Unluckily for us, the FCO was advising against travel to two of Mali’s highlights (the Dogon cliffs and Djenne’s Grande Mosquee), so we adapted our original plan. Since taking the main (and well paved) road linking Kayes to Bamako was now out of the question, we had to take a secondary road to the capital, resulting in some long truck drive days and plenty of bush camping in the Mali countryside. Once we reached Bamako, we rejoiced at spending a few nights at the wonderful campsite “The Sleeping Camel”, which was run by ex-overlanders who knew exactly what their clientele was looking for (cold swimming pool, cold beers on a tab, burgers and fries, free wifi and plenty of electrical outlets to recharge our gear). It was pure bliss to recharge our batteries (literally and figuratively) in Bamako.
16 Dec: Today we crossed the border from Senegal to Mali at the border town of Kidira. Locals were grilling roasted lamb and we bought a bag of lamb bits for 1200 CFA (delicious) which was split three ways. Since we weren’t satiated, we bought another bag for 1000 CFA and definitely got our meat fill. The next two cook groups had to do their shopping in the town of Kayes, and we helped fill the jerry cans with water at a nearby Shell gas station before wandering around town for about thirty minutes to explore on our own. Kayes has the dubious honor of being Africa’s hottest town but we found the heat manageable. The river front was quite interesting, and locals were dunking their goats into the river for a scrub down. The cook groups had been given an hour to shop, but they both struggled to find sufficient vegetables and went well over their time limit as they scrounged about for their supplies. Due to the FCO advisory, we were unable to take the main paved road from Kayes to Bamako, and had to follow the old road from Kayes to Bafoulabe and Kita, following the railway line. Shortly after leaving Kayes, we finally hit some rough road, and had a dusty ride to our bushcamp about 30 KM from the border. Robby was responsible for the border crossing truck party starting early when he broke out his bottle of Senegal rum and started pressuring everyone to take a swig. He kept telling George Lambert how much he loved him (a sure sign the rum was taking effect) and the entire truck was tipsy by 6 pm. Norma’s cook group prepared a lentil rice dinner and after playing Katherine’s IPOD hall of shame playlist, Robby was super drunk by 8 pm, proclaiming his desire to jump over the campfire naked. Of course, he was drug off to the tent. At 1 am, tent crashers (aka Ruthie, the Hoff, Goodie, Dowelly, and Luke) were plotting a tent raid, but Becky preempted them with a tent raid of her own. Dowelly ended up stepping in Robby’s puke as he attempted to enter our tent and that put an immediate halt to our night’s festivities.
17 Dec: Today was a long day. Everyone was feeling the effects of the alcohol the night before, and the hard partying claimed another 4 victims (Luke, Katherine, Hoff and Robby who earned the new nickname of “Woodchuck”). We drove past massive baobab trees and saw numerous iridescent blue kingfishers and hornbills along the way. The interesting tidbit about the baobab trees was that they were used as a prison as the locals hallowed out the interior and secured the opening with a locked door. We covered 109 KM in the morning (4 hours of driving), and Tim clocked us having traveled an additional 80 KM in the afternoon, making slow but sure progress. Our truck, Nala, did have to take a river crossing which was a cool experience with the good views and the operators trying to extort a ridiculous river passage crossing fee from Chris. The Malians are super friendly, waving, smiling and cheering as our truck passed by. We saw lots of traditional mud built, thatched roof dwellings in makeshift villages along the way, and the herdsmen guiding their goats or cows made for interesting window watching. Since we were making good time, Chris ended up pulling off at a nearby lake so that we could cool down and wash the dirt off. The water felt great and it was awesome to dunk in and rub the dirt off our skin. However, after we got back on the truck, Norma told us that bilharzia is prevalent in the Mali rivers as are hippopotamuses! Bilharzia is a particularly nasty disease as tiny flukes which live in fresh water snails enter human skin to multiply into their bloodstream. Dowelly got Becky started on a British TV show, The Inbetweeners, which Matt let us watch on his IPOD. The biggest event for the day was that the future cookgroups (from Accra to Capetown) got sorted out. Becky’s group was Lucky and Sara, Robby got Dowelly and the Hoff, and Luke snagged Bree and Kendra.
18 Dec: After breakfast, Chris kicked us off the truck so that he could fix another spring issue, so a group of us took advantage of the time to squeeze in a quick ab workout. Matt joined us for the first time, and the core group of MJ, Bree, Dowelly, Mike, and Luke were present. Becky was on cook group duty and was supposed to shop in Kita, but as the day progressed, it became obvious that Kita was still a long ways off, so Nancy told us that we would have to cook off of the truck’s ingredients. To fill the afternoon void, Becky and Dowelly watched all of season 1 of “The Inbetweeners”, laughing all the way. We stopped at the village of Tambaga to fill up the jerry cans with water, and the friendly children loved posing for photos. We were thrilled to finally see some tarmac, and our bushcamp was made shortly thereafter, just a short drive away from Kita. Becky, Tim and Ruth made a mushroom based, tuna and corn pasta which surprisingly came out pretty good, topped off with a custard and stale bread dessert which was yummy with a squeeze of lemon (thanks Tim!). So overall, her group got off easy for dinner again, for the second week in a row. Since we had a fairly early morning, everyone retired to their tents by 9 pm.
19 Dec: Becky’s group made hot oatmeal (the Brits call it “porridge”) served with canned peaches and syrup. After breakfast, we pulled into the sleepy village of Kita for cook group shopping, and walked around exploring the marketplace. The meat section looked amazing and we were happy to hear that Goodies group bought 3 KG of meat for spaghetti Bolognese tonight! Becky posed with some of the local kids for a photo and loved the cute little girls who held her hands as they crossed the street together. After taking off from Kita, the road towards Bamako was fantastic and we made excellent time, pulling into the campsite “The Sleeping Camel” before lunchtime. After setting up our tents, Becky’s group prepared lettuce (thanks Nancy!), tomatoes, and cucumbers and salami (yum) along with delicious fresh bread for one of the most epic lunches. Perhaps it was the culmination of a week’s worth of bush camping, but everyone chowed down and enjoyed lunch. After lunch, it was time for laundry, internet and showers in that order. The swimming pool beckoned and whirlpools were created, with everyone enjoying the cool down until the relentless mosquitoes forced us to seek cover. Dinner did not disappoint, and Nancy told us that we had to hang around the campsite tomorrow morning to sort out our Burkina Faso visas, but afterwards, we could have the rest of the day free to explore Bamako. After dinner, we hung out in the bar area getting caught up on trip notes and checking email.
20 Dec: We didn’t sleep well during the night due to some bird or monkey making loud noises all night long. Breakfast at 8 am was a simple affair, with toast and tea. Nancy got our paperwork for Burkina Faso visas sorted out and helped us all fill it out before setting us free for the day. A group of us (Lucky, Bree, MJ, Goodie, Dowelly and Luke) were keen to check out the fetish market so we set out from the campsite across the bridge of Pont des Martyrs and headed down Blvd du Peuple’s massive street market (it seemed to go on endlessly). The fetish market was past the Maison des Artisans on the right hand side of the road and it was a sad section of booths containing dried and shriveled up monkey heads, snakes, crocodiles, hyena heads, lizards, and various other oddities. We snuck a brief peak at the Maison des Artisans souvenir section but the relentless touts drove us away. Coupled with the crippling heat sapping our energy, we decided to seek refuge at a nearby patisserie where we had an OK lunch. On the walk back to the campsite, we took a slight detour down Rue 311 to check out two restaurants that had been hyped up in our guidebooks, a Tex Mex restaurant called Appaloosa and a Thai restaurant called Soukhothai. However, none of us were keen on the price range (5000 CFA and upwards) and we couldn’t shake two young boys who instantly latched on to us all the way back across the river to our campsite! The swimming pool was a welcome sight and we all instantly climbed in, enjoying the refreshingly cold water for a bit. By word of mouth, we learned that there was a decent patisserie on our side of the river only a short walk away from the campsite, as well as the best Bamako supermarket. The rest of our afternoon was spent on the internet, while a Malian band put on a good drum performance for us in the campsite garden, with Norma dancing and Frans joining the band. It was a low key night since none of us had slept well the night before (we made sure to bring the earplugs!).
21 Dec: Today was a relaxing day! We had nothing on our agenda except some swimming pool time, a shower, some shopping and finding food. The shopping was accomplished quite easily with Goodie and MJ as we headed to the nearby supermarket where we were able to get all of our supplies (bottle of rum, bug juice, xmas wrapping paper, and snacks) followed by lunch at the Patisserie Amandine Snack Bar. The cheeseburger was tasty and fulfilling at 2300 CFA. Goodie had ordered a chicken sandwich but had to send it back as the meat was underdone. We ordered a chocolate pastry to go (our afternoon snack), and headed back to the campsite to attempt a skype call back home to talk to Fran. We were partially successful and managed to talk briefly before the internet connection dropped out. The swimming pool was inviting so we lounged about in it for almost two hours before hopping into the indoor shower (hot water, yes!) and covering up before the dusk mosquito invasion. Dowelly wanted to back up his photos which we did before heading back out to the Patisserie for dinner with Ruthie, Chris, Goodie, MJ, Lucky, and Luke. Our dinner was fantastic, with super sized calzones (yum), 4 cheese pizza, spaghetti carbonara, fries, chicken and chips. We ate like pigs, gluttony and all as we got our carb fill before sauntering back to the campsite. After trying unsuccessfully to skype Frances again, we played a few drinking games in the back of the truck before calling it a night. Our tent was infested with mosquitoes so it made for an unpleasant night as we tried to avoid getting bitten.
22 Dec: Revenge against the blood bloated mosquitoes ensued this morning as they couldn’t escape the confines of our tent without getting squashed. Lucky was upset with last nights late night partiers (they were up talking in the truck till 4 am) so he gave them a ton of grief. Robby had to do cook group shopping so immediately after breakfast (and tearing down our tent), his group headed out. He returned with food stocks in hand, as well as some cheap (and delicious) street meat (100 CFA for a lamb kebab). Poor Matt was suffering terribly with bubble guts, and he kept running to and from the bathroom, trying to get some relief. We ordered the last two hamburgers and fries (ok at 4000 CFA each) from the Sleeping Camel, thus saving us a hot trip to the patisserie. Our plan for today was to leave at 1 pm (if the Ghana visas come through, fingers crossed) so we can head out towards our bush camp site for Christmas, which is only 3 days away! Our frozen piggy was delivered and stuffed into the cooler (yay!) so looks like our spit roasted piggy is still on tap for Christmas day. Good news as the visas came through like a charm, so we were off straight away, stopping at a gas station to refuel before setting out towards the border with Burkina Faso. The road was excellent so we made good time, stopping to bush camp at a decent hour. Robby’s group made sausage fried rice which was good, and everyone called it an early night. Bad news for us as Becky was setting up the tent, the zipper finally gave out again and refused to zip correctly. So the mosquito net had to be dug out and erected, much to our dismay. At least it was a mossie free night.
23 Dec: After a simple breakfast of toast, we found out that both Luke and Dowelly were feeling a bit off, but at least Matt was feeling better. The zipper on our tent worsened, and our hopes of getting it fixed again were pretty much shot. We packed up and headed towards the border, stopping for a tuna fish sandwich enroute.