Mali - Segou and the Niger

Trip Start Sep 11, 2005
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Trip End Ongoing


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Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Having spent so much time in Bamako, a few days in the bush were in order. So, after a night in Segou at the horrible Office du Niger campsite (sleeping on the streets really is preferable) we set off on a circuit to take a look at some of the less populated parts of the river Niger's inland delta. Our intention being to return to Segou for the "Festival sur la Niger" music festival.

We spent a leisurely week driving some beautiful back roads/tracks along the northern bank of the Niger between Markala/Massina/Ouro-Modi and Mopti, before briefly hitting the main tarmaced road down to Djenne, then back on tracks again to Segou. The country here is stunning, a constant variation between thick bush, open scrubland dotted with hundreds of small pillars of baked mud looking eerily like Medusas mushrooms, small villages built on each slight rise in the ground, each with it's own mud built mosque, and the ever present River Niger meandering alongside with its constant traffic of pirogues and pinasses transporting goods and people to the various markets along the way.
Even with the GPS we managed to lose the route a few times, although never for too long, with the possible exception of Diafarabé. After driving around in ever increasing circles for the best part of an hour searching for what should have been an obvious track alongside the river, we spotted a couple of vehicles ford a tributary river in the opposite direction, and decided we had little to lose by doing the same and trying to pick up a track on the other side. After confirming the water wasn't too deep, and making some basic preparations to Bronwen, I duly took to the river at what I thought was a sufficiently slow speed to make it safely across. Claire obviously had a better view of the huge wave I was creating as she was positioned on the opposite bank taking photos. Not surprisingly (having since studied aforementioned pictures and the irrefutable evidence they present of my driving erring a little too much towards the gung ho) we (Bronwen and I) ground to a heart stopping and very wet halt in the dead centre of the river. Claire was less than impressed. Bronwen was rather wet. I felt slightly more than foolish. After confirming it wasn't tidal water (about1400 kms from the sea!) and trying to look in control for a while, our relief knew no bounds when Bronwen miraculously restarted with a couple of turns of the starting handle (which I shall never ever laugh at again as long as I live, and a very worthwhile item if you're planning a similar trip in an old Land Rover!) and we drove (very slowly) to the bank. Huge sighs of relief all round.
I have no possible explanation for what happened next. As Claire had not unreasonably stopped taking photographs when I got stuck, I reversed back into the river to remedy the situation. No further comment required.
Half an hour later, with the help an elderly man, the high-lift jack, and both sand ladders we finally got Bronwen out of the soft sand and back to dry land. Twelve hours later the electrics dried out sufficiently to drive away. Maybe in a week or so my embarrassment will subside a little and Claire will stop reminding me about it! Lessons well learned for next time.

We subsequently managed three more fordings without incident, and even a couple more ferry crossings without me releasing the handbrake just to see whether Bronwen floating in the Niger makes a good picture or not. Sped through Mopti, (We hadn't actually planned on going that far but our 1:4 000 000 map showed a bridge over the Niger which obviously did not exist as we got closer) Then got to Djenne, home of the famous grand mud mosque and the surrounding mud built town, before heading back to Segou. We met several strange and interesting people along the way, but by far and away the one who provoked the most extreme range of emotions in the shortest timeframe was the chap who woke us early one morning in the middle of the bush. After his arrival with friend I rushed to dress and jumped outside to offer my polite and respectful greetings (as is the form when in someones elses back yard). I was confronted by an elderly but very burly gentlemen in robes, Palestinian red chequered head scarf and designer shades, sporting a very large rifle of some description. He didn't speak much at first, but anyway my attention was more firmly glued on the very fetching collection of Bin Laden/Twin Towers stickers and Arabic script adorning the moped. After we had held hands for 5 minutes or so (again, this is normal in these situations, believe me) and walked around Bronwen several times he transferred his attention to Claire. It took a while to work out that his constant miming of womens breasts, pointing at Claire, and making sucking noises while pointing to his own mouth weren't a request to succour a lonely old (conspicuously armed) man, but an enquiry into the whereabouts of the baby that he assumed we had secreted somewhere. Questions (sort of) answered he remounted moped with his silent passenger and phutted off into the trees, waving as he went. We moved on.

The festival sur le Niger was excellent. The focus was set on a stage on the banks of the river, with traditional dancing, and loads of the big names of Malian music over 3 days Highlights included Nampé Sadio, Habib Koité, Bassékou Kouyaté, (who we had seen before playing at a restaurant in Bamako),the fantastic dancers with Baba Salah (despite one of them breaking her belt and having to hold her trousers up, she was still able to "shake her booty"!) and the star turn with Amadou and Mariam, Tiken Jah Fakoly. We have both got into Tiken Jah since getting a tape of his Malian Reggae.
It was well worth the 50 euro ticket, and, speaking to people who had been to the extortionately priced and remote "Festival au Desert" last month near Timbuktu, this was the better option.

The end of the festival marked the end of our month in Mali. We've really enjoyed it, despite only scratching the surface and we've now reached Bobo-Dioulasso (Bobo for short) in Burkina Faso where we'll spend a couple of weeks.
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