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Mali 2004

North Africa

Mali facts & history in brief


Hui Chin and I were planning our trip to Mongolia and Siberia through China etc., by the Trans Siberian Express, for some time. We even gone as far as consulting our benefactors and travel agents, when suddenly I got the urge to see Timbuctu or more correctly Tombouctou.

Well no one ever said it was going to be easy, but no one ever warned us of the cost in time and money. First we were told by travel agents and guide books we must get a visa prior to our entering Mali. Later, after spending time and money going to Paris to get the Visa, (Applications are only accepted on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays) we arrived in Paris early Friday morning. That was three days delay. The Visa application takes ten working days. We spent the ten days exploring many of the Swiss Alps, their Cogwheel trains, Gondolas, and Chairlifts conquering those Alps. Also many of the Mediterranean many islands etc. When we returned to Paris to collect our Visas on a Tuesday, we were not familiar with the bureaucratic rules that they can only be collected on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Although the man taken our application was at the counter and the office was empty apart from us three, he refused to give me our Visas and made us return the next day, another day wasted and the expensive Paris Hotel charges.

At last we were on our way to Tombouctou. According to our information from the Mali Embassy, the easiest way to get to Tombouctou is to fly to Bamako from Casablanca and than onto Tombouctou which is easy as there are many flights from Bamako. In fact there's only two flights a week by a small plane with only 32 seats, - as we found out later at Bamako Airport - and any of those flights can be cancelled if they do not have 25 seats paid for on the day. Royal Air Maroc only flies two days a week to Bamako, so we had time to explore Morocco first and in extreme panic on a Sunday book ourselves on the next flight on Monday night.

When we arrived in Bamako in the middle of the night, there was utter confusion and panic on our part. We were hassled by many young men offering us all sort of services and information, but nothing of substance. We had to wait at the Airport, because according to the best of our information, - by some Australian people, - who were actually flying to Tombouctou 8 am. that morning, to see if we can book on that flight to. We were told an office at the Terminal will open at 6 am. selling tickets to Tombouctou. That information was crook too. No office opened, there was this little chartered aeroplane run by four Malian ladies, two of whom arrived around 6.45 am. at one of the check-in counters to inform us, that the plane was fully booked.

I have tried to enlist a few of the local boys, that seemed to be on the know, to see if, for a reward (Bukshi) they can use their influence with the ladies and get us on that aircraft.

In the end nothing happened, the aircraft was choka-blok and we were left talking with the fast talking organiser of escorted trips to Tombouctou, Mr Hama Bah (Mr H....g, to us), of Mali Travel tours.

Hama was a very fast talking little man, who quickly taken advantage of our misfortune and offered to take us to town to book us on the next flight, making sure that the people at the office emphasised that the next flight on Saturday could be cancelled unless there are 25 paid customers on the day. (Hama was talking to the ladies at the office in French before the ladies talked to us explaining the situation.

Next, Hama offered to take us to a hotel of our choice in our price range at €35. The hotel we ended up, the Hotel La Chaumiere's rates were starting at €48, and it was only our good luck that the owner Dany's boundless generosity that he instantly agreed to the €35. (I will talk about more on my Hotel La Chaumiere's page.)

Anyway, while all these was going on, Hama was telling us about his very favourable offer to take us to Tombouctou, supplying a four wheel drive car, driver and English speaking guide.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

After lengthy and heated negotiations we thought the best way to go and see Tombouctou to agree to Hama's agreement (copy above).
It was more than twice the return air trip, but we thought, - seeing our desperate position - we might have some unforgettable experiences. Which of course we had plenty, most of them - we felt, - we could have been warned about.
Like the uneatable and miserable, - as for volume - breakfast (150 mm long, about two weeks old piece of French loaf, with a teaspoonful amount of butter, luke warm bitter coffee), air-conditioning breaking down midway the desert on the way to Tombouctou.
We had our breakfast about 6 am and left Mopti about 7 am. and we did not get to Tombouctou and had our only meal since Mopti at 3.30 pm.
We were hungry, tired and very angry, as I could not buy my kind of cigarettes and had to wait another half a hour while the restaurateur managed to track down some cheese, so I could have a simple cheese with my bread for lunch. I was angry and thoroughly stressed out.
The air-conditioner could not be fixed, so we had to do without in the scorching desert heat.
The windows could not be opened because of the dust.
Our driver did not know and would not except the fact that, he could use the fan without and independently of the air-conditioner.
As cruel coincidence would have it, after about 7 hours of driving, six or more of it in the desert, I managed to convince him the driver, it was alright to use the fan, the air-conditioner blown up about 60 km from Mopti, food, hotel, etc.
Even now I am quiet certain he is blaming me for the breakdown and cursing himself for listening to me. The fact is there was something broken in the air-conditioner, as we could hear the constant clanking, having the air-conditioner off, the air conditioner still being driven the motor, by some belts, I know, my car has one, although I hardly ever use it.
Standing on the desert road for about 30 minutes, our driver and guide, - the driver could not speak or understand English, - managed to flag down an converted ute, who agreed to take us to Mopti.
Our guide did not wanted to go back to our previous hotel, because we complained about the breakfast, so we were taken to another one, which had no power and no air-conditioner or fan working (There are regular power cuts in Mopti), so we had to go back to the other hotel.
Our ute driver, - who had to check the petrol tank and oil with a stick every ten minutes - (funny haha) thrown a wobbly for having to take us to another hotel, - started yelling and arguing with our guide, without ever looking at him, but facing the hotel stuff at standing at the gate.
Very theatrical stuff. Hui Chin and I was sitting the opposite side of the ute from our guide and the screaming argument sounded so heated from the ute driver, without the guide saying anything, that I was seriously looking at ways to jump out of the way if it comes to a punch up. Which looked very imminent, though never happened. The guide called for a Taxi to take us to a restaurant, leaving the still screaming ute driver to carry on.
On our way back to the hotel our Taxi had a flat tyre, so we had to walkabout half a kilometre back to the hotel.
Next morning we had a new four-wheel-drive and driver to take us back to Bamako, which went quite uneventful really.
Our hotel in Bamako was welcoming us back and Dany's unbounded generosity was demonstrated yet again to us. (You can read more about here Hotel La Chaumiere).

On our return to Bamako we tried to convince Hama for a refund on our contract, without very much success.
We thought the 'sales talk' should be more honest, - we talked about breakdowns as it happened to us before, - he assured us it will not happen.
He did not warn us about conditions in the desert or the limited choice of goods available in Tombouctou.
Also did not warn us about inadequate breakfast or that food was unavailable for 6-8 hours on the road to Tombouctou.

After our arrival at Bamako Airport we found out that they issue Visas at the Airport on arrival.
Hama emphatically stated that the law was changed a few years ago to issue Visas on arrival, now you know as much as I do.
If we knew that, it could have saved us a lot of time and money.

It is also regrettable that Royal Air Maroc is on the internet but not for booking or reservations or time table purposes, well not at the time I was writing this.

Air Mali, that often was quoted to us as the national airline, flying to place including Tombouctou, does not exist anymore.

The piddly little airline, Avion Express SAE, that does fly twice a week into Tombouctou probably just could not be bothered to go on the internet.

List of photo pages in my Mali series.

Bamako       Hotel La Chaumiere       Mali Art       Mali Desert       People of Mali       Mali Trains

Mopti      Segou      Timbuctu   or    Tombouctou

Some of my photos taken in Mali (Click for an enlargement)

Somewhere in Mali. Somewhere in Mali. Somewhere in Mali. Somewhere in Mali.
Somewhere in Mali. Somewhere in Mali. Somewhere in Mali. Somewhere in Mali.

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