For a detailed trip itinerary, click here or for more info on the company that runs it (African Trails) visit:

Want another perspective? There are now a few other blogs for the trip all listed half-way down on the right-hand side of this page.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Burkina Faso - Ouagadougou

Well, this will be a short entry as we bombed through Burkina pretty quickly. We crossed the border and spent the first night in the bush. Drove through towards the capital Ouagadougou (coolest capital city name in Africa) – here we experienced our first day of Africa’s rainy season. It absolutely pissed it down for about 7 hours. And of course I was on cook group duty with Sonya. This involved walking around town desperately trying to find some vegetables. Unfortunately all the vendors were more normal than us and had packed up until the rain passed. Following this we pulled up to a campsite, put up a tarp and cooked in the pouring rain. There were actual rivers of rain flowing past and through the centre of our make-shift kitchen. It’s all part of the experience!!

Next day we travelled to an awesome spot in a national park. We passed a local village on the way through where school had just finished. The truck stopped for 20 mins and we were surrounded by amazing school children. They’re so friendly and when the cameras come out they go crazy for it! (See below story involving Happy Hippo and 200 children…..)

The path to the park was somewhat scary – navigating the 3 metre wide truck down a 1 metre path – the unfortunate people sitting in the back and down the sides found themselves being whipped in the face by passing branches. I found a large green caterpillar on my shoulder – no idea how it got there!!

Squeezing our way through the bush taking out tree branches left, right & centre

We have learnt never to sit in the back corner seats for fear of being
whipped in the face by a passing tree!

The park camp spot had a balcony looking out over a river which we were told out of rainy season elephants drink from in the mornings. Sadly we saw nothing except a puppy dog which bit Dave on the hand – Rabies scare aside, the dog was actually pretty cute. We also spotted big blue and black flags which are apparently to attract the Tsetse flies and keep them away from the campers. AK and Zakiya got another shock when they realized they were both wearing blue and black outfits – speedy change necessary…

Black and blue flags soaked in insecticide to attract the tsetse flies then nuke the bastards!

That was it for Burkina – just a few nights – overall impression was that the people were super friendly. The landscape also has started to look greener and more lush. The animals are no longer half starved and maingy and we wish we could have spent a bit longer.

Above Lara eludes to a story involving our very own Leon (aka “Happy Hippo” aka “Double H”) but she didn’t mention that it was actually very nearly a tragic story of loss.

Let me tell you a little bit about Double H first. The H-Meister normally resides in Cape Town and can – I’m told – usually be found cruising the coast roads on one of his two Harleys. As a South African, his knowledge of ‘The Dark Continent’ already far exceeds that we hope to go home with…and it shows. If you have a question about the wildlife, the climate, the culture and the diseases you can pick up, you normally turn to Double H (or the Lonely Planet). He normally wears mirrored shades giving an aura akin to that of ‘The Man with No Eyes’ in Cool Hand Luke. But still waters, as they say, run deep. Beneath the frosty exterior, lie years of bush travel experience and the anecdotes that go with it. I’m tempted to believe that Double H previously lived a secret life: travelling incognito under the radar, across borders and over barbed-wire fences. Even his nickname almost sounds like ‘Double Agent’.

Anyway, on this particular day in Burkina Faso, Double H had no doubt been revisited by the ghosts of his past life as a mercenary/spy/secret agent and decided to slip out unnoticed and go on a solo stealth mission. The guy can switch into this mode so easily: casting no shadow, moving with the speed of a centipede, the cunning of a Black Mamba in Elephant grass and communicating with the birds as he sloped off. We were all too busy playing with the school kids to notice that he had disappeared but when we did, the hunt began. We searched high and low, in the huts and the trees, down wells and behind water pumps. After a while we began to tire and gave up all hope of finding the H-Meister. We thought we’d lost him to the bush when finally, out of nowhere…

Unfortunately, I have a second tragic story to report of our time with the school children in Burkina Faso. It’s not enough that the country (and indeed the continent in general) has for centuries been ravaged by civil wars, slave traders and colonial settlers, left desolate by drought and the subsequent famine. AIDS has of course taken a firm grip on the country as it has many other African countries. Malaria, Sleeping Sickness and numerous other tropical diseases have taken their toll and now…to add to the country’s woes, it looks like an epidemic of ‘Hoops’ may be about to break out. Sad times.

The kid in the centre of this photo has a bad case of 'Hoops')

AK: Sorry folks, bad taste joke intended for my old man’s enjoyment only. You won’t get it unless you have at least some knowledge of Scottish football….which is about 0.00000001% of the world’s population.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Mali Part Deux - Bamako, Mopti, Djenne, Savare, Dogon and everything in between

We arrived in Bamako in the middle of the day and Mark (driver) had a friend (ex-African Trails driver) who ran a campsite in the middle of the city with a few other expats. I guess nobody had really thought about it until now, but we must have been missing a lot of the home luxuries as none of us could contain our excitement on learning of the inflatable pool, the bar with (cold) bottles of Castel and Flag, free wi-fi, a great local cook (Mango chicken, Haga Haga and the BeleBele breakfast – not 100% on the spelling - are all worth a shout). If anybody out there is looking for cheap/shoestring budget accommodation in Bamako, Mali, The Sleeping Camel is the place to go.

The Saffers and Yoichi caught up with us here after their sojourn in Senegal and Mindi joined us the next day following her chillout time back up in Kayes. With everybody back together, we all got comfortable at The Sleeping Camel for 5 days: running up a bar tab, sleeping in air-con rooms, eating like kings, chilling in the pool (and entertaining ourselves by creating 6-man whirlpools by running in circles for 5 minutes…Victoria aka Squirt, the 11yr old on the trip was loving floating away on the current we created!)

A couple of the boys had gone out on the pish one night, and the rest of the crew joined them the following night.

The gang before a night on the tiles (some of us chose to dance on them, some of us just dropped bottles of beer on joke)

Boys at the back: Zah "Z Mk 2" Dindar, middle row l to r: Yoichi "The Seven Bellied Samurai", Brad Pitt, Neal "The Nutty Professor" Katz, Ian "Boogie" Boudrault, Leon "Happy Hippo" Liebenberg, Kyle "Homeless" Mijlof
Ladies in the front: Karen Subritzky, Kayelene Mills, Lara "Junior" Maubec, Victoria "Squirt" Subritzky, Sonya Ohlen, Zakiya "Z Mk1" Serguro

We headed to a highly-rated local restaurant where we gobbled down ‘Poisson Bamakoise’ and the like (washed down with Castel, Flag and Cognac shots) and had some fresh mango and bananas (which tasted so sweet they were like blueberries…strangely) for dessert. Afterwards, we headed to a live music venue and laughed at all the expats trying to dance like the locals – particularly ‘Big Trousers Girl’ and ‘Short Woman’. (I secretly envied their ‘get-up-and-give-it-a-go’ attitude…but there is no right in two left feet.) From there we headed to a proper club-cum-disco (got to be careful with those hyphens!) where, let’s be honest got pretty fookayed. (I may or may not have had a ‘tactical chunder’ somewhere along the way.) On the way home, Kyle and I grabbed a super-baguette filled with chicken, chips and token greenery from the local kebab shop equivalent.

On our penultimate day, Mark went out and spent 20,000 CFA on a wee goat which was duly slaughtered (by the professional chef I should add) and roasted over a spit for the day. Every hour or so it was turned and basted in a marinade made of ginger and various other herbs and spices. Come 8pm (-ish) the campsite was silent bar the sound of a dozen people chowing down on goat…and the veggies chowing down on spag bol! (The diet of a vegetarian is proves pretty tricky out here sometimes.)

Berber Dave & Zah enjoy a spit-roast together. What?

Big thanks go out to Don, Bill, Claire and Matt (the guys that own/run the place) for putting up with us for that week and for giving us the slice of the home comforts we all pretended we didn’t need (as any seasoned traveller does).

Onwards from Bamako we went to Mopti, Djenne and Savare (not sure of spelling) – the former being a large city where we spent the day exploring and fending off local touts (I also bought a Mali footy shirt here with Kanute on the back), the second being home of the biggest mud mosque in the world and the last being a small town outside of Mopti.

Heading to the mud mosque at Djenne by boat...

...and by ox-drawn cart (where Sonya got a face full of local B.O.)
PS I did take photos of the mosque, but as they were crap, I've omitted them.

We stayed in Savare at a place called Via Via Inn/Hotel/Camping (or something along those lines) and made the most of their bar and free wi-fi and camped on their roof for a couple of nights. The heat was still an issue and by now most of us had our own ways of dealing with it: wet sheet over the top of you, cold water on the concrete before you pitch your tent, just putting your mozzy net over the tent frame and not bothering with the rest. These all had varying degrees of success measured only by the darkness of the black bags under the eyes the next day!

On our second night at Via Via most of us decided to do without the tents altogether (as some have sworn by the whole way along). As the crowd of about 100 people filtered out from the wedding reception (!) that was taking place downstairs at the hostel, we all settled down in the comfort of the open air. Several hours later and in the midst of a peaceful slumber, Berber’s sleeping equipment came flying towards us at speed (shortly followed by Berber himself) and most of the gang were having similar issues. It turns out a sandstorm had come in out of nowhere and the next day most of us turned up at the breakfast table bleary-eyed and looking like we were covered from head-to-toe in ‘foundation.’ Dust/sand had gotten EVERYWHERE. One unnamed passenger said “at least we’ll have good bogies today!”. Every (dust) cloud has a silver lining I guess…

The morning after Mr Sandman ‘s over-zealous visit, most of us (bar Mark The Driver aka Marjane, Zakiya aka Zed Mk1 and Leon aka Happy Hippo) left for a three day trek of “The Dogon Country”. I’m not entirely convinced that my vocabulary will do this place justice, so I’ll let the photos do most of the talking. If you’ve ever read King Solomon’s Mines, or seen Indy Jones then you’ll get a hint of what this place was like. In fact, toss in The Lost World (book), Jurassic Park and Ace Ventura 2 (I know!) to help get a more complete picture of what we walked through for three days. I’m typing this up now and still can’t believe we’d never heard of this place. Maybe we’re just ignorant, but we’d never seen any Attenborough docs on it, or heard of any films set there. Maybe the terrain is just too difficult for film crews? Dogon Country is like a niche carved out of African history where a little bit of time seems to have fallen into a valley and never really made it back out whilst the rest of the world went about its way.

Day One:
We started with a village walkthrough where all the kids ran out and clung on to us for dear life (one was amazed to have the same first name as me!) – 10 fingers meant 10 kids (not in a Gary Glitter way).
After that we scrambled across rocky terrain and down ancietn paths carved into the rockface  before finishing up in a Dogon village by ‘treating/punishing’ (depending upon your taste) ourselves with ‘Dogon Beer’ (local millet beer served in used diesel bottles) before being given a performance by the entire village (it seemed like it anyway): About hundred villagers turned out to dance, shriek, sing and play the drums all for the enjoyment of a dozen tourists. Pretty humbling. That night we slept on the roof of a village building and woke up under the shadow of one of the steep sides of the valley which was pocked with the ancient caves of the ‘Telem’ people (a pygmy-like tribe that made their homes high in the cliff-face to avoid attacks by animals and other tribes…the Dogon’s eventually smoked them out with killer bees!).


Day Two:
More trekking through awesomeness before arriving at a village where crocodiles were kept in a pit. It turns out that crocs are seen as sacred by the Dogon people as legend has it that they lead the elders to this region in the first place. After taking a few snaps (sorry!) of the crocs, we had some munch before being treated to what was possibly the highlight of the whole trip so far: ‘the masked dance’. The villages in the Dogon region compete regularly to see who can produce the best masks and we were treated to a dance by the crème de la crème. Check the masks in the photos.

Caught this little squirmer playing with my trainer as I watched the dance. He was as fascinated with my trainer as I was the dance!

After the dance we plodded on to the place we were staying for the night (by this point, chafe had set in and Kayelene had already convinced the locals to carry her stuff and give her a lift on their ox and cart). Here we ate our fill before being educated on the ways of the African herbs by one of our fellow travelers and shooting the breeze for a couple of hours before falling asleep with a building roof as our mattress and only the starlit sky as our blanket. Cool. Very cool.

Day Three:
Yet more trekking through awesomeness in the morning until we reached our final Dogon village where we had a bite to eat and bartered with the local villagers over mask prices. After lunch we had to climb a 400m path that meandered back and forth through a rocky escarpment. Our mini-bus back was waiting for us at the top and after a two hour drive (which include limited tarmac, bumps, potholes, loads of dust and a motorcyclist going into the back of us) we were at a campsite in a place called Bandiagara were Mindy, Mark, Leon and Zakiya were already chilling out.

At the campsite none of us could stop yapping about our experience to those that stayed at the truck. We had loads to chat to Mindy about too as she had done a solo mission up to Timbuktu* from Bamako and it had been a while since we saw her. Everybody was in a high spirits – none more so than Yoichi who had found himself half a dozen of his own country folk…all of them in their mid-20’s…and all of them female. P.I.M.P! Needless to say, we all got a bit pished that night and I even cracked open my 50 quid bottle of whiskey (but put it away again swiftly after the first round…Scottish blood, you see).

The next day we left the campsite and headed for the border with Burkina Faso. As everybody got their passports stamped, Kyle (Homeless), Berber and I tried catching chickens with a cardboard box, bread and a stick (I’d already broken my locally bought catapult on the same chicken.)

Next stop, Burkina!!!! (But I’ll let Lara tell you all about that.)

(*Although cool to have said you’ve been there, by all accounts, we’d heard that Timbuktu didn’t have much going for it and was probably not worth the effort. More to the point, travel in that area was ill-advised due to kidnappings and the like…fortunately, Mindy came out unscathed and with glowing reports!)


Friday, 7 May 2010

Mali Part 1 - Nioro, Kayes, Felou, River Senegal and onward to Bamako.

Mali….wow!….looking back at my photos I can see that we arrived in Mali on the 8th April…which is over three weeks ago. So much has happened since then, in fact too much even to write in just one blog entry so we’ll break it up into manageable chunks to make it easier to digest.

We’d said a goodbye to the Saffers and Yoichi aka Yamato aka “The Seven Bellied Samurai” (the guy weighs 52kg and nobody on the trip knows where he manages to put his 3rd and 4th helpings when everybody else is stuffed) in Nouakchott. They were off to Senegal (Louisville and Dakar) whilst the rest of us drove on to the Malian border (via a wee misadventure with the police, but you’d have already read about that in one of our previous posts).

It’s sad to say, but after 5 or 6 days in a ‘dry country’ like Mauritania, we were all gasping for a bevvy or three. When we arrived in the first proper town in Mali (called ‘Nioro’) we made a bee-line for the nearest pub via an ATM (with air-conditioning in the booth)!

The pub we’d been told about was unfortunately closed but Lara, Sonya and I made friends with two local kids who knew exactly what we were after. They took us on a wee tour of their town before dropping us off at a local military pub (complete with lone soldier at a table, nursing his beer in one hand, his AK in the other and with a watchful eye over his two young kids who were chowing down on mangos in the corner of the pub). Those beers (‘Castel’) tasted awesome. Full stop. So awesome that we didn’t notice the second and third round slipping down. After the three bevs we headed back to the truck, told the rest of the guys of our find and returned there for more afternoon beers. Result.

The afternoon went on and the aforementioned kids grew more confident and eventually joined us as we sipped our beers. They didn’t partake (they were only about 3 I think) but they did enjoy wearing our shades and looking at photos of themselves on our digital cams. It turns out the kids (boy and girl) were twins and that the wee boy was Isaac Hayes reincarnate. FACT. (You should have heard has gravelly giggle when he saw his image on the camera display.)

The place we were supposed to be camping at was ‘under construction’ so we were going to just push on through to a bush-camp when one of the punters/owners of the bar was kind enough to offer us his garden. (Welcome to Africa!) I did a quick reconnaissance mission on the back of his scooter and the place (complete with roaming goats, chickens and cattle) seemed good enough and big enough for the truck and our tents .

The one thing I hadn’t picked up on was that the place was right next to a school and when we rolled up to the campsite, all shizzle hit the fizzle (as Snoop Dogg would say!)…but in a good way. Kids were everywhere. Hundreds of them: asking for photos, playing football with us, wearing our shades, asking for ‘bics’, ‘cadeaux’ and ‘bon-bons’, laughing, smiling and some dancing. This sort of interaction was a long time coming and everybody loved every minute of it.

The littl’uns all scarpered as we prepared for dinner and it wasn’t until we were winding down from the excitement that we really noticed the heat. Mali was hot. F**king hot! The temperature at night rarely dropped below 30 and it felt even hotter now that we were in the dusty, concrete town rather than out in the open bush. The heat got to everybody and earlier on that day, one of the girls (Mindy from US) had heatstroke. Tension, tempers and temperatures were all rising and it wasn’t long til some of this was vented amongst the group. No need to dwell on it – just “keepin’ it real.” (Needless to say Lara and I kept our British reserve.)

Amidst all of this and in the unbearable heat (seriously imagine the hottest you’ve ever been) our host asked if there was anything we needed. Lara and I requested some ice and some water but nobody else seemed to hear our hosts or my calls for further requests. (Now. remember how hot it is.) 20 mins later, our man’s back and Lara and I can only do our best not to snatch the water from him and gulp the whole lot down. At this point, the cook group (who are sweating hard in the heat, and includes Mindy – the girl who had had heatstroke earlier) realise what is on offer and put in their own H2O request in amongst parched gasps (I should point out that we did offer to share…I think). The poor guys suffered another half an hour as they waited for our host to return  with three bottles of water but when he showed up they weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. “Trois eaux” had been mistaken for “trois oeufs”. A small sandwich bag with three hard-boiled eggs in just wasn’t what they’d been hoping for.

This mishap (sort of) helped to make light of the situation and things soon simmered down before we headed to bed – but as said, the hot concrete made the tent temperature impossibly stifling: Come 2am, when we’d given up hope of any sleep, I thought of a trick my mate taught me a few years ago in Madrid in the middle of summer: soak your sheet in water and it will keep you cool long enough for you to fall asleep but be bone dry in the morning. This we did (I had to lower our sheet down a 10 metre well in a bucket) and Lara and I finally got some kip.

The next day we moved on to a place called ‘Kayes’ and after being screwed around by the campsites we’d hoped to use, we busted out to the outskirts of town to an old fort (Felou I think the area was called) which we pitched up next to for two days.

River Senegal as it runs through Kayes

I don’t know enough about this place and its history (even though we were told by a local guide) but I do know the backdrop was stunning – the sun set over the hills as the locals washed and bathed in the River Senegal that ran through them.

View from our tent at the fort

The river meant that we finally had somewhere to wash and bathe despite the scaremongering about crocs and potential ‘Bilharzia’ (I have to admit, I played a part in that just to get a reaction!)

Lara doesn't fall for the scaremongering down by the river at sunset

The first night at the fort was our second confrontation with a camel spider. The girls (Lara and Sonya) were on cook group when I thought I saw a rat at the base of a tree near where they were cooking. The leaves were rustling big time! I got the torch out and had a poke only to see that the fastest camel spider in the world had got himself a rogue chunk of meat from our scraps and was heading back up the tree to his home. I wasn’t going to argue with him…although had Yoichi been here, I’m sure he wouldn’t have been happy about leftover food going to somebody or something other than him.

The second day at the fort was one that split the group: we had two choices – to head straight to Bamako (capital) via an easy route, or try something new and possibly adventurous. Although the adventurous (bumpy and potentially uncomfortable) route was favoured, it wasn’t fair to make people do what they didn’t want to so we went for the option behind Secret Door Number 3 and took the easy route, but preceded by a day of chilling at a waterfall…and man, what a day it was!

From recollection, we got to the fall at about mid-day and just had a blast jumping into the river off the rocks; letting the current take us downstream then getting out and letting it do it again; going under the fall and chilling in the rockpools where the fish would nibble at our legs and feet. The latter soon turned into full-scale, make-shift fishing: we caught a few of the little fellas using a stick with a mozzy net attached to one end and Berber (the passenger formerly known as Dave aka Mark from Dewsbury) was brave enough to try and grill one up (I might add, without gutting it, to his later disgust).

Pulling up next to the spot at the waterfall

Malian rocks: hot under foot, but good for jumping off into rivers.

This moron (me) had burnt his bald heed pretty badly at the waterfall (that's a sieve drying up in my lap by the way)

Kayelene and Squirt having a dip

Jus' chillin'

We finally got turfed out form the falls at about 6pm and headed back for our last night at the fort and set off for Bamako via the easy route the next day – Mindy was still feeling a little jaded from the heat over the last few days so she checked in at a local hotel to unwind with the aim of catching up with us in Bamako. Before leaving the fort, we filled up the jerricans (spelling? that's how Ewan and Charley spelt it in their book) from the village pump.

Nobody took my advice: "If you use your left hand it feels like somebody else is doing all the work for you."

We pushed on to Bamako with a couple of nights’ camping in the bush, complete with one or two angry camel spiders…one of which was under the “family’s” (i.e. Neal, Karen and Victoria aka Squirt) tent when they went to pack up one morning. Neal (The Nutty Professor) threw stones at it to send it on its way and it duly obliged, but with its pincers raised and looking for the nearest shelter. Another tent.

Our f**king tent.

Luckily, I was half-way through packing up our stuff and all I can say is that there’s now a camel spider waiting for me under the Great Tent in the Sky and that Lara’s roll mat has never seen so much action! (Ahem!)

Ready to attack!

RIP Little (big) guy

I’ve waffled on too much so I’ll write about Bamako and The Dogon in our next entry…