Bamako to Ouagadougou (part 1) – The Harmattan and Hungry

It’s been so long since the last proper update I hardly know what to write about. I guess the simplest thing is to start from where I left off…. and that was in Bamako having recovered from the previous weeks’ exertions paddling down the Niger river. That was over six weeks ago.

Bike Ride from Bamako to Djenne

It took three days to cycle from Bamako to Segou. Bamako was awful. Segou was surprisingly pleasant. I could have stayed much longer at the Hotel Djoliba (I liked it even more since it had the same name as our boat) in Segou, but I had to get to Djenne where I would be meeting a friend who was coming to visit Mali (and me, I think!).

Motorbike and cycle lanes

Bamako is a busy place – well, the roads are busy. Motorbikes everywhere. I was not sad to be leaving Bamako. Slowly the freedom of life on the road began to flow through my veins as I left the clogged arteries of Mali’s capital behind.

First I cycled across a bridge spanning the Niger river – it’s much wider here than any section we paddled. Fortunately cycling across took significantly less time than paddling would have. I got stuck behind a local on a bike which slowed progress slightly. I couldn’t really get angry at his sedate pace – he was struggling with a precariously balanced stack of diet coke crates strapped to his rear rack that made my load look puny. Next time I ask for a drink at a bar here and I’m informed they are out of stock I shall remember that guy on the bike, assume the drinks are on their way albeit slowly, shrug my shoulders and order something else.

Bike Lanes. Yes it’s true, Bamako has bike lanes. As I crossed the river out of the town centre and spied my first bike lane, I couldn’t quite believe it. I might just make it out of Bamako in one piece I surmised – I had become somewhat wary of Malian motorcyclists, having been hit (well, scraped on the arm) by one during my first days in Mali. I should have known better. Bike lanes they were. And bike lanes they were used as. Motorbikes are bikes you see -well they are in Mali. So while the cars had plenty of space to cruise along at top speed on the main highway, I had to try my luck with the hundreds of Malians on motorbikes dodging and weaving, overtaking and suddenly braking, stopping and starting in the narrow bike lane. In Europe, the purpose of bike lanes is to improve the safety for cyclists. In Mali, I’ve no idea what they are there for. It was probably some European funded scheme that the Malians have adopted, altered and made ‘African’.

The bike lane ended when I took the turning for the main road to Segou. Fortunately, as a preferable substitute, a hard shoulder appeared. ‘Hard shoulder’ is a misnomer. More of a gravelly strip alongside the highway. The slippery, gravelly strip which sometimes turns to a slippery, sandy strip is not a favoured surface for motorcyclists. I could therefore take evasive action from the road to avoid a close shave with a decrepit truck or speeding bus, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t inadvertently collide with another motorised vehicle.

Boredom sets in

We cycled hard for the three days from Bamako to Segou. I should have enjoyed it – the fast, hard riding, pushing myself physically I usually thrive one. I didn’t. My only explanation is that a boredom had set in. Bored with cycling. Dismissive of my surroundings. Numb. Tired. It was about eight months now that I had been on the road since leaving England and I was bored. There was not much I could do however but keep on pedalling. I knew my friend was coming to visit and soon enough I’d be putting the bike to one side. A familiar face (yes I was still travelling with Lars, but his was the only familiar face , albeit with changing facial hair, of the last four months) and a change to more sedate travel by public transport might just be what I needed. Just a few more days…

A few days rest in Segou, which I could have happily turned into a few weeks rest, was perfectly timed. We managed to tear ourselves away from the comfy bed, tasty food and 24 hour wi-fi with just enough time to get to Djenne in time to meet my friend at the pre-arranged time. My friend, known to me as ‘Wotto’ (or Catherine if you prefer proper first-names), and the word ‘pre-arranged’ are mutually exclusive, incompatible. I should have known better! I should have known she’d never make it on the day I’d suggested. Then again, I only just made it.

Harmattan

Most of what I remember of the four days cycling from Segou to Djenne was the headwind. At this time of year, in this part of the world, a wind blows from the Sahara towards the Gulf of Guinea – the Harmattan. The Harmattan carries sand and dust particles through the air, obscuring views. On occasions, when it’s particularly strong, the wind can carry these particles all the way to north America. The Harmattan blows in a northeasterly direction – directly into the faces of the cycle-tourer pedalling from Segou to Djenne. Great.

I also remember, very clearly, seeing a sign saying, ‘Ici, biere fraiche’. The thought of cold beer was so appealing. But beer when cycling is not a good combination and I know by now not to mix the two. But if you can get cold beer, you can also get cold coke. With that thought, we pulled over, ordered soft drinks and quietly sipped them in the shade of some birch trees with the leaves gently rustling in the breeze, looked upon silently by a small crowd of children. Beer being advertised in a village so small is unusual. Unusual, that is, if it wasn’t for the catholic church nearby – this area is predominantly Christian, not Muslim which is the dominant religion in Mali and a religion which forbids the consumption of alcohol and therefore beer.

Progress against the Harmattan wind was slow and hard work.. If it wasn’t for my cycle computer, progress would have been hard to determine. There were of course road markers – small white-painted concrete pillars with red tops – as is common on all the major roads ever since the Western Sahara (although I’ve not been cycling on many of the major roads). The confusion with these markers is obvious – they are blank. Freshly painted, but with no distances marked. So yes, you could tell you were making progress, but how much progress only the cycle computer could tell. Just another of Mali’s little mysteries.

Hungry

Half-way between Segou and Djenne is the town of San. San is about as appealing as Bamako. It didn’t help that we arrived in San on a Friday lunchtime. San is predominantly Muslim. It being Friday lunchtime in a Muslim town most locals were busy praying. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Muslims; on the contrary, Muslims are the generally the kindest, most generous people I have met on this trip. The problem is trying to find one when calls to prayer from the elevated loudspeakers of the mosque are made at Friday lunchtime, which is just the time that you want some food. Shops are shut, restaurants aren’t serving food, street stalls and markets are eerily devoid of vendors. It doesn’t matter how much you shout out that you are hungry – prayer first, food second. The less devout Muslims, who rarely go near let alone enter a mosque, use Friday’s call to prayer as an excuse to have a break. No kitkats needed. Just find a seat, lean back and watch the world go by. Don’t even bother asking someone in this laissez-faire attitude for anything – It’s Friday; it’s lunchtime; and if those in the mosque are taking a break (apparently they’re praying) then so shall I. They don’t say as much, but that’s what their eyes tell you.

As you may be able to tell from my little rant – my patience wanes when I’m hungry. Feeling down-hearted (and still hungry) at having only found one small patisserie to buy food – over-priced, stale pain au raisins at that – I was surprised when we came across a restaurant, open and serving food, on the outskirts of town. This truck-stop cafe was even more unusual in that it had a number of choices of main dish. Not just rice and sauce, but spaghetti or chicken or meat as well. Surprised and stupefied by the selection, I ordered rice and sauce. Even more surprising was when the waiter brought to us a kettle and bowl for washing our hands – this ritual of washing hands before eating I had not observed since Morocco and was to be common throughout my travels in Mali. Unusually, this ritual is a sign that you will be eating with your (right) hand, but this being a restaurant outside the bus and truck stop I suppose they were used to the occasional foreigner and provided a spoon for eating with.

Eventually, on the fourth day after leaving Segou, we arrived at the Djenne carrefour – the junction to the road, that after 29km and having crossed the Bani river you will arrive in Djenne. The Djenne carrefour consists of little more than the juction and a few wooden shacks with women selling cold drinks. We had a cold drink. And then enquired if we could get a lift to Djenne in one of the bush-taxis. Sure. For a reasonable price too. Great. So, when will the bush-taxi leave? Ah, in an hour. When you are told that a taxi will leave in an hour, that means it might leave in two hours. First the taxi will wait for the bus from Bamako to arrive, which will always be late. Then the taxi has to be filled with people, which also takes time. Only when the bush-taxi is brimming with people, arms and legs splayed in every direction, every crevice jammed with belongings and the roof piled high with luggage, will the bush-taxi consider leaving. With this knowledge of taxi timetables, we decided we may as well cycle the rest of the way to Djenne.

We beat the bush-taxi by several hours.

We beat Wotto by a day.

One Response to “ Bamako to Ouagadougou (part 1) – The Harmattan and Hungry ”

  1. Helen,
    Great now I know you are in Africa. So what’s six weeks or an hour? Seriously I now know you are making progress and there is more joy in your writing. Thanks for taking the time to bring us up to date. May all that’s good be with you.
    Your follower Clive.

Leave a Reply