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Mali 12th - 24th March 2008

Mauritania into Mali
12th - 24th March

We left Nouakchott after two days of working on the laptop and getting our diary entry and photos to you all. This was accomplished sitting in the lobby of the hotel using their wifi. There are never any objections from the staff and actually they seem to like having foreigners being seen in their lobby, itís good advertising for them! From our point of view, it doesnít cost us anything and itís certainly a lot easier than going to a cyber cafe.

From Nouakchott we went in an easterly direction back into the Sahara along a very straight and narrow road. The landscape stretched for miles around us, with different shades and colours of sand dotted with a Broom like bush and scrubby trees. This was quite different from anything we had already seen. The villages too were closer together and we had to share the road with camels, donkeys and goats; often they would run out in front of us, making driving a dangerous business. The mid afternoon temperatures were now reaching 40 degrees plus, but it was a very dry heat and that made it just about bearable. We have been told it will be even hotter in Mali. Oh lord!!

Although we were eventually heading for Mali, we made a detour, turning NE to visit Tidjika, a small town with some historical interest. It was another 300 year old caravan stop but there was very little left of the old town apart from the remains of a few houses, some of which had very pretty little decorative triangular niches in what remained of their walls. After just one night in Tidjika, we left early on the morning of the 14th March, and returned the way we had come; however this time after about two hours driving, we turned off the road and drove along a sandy piste to go crocodile hunting. Yes, real crocs in the middle of the Sahara desert! Amazingly these small crocodiles, reminders of a wetter period some thousands of years ago, have survived in a few locations in the Sahara.

Initially the piste took us along a lovely wooded valley. Although the trees were mostly acacia with enormous thorns, their age and density made them a pleasant and a very rare sight for Mauritania. The valley petered out after a km or so and we entered a wide sandy wadi. Reading through the Rough Guide we were under the impression that our route along this wadi would be short and easy. It was neither! We became increasingly concerned about the route and stopped to ask a group of very excitable and amusing Mauritanians the way. It was right here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that we had an amazing stroke of luck. Quite out of the blue another 4x4 drew up behind us; the vehicle belonged to a young Slovenian couple who, with their guide, were also croc hunting. We certainly needed no second invitation to follow on behind them! We drove on in a dusty convoy for at least an hour before we reached a point where we could go no further in the vehicles. We then had to walk some distance before we came a series of small pools; here a lot of young boys were fishing and swimming (mad fools!), making plenty of noise about it and, oh dear, for sure must have been frightening all the crocs away.

The sun by now was really beating down on us and it was at this point that Liz, knowing her limitations, decided to go no further. Enough was enough! So she sat quietly in the shade, paddling her feet in the refreshingly cool water of a small pool, while the remainder of the group then set off to find a quieter,more remote pool with a better chance of spotting a crocodile. As the guide spoke neither French nor English and was very unsure of the route, it was very much a case of the blind leading the blind! Nobody knew where they were going or how long their trek was going to take. Without going into the story any further, they returned a good three hours later absolutely bushed, Peter especially, who in the 40 degree plus heat had become badly dehydrated. Although the worse for wear to say the least, all was not lost - thank goodness! A few crocs had been seen, some just close enough to be able to photograph them. Liz on the other hand had a bit of a fright when the pool of water she was paddling her feet in became occupied by an advancing crocodile. In a state of panic she hurriedly removed her feet from the water and promptly dropped the camera, fortunately not in the water! All this movement frightened the beast away and sadly Liz missed what could have been a good photo. What a day, but we all survived!!

The best part of it all was meeting the Slovenian couple, Ana and Mat, who were just delightful and, having been to Mali, were on their way home. This was a working holiday for Mat who was a professional photographer of some distinction, having won the Royal Geographic Society Photographer of the Year award in 2002 and 2003.His aim was to visit Africa, India and possibly Tibet and China to build up his portfolio for a forthcoming series of exhibitions in Europe. We bush camped together and spent a really lovely evening sitting and chatting under the stars, and they kindly opened a bottle of red wine which they had been saving for a special occasion. How very sweet of them and what a treat. It was our first late night to bed since we had left home! We were sorry to bid them farewell the following morning and wish them well.

Continuing East towards Mali, on 15th March we stayed in Kiffa, a small desert town, camping at an Auberge on the outskirts. Three French couples arrived a short while after us and, with some excitement, the staff kicked into work mode. The Mauritanian tourist season had ended abruptly with the murder of a French family of four, near Kiffa, in mid December; we didnít think they had seen any tourists for some time and so were all very attentive, especially the smartly clad patron. It was oppressively hot here and we hardly knew what to do with ourselves; never before had we drunk so much water .. and not a single pee all day!!. Next to the Auberge and behind a fence was a small Koranic school where young children were learning the Koran by rote. They sang and chanted for hours holding up their wooden tablets with Arabic inscriptions on them. It was fascinating to watch, but we had to be as discrete as possible. The teacher tolerated our presence, but when he thought we were about to take a photo he covered his head, continuing the lesson all the while.

The next day we moved on to Ayoun el Atrous, the last Mauritanian town before the border. There had been a few days lull in the Harmatten wind, but now it was back with a vengeance; a fog like blanket of dust blotted out the sun, whilst the sand being blown across the road made spotting the many pot holes nigh on impossible until it was too late. Poor Boris!! The towns and villages looked so desolate, dusty and windswept, one wondered how the people could exist in such conditions,but they were always ready to wave with a big smile as we passed them by. Just before reaching Ayoun, we stopped at some rock formations sculpted into fantastic shapes by the wind and sand. We took a track that led us right in amongst them and found a beautiful spot, a little deserted oasis, for our lunch break. After which we walked to a high point which gave good views of Boris resting under a palm tree in the lovely oasis below. It was difficult leaving, especially as, on our return from our walk, we had made ourselves comfortable on our Moroccan rug alongside Boris under the palm tree.

We spent one night in Ayoun in a small air conditioned hotel. As the hotel couldnít provide supper, we went into town to find a restaurant .. we discovered that this part of Mauritania really didnít do restaurants! However, Peter had the bright idea of going to the nearby police station to ask for a meal! The police were only too happy to help, off we all marched to a narrow, dark and dingy backstreet where we were introduced to a lovely great big black Mamma. The problem was explained and the police persuaded Mamma to reopen her tiny cafe, take an order for chicken and chips and start cooking. All this was done in great good humour, with Mamma changing her colourful wraps no fewer than three times .. according to whether she was cooking, serving or providing the bill! It was the best chicken and chips we have ever had .. made even more memorable by a tin of cold petit pois, opened at the table and the contents spooned onto the plate!

We left the following day going due south, very reassuring for Liz who was worried that we were never going to get to Cape town as we always seemed to be going east and sometimes even north! Mali was only a short distance away, but just before reaching the border we stopped to take photos of herdsmen and their livestock gathered around a well, waiting in turn for their share of water. It was a truly atmospheric sight; in the middle of nowhere with dust and sand swirling around them, reminding us that water really does mean life. It was lunch time when we reached the border with hardly another vehicle around. Our passports were stamped in minutes, and the whole thing was a doddle compared with Mauritania and especially Morocco; better still we only had to part with 5 euros!

We drove ever southward with the desert slowly changing to sahel as we went. We were beginning to see real trees with leaves on them and not just thorns; such a pleasure when sitting in the shade for a picnic. Baobab trees were beginning to appear with their fat trunks and oddly shaped stumpy branches. We bush camped amongst trees and were woken the next morning, March 18th, to a wonderful, unfamiliar -but oh so African- dawn chorus. For the first time we felt we were really in Africa.

We reached Bamako, the capital of Mali, later that day and in the middle of the rush hour. What a melting pot! A stifling, chaotic, colourful, noisy, fume filled city with the extremes of poverty and disease to be seen on every street corner. We worked our way slowly towards the River Niger that bisects the city, surrounded by brand new Chinese mopeds and ancient, hand painted vans converted into minibuses with the addition of planks for seats and several holes cut in the sides to act as windows. It seemed that every square inch of roadside space was taken by someone selling something; fruit, water, phone cards, t shirts, radios, shoes, this made in China, that made in China. Africa is in hock to the Chinese! We crossed the wide and impressive river; on its banks, clothes, wraps, sheets, etc that had been washed in the river were strewn everywhere drying in the scorching sun. After another hour of hot, tiring, stop, start travel we reached the southern outskirts of Bamako and Le Cactus our riverside destination where we were to spend the next five nights camping in idyllic surroundings, chilling out.

Le Cactus, recommended to us by a French couple we had met in Morocco, was run by Canadians Joan and Andre Charette and exceeded our expectations in every way, but above all the food was out of this world! Joan was a star and went out of her way to show us around Bamako, gave us help and advice and cooked us fabulous meals. Although better known for her peppered steak Ė which was great! Ė we particularly liked her Capitaine fish dish. Capitaine is very much a Malian and in particular a Bamako speciality; it is quite a large fish, caught locally in the Niger and has a wonderful flavour, its texture is somewhat similar to Dover Sole. Andre acted as barman and we became very partial in the evenings to a glass of the locally brewed beer, Castel, a Belgian style lager. Before we left, Joan very kindly volunteered to cut our hair (we must have looked as if we needed it), and made a very good job of it too. Peterís first trim since January, Carlo! We now look very presentable.

Well here we are again in another very good hotel called ĎThe Grandí for a night. Yes Frankie, we too go grand whenever we hit the capitals, well, the grandest we can find that is, and how we just lap up the luxury!! Our next scrub down will be in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkino Faso in about ten days time, after we have finished exploring Mali. If you donít know where Ouagaí is, then get your map of Africa out!

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