We’ve made it to Bamako. We’re here in the capital city of Mali to collect Nigerian visas. Contrary to what both the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet say, it isn’t such a bad place to be stuck. The place has had lots to offer (including Wi-Fi and, at least for Kev, air-con!).

The first night we were here was a big night. After doing time (albeit a short amount of time) in a dry country it was time to party and the bar here at the Sleeping Camel had plenty of beer to facilitate that. Not everyone was looking too good the next morning.

Sean Paul is playing tonight and some of the troops are planning to attend that concert. A few days ago there was a football game: Bamako against the Mali Armed Forces team. Carolina got right up there with the Malian ladies and danced in support of their team.

Greg had a craving for goat yesterday and had one of the local guys show him to a good spot. Apparently the “good spot” looked like a dirty old shack but whoever was cooking in said shack new how to do it right. Greg had 2 servings.

Aussie Sean and Jeremy came with me to lodge the visas. They wanted to see how tricky it can really be. Dang me if this wasn’t the easiest visa process I have ever experienced. They think I’m a liar now. I’ll have to take them to the Angolan embassy with me. If that proves to be difficult, I can reclaim a little face. If it ends up being a piece of cake, I’m bringing those dudes with me to every embassy as they’re obviously some kind of good luck charm.

I was told that there were 3 things in Mauritania: Sand, flies, and Mauritanians, in that order. That’s half right. There’s also camels, donkeys, and (allegedly) terrorists. I can’t confirm the latter but they certainly had the biggest, most disruptive impact on the trip. Also, I believe that the camels and donkeys outnumber Mauritanians – even if you only count the camels and donkeys that were road-kill.

That said, Mauritania was pretty awesome. The scenery was gorgeous and the people were very friendly. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see much of it though. We were rushed through the country by military escorts. The armed guards were on account of recent Al Qaeda activity in the area. They rushed us through town after town like an overprotective mother rushes her child past anything she perceives to be germ ridden. I almost felt like they were embarrassed to be seen with us they were that adamant about getting us out as quickly as possible.

The only times we really did slow down were when we had to get out with shovels and make the sandy road passable for our truck. That was fun.

So, we didn’t get to see much of Mauritania.

We arrived at the Mali border after dark ( and 3 days earlier than anticipated) so we slept there. Our first day in Mali proved that we’re truly in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was a quintessentially African day. That is, a day where you’re not really doing anything but still a lot happens.

I often sleep outside when the conditions are right. If it is warm and the area isn’t too densely populated, sleeping under the stars is a great option. That’s what I had done this night. I woke up surrounded with no less than 14 eyes fixed on me.

“Ugghh.” I mumbled from under the covers of my sleeping bag. There are few things I hate more than being stared at. “Make ‘em go away!” They didn’t go away.

The gaggle of children didn’t leave camp for hours and, in fact, they commandeered our campfire. Just as the concept of personal space is not really grasped in Africa, the concept of private property is not always clear either. I believe some of the skinnier ones were waiting around for a bit of our breakfast. Definitely not an option! We’re not heartless, we’re just budget

We proceeded down the road to Nioro where we struggled a bit to find the customs office. It wasn’t exactly obvious. We drove towards town and were given directions the opposite way. We turned around and when we stopped to ask where the office was we were pointed in the direction from whence we came.
When we did eventually find it, we ran into two groups of travelers that we had previously met in other locations. I find that you’re always running into people you know in Africa. Sometimes in the weirdest places. This wasn’t really a weird place to find fellow overlanders but the odds of us all hitting it at the same time was a bit strange.
The Spaniards had been delayed as they found themselves in a bit of trouble. One of the guys had decided to para-glide behind the other’s motorcycle while they were in the desert. The para-glider was arrested on espionage charges. Of course! Why would someone do something like that if not to spy on the Mauritanian government? Apparently the charges had been cleared.

Customs work finished, we took off towards Bamako. We found a little junction town where there were stalls selling delicious roasted goat. Before we could eat, however, we had to deal with the cops. Some kind of run-in with the police happens roughly once a week, often more, for us here on the dark continent. It’s usually something benign. Sometimes completely ludicrous. One comes to learn to expect it.

“Bonjour! Chief, chauffer!” The big man in the blue camouflage uniform boomed as he tapped me on the shoulder.

“Oh, great.” I thought, “Here we go.” It can be frustrating and time consuming dealing with these guys, but in truth, it’s sometimes kind of fun. Fun when I’m not starving, though! I really wanted that goat. I was a bit miffed.

I took him over to Gav and he proceeded to tell us that there was a problem.

He explained to us that one of the passengers had taken a photo of the police post. This is illegal in most of Africa, as is taking photos of bridges, government buildings, borders, military officials, public officials, politicians, probably any family member of any elected official, in some countries, certain streets are off limits. These are just the things I know of right off hand . How your average tourist is supposed to keep track of all this, I just don’t know. I think they need to start handing out pamphlets on what you can and can’t photograph.

Well, this photographer didn’t even know that there was a police post there. Just like the customs office, it wasn’t exactly obvious. She was taking a photo of some women and of the little town itself. Not that that mattered to the coppers. She deleted her photos in front of the big man in blue, we joked around with him a bit, and he sent us on our merry way. I got my goat.

As we moved on we passed plenty of overturned vehicles along the road. Not an uncommon thing on African highways. We came upon one vehicle, though, that had just recently driven into the ditch. The 5 occupants of the green sedan were sitting around stunned and looking hopelessly at the wreck.

This was their lucky day, though. We’ve got some strong men on the truck. Surely African Trails could just simply lift the car out of the ditch, right? Right! With the combined strength of the guys and Peter’s excellent instruction, the car was right side up on terra-firma with just a few heaves. If you ask the ladies of African Trials though, what really made it all possible was the encouragement provided by those of the fairer gender.

After that random act of kindness, we carried on and found ourselves a little bush camp in the scrub 100km or so down the road. Great little place with lots of bird life (including Senegal parrots!!) and some oddly, mushroom shaped termite mounds.

After dark, it became apparent where the smoke we had been seeing off in the distance was coming from. Trees were silhouetted against an orange and black background not too far from camp. Flames were licking those trees. There are a lot of controlled burns in Africa but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t spectacular and sometimes scary.

This one was quite a ways off and didn’t put us in jeopardy. Not everyone believed this though so it added an extra element of excitement to the evening.

Now, Gavin P. and Chris H. have been working hard on a project. In Fes, they built and tested a smaller model. They decided to go big on round 2. The guys constructed a gigantic, crate paper hot air balloon in Nouakchott. With the hot air from the camp fire, they believed they could make it fly. They were ready to test it out at this bush camp.

They got close. Really close. The balloon filled with hot air and tried hovering above the fire. Alas, she failed to lift off. The idea was right but her materials were perhaps just a little too heavy. Hopefully they’ll give it another shot.

From here we travel to Djenne and check out the biggest mud mosque in the world, the biggest mud structure in the world, in fact. We’ll see Mopti and Bandigara and trek in Dogon country. The river trip up to Timbuktu isn’t happening. Those damn terrorists again! I’m sure we’ll find something exciting to make up for it though!

Happy holidays, everyone!