Monday, January 28, 2008


Ah...our last night.

Dinner Spot Number One was a bit of a disaster. Good music scene, but after six attempts on the menu, no food to be had. Kim & I had splurged 15,000CFA to empty our pockets on a bottle of Bordeaux - what else to do? (Somehow airport shops at midnight did not seem likely.) We ended up walking down the street to the Bla Bla Bar.

The name alone was worth the visit, and it's the hippest space we saw in Mali. I especially liked the colourful plastic bowls taped together to be used as lamps, hanging at odd heights and locations throughout the place. Fantastic roast chicken, too!

No luck searching out Buffet de la Gare afterwards...Barou had never been, two taxi drivers hadn't a clue. Oh well - days of Rail Band gone by.

Our second taxi dropped us at an, umm, interesting "club". Let's just say NO pics were to be taken. As for the other entertainment, it seemed to be open mic night...Mali Idol, here we come. We left after one beer.

The Pirate Club was apparently the place to be...odd covers upstairs (we arrived to a striking rendition of "Mack the Knife") and a lively disco in the room downstairs. We opted to sit outside, get devoured by mossies (put that Lariam to work, I say - psychotic nights not to be for nought) and watch the rich Bamakoans (?) coming and going.

Video for your entertainment!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Le Rabelais

I thought it fitting to include a photo of the very fine hotel in Bamako that was "home base" before and after the trip.

Yes, the pool is as stunning as it looks. A nice moonlight light helps.

On those hot, dusty days after hours wandering the streets of Bamako, it was a most welcome sight, let me tell you.

No surprise, but I still find it intriguing how one's frame of reference can change so quickly.

I arrived in Bamako on December 21 close to midnight. It was a hazy evening, and after the craziness of the airport my taxi staggered through the streets in a somewhat drunken fashion, bobbing and weaving for no apparent reason. (Avoiding police/army checkpoints?) The Rabelais was shut up tight, however a key with my name on it was stuck on the board. The room seemed quite fine. The next day, the city seemed like many other third-world (esp. African) cities, if perhaps poorer: lots of noise, chaotic traffic mixing petrol fumes and animal carts, dirt and tarmacadam, commerce of some sort on every corner. But a "small" city, by capital standards. Not a lot of "conveniences"...restaurants, plush commerce and the like.

After a fortnight, oh what a difference. Bamako was simply worldly, a veritable centre of nightlife and cosmopolitan treats. And the Rabelais? A stunning five-star treat, with a room to match. :-)

While pleased to return home, I know I'll be clinging to that sense of appreciation - and wonderment - as long as possible.

Then again, isn't that why we go?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Le Holgun

The Holgun is a "famous" nightclub in Bamako. So famous, in fact, that Barou had never been.

Described as "slightly seedy" by LP, it is a sprawling place to catch Malian blues and other traditional music. Many westerners showed up for late Saturday night music, but there was also a large local contingent as well - always a good sign.

Quite a different feel from the local bar in Segou a few nights back...but eminently enjoyable. [The next night we attempted to find Buffet de la Gare, where the legendary Rail Band started (made up of actual railway workers). Alas, no taxi driver could find it. All was not lost, as we were still dropped at a house of ill repute for "music". Needless to say no pics of that very lcoal establishment! More of an "open mic" night, we didn't stay that long...]

On our way out of Holgun, sure enough who walks in but Toumani Diabaté. A master of the kora (21-string West African harp), Toumani Diabaté has brought the traditional music of his native Mali to the attention of an international audience with a series of well-received albums. Stooped over and walking with the help of a cane, you'd never guess he was only a couple years older than me. We had a quick chat, then he convinced us to join him back inside "for just one song". Alas, we had to leave to drop friends off at the airport, so I'm afraid to say the best I got was his tuning the kora... - sigh -

If you want to get a flavour of the on the below video. (Never mind the visuals, you get a bit of the sound.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Racing Sunset

Sunsets and Africa.

A bit cliched, really. But the hell with originality -- I love them anyway.

On our long drive back into Bamako, the sunset was wondrous. Somehow as we barrelled down the road, it seemed to be full of intrigue, the trees playing character parts along the way. I never tire of baobabs, and spent a few moments with the window open desperately (in vain) trying to capture a bit of their spirit, in some strange avante garde sort of way.


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Segou Night Life!

Well now what better thing to do after a couple long journey days?

If you know Neil, you know it will likely involve two things:

1) Drink

2) Night life of some sort.

This beautiful courtyard of our hotel was full of action - and tourists. Owned and run by a French family, it seemed "the" destination (not that there are many). However the overly-loud music and dancing, geared purely for tourists, wasn't quite to my style.
After a brilliant dinner at an Italian restaurant with two pet crocodiles (really, could I make this up?), three of us were in the mood for more - so Barou dropped us off at this little hole in the wall. "Nightclub" would be a bit optimistic a term. Let's say local bar - and indeed very local. The fact that us travellers had crashed the place was welcome in terms of beer sales, but otherwise we were pleasantly tolerated. (With a nod to Cuba as the "band" moved around from table to table at one point to garner a few bills - which we gave happily.)

Heather, Glen and I stayed for an hour or so. It was great fun watching the dancing, the row of children's heads looking over the wall at the action, and young girls who were too young to come in, so would dance around the door (where our table was) and sneak just over the threshold every once in a while.

This video was surreptitiously shot with my small Nikon sitting on the table. (Not quite the same caliber as the BBC crew there the same time.) You will either decide this sounds "fun" or hurts your ears. It may indeed be one of those "had to be there" moments. :-)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Local - Sevare Style

He he he.

A shot of Neil, in a local publican, enjoying a drink. And we wonder why it's a tad blurred? :-)

On our first night in Sevare - prior to heading down the Niger - Glen and I were itching for a night on the town.

Alas, despite Barou's best intentions, the town was dead. Far too cold for the locals, and too late: everything was shut up. No music from any of the discotheques. No dancing.

With Barou disgruntled by not being able to offer excitement, he asked if we'd like to simply find a "local" bar for a drink. Would we, indeed.

The place with no name (adjacent to the army base) was glorious. Cheap beer and rum, spicy brochettes for 100CFA, a telly out in the courtyard with a couple dozen people watching that evening's soap, faded 70s rock tapes warbling inside, and a healthy amount of feminine commerce walking about - with quick sojourns through the door in the bar.

We loved it.

We stayed some time.

This pic is on our return through Sevare, where as you can see we were fondly remembered by a few of the locals... ;-)

Sevare - Market Day

Shopping, shopping everywhere!

This is the local "shopping mall" in Sevare.

A hive of activity, it's always fun to go to local markets where:

- It's all about commerce. If you're not buying, they're not interested.

- It's all about the locals. Pandering to visitors is non-existent.

My local market purchases were few, but they did raise a few eyebrows. I purchased some blocks of salt (always needed), and a small mirror I needed for my travel kit. My choice on the latter was between a pic of a Chinese tart or palm trees on the obverse - either way, very pink.

I think I'm the only one who will remember the desert and Mali when I see the palm trees. Oh well.

Stood on a balcony for some time watching all this action...

Roadside Wanderings

Street life is a perennial source of entertainment.

That may sound culturally condescending, but the sights, the sounds, the details...all offer a jarring juxtaposition to what one sees "back home" [sic].

Random images: Dusty streets on a walkabout, local tailor and fashion house, our van being stopped by cattle, petrol "station".

I love the petrol station: people rock up, and literally get a litre bottle, pour it in their scooter, and go. These are a ubiquitous site in much of the developing world.


Apart from the glorious backdrop scenery, the brickworks in the foreground is what caused me to snap this picture.

Go to the river bed, dig up the mud, shape it into bricks, let it dry in the sun. It can't get much simpler than that.

This is just outside Douentza.
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Full Load

The Niger, as with most great rivers cutting a swath through a country, serves as a lifeline.

Food through fishing, agriculture through irrigation - and most importantly, commerce.

Even as waters are still receding in the "dry season", boats plied the waters from Mopti downriver to Korioume, Gao and beyond.

Lac Debo more than trebles in size, opening great channels where the big ships can ply their trade for a few precious months.

Lucky for us, our wee boat was a little roomier than these - which, if you're enterprising, you can catch a ride on all the way down river to Tim.


Salt is a big part of what made Tombouctou a large trading city in eons past - and it is still important today.

Traditionally carried on camels from salt pans in the Sahara, when driving south to Douentza we saw a donkey caravan of about 20 animals, all heavily laden with salt.

The first picture here is from Korioume, the port on the river near Tombouctou...much busy-ness loading up several pinasse ready for onward travel up and down the Niger.
Salt blocks here are along the port in Mopti.

Quatre par Quatre

The long drive out of Tombouctou was indeed loooong.

Apart from waiting in Korioume for two or three hours, the drive was relatively quick - inasmuch as "non-stop".

I did not check average speed in the back of our 4x4, but the whole event was like an extended visit to Six Flags. It's one of those few times that I remember what those handles are for - and need them. We tossed and bashed and knocked up against each other endlessly, sun beating down through the windows all the while. Good thing we weren't worried about being too "familiar". My 4x4 had Heather in the front, and Glen, Kim and I in the back. Kim was our patient for this trip, feeling exhausted and more than a little poorly. I'm amazed she managed to sleep during the whole drive - but sleep she did. The three of us decided there's a little feline in her, somewhere. ;-) [Luckily after one good night's sleep she was right as rain.]

This stop was about half-way - while only about 200km, it really felt much longer. Most of the way we were off-road, and all of the bridges were washed out.

At one point our two drivers had a great screaming match, which woke everyone up out of their reverie. Who would have thought: road rage about cutting someone off, when there are no roads and very few other vehicles to be seen!

Heather took a picture when we stopped due to a tyre blow-out, feeling she could just as easily be back home in the Australian outback.

Well, except for the donkey train of about 20-30 animals, all heavily laden with large salt blocks.

Our lunch spot in Douenzta also served as a campground, and being able to strip down and have a quick shower was a delight after all that dust and sand.

In retrospect, I am quite glad I did not end up taking the flight out of would not have had the same sense of "journey".


This is the port town on the Niger about 20km or so from Tombouctou.

Our long day started off with an immediate halt: one ferry broken, so a long queue, despite the early departure.

Like any port, even this small one was a hive of activity - just a few pics here.

There was something just "so" about seeing a ferry come with a load of camels in the desert..we all sort of looked at each other and grinned at the incongruity.

Once our ferry was in, we spent a good 30 minutes cramming as much as we could on. Every centimetre was used; our 4x4 was locked in, and Glen cautiously crawled out the window, thoughts of the proverbial overloaded African ferry sinking in his head. Smart move, no doubt.

Flamme de la Paix

No signs of tension in Tombouctou, really.

This rather bizarre monument, on the northwestern outskirts of town, is the spot where the ceremony marking the end of the "last" Tuareg rebellion, in March of 1996.

Over 3,000 weapons were burnt in a great bonfire.

Today the monument has a pile of the old guns embedded in cement at the base; marble tiles have fallen all over and it's positively in a state of disrepair. Sort of like the peace - considering the Canadian and Australian government warnings about "do not travel to Tim" whilst we were there.

Warnings notwithstanding, we found nothing but pleasant people and smiles in Tombouctou.

Random Timbuktu

Tombouctou or Timbuktu - that is the question.

Generally I used the latter, but quickly changed over to the former, French spelling - which is of course common in Mali.

We especially like the "plastic bag tree" - a common sight in Mali, and much of urban Africa.

I know the sunset shot is boring, but I've included it for purely self-indulgent reasons. :-)

It was the last night in Tombouctou, and after a hike back along the outskirts of town I stood on the balcony of Hotel Colombe. As I watched the sun set over the Christian cemetery, the call to prayer echoed out across the sands.

Save for the want of a drink, it was a rather idyllic moment. ;-)

I'm one of those people who are a fan of the call - though best when performed live, a rarity these days.

New Year's Eve II

Well now the booze starts to flow - right?

I've not been a big one for New Year's celebrations for many years (inasmuch as celebration cor celebration's sake), but there are some glorious ones I remember. Most, it seems, are in Africa: Morocco (dancing on a rooftop to Thompson Twins in a djeleba), Tunisia (Jiffy Pop on a humongous gas stove, sparklers with hotel staff that could not be 're-lit', hash brownies on the shores of Lake Malawi lying next to a dog...)

This one added to the collection of the bizarre. I won't go on at length about the foursome who crashed our camp...but the German who went on about his big knife (insert evil Shining laugh here) or the Dutchman who was so cooked on some cornucopia of drugs that he could not make it back to his camp 50 meters away provided plenty of entertainment, and a touch of nervousness.

The beer was finished quickly, and after I emptied the bottle of rum (note: local version of the infamous Belizean 'Panty Ripper') the harsh gin (tonic long gone) was all we had. Troopers we were, we soldiered on.

Good call getting fireworks in Sevare; not so good call tossing some of them into our campfire. It did wake Glen up though - which was good as we were starting to miss his good humour (and feeling envious about his two-hour catnap).

All in all - a fun night.


An inveterate traveler, who has explored all seven continents, Neil centres his freelance writing today on travel.
Published work includes travel writing in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Buffalo News, Travel Scoop and The Wonderful World of Budget Travel. Featured destinations include: Toronto, Ontario; Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Qufu, China; Oaxaca, Mexico; Jersey, Channel Islands; Trans-Siberian Express.
Neil’s photography focuses on finding images of the worlds he visits that capture the essence of “place”. Whether photographing landscapes, archaeological sites or locals, the goal is to make a picture emotive of what brought one there.
Photography has been published in Camera Canada, Foto Flash, Minolta Mirror and travel publications, as well as displayed at gallery exhibits in Toronto.