Trans-Saharan Trip - Gao to Lome (Togo)

We enter Gao accompanied by a rag-tag crowd of little boys, and report to the police check point. The bright orange truck is very conspicuous, and we can't avoid the formalities. The police keep us for two hours, then let us go, requesting that we turn up again at 8am the next morning. The camp is out of town, and we celebrate arrival in civilization with a party. Everything gets washed, a luxury we haven't been able to afford during our desert crossing. Its amazing how little water you need to wash in if you don't have it to spare.

8am and we're back at the police station, to learn about the joys of SMERT - la Societe Malien pour l'Exploitation des Resources de Tourism. Officially, SMERT no longer exists, but the police, who have not been paid by the government for some time, and the SMERT officials, who were out of a job, co-operate to ensure that the tourists do their bit for local employment. We each have to pay the equivalent of 25 pounds (UK) to SMERT for the pleasure of being in Mali, as well as a smaller sum to the police, who get to share the SMERT money, anyway. The police then escort us to the SMERT office, where forms must be completed (in french) in triplicate, and the money has to be arranged. This is our first chance to exchange traveller's cheques in Mali, so its off to the bank. The sight of 25 foreigners wanting complex transactions is too much for the bank staff, who decide on the spot that they will not exchange traveller's cheques at all, and only small denomination $US are acceptable. Undaunted, we pool our resources, and produce the appropriate notes. This brings on a go-slow movement by the staff, and at noon they declare that the bank is closed, and we have to come back tomorrow before anyone can have any money. At this stage none of us has completed a transaction, and our passports are all on the other side of the desk.

We are booked on the boat to Mopti that night, and have made this clear from the start, so we decide to stage our own sit-down strike, and set up home on the floor of the bank, sending Simon (the most fluent french speaker) out to find 'Mr Smert', who isn't going to get his cut unless we get some money, and who is going to have to earn his keep. Others of us go out for food, and we have a good-natured picnic in the bank, sharing with the stubborn staff. Mr Smert comes and gets some action, and a couple of the customers actually get money and passports, and leave to explore Gao. The rest of us stick in there, and send for Mr Smert twice more before things suddenly speed up, the bank staff give in and complete the transactions, and everyone leaves, the best of friends. It takes six hours. By the time we get out of the bank its time to go back to the campsite and pack to get on the boat; I haven't actually seen Gao, although I know the inside of the bank intimately.

The boat trip takes four days, going up the Niger River to Mopti. The river boat 'General Soumare' is typical of her kind, with several barges attached, very crowded on the lower decks, with hot little cabins for those who want them. Families set up home on the decks, cooking on charcoal stoves, with piles of food available to buy from enterprising commerciants. Geoff and I are booked into a cabin, but I soon move out and sleep on the upper deck. The family from Oz whom we met in Taghit appear on deck - its one of the great things about travel, meeting up with people then bumping into them again later; you feel like old friends. The river trip is great - lots of people to meet, both travellers and locals, including several Peace Corp volunteers. The girls here have fantastic hair styles: spikey bunches or plaits, and lots of little girls have hair designs that remind me of sea urchin shells, all ridged with plaits to the centre of their skulls. One beautiful girl I get talking to tells me it took 10 hours to get her hair beaded and plaited into its current style. We call into villages along the banks, and impromptu markets spring up to mark the boat's arrival. There are hippos in the river, and the most spectacular sunsets and sunrises, to take your breath away. At one village a small boat the very image of the African Queen chugs out to meet us, and puts passengers on board. The kiddies mainly stay in their cabins, and we have a very relaxed break from the hassles of the truck trip.

Mopti is interesting, with an extensive craft market and good food markets, where I stock up on supplies for the truck. Then off to Djenne, with its elegant mosque, the largest mud-brick building in the world, so they say. We are lucky to time our visit with market day, and the market is in full swing. We are allowed up onto the roof of the mosque, but not into the building; the roof is covered with capped mounds, venting the rooms below, and gives fantastic views over the market and out to the river.

At Mopti we are joined by Doro, who is to guide us on a walk around the Dogon villages. We drive to Bankass, and stop at the market there, where a wide variety of goods is for sale. Amongst other items there are spices, dried fish, slabs of salt, tangerines, limes, bicycle parts,pots, gourds, cotton, food donated as aid (not for resale), and home-made drinks in plastic bags. Leaving the truck and some of the less energetic people at Ennde, we walked into Teli in the dusk. To be fair, that was dusk for those of us who kept up with Doro, and pitch black for the kiddies, who lagged behind! Doro is a great guide, with an extensive knowledge of his own people, their customs, medicines, sources of food, etc. He only speaks french, and none of the kiddies can speak to him, so they choose to ignore him instead. He is puzzled by their attitudes, but shrugs and concentrates on those of us who are interested in what he has to say. We spend the night at Teli, sleeping on the roof. The sky is vivid with shooting stars, and it takes a long time to get to sleep, with music wafting up from the fireside below.

Teli has a new village (where we are stopping) at the foot of the cliff, and an old village up on the cliff-face. The fetish house is still up there, and Doro takes us up to meet the keeper of the fetishes, an old man who looks after the fetish house, and to see the old houses and the fetishes. We can't go inside; as it is, the area will have to be purified after our visit. There are small fetishes outside - animal skulls, feathers and masks.

When we leave Teli, we head along the foot of the cliff, then climb up, through surprisingly lush waterways, to the top of the escarpment, and head for Djuigibomba, where we stop for lunch and a siesta - it is very hot, and walking in the middle of the day is exhausting. Lunch is provided by the village headman and his family, and is delicious. These villages are really interesting, with houses and grain stores interspersed. Doors are carved, often with intricate patterns representing the Dogon view of the world. When Geoff and I climb up onto the roof we find it stacked with millet, tied into bundles.

Its a long walk back to Ennde, finishing with a steep climb down the escarpment, and Doro is anxious to leave. He sets a good pace, happy to be out and going. It soon becomes obvious that the kiddies aren't going to make it at the pace they want to walk. Doro asks us what is happening, and we explain that they find it difficult to walk at his speed. After some thought, he sends us on alone (me leading - great Dogon pathfinder!!!) and walks with the kiddies, but at the next rest stop he comes back to join us, having had no joy in trying to get them to get a move on. The afternoon goes on like this, with us setting off, walking until Doro gets too worried by the gap, then we wait for the people lagging behind, give them a rest, and set off again. At one such stop Doro asks me to tell the kiddies about his anxieties - we will have to descend the cliff-face in the dark if they don't speed up. It is like talking to a brick wall - they don't even acknowledge my existance. To be honest, this is the most fun the rest of us have had in a long time; we are out, walking in the bush with packs on our backs, enjoying the countryside and Doro's company, going at a pace that suits us, and too far away from the kiddies to hear the grizzling! We stop briefly at Sonenge, to get water from the well, then on to the top of the cliff. Sure enough, it is dusk when we reach the edge, and quite dark when the kiddies finally catch up, screaming abuse at us for putting them in danger, and accusing us of not telling them about the cliff. I pick my jaw back up off the ground, and we quietly sit and let them go ahead. This way we know they are ok, but we have to put up with the constant complaints and whines, as they congratulate themselves on how they are managing despite great odds. Geoff and I think about splitting from the truck right now!

Sleeping in a Dogon village is quite an experience - there are a range of noises here unlike any at home. This morning we woke to find our truck and tents surrounded by women, children, donkeys, guinea fowl and chickens, all watching our every move with fascinated eyes. We prepare breakfast under tight scrutiny. Each mouthful of food is watched, each bite is counted. We feel terrible! We share our food, but there are so many people, and any sign of largess is likely to start a riot. We give away cans and bottle, but bury the rest of the rubbish; it is immediately dug up and distributed like booty - a real lesson in recycling and sharing. This experience is to be repeated throughout the rest of the truck trip, and is something you can't get used to.

Bobo-Dioulasso, in Burkina Faso, is a welcome stopover, with touches of France. There is a sidewalk cafe with good coffee and icecream, and I spoil myself, spending $6 on a tiny bottle of chilled perrier water. We try to go to La Mare des Hippos, but right from the start we stuff up our directions, driving around and around Bobo, looking for the right road. We finally get out into the forest, but get terribly lost, and stuck in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Peter and Simon wander off ahead of the truck when we stop to turn around, and they get independantly lost. After a while half the people are out in the forest looking for the other half, it is pitch black, and we have disintegrated into a farce. Local people get involved in the search, and some hours later we are all back together, still lost, but in a better situation to find ourselves in the morning. We camp on the spot, too exhausted both physically and emotionally to do anything else.

We've given up on the Hippos, and go out to La Guinguette, a beautiful pool out in the forest. The truck is parked quite some distance from the pool, and Geoff and I manage to walk the half-hour or so into the area by ourselves, enjoying the solitude and quiet. We are stopped by some soldiers, and have to produce passports and persuade them that we are part of a group and allowed in the district. They are a bit officious, and argue for a while, but the incident passes, and we are allowed to wander at peace again. We also make a trip out to Les Cascades, out of Banfora, before going on to Ouagadougou. Les Cascades are very pretty, but the water is said to be infested with bilharzia, and so it is off-bounds, despite the stiffling heat. Ouaga is very pleasant. We camp at the official campsite, slightly out of town, reached by a road that cuts clean across a soccer field. The rubbish-strewn paddock next door is home to a thriving colony of vultures, adding a touch of class to the area. In the city we indulge in good food (L'Eau Vive) and get temporary entrance to the swimming pool at Hotel l'Independance. Good food here too! This is an R & R stopover, and everyone appreciates the chance to get away from the truck and the restrictions that truck travel imposes. There is a thriving black market in Ouaga, and we take advantage of it. The banks in West Africa have been uniformly difficult, and the two doubtful-looking men that exchange money for us here are more efficient and cheerful than any bank official we have yet seen.

Into Togo, marked by the change in housing style. Here they top off the roofs with upturned pots. The entire countryside seems to be on fire, with clouds of smoke dulling the air. Kerin National Park is on our route, and early in the morning we go with the ranger on a tour of the park. There are elephants here, not the first we have seen, but the closest. There are also dikdik, baboons, monkeys, wart hogs, and various antelope and birds. The ranger keeps setting light to the bush - the theory is that a series of 'cool' fires will prevent a real bushfire, and won't distress the animals too much. The lodge at the park is very up-market; if we were backpacking by ourselves we would never stay here, but we enjoy the swimming pool (with underwater lighting) and the luxury of rooms with en suite western-style bathrooms. Further south, we stop at Fazao National Park. This is less up-market, with a campsite in the lodge grounds. Not a lot of animals, but Geoff finds the biggest rhinocerous beetle we've ever seen! On to Kpalime; we camp near a fish farm, and the very friendly workers escort us on an exhausting, sweat-dripping walk to the reservoir, where there are crocodiles just visible on the far side. This region grows coffee, cocoa, and a wide range of tropical fruit, and we drive off to Lome laden down with gifts of fruit from the fish farm.

Lome. Time to leave the truck. We've been counting down to this day for the last few weeks. Now that we are here it is anti-climactic. Geoff and I have to spend time in Lome anyway, and go out to Robinson Plage with the rest of the group, since Frank and Mark offer us their hospitality until either they or we leave Lome.

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