I was almost arrested for taking this photograph. Of course in many countries, railways are considered strategic locations

"THE LONGEST TRAIN RIDE IN AFRICA "

This is an extract from one of my stories. It begins in September 1996 in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal in West Africa.

"Exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as not to deserve the name." Samuel Butler in (Fraser;1993; p.vii)

The story begins in Dakar, Senegal. Even though my destination was Mali, it was more feasible for me to fly into Senegal, and make the 1200 kilometre trip to Bamako by train. Or so it seemed. Let me explain.

I had been back in London for a week, after having been away five months in the Middle East and Greece. London felt like a second home to me these days. It was nice to be 'home', to be spending time with my friends, and walking through the parks and along the high streets that feel almost as familiar as anything in my own country. The 'tube', the red buses, the black cabs and the wonderful little pubs brought back so many memories. Everywhere I looked, there was a memory.

You know what city you're in when you see this many red double-decker buses

A week had passed before I knew it, and I was supposed to be planning my trip to Africa. I started to make a few phone calls. There is no Malian embassy in England, and although the French embassy used to handle applications for Malian visas, it seemed they had given that up for lent. I phoned the Malian embassy in Brussels, after being warned away from the one in Paris. She would send me the forms, she said, which I would then have to return. I should allow at least a couple of weeks turnaround and processing time. A week later, there was no sign of the forms. I couldn't afford to sit in London for another two weeks. London's an expensive place, especially if you're out drin... catching up with friends every night. I pored through my Lonely Planet, searching for alternatives. Perhaps I could get a cheap flight to Morocco, for which I don't need a visa. Then from Morocco, I could fly to Bamako, and would be issued a visa on arrival. (From countries within West Africa, you can enter Mali without a visa, but from Europe you won't be permitted to board the plane.) This was about plan 'D', and it failed because the combined cost of the two return flights would have been enough to bankrupt Christopher Skase. Plan 'E' was to try for a Senegalese visa, then get my Malian visa in Senegal and make my way to Mali overland. I visited their embassy in London that Tuesday morning. One hour and 3.90 later, I had a multiple entry visa for Senegal valid for three months. 'Bridge The World' travel agency found me the cheapest fare; 480 with a fixed return date, or 520 open return. I chose the latter for flexibility, because I know how often I change my mind.

My flight was on Thursday. I had two days.

I knew Africa was going to be different to anything I'd experienced before. It would be bigger, hotter, slower, tougher, poorer, more foreign and more frustrating. But also more challenging, more exciting and more adventurous. I guess I really didn't know what to expect. I started taking my anti-malarial medication, and endured the three vaccinations that I needed in order to bring everything up to date. The next day was spent buying dried fruits and dried vegetables, as fruit and veges are rarely available where I was heading. I had enough space left in my pack for one T-shirt and one pair of shorts. Hungover, I caught the tube to Heathrow. Heathrow to Paris. Paris to Dakar.

This maps the journey of Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer in the late 1700's. My route is marked in pink. I hoped to be a little more fortunate than ol' Mungo, who was killed on the right hand side of this map.

Dakar airport doesn't even deserve the title 'airport'. It should be 'airfield' or 'drop zone' or something. The ramshackle building on the edge of the runway, and the total lack of order or organisation to be found anywhere, are not fitting of an 'international airport'. I had heard of Dakar as being a popular holiday spot for Europeans, and I read that there's a Club Med there. I just can't imagine what Club Med guests must think when they arrive at that airport. There had been two white girls on the plane, I had seen them board in Paris. I searched for them amongst all the black faces, but no, the only white face I saw was my own, reflected in the grimy window of the terminal building. Terminal was how I felt.

The fat man insisted (in French) on knowing where I was going to stay while in Dakar. I'm sure he wasn't an official, but he was behind the counter and the shirt he was wearing had once- upon-a- time been part of some sort of uniform. So I pulled out my guide book, and pointed to somewhere in the 'Places To Stay' section; just anywhere. He scribbled something on a piece of paper and waved me on. I was going to wish that I spoke French, I just knew it!

The scene that followed is all a bit of a blur. After I had been hassled by most of the porters in the airport, I retrieved my own backpack from the luggage carousel (impressed that there was one!) and proceeded round the corner to the exit. It seemed like there were hundreds of them. Hundreds of black men, shouting and waving and beckoning and grabbing...at me! "Hey!" "Where you go?" "What you do?" "You want taxi?" "Hotel?" "Hey! Hey!" It was worse than Luxor, and this time I was on my own. Holding on to my wallet pocket, I pushed through them with my head down. I made it out into the sunlight with still several of them clinging to me, hands everywhere, shouting questions and trying to block me by standing directly in my path. I was wearing fleecy lined tracksuit pants still from that morning in London, and the air here was sweltering. All I wanted was to change my travellers' cheques and shed my long pants. But the touts were giving me no peace, so I walked right outside of the airport grounds with two of them still following me. "Where you going?" "We can help." It was only when I turned around, dropped off my backpack and took one of them by the shoulders that they gave up on me. Well, I realized later that night that they hadn't given up on me even then. It seems that they just let me get some distance from the airport, then sent one of their friends after me.

I was probably almost a kilometre from the airport, still sweating in my tracksuit pants, and wondering how I was going to change my travellers' cheques, when a young dreadlocked guy overtook me. He said hello, and seemed fairly relaxed, so I started chatting with him as we walked. We were heading towards Yoff, a small beachside village. David, his name was, and he lived in Yoff. Where was I going to stay, he asked. I told him the place I had chosen.

"Oh no, he's a bad man." "He does drugs." "It's not near the beach."
"It's very dangerous place." "It's expensive."
And now I knew I was being scammed. But he got me. He convinced me to at least have a look at his family's place, or campement before I decided to go to Campement Adama Diop. He 'only' charged 5000CFA a night, he said.

"But Adama Diop is only 3100CFA," I said. "Oh, no my friend. Adama Diop charge 10 000CFA. Very bad man. Using cocaine."
Of course, once I'd walked to David's place in that heat, I wasn't walking any further. He had counted on that. Yoff was dirt. Scattered concrete buildings and concrete walls, and dirt everywhere. Campement David was a collection of about five small buildings surrounded by a two metre high block wall. There was one large tree in the middle of the dirt yard. Jutting out from one of the buildings was a small room with an old timber door and one tiny window. That was my room. I knew it was going to be like sleeping in an oven, but at least the door had a lock, and David gave me the key. When I flicked the switch, the room fell under the dull glow of one small red lightbulb.

It was only a hundred metres to the beach, but David insisted on guiding me. I wondered if my backpack would still be there when I returned. Ah, but I needed a swim! The sea breeze was a welcome relief, but as we approached the beach, it was obvious that something was amiss. There were hundreds of people on the beach, walking, jogging, groups of kids playing soccer; but no-one was swimming! The water was a dark green, almost black and I could see that it had a thick consistency like molasses as the small waves couldn't even 'break'. Rather, they seemed to loll their way onto the sand, leaving on the beach a thick layer of dark slime.

"But you can't swim in that!" I said, almost in shock.

"Oh, no you can't swim in it." He sounded as if he'd never heard of such an idea. Swimming in the sea. Really!

While at the beach, David attempted to renegotiate with me. Now he wanted 15 000CFA and would provide dinner and breakfast. My guide book indicated that a hot meal could be had from a street seller for as little as 500CFA, so what he was offering was no bargain. I declined, but I guess it was worth his while trying. That night, he insisted I join them for dinner anyway; a bowl of vegetable scraps and rice with a couple of fish heads poking out of it. We all ate from the same bowl, with our fingers. I tried to make it look like I was actually eating.

As night fell, people wandered in from the dirt street and children appeared from nowhere. It became obvious that this campement was home to David's extended family, maybe fifteen adults and at least that many children. When I enquired about a shower, David seemed apologetic. "Just African shower," he explained, and sent one of the inquisitive children to fill a bucket, and gave me a small tin to use as a dipper. He showed me to one of the buildings on the other side of the compound. It had a large open doorway, a lit candle in the corner, and a drain running outside. Obviously Africans aren't self conscious about such things, so I went about my business in full view of the whole extended family. When a teenage girl went to the shower after me, I was gutted to see her reach out into the dark, and swing shut a large door that was latched back to the outside wall.

The next morning, I had to catch a bus into Dakar to change my travellers' cheques. David insisted he accompany me. My first impressions of Dakar were not pleasing ones. Every vehicle on the streets was old and billowed smoke, smoke which seemed to hang in the air at footpath level. Beggars were everywhere; twisted contorted humans, legless beggars dragging themselves along on a sheet of thick cardboard, old blind beggars with their eyes turned inside out, lepers with bits missing here and there, albinos with their pale skin blistering and peeling. David wove a swift path through this freak show, with myself hot on his heels. When my business had been done at the bank, and I had applied for a visa at the Malian embassy, I bought David a couple of beers in a restaurant. Passing beggars saw my white face from the street and motioned to me with fingerless hands, traders held up watches and sunglasses, some tried to enter the restaurant, but were quickly shoo'ed away by staff. Some chose to wait outside the door until I was finished, but they don't know about Australians and beer, and most of them finally gave up. I could see by David's face that he was drunk when we left to collect my passport from the embassy.

As we returned to Yoff, the clouds were building and no sooner had we entered the compound than the heavens opened up. Huge drops of cold rain pelted down on the dusty ground. Suddenly, there were children everywhere again, as if they had sprung up from the rain. They ran naked clutching bars of soap, competing to stand under the spots where the water overflowed from the roof. Several of the men joined in, lathering themselves furiously in this mass shower- African style. I grabbed my soap from my room and joined in.

I know. I could use some sun.

As a guest I was given pride of place under the heaviest stream of run off. After the hot smoky day in Dakar and the dust of Yoff, that rainstorm defined the word 'refreshing'. That night I bought a few more bottles of Flag beer. I figured that was a cheap way to keep David happy until I took off early in the morning.

I had the alarm set for five o'clock and it was still raining heavily when I woke. The train didn't leave 'till eight, but I was taking no chances. I waited ages for the bus, then it terminated in the middle of a small slum still miles from Dakar. Another bus came along after a while, but I had to fight to get on board. I ended up standing on the back bumper, clinging to the rusty roof rack, with the rain stinging my face. Finally we made it into Dakar, but with not a lot of time to spare. I leapt into the nearest taxi and ordered the driver to the Gare Routiere - the train station, so I thought until he dropped me at the bus station. So much for my high school French. Frantically asking directions, I found a local who was himself headed to the train station. I paid for a taxi for us both and then I realised I still had a significant problem. The train was due to leave at any minute, and I didn't have enough cash. I had been reluctant to change a large amount of travellers' cheques in front of David, so had just obtained enough cash for my stay in Dakar. Not being used to Africa yet, I had assumed there would be a Bureau de Change at the railway station, or at least that I could pay with travellers' cheques or visacard. No.

So it was back in a taxi to take me to a black market money changer. The money changer was very friendly, ripped me off blind changing my forty dollars worth of American currency, and then the taxi driver demanded an exorbitant commission. But at least I had enough for train fare. If I'd had an understanding of the African concept of 'time', that morning wouldn't have been such a panic for me, as the train didn't materialise for another hour, and didn't depart for an hour after that. The rain had stopped and the morning was steamy.

I found my allocated seat with no problem, and settled in. As I had come to expect from African transportation, the train was overfull to the point of hilarity. Passengers without allocated seats sat in the aisle, dozens of others climbed onto the roof to escape the crush. I was quite satisfied with my soft padded seat, even though the upholstery was torn and filthy. The next passenger to enter my compartment was a middle aged African woman in long flowing orange robes. She had more luggage than she could carry, and had to make a few trips back to the platform to fetch more. She stuffed a couple of bundles next to my backpack in the luggage rack above my head. I thought I felt something small fall in my hair, but didn't take much notice. All her luggage stowed, she undraped most of her clothing to present me with an enormous pair of brown breasts. Again, something fell in my hair. Maybe just a bit of sand. She replaced the robes with a simple cotton dress, and something fell in my lap. A maggot, about half an inch long. She saw it, and grinned. "Poisson." she said pointing to the package above my head. Fish.

When the train rounded a bend -and there weren't many bends!- I could see passengers on the roof. I was jealous; at least they were getting some fresh air

What follows are letters written to my mother over the next few days:

Saturday 28th September

Well I feel like my plane took a wrong turn from London, and has dropped me off in the middle of a 'Doctor Who' episode. Honestly this place is so unlike the Western world that I can't decide if I'm dreaming it all, or if I'm on drugs. If I'm not on drugs, I sure wish I was. We're stopped... again, in the middle of nowhere. This train left Dakar three and a half hours ago. I just checked my map to see how far we've come. I shouldn't have. One centimetre! That leaves about thirty centimetres to go. It is 'supposed' to be a thirty hour trip to Bamako. I don't figure. A moment of relief as the train lurched into motion was quickly shattered when I realised that we are in fact now travelling backwards. My fellow passengers seem unperturbed, so I'm seeming that way too. I'm starting to wish that I had taken advantage of yesterday's downpour to have a good thorough soapy shower instead of just dancing around and refreshing myself. It's not unbearably hot, but it is very humid- very overcast and no breeze, especially now as the train has stopped again. The thought of spending the coming night on this train without being able to wash is not a comfort.. I'll be in Mali by the morning. I'm breaking my journey in Kayes, where I hope to clean myself up and have a decent meal. I probably won't spend the night there, but catch the cheaper local train tomorrow night to Bamako, arriving there early Monday morning. My aim is to get to Kidal as quickly as possible, so Monday or Tuesday I'll catch the overnight bus to Gao. As we move East the clouds are giving way to blue sky, and the landscape is a little drier, but still quite green with crops and trees.

. Bye for now,

Steve

A village of grass huts, from the window of the train


The architecture changed as we moved slowly eastwards

5:10pm Sunday 29th September

It looks like I will be spending the night in Kayes after all. My train arrived here around 8:00am and I promptly checked into a cheap took off my stinking clothes and treated myself to a shower. I've spent most of the day wandering around town answering countless calls of "bonjour" and "ca-va". So far I've only seen one other 'white man' in this whole place- a Japanese with an African guide. Anyway, I returned to the train station at 3:00pm when the tickets go on sale. Several enterprising locals offered to get my ticket for me for a commission. They do this quite simply by pushing to the front of the queue. I didn't like the idea of handing my money over to one of them, so decided to join the mob. After an hour of crazy pushing, shoving, shouting and more shoving, with my wallet down my underpants for safekeeping, (yes, lucky I was wearing them!) I reached the ticket window only to find that the night train was now full. I bought a ticket on the morning train, which gets to Bamako at 7:00pm. The good thing about this is that it was 2000CFA cheaper. (400CFA=AUS$1) The drawback is that I was counting on changing a travellers' cheque in Bamako as I'm running short of cash. But now I'll arrive too late. I guess I'll get by ...somehow. It's an uncomfortable feeling to be short of cash in a country like this. It's not like Australia or England where you can stick your Visa card into an ATM. Even travellers' cheques are useless, except at a bank. I found myself short of cash in Dakar as well, through poor planning on my part. At the last minute, I had to jump in a taxi, who took me to a backstreet black marketeer, who gave me a terrible exchange rate on my last US$40. Then the driver charged me 1500 CFA commission. Beggars can't be choosers though, and it will teach me to plan more carefully in future. I spent my two nights in Dakar living with a family in a fishing village... too complicated to explain!

See you,
Steve

River scene in kayes


Every time the train stopped at a tiny village, locals would swarm alonside, selling food, fabrics, jewellery...and everything you could imagine

Monday 30th September

I've made it to Bamako and I'm still alive. The twelve hour train ride from Kayes was bearable- some interesting friendly people in my carriage, one who spoke a little English. I had a place picked out to stay in Bamako, but it was a little difficult to find as it's just a house - no sign- and all the street names have recently changed. It was on the corner of 130th and 135th, but it is now on the corner of 236th and 353rd or something! I sat for a while tonight at a streetside coffee stand and met some of the locals. Everyone is very friendly and curious. I wish I spoke French a little better. The woman who owns this home is really cool. She is very proud of her command of English. "Je parle Anglais," she says, "today, tomorrow, I go, and three thousand!" (Three thousand is the price of a bed for a night) I'm not sure when the next bus goes to Gao. I've been told Thursday, and then Wednesday. I guess I'll find out tomorrow.

That's it for now,
Steve

Mama Fanta

TIPS Carry enough cash; it's as simple as that. In countries like this people only recognize the folding stuff

Learn a bit of the local language; at least a few phrases like "that's too expensive", "leave me alone", and "this isn't the train station".

Decide how you're going to handle the pests and husslers. Plan a strategy. Some people choose to hire a guide and this is easily done, believe me. Probably you'll hire one without even knowing it. You will end up wishing you'd never hired him, but at least a good guide will keep the other pests away.

Be patient. Be patient. And then be patient. Things move more slowly in some countries than you're accustomed to. The train/bus/plane is sure to be at least two hours late, unless you're two minutes late, in which case, it'll be on time for the first time that year.

On such a journey,If you don't want to go out of your mind, carry a Walkman, a book or anything to keep your mind occupied. Sleeping tablets would be a good idea. Don't forget that if you bought batteries for your Walkman in Africa, they'll probably only last for the duration of one song. Take some drinking water, and some food such as bread, fruit, biscuits. You don't wanna eat some of the stuff that's available along the way.

Take all the basic precautions not to make yourself an easy target, but don't be too paranoid. Yessir, you will get scammed and swindled on a daily basis, but actual violence against foreigners is very rare here. I rarely, if ever, felt in danger.

Try to glean as much information as possible from other travellers you bump into. Everything from train times to cheap markets and good restaurants, even local regulations such as registering with the police. Some things change suddenly in third world countries, and these people will be the only ones who know about it.

'must see' places : hmm..let me think about that....

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