Difficult to imagine, but at night in the desert it is so quiet that you can hear the murmuring of voices from around a campfire, several miles away


INTO THE SAHARA WEARING A DRESS

This is an extract from one of my stories. It begins in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, one of the poorest countries on the planet.

This maps the travels of 18th century Scottish explorer, Mungo Park. Bamako is near the centre of the map. My route is marked in pink


Looking resplendent in my new African robe- HaHa!

The trip from Bamako to Gao would undoubtedly be the most hellish of my life, and I can't imagine anything ever beating it. I arrived at the bus station on the outskirts of Bamako at 7:00am, as it stated on my ticket. I was in for an education on bus travel; African style. I presented my ticket to the same man I had purchased it from the previous day. He smiled and escorted me to another building where my ticket, clearly marked 12 500 CFA (about $25) was taken from me and exchanged for a different ticket with 10 000 CFA scribbled on it. I didn't query the difference; just assumed that I had been stung by the first man, my guide's brother, who was probably just a scalper.

Sampling home made millet beer with Moussa, my supposed friend and guide, at the witch doctor's house

I learnt several things about bus travel in Africa that morning. Firstly, just because they call it a 'bus', don't expect it to even resemble anything that would pass as a 'bus' in your home country. Secondly, if you're told the departure time is 7:00am, it will probably board about lunchtime. Thirdly, just after you've bribed the driver to let you take your backpack on the bus with you, he disappears and is replaced by another who insists that it must go on top of the vehicle, squashed underneath furniture, motorbikes, and livestock. When boarding time arrives, just because you have a ticket, doesn't mean you'll get a seat. Passengers are called to board by name; if the bus is full by the time your name comes up and you can't force the other passengers to make room for you, too bad. Then when everyone is aboard and the vehicle is overcrowded to the point that you don't think you'll be able to inhale, the driver will crunch the gears and lurch the vehicle forward a couple of hundred metres to a fuel bowser, where he will fill up and perform routine mechanical work while you suffocate.

It is only then, when you finally venture out onto the road, that you attempt to engage in some sort of conversation with the man sitting next to you. You speak as little French as he speaks English, but you manage to say hello, and tell him where you're from and where you're going. Then he says;quot;Gao? This bus no go Gao. This bus go Mopti!" Of course, no-one speaks enough English to act as an interpreter between your panicking self and the uncomprehending driver, but several try. Finally, I am convinced by a series of hand signals that there will be a 'connecting' bus from Mopti to Gao, that I won't have to pay any extra, and that I should just relax.

After one hour, the cramps in my legs were so agonising that I determined to get out at the next stop and take my chances hitchhiking. But by the time the vehicle stopped an hour later, my legs were numb of all pain, and I couldn't have moved even if I'd wanted to. There were twenty-five men crammed on that minibus, perched along five wooden planks, each on about six inches wide, which ran across the width of the vehicle. Oh, and one poor girl who was forced to sit on the lap of one of the men, a complete stranger.

The trek northwards seemed endless. It was slow and hot and we seemed to stop too often, and for too long. From the desert would spring a small village; a collection of a dozen scattered mud huts and a handful of ragged children begging at the windows of the bus, or selling sweets or small plastic bags of water.

The children were remarkably happy, considering the abject poverty that they live in

Then more desert, then another village and more tiny, dirty pathetic children. Day turned to night and the humidity was still unbearable. When the bus stopped the next time, I unfolded my aching legs and climbed down. I found Coke and Fanta and Marlboro and rinsed my head and my shirt with cool water. It was somewhere about midnight when we pulled up in Mopti and all except myself disembarked. I wasn't going to let this bus out of my sight, and I wasn't going to shell out for a hotel room just for a few hours, and risk missing out on this 'connecting' bus. Just when was this connecting bus anyway. "Cinq heures." Five a.m. We drove back to the highway, at Severe. The driver had no choice but to let me sleep on the bus. I was up bright and early; the dawn mosquitos and then the fierce sun saw to that. Severe is little more than a crossroads; a few coffee stalls, a petrol station and a handful of houses. I sat on a wooden plank and drank sweet coffee accompanied by dry stale bread. I was approached several times by 'guides' from Mopti looking for business. Mopti is the base for tourists exploring the popular Dogon area. The long trek through the Dogon villages is difficult without a guide, so a whole industry has been born in Mopti. Competition is tough among the guides, and they can be very persistent, even intimidating. But on that dry, dusty morning they accepted my tired explanation that I was bound for Gao, and would not be visiting the Dogon.

As the hours rolled by, more and more people arrived; from where I don't know. Each new arrival went unnoticed, but by mid mornng there was a small crowd gathered around the one room building that served as a ticket office. There were a couple of trees in front of the building, so I found a space on the end of a narrow stone wall in the shade. I looked at the faces of the crowd; they were content and relaxed, quietly chatting to each other. There was no air of anticipation; it was as if I was the only one who was waiting! I sought out my driver from last night, and made him understand my concern. He took me into the dingy ticket office and negotiated briefly with the uniformed man before purchasing me a ticket to Gao. It was with a certain finality that he handed me my ticket then turned and walked away as if to say, "now don't bother me any more!" It was almost lunchtime, and I hadn't even had breakfast. I needed to find some solid food, so I could take my malaria medication. My stomach was so empty that I was beginning to feel sick. Just outside the ticket office a group of four or five local women were huddled over small fires, pots simmering amid the smoke. The woman nearest me raised her head, and upon noticing my interest, her face stretched into a filthy almost toothless smile. She lifted the lid off her pot. I peered into the darkness, but for a moment couldn't see anything. I leaned a little closer.

Then, as if by magic, the smoke and steam both cleared at the same time. I was paralyzed; staring up at me from a pool of bubbling greenish-brown liquid were the six eyes of three skinned goats heads. At that instant, the smell hit the back of my nostrils, and my body lurched. I swerved away, dizzy, and stumbled my way back to the low stone wall. I could feel that my face was pale. I did not eat.

The bus arrived around midday, but it was sometime later before
we embarked. It was a vehicle similarly uncomfortable to yesterday. The trip to Gao is a blur in my memory. Exhausted and hungry, I dozed much of the way. I didn't look at my watch, because I had learnt that time has no meaning here. We would arrive in Gao at exactly the moment we get there, and not a second before. No schedule, and definitely no amount of clock watching was going to get us there any sooner. I had passed my threshold, and surrendered to the force that is Africa.

The road was endless. Every village was the same as the last. That is until Douentza. Douentza was a dozen or so small mud-brick huts on the western side of the road, and a few more huts and a coffee stand on the other side. But across the low roofs and through the tops of the few sparse trees, a spectacular backdrop of rocky cliffs soared thousands of feet into the sky. Even through the haze, the formations were beautiful. I clambered out of the vehicle and my cramped legs almost folded underneath me. When I could walk, I found a couple of vantage points for photographing the cliffs. As with many beautiful places during my travels, I wished to myself that I could have stopped and spent some more time in this quiet, quaint little village with the majestic panorama. Little did I know that on my return journey three weeks later, the bus would break down in this very spot, and I would be forced to endure twenty-four long hot hours sitting by the road in Douentza.

The rocky outcrops at Douentza were a welcome relief from the endless nothingness of the previous day and a half

The scenery at Douentza and the even more outstanding Mt Hombori Tondo a little further north, were just what my tired spirit needed. The sun was low in the sky, and the worst heat of the day had passed. I stayed awake for the rest of the trip. In the next village, there was a boy of about ten years old selling bread sticks. He was smiling and dancing on his rickety bread table. Western music was crackling from a cassette player somewhere. He stopped dancing when I turned my camera towards him. I bought a baguette, then a couple of bananas from the lady nearby. That was my food for the day. The boy stood on the table grinning at me, but didn't resume his dancing.

It was well into the night when the bus eased to a stop. The
vehicle shuddered as the driver killed the engine. I had seen no sign of a town, but there was something in everyone's manner that told me we had arrived. We were in Gao! Everyone gathered their meagre belongings and left the bus. I waited 'till last so I could drag my backpack out from under the seat. Man, was I thirsty! I took two bottles of Fanta from a young boy, drank them both and paid him too much. I had been trying to orientate myself, but all I could see through the blackness was a few coffee stalls, each dimly lit by a single candle.

"Taxi! taxi!" came the call, and I answered promptly. The taxi driver walked me to the river bank just metres away, and pointed to a large wooden canoe. The Niger river stretched out before us like a sea; the opposite bank far out of sight. This was not a taxi, I explained to the driver, as I stormed back to where the van sat creaking. I asked the driver why we had stopped before we reached Gao. Through a combination of French and hand signals, I learnt that Gao was across the river. There was no bridge, and the vehicle ferry only operates during daylight hours. I could sleep on the ground there and wait 'till the morning to cross, or I could cross the probably bilharzia infested river in the dead of night in a wobbly old canoe, carrying everything I own on my back.

The canoe ride probably only lasted fifteen minutes or a little
more, but it was one of those fifteen minutes in one's life that passes very slowly. Each time the canoe would lurch or sway, or we'd brush alongside a clump of reeds, my mind would reel. Should I abandon all my belongings right away, or try to cling onto my daypack? Which way should I swim? Had we come more than half way yet?

Upon arrival at the far bank, we were met by a 1960's Peugeot
utility- the taxi; with a large cage on the back. There was still no sign of any town. I climbed into the back of the utility with a couple of others. The driver signalled that I should put my pack on top of the vehicle, but I said, "Non. Toujours avec moi." Always with me. He didn't argue, but one after the other, canoe-loads of Africans arrived on the banks and joined us in the cage. Eventually, I had no choice but to pass my pack out and have it thrown on top with the luggage. I felt wronged; after all, the huge woman sitting on my lap was allowed to keep her three live chooks inside. I was impatient and probably more beligerant than I had right to be, yelling at the driver, "Je vous pret! Pourquois Attendez?" He ignored me. The taxi did not depart until not one more passenger could possibly be squeezed inside, or on top.

This had been a day from someone's nightmare, and I could
take no more.I badly needed a shower and a cold beer. I checked into Gao's best (and only) hotel; the Hotel de l'Atlantide. It was a grand old building with a huge verandah along the front. Inside, years of neglect had taken their toll. It was dusty and run down, and the paint was peeling off the high ceiling. The young man behind the reception desk greeted me. The hotel's rates were clearly printed on a board in the lobby, but still he tried to overcharge me. We argued at length before finally reaching a compromise. After several attempts with wrong keys, he finally forced open the door and guided me into my room. It was filthy and the yellow-stained mattress was sagging until it almost hit the floor. I was too tired to even complain. He explained that the bathroom didn't work. I followed him back downstairs and into a courtyard where he showed me 'the bathroom'. It was a grimy dungeon like I'd imagine in the worst jail in the land.


"D'accord?" he asked.

I exploded with anger, "Non, c'est n'pas d'accord! C'est la merde! C'est
digutante!" I used all the French I could muster.

"Oui, c'est la merde." he hung his head.

With me still ranting disjointedly, he took me to another room, an
airconditioned room with a functional shower, but he made it clear that I was not to use the aircon, or I would be charged extra. Finally, I would have some peace. But then he stretched out his hand and asked for a "cadeau" - a gift, or a tip. I exploded again with what vocabulary I could muster, and he left quickly.

I showered and as the cool water rinsed my filthy body and calmed my nerves, I began to feel guilty for the way I had spoken to him; after all, he was only doing his job. I dressed in my new African robe and walked to the bar. He was apprehensive about serving me, but relaxed when I presented him with two Bic ballpoint pens from my deep pocket, and ordered two beers, one for myself and one for him. I noticed a couple of men- presumably his friends- sitting on the verandah watching a small black and white television. They were making tea, but seemed to be having trouble with the little coal fire I fetched my gas cooker from the room, and they were suitably impressed. I spent my evening sitting on the verandah with them, and when I retired for the evening, the young receptionist brought a tall pedestal fan to my room.

During daylight, the canoe trip across the Niger River actually looked very pleasant

The next morning, I stepped into the sunlight swathed in my African robe and my blue wrap around headcloth. I bought some food and a few litres of mineral water, and followed the locals' directions to "the road to Kidal". Along the way was the Commissariat, where foreigners are required to register with the police, have their passport stamped and pay 1000 CFA.From there, the police pointed out a small khaki tent in the desert. From there I could hitch a ride to Kidal.

The tent was a patchwork of old ripped canvas tarpaulins held up by a few crooked sticks. By the time I reached it, I was soaked with perspiration. There were two police in the tent, and three others. They invited me to enjoy their shade, and after a couple of hours of broken conversation, I ascertained that two of the others were also hitchhikers, but heading a different direction to me. The third man was a prisoner, on leave from the jail. It was his job to fetch water for the police, make them tea, and walk back into town to buy them a cigarette or a handful of peanuts whenever they felt like it.

Enjoying the hospitality of the police chief while I wait for a lift

Every vehicle headed into or out of Gao was required to stop at this checkpoint, and undergo 'inspection'- pay a bribe. I quickly made friends with the two policemen, and before long their prisoner was making me tea, and they were listening to my walkman. A convoy of old trucks trudged out of Gao headed our way. The leader of the convoy exchanged words with the senior officer, and slipped a wad of money into into his hand. I approached him to ask for a lift, but the only space he had left was on top of the high load, and in the heat of the day I didn't fancy heading off into the desert like that. So I stayed behind and watched the trucks like giant dopey elephants as they trundled out of view. Barely another vehicle passed our way that day, and none were going to Kidal.

As night fell, the police sent their prisoner on his way. They tucked their machine guns under the thin mattresses, and pulled out a plastic bag full of empty beer bottles.

"You like beer, Mr. Stephen?"

They could see by the surprise on my face that the answer was yes! 'Jackie', as I called him (his family name was Diakite) rode into town on their little scooter and reappeared soon after with three bottles of cold beer. I accepted one graciously and popped the lid with my plastic cigarette lighter. In the quiet stillness of the desert, it made a 'pop' like a champagne cork and went zinging into the night. Jackie and his colleague couldn't believe what they'd seen. They both handed me their bottles and I repeated the performance, the two uniformed men rolling on the sand in fits of laughter. When Jackie composed himself, he put together the longest English sentance anyone had said to me for days; "Mr. Stephen, you are very exceptional!"

Mali's population is 99% Muslim, and very opposed to alcohol. Even the few who do drink, don't drink often and can't handle more than a couple of beers. But time after time, Jackie or his colleague would collect the empty bottles and zoom into town, and on their return, it was my job to open the bottles with my lighter. The scooter became wobblier and their laughter grew louder as the night progressed. Jackie wanted to listen to the Walkman again. Believe me, there is no funnier sight than a uniformed police chief sitting in a chair in the middle of the desert, wildly conducting an imaginary orchestra and singing along at the top of his voice, to a Pink Floyd song to which he knows none of the words.

"Mr. Stephen, Mr. Stephen. Wake up!"

"Huh, what is it? Is there a car?" I leapt up.

"No, we have bought more beer!"

I looked at my watch. It was after midnight. Someone, somewhere had taught these guys how to drink.

"Mr. Stephen, Mr. Stephen. Wake up!"

"Huh, more beer?" It was daylight.

"No, there's a car. Hurry!"


There was a Toyota Hilux utility parked just metres from where I lay, two men in the front, several in the back. I jumped up, grabbed my pack, clambered into the back of the ute and dragged my pack after me. The vehicle surged forward, and I shouted goodbye to Jackie and his mate as they disappeared in the desert sand.

It was cramped in the back. There were six of us and our
belongings,plus a 44 gallon drum, presumably full of fuel, a few bags of grain and a large steel farm implement. I was sitting on the steel implement. I pulled my head cloth forward over my face and put my head down. This trip could take anywhere between five hours and a couple of days. It wasn't long before we came upon a broken down truck. It had been in yesterday's convoy. Our driver stopped to see if everyone was okay.
Three men were taking shelter under the truck. They were fine, and we continued. They were fine? I looked around- nothing but sand in every direction. Oh well.

We stopped three more times for broken down vehicles; another truck from the convoy, and two southbound trucks. We stopped for tea in a village so small it's not even on the map. Then we stopped for lunch in Anefis. We were more than halfway there. I put my head down. When I did steal a hopeful glance, there was nothing to see but sand stinging my eyes. About six hours after we had left Gao, we came upon a rocky outcrop and the utility wheeled into Kidal. I could barely see through my sunglasses; I was covered from head to toe with a thick layer of dust.



Despite feeling groggy, and aching from the long, hot uncomfortable trip, I had never been so elated.

Open air butcher's shop in Kidal. Special of the day-camel. temperature- approx fifty degrees celcius...in the shade!

A NOTE FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF TIMBUKTU

Last night, I was given a Tamasheq name, as the locals here cannot pronounce my 'difficult' name. I am now known as 'Entetradin'. I wish I could say it means 'Dances with wolves' or 'Stands with a fist' or 'Hung like a bear', but they tell me it actually has no meaning at all. Then why does everyone laugh when I tell them my new name?



I spent last night out in the desert with a family of Tamasheqs and their sheep and goats. They made 'tagella'- flat bread baked in the ground- and a strange, warm custard-like thing with lumps of cheesy stuff in; and a meat dish that I didn't go near. We drank lots of strong, sweet tea, and they showed us some of their party tricks, one of which involved tying me to a two metre long pole and watching me try to escape. Everyone else enjoyed tha

t!

Next week, he said he'll take me on camels to a special place he knows where there's caves with ancient writing on the walls. 'Sounds great but it's about sixty kilometres away, and I don't know if I'm up to a camel ride of that length. We'll see.



I just realised that I'll be sending copies of this letter to people who don't know where I am. I'm in Kidal, in the very north of Mali. I've been here a week now, and what an amazing place. No running water, no electricity, a mail delivery every few weeks, and until very recently no telephone. It's fascinating to see how people live within the constraints of their environment.. The average daily wage for a worker is about $2.



The tailor who made my latest outfit charged about $3 for what would have taken him most of the day. Fortunately, we have a few solar panels on the roof, which provide enough power for lighting, and they have a gas cooker and a gas fridge.



I'll have lots of stories to bore you with in a few months when the money runs out, but for now it's just this page to let you know I'm still alive.


My African goatskin sandals

Steve

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