|Over the last few days we have travelled from Bamako to western Mali and are now in the town of Kayes, the first town the French settled when they moved into Mali from Senegal.
Our first stop on this section of the trip was a town called Kita, which doesn't even rate a mention in the Lonely Planet but had a few interesting things to see. The countryside on the way was hilly and dotted with mud villages - Malinke, Fulani and Soninke - with lots of large shea butter trees on the roadside. There is a good road for this part of the trip, built only 4 years ago with help from the EU. The roads here have tolls and you pay for each section - this only came in last year.
It was windy and hazy as we left, the harmattan had arrived and was blowing hot and dusty from the Sahara. Kunta says that when he was a child in Timbuktu this wind always came in March but has got earlier and earlier each year - global warming in action. He also says that when he was young (and we're talking only 25 - 30 years ago here), Timbuktu was surrounded by trees and greenery, the Niger river came right into the town and giraffes used to roam there. Then the people cut the trees down and the Sahara has crept in to cover the town with sand. The Niger no longer flows into Timbuktu.
Western Mali is not well developed at this stage and sees few tourists but this could all change in the next 5 years as money is being put towards developing the national parks in this area and the roads are being fixed up - at the moment they are full of potholes, or more accurately deep craters you could lose your car in, caused by the very overloaded trucks bringing goods from Senegal to Mali. We had some car problems of our own with us losing a fuse and this needed to be fixed when we reached our first stop.
We had changed cars for this part of the trip and were now in the Landcruiser to cope with the bad roads and had a driver with us - Amadou.
On Monday morning with our car now fixed (we thought) the owner of the hotel started to take us to see some rock paintings nearby - he got a short way down the road when his motorbike broke down! He quickly found us a new guide who jumped in our car and we set off again - until our car broke down again! Lots of phone calls and fiddling with the fuses and we got going again, though none of the gauges were working. We arrived at the village where the mechanic who "fixed" the car last night was going to meet us and really fix it this time while we were seeing some rock paintings nearby.
The little village doesn't see many tourists and the children were quite curious - I gave one girl a tennis ball and she tried to eat it! They grow the usual crops of millet, sorghum and maize and the women also make charcoal and there were little smoking mounds everywhere with a woman tending each one, usually with a baby on her back.
Our guide led us to the cave of the paintings, a couple of kms away. He couldn't really tell us anything about them, how long they had been there and who painted them, and there is nothing in the Lonely Planet about them, but apparently a Frenchman has written 2 books about them so they must be quite famous in some circles. There were lots of symbols painted on the ceiling of the cave but we could only guess at their meaning.
Arriving back at the village we of course had to have tea (very strong and sweet) with the mechanic who had by now really fixed the car, then went on our way again.
Monday night's stop was at a place called Mananteli where there is a dam and the whole town seems to exist for the dam workers. We stayed in huts used by the construction workers when the dam was being built - no frills, pretty much what you'd expect. There was a canteen for the workers, one choice on the menu only, take it or leave it! And no beer to be had! Late in the afternoon we walked down to the river to try and see the hippo, which apparently are plentiful in this river (the Senegal River). Of course we didn't see any, but they told us we would definitely see them the following morning - we didn't! Driving on the next day we had to cross the river so while Amadou took the car across on the ferry, Kunta, Richard and I got one of the local fishermen to take us across in his boat and find some hippo for us. We did see them this time but it was difficult to get photos as they would just raise the tops of their heads out of the water, snort at us and then sink down again. But we did see them!
After the hippos we drove on to our Tuesday night stop, Kayes. On the way we stopped at a waterfall, the Chutes de Felou, where they are constructing a diversion channel for a hydro electric power station, and found a guide who could tell us about this. Kayes is the first town in Mali settled by the French and some old colonial buildings still stand. We also visited the old Fort de Medine, which was where the slaves used to leave through the "gate of no return" on their journey to wherever they were being sent to. The fort is being restored, as is the old train station, so in a few years time it should look pretty good. Our hotel for the night was very comfortable and we had a good night's rest ready for a 7am start for the 600km drive back to Bamako over the worst roads I have ever seen.