sure I crossed something that would normally be referred to as a mountain pass. I took it in steps of 70 to 80 kilometres after the big first day, what was quite exhausting. Only in Kita I had a day rest.

 

It was as well a journey against the wind. By no means was this as strong as in the Sahara, but it dragged on particularly from mid morning to mid afternoon. It seems to cease spot on sunset so that you can continue sweltering for another few hours.

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You probably didn’t need a meteorologist to tell you that it is hot in Africa. What I have experienced on this stretch is certainly beyond anything I have ever experienced in the past. By day temperatures climb to 40 degrees. It is cooler over night and in the morning however, this is strictly relatively speaking. High twenties probably. I did the bulk of the cycling in the morning, until the heat forced me off the bike in the afternoon and have a break then. Full speed, round about 20 km/hr is only possible early in the day. Yet, I sweat a lot in the morning, but from about eleven o’clock the temperature is beyond sweating, and I produce just dry salt staines. It’s bearable but uncomfortable. It is certainly a dry heat, so the internal cooling mechanism is working well. But how is this for an object that can’t sweat? Well, take my water bottles. By lunchtime, my water has about the temperature I like my Melange back home, or my cappuccino elsewhere. If I use the water I carried to wash by the end of the day it is actually too hot.

 

Needless to say I consume a lot of water. I currently carry a bit more than four litres and I fill up three times a day, and more for the night. Virtually all the villages have communal wells, quite modern pumps. Villagers tell me a bunch of Germans showed up and put them in place. They have clean drinking water since. Possibly this is why they like me. They are ignorant of my country, but then I tell them my native language is German, and I feel they just think I am bollocking them insisting I come from a place called ‘Autriche’.

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I also stop in the villages over night. I ask for the ‘chef du village’ for permission, and it has never been a problem. More often than not they offer me a round hut but so far I preferred to sleep in my tent. The main reason I prefer to stay in villages is once more the water. It is unlimited there, and I would otherwise have to carry a lot of it into the bush. I can wash myself and cook. However most of the time they offer me dinner. Rice that is, or couscous. The ritual is the men and sometimes the kids come together, everybody wash their hands, the squatting on the floor and eating out of large bowls with the right hand. The left hand is strictly out, since this is the had to clean yourself.

 

It seems there is little going on in the villages. The women are apparently busy with cooking and washing all day, while the men don’t seem to do a lot at all. Mud bricks are produced here and there, and grass is cut to maintain the houses which can get severely damaged during the rainy season. Houses are only for sleeping, all the life is outside. I never get to talk to the women, after dinner, I feel I am expected to sit with the men and drink tea. Probably the arrival of a western traveller here is an event. If we find a common language, they ask lots of questions, primarily about my marital status, but also about what I am doing. I don’t think anybody understands. When Africans make a trip it has a purpose, and they cannot see what purpose I have.

 

The most curious are the kids. Of course we cannot talk, but if I let them and their parents let them, they normally check me out. They want to shake hands then hold onto it, touch the top of my hands, and the forearms, then walk around and touch my hair.

 

At first I offered presents in exchange of staying in villages. Biscuits, chocolate spread, spices. Later on there wasn’t a lot to buy and I offered to pay for my stay. In the end I got a place to sleep, water, food. To my surprise they all declined.

 

My days were simple as well. I got up early, packed up, got on the bike, cycled until the heat forced me off the bike, then, in the afternoon, cycled a bit more and started to look for a place to spend the night. Kita is a town of some size and I stayed there for two nights, for a rest, and to do some housekeeping. The area east of Kita is a little more developed, relatively speaking, with some larger towns. I stopped for a rest when I spotted a shop with a fridge, where I usually bought a few sachets of cold water as a treat. In the absence of electricity the fridges run on gas.

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My most comfortable night was probably the last one before I hit Bamako. I didn’t see the village but there was something like a rest stop, shacks selling food and drinks to the passing traffic. I sat down for a bit there, tired, then I asked whether I could spend the night there. The village was quite spread out and away from the road. They let me stay in the school. The well was next to it, so the water was unlimited, and there was a concrete floor and consequently no dirt. The headmaster stopped by in the evening to say hello, and that I should just walk over to his house in case I needed something. That particular night the sky was very clear and the star gazing almost as good as back in the Sahara. The night became later than usual, and when I woke up a boy with a bag was staring at me. Dammit. Other than what I thought they told me the evening before, there was school. I was packing in a rush under the supervisory eyes of an ever increasing crowd of children, who wanted into the school. I was half way through when a teacher showed up and chased them away. ‘Stupid Toubab’, he probably thought but let me do my thing. The headmaster later gave me a tour of the school. I had a coffee at the roadside stall then headed off, for Bamako or not, I wasn’t sure.

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Education in Mali is considered the 6th worst in the world, based on what indicators I don’t know. This I thought is pretty much the bottom, considering that there are a few failed states on the planet which naturally rank lower. Primary education is mandatory in theory but this law isn’t executed. They say around 60 % of the kids go to school but this includes the Quran schools run by the Marabouts. The latter is a form of child exploitation rather than education, in the name of religion. Partially due to devoutness, but in most cases probably out of desperation parents give their children to the Marabouts who feed them and teach them the Quran but in turn have to beg for money on the street often under threat of physical harm. These kids are all over the place in Senegal, particularly in the north.

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My guess was that it would take me three days from Kita to Bamako purely for the fact that I don’t like to enter big cities in the evening. It isn’t that far. Cities are a pain to navigate, and just in general more dangerous in the dark. The electricity is often not very steady so you might well end up in the complete darkness. I stopped at a shop 30 km ahead of Bamako at about two in the afternoon. I bought some cold water and asked whether I could sit down for an hour, they always let you. I was offered lunch later but declined the tea since I had decided I would give it a go into Bamako. It was all downhill from there, and I found a hotel well before sunset.

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I have had a rather bad run since. I arrived on a Friday, and since I needed visas that would leave me stuck for two extra days. When I was eating a Mango in the evening something broke off my teeth. It was uncomfortable but at first I thought I could live with it. Over the next day things worsened. I certainly needed a dentist to fix it. My aching mouth ruined the weekend but on Monday I got it fixed. On Wednesday I went to the Burkina Faso embassy on the bike for my visa. It was issued on the spot. When I came back in the afternoon somebody made me aware of the gunfire and shouting in the distance. Over time it came closer. In the evening I learned that there were mutinous soldiers in town, and later that a coup d’etat was in process. The gunfire was audible all night long, sometimes it sounded pretty close. A group of portuguese people who had finished their trip went to the airport but came back later in the night without luggage. Little by little we learned that all the borders were closed, vehicles were confiscated, there was looting and muggings in town. Basically it was unsafe to stray out for too long, and probably impossible to leave the city.

 

Needless to say I have not done much sightseeing of the city, and there are no photos. Sub Saharan African cities are normally rather necessary than enjoyable places, so I don’t mind. I might never get round to do what little there is for tourists to see and do.

 

So this is where I am now, stuck in a hotel in Bamako. I am walking out briefly sometimes, for some food shopping or to a nearby pool. Now and then a woman from the German embassy is calling in to give us some information, albeit not much, the situation is unclear. There is little information we have access to and that is to the most part conflicting. I will have to wait and see.

 

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