Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Trekking Through Mali

I just returned from an incredible vacation, trekking through the Dogon country in southern Mali. The views were amazing from the ground looking up at the massive mesas as were the views from the cliff edges looking out and beyond. Just as incredible were the ancient Telem mud and stone houses built in the cliffs during the 11th century. It was ridiculously hot hiking but on the plus side it wasn't tourist season so we hardly saw any foreigners at all.

I ended up traveling with a German volunteer who lives and works in the Dosso region of Niger. He is fluent in French so that definitely helped out along the way. I've traveled in West Africa a bit so my experience helped when bargaining or trying to catch rides. We took a bus from Niamey to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso since we could not take the direct route from Niger to Mali for security reasons (four foreigners were just kidnapped near the Niger-Mali border a couple of months ago). We were well on our way and only a few hours shy of Burkina's capital when our bus rear-ended another big bus. Luckily no one was hurt but the buses were pretty smashed up, especially the front end of ours. Thankfully another bus came by which had some empty seats so we were able to hop on and catch a ride to Ouaga.

We spent only a couple of days in Ouaga just hanging out. My buddy Michael met up with some other Germans while I hung out with some Burkina PCVs. We were able to check out a soccer match- Abidjan vs. Ouagadougou- which turned out to be a really competitive game and fun to watch.

On day 3 we woke up way too early and caught a 6am bus north to the city of Ouayigouya in northern Burkina. We hung out there for a while, waiting for a bush taxi to fill up then finally took off, heading north towards Koro, a village just over the border in Mali. It was a rough bush taxi ride for many reasons- first of all we were on a bench seat facing another bench seat so our legs were in between the other mens' legs and vice versa (just awkward and uncomfortable); secondly we were driving on a red dirt road with the windows open so you can imagine what we looked like after 6 hours of red dust hitting us in the face (looked like a bad tan, but worse). About half way there we stopped in a small road-side village because of a flat tire. After waiting for about 30 minutes, Michael and I decided to find the local bar. Luckily it was just down the road and we spent the remainder of our time there drinking mildly cold Brakina beers. We finally made it to Koro just before sunset so we ended up staying at an encampment there, just pitching our tents for the night.

The next morning we got up and out early, catching a better bush taxi on a nicer road to the town of Bankass, one of the starting points for Dogon country trips. Since it was market day we checked that out for a while, buying some cool turbans and getting some local food for lunch. Luckily we got hooked up with a really cool guide, Moumouni, who spoke English as well as French. The first thing he told us was that the trip wasn't about the money for him but for us to enjoy ourselves. Amazing. That afternoon once it cooled down a bit we took a bush taxi the 10km to the base of the escarpment, a massive mesa which stretches 200km to the northeast. We took a small hike and ended in the village of Teli where we would spend the night. That evening before dark we hiked up the cliff face and checked out the ancient Telem houses, said to have been inhabited by pygmies before the Dogon people came and drove the Telem out. It was amazing how these houses have been preserved for so many centuries, not only because the villagers protect the area, but also because the huts are sheilded from the elements.

We spent the next day hiking at the base of the mesa, staying the night at Moumouni's village, Ende. Not only were we able to check out some more Telem dwellings but late in the afternoon we hiked to the top of the mesa and checked out the view as the sun set behind us. Incredible.

Our 3rd day was spent hiking down at the base of the mesa then in the afternoon we again trekked to the top and ended up staying at a village built on top of the mesa, right on the cliff edge. The views both at sunset and sunrise were indescribable.

Our 4th day was spent trekking around the top and that night we ended up at another mesa-top village at a really small encampment owned by a man named Abraham. He was a great guy and very benevolent. After an amazing dinner he played us a tune on his handmade 2-string "banjo" made with a 5-liter tin and stick. He also did a skit for us including some traditional Dogon dancing and singing. Definitely one of my favorite spots of the trip.

Our last day left us in Dourou, a larger village, also on the top of the mesa. We stayed at a really nice encampment called the Oasis. Since it was market day we were able to stroll through and check it out. In the afternoon we climbed down the mesa and checked out a valley which was first covered in small sand dunes and as we decended we came upon a fertile valley with gardens of tobacco, eggplant, onion and lettuce along with massive mango trees.

The trip back was long and pretty uneventful. I ended up taking one bus for 11 hours and then making it to the bus station at 2am, stayed there until 7am for the second bus to leave, then another 10 hours back to Niamey. The second bus was awful since there were no windows that opened, only the tiny cracks for the emergency exits in the ceiling. On top of that many people bought fried fish to eat on the bus and one woman had a bucket of raw fish that she was bringing to Niger. The smell, well you get the picture. Ahh, gotta love traveling in Africa.

We were able to see the process for weaving the unique cotton blankets then dying them with indigo, the men carving the traditional Dogon masks, and men making traditional beaded necklaces. At each encampment we stayed on the roofs of the traditional Dogon rock huts, climbing hand-carved ladders to reach the top and then waking up each morning to catch the sunrise.

It was an amazing trip overall. Of all of the countries I've visited in West Africa, Dogon country in Mali was my favorite all around. Not only were the views amazing, but the Dogon people have a rich culture and the fact that they have preserved the ancient ruins was amazing.


Jeremy Kelley said...

Makes me jealous to hear all that, wish I had more vacation time. Glad you enjoyed the trip....

JC said...

Dear James:
This is totally awesome. I certainly hope that you will publish your "memoirs" when you come back in National Geographic or a similar publication.
Even though I don't get to write to youy as often as I promised, I have kept in touch with Your Mom an thus checking on your progress. God Bless.