Monday, August 29, 2011


The road to Timbuktu

From Mopti we went east and north, seeking the fabled Timbuktu. For a while it seemed mystical indeed, as only one out of three GPS' admitted the existence of this city. However, after 200 kilometers on what had been described as corrugation hell we arrived at the river, and found a number of cars awaiting the ferry.
The geart mosque in Timbuktu
On the corrugations my Cruiser had lost all brake pressure, needing three and then four pumps to be effective. Which caused some interesting moments with the bigger holes that we encountered, hidden on the back side of a hill. At the river there was a cameraderie between drivers, everyone wanting to swop ideas, comments on their vehicles, and questions about the others'. Then the ferry came in, and we had to reverse on, through quite deep water. I managed to get my clutch wet, and hope it was not damaged, it did smell of burning, and for a while it slipped.

Camel  herd
In Timbuktu I managed to get some new brake pads, after all, I was assured, the FJ62 or its diesel equivalent was the official car of the city! However this did not solve the problem, so I will have to look at the master cylinder.

Timbuktu is a sprawling city, but its population is clearly largely a floating one. Even the hotel manager admitted to leaving for the bush to go and celebrate Eid with his family.

We were the first tourists in his hotel yard in months, and it seems that the city has had an almost total downturn of tourism over the last year. We were taken on a tour of the back streets, mosques and libraries, the town market and the craft market, and after about three hours in the heat gave up. One can only take so much!
Ancient documents conserved.
The collection of ancient manuscripts was fascinating, and we would have liked to see more made of them. One can only wonder how much has been lost, and whether the existing documents are being researched.

The South African funded library was a disappointment, being mostly closed and unused. Another good idea that came to a grinding halt? Surely this could have been a centre for development?

And then back over the 200 kilometers of desert, blooming after the rains, to Douentza, from where we jump off into Dogon country, and so to Ouagadougou, and Accra. All south now until we see the sea.

Ferry techniques
Some comments about the visit to Timbuktu. We had been advised to ignore warnings that it was not safe to visit. And warnings we did have. A taxi driver in Bamako thought we should not go without a military escort. A Military Attache said, flatly, that we should not even consider going. So we kept it to ourselves that we were going. At Douentza, where the road branches off, I filled the car, but refrained to ask about the road for fear that bandits or worse would be warned of our coming. Some kilometers into the track we noticed a pickup truck following us at a sedate pace, not the usual reckless speed. Fearing the worst, we stopped, to force him to pass, while taking his number.

Waiting for us at the ferry was the pickup, and a group of the headlong drivers. And they welcomed us, offering us tea! The pickup, it turned out, was taking to Timbuktu, among others, a senior government official, who took it on himself to make sure that we are well housed, and gave us some valuable advice.
After the rains: Kites hunting termites
On our too short visit we were met by friendliness, courtesy, and welcoming smiles. Guides were pushy, but not offensive. Children begged, at the ferry, and a few were getting close to the limit when they were chased off by an older person. At no time did we feel unwelcome, or threatened in any way. We would have liked to sleep out in the desert in a Touareg camp, to see the salt caravan come in, and to get more in tune with the life in this interesting town, but the road was calling.

Bedouins in the green desert.
But everyone knew that we were coming, that we had to work on the car, that we bought brake parts, and that we were leaving for Dogon country. There are no secrets here! So if you do pass by, and feel the need to camp in the bush, do go to the nearest village and ask where the best place is. They will respect your need for privacy, but would also appreciate the respect.


We had a wild battle with dozens of wannabe guides, some of whom became downright abusive when we decided to take a boat on the river and just see it from there. And I met some downright nice people, while waiting for the rest of the group to join me.

Apprentice boatman, Mopti
We had a very nice view of Mopti, Mali's most busy harbour, meeting place of several trade groups and many cultures, and our tour was spiced up by a thunder storm, that would have put a high veld thunderstorm to shame.

The problem in this region is that the crop they have a comparative advantage in, cotton, cannot be produced at a price that could compete with American subsidised cotton. Many attempts at finding alternative crops have come, well, a cropper. The people work hard and cultivate their soil, but it is best suited to produce the best cotton in the world. Alas, politics doom them to follow the tourist trade, which they do with diligence.
The Great Mosque in Djenne. 

Now the European economic downturn, coupled with political problems and reports of Al Qaida activity in the region has closed down the tourism industry altogether. We saw, in Mopti, maybe four other tourist couples. So people are desperate, and of course seek to sell their services as best they could. A Touareg shopkeeper I met was virulent in his condemnation of the 'bandits' in the north, and praised the army, French Army, mind you, that was chasing them further north.

Of course the problem is much more complicated than that, but still, one wonders at the economic dynamics of the region. With an economic downturn of the size we have seen here an alternative must be attractive. Emigration even illegal, to Europe, or hijacking tourists?

Mopti port, the busiest in Mali

Salt from the desert
Riverside village, Mopti

Fishing village, Mopti

Storm on the river

Monday, August 22, 2011

East from Bamako

Bamako traffic
Bamako road art
We spent a few days navigating the burocratic maze and traffic of Bamako, chasing visas, and we managed to 'do' three countries. At the same time we rested and recovered from the nights bushcamping. My wife got severely bitten by bugs, maybe mosquito's and also burnt, I thought by a local variation of the Nairobi fly that we had come to know in Uganda.

Artist's centre near Segou, working with earth colouring
Then we tackled the road east, along the river towards distant Mopti, and from there, Timbuktu. Our information was ambiguous so far. Some advised against even trying to go to Timbuktu, as it would be dangerous without a military escort, but on our first night stop in Segou we were told by the hotel owner that there were no problems, but that the collapse of tourism had caused a serious problem and that we should expect many people to offer their services as guides, or try to sell us souvenirs.

That did not prevent us from admiring the villages we passed through, some with mud buildings in the ancient style, most with granaries to store their maize and millet.

Tire change in the bush
As we began to count the kilometers towards Djenne, we had our first problems. My intermittent radiator problem resurfaced, and now, after I had filled in Bamako with Total Radiator liquid, we could see water in the bottom of the fan housing. Then Hans had a leak in the brake system, and we went up ahead to warn him of speed bumps and other obstacles. And thirdly we notices that one of my tires was losing air. Slowly, but steadily. We had to stop and change it, before going on.

That sealed the argument: we would not go to Djenne, but on to Sevare, a bigger town on the main road. But where to stay? We started out with about seven names of places where people had camped before, but one by one they were eliminated. Several did not exist any more, victims of the collapse of European tourism, the others just could not accommodate campers. We settled on the Hotel Viavia, next to the bus station, basic but at least open.

Bamako on the water
The Sunday was spent in dismantling, and the hydraulic problem was soon apparent: the heat shield of the turbo had rubbed against the pipe, and that was that. It took some artistry before it was out, but then a local artist brazed it and the deed was done. Bleeding the circuit took some time, and the assistant lost interest before the brakes were done as they should, but at least they work, and we will bleed them more next time we can get to grips with the cars. As a bonus we resolved a problem with the Land Rover's inverter too.

Earth mosque in a village along the road
On the Cruiser we spent time, and bad language, getting the radiator out. It became clear that Silverton Radiators did not take it out when they worked on the system a few months ago. And the radiator mounting on the Cruiser is one example of lack of foresight, uncharacteristic of the Japanese.

Soldering the radiator was a classic example of shade tree mechanics: two guys under a tree have a small collection of wrecked cars around them, the boots of which serve as storage of tools. They have an oxygen cylinder and a contraption in which they put carbide, then add water and clamp the lid: Voila, an oxy-acetylene rig! They found the leaks, melted out the old solder, then slowly but deliberately re-soldered the joint. Testing was done by the solderer holding the bottom outlet, the next customer holding the top inlet, and the assistant blowing in the filler neck after filling the radiator from a plastic kettle.

Shade tree mechanics!
The resultant leak was brushed out, and again carefully re-soldered, and all for CFA 5 000. About R 80. Sevare Radiator services, on the north side of the road, look out for the wrecks.

The tyre episode waited for the afternoon: again I was directed to Mohammed Tyres, who broke the bead with a hammer, then lifted the locking ring with two twists of his tyre levers, where Q-Tires in Pretoria needed two burly Zulus and a long time.

The cause of the leak was sand inside the tyre, and a label, left by the manufacturers, which had trapped the sand and this had worn through the tube. And, warned Mr Mohammed: There is no powder in the tires. He sent his assistant to get a bottle: CFA 750 (About R 12) produced a blue container labelled: Good for Baby's comfort. It even has a rattle in the top! This was applied liberally, the talcum will make the tire run cooler. Assembly was the same demonstration of practised ease, and the whole operation cost CFA 1 000. About R 16! Beat that, South Africa! Only concern is that the other tyres are going to go the same way, sooner or later.

That was not the end of the drama. As we were leaving for Djenne we noticed water dripping from the radiator. So back to the shade tree, and after some deliberation we decided: The radiator must come out again. My wife went on with the others to see Djenne, and she will report on her blog about that. I spent the morning under the tree. The new leak was at the neck of the radiator, caused, I was told, by our han-handed assembly technique.

Soldering done, radiator back in, and some kilometers test drive, and another leak. Again the radiator came out, and laborious testing produced no leak. Back it goes, and after some minutes of running, voila! A leak! This time it seemed that the top radiator hose is not sealing as it should. I have spring type clamps, and according to the expert the hose is too thick for the clamps to seal properly. He was about to build up the neck of the radiator with scotch tape, a well tested technique, he assured me, but then he learnt that I had a tube of silicon.

That sealed the argument and the radiator, so, filled this time with water, and not Mr Total's blue stuff, I was off to Mopti to scout out parking and other wild delights for the people who were still in Djenne.

Granaries in a village near Djenne

River scene near Bamako

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dakar to Bamako

Good times with friends

The King's tomb near Ngayene
Stones in the field
We spent a pleasant time in Dakar, visiting friends, doing some needed repairs and purchases, and then we were off. Our first stop was to see the mysterious stone circles that are found in Senegal and Gambia. We had read a little about them, but now, on our way south, we turned off the main road and went looking. Eventually we found the one group, near a village called Ngayene, but they were fenced and locked. Local ‘helpers’ warned that we were under no circumstances to do what they did, and crawl through the fence. After a number of unsuccessful calls, we had to leave to find some place to camp, just as someone came running to say the man with the keys was on his way.

Peanut field camping, before the rain
The chief of a nearby village allowed us to camp in a peanut field, and we pitched the small tent to save time, as rain was threatening. I had done some repairs since it leaked on us, a year ago in Mafikeng. Well, the repairs did not work. We sat on the inflatable mattress like to shipwrecked sailors, watching the water around us, ducking the drips and trying to keep a few essentials from the water spraying in. Eventually we slept, in the puddles on the mattress.

Finding the stones
Crossing into the Gambia was an education in patience. The Senegalese officialdom was friendly, but the Customs officer insisted on stamping also a copy of the SA registration papers, as well as the original! But the Gambians did not have a clue how to treat South Africans. We left, after a few hours, with a tourist stamp valid for 28 days, but were sent back by the first police officer, it seems we also have to have a visa!

Eventually we had lost so much time that we abandoned the idea of visiting the Gambian stone circles, and headed for Banjul instead. No fears for the notorious ferry, they have a new one! Well, they have, but the ferry and the docksides do not match, so it does not work. We crossed after a record four hours, others had taken six.

Using his own funds, Mr Pa tries to conserve his heritage
What a pleasure to be able to crash, tired, sweaty and suffering from a sense of humour breakdown, with an old fried in her air-conditioned house, cold beers in the fridge, washing machine ready,

The sense of peace, history and time was palpable
Two days later we left again. By now we had abandoned the idea of trying to see the dugongs in the Casamance, and so we headed back to eastern Gambia, where, we were told, there is a museum at Wassu where one could see the stone circles.

And what an experience it was! Mr Pa guards the site of burials of centuries ago, making do with what he can get, while international funding usually stops in the capital. We were warned that we might see ghosts, but only felt a warm sense of history around us.

Female Ground Hornbill in Senegal
Crossing back into Senegal, we headed for the acclaimed Niokolo Koba parek, where elephants, lion, buffalo and the rare Derby Eland could be seen.

We had to pay for a guide, and so on to the headquarters where we could camp, but were encouraged to use the air-conditioned hotel with swimming pool. Well, there are air conditioners, but most do not work, and there was no diesel for electricity. Some fuel was found to run the water pump, so there were cold showers. And there is a swimming pool….

Past glory: looking over the Gambia river.   
Between the guide, who had been there for eighteen years, and a researcher, who had been there three years we heard that elephant dung had been seen twice, and two Eland had been found, both dead, killed by poachers. We saw monkeys, baboons, ground hornbills, and a few antelope. Warthogs were around, but that is about it. No paths, no tracks, no buffalo wallows, no sign of herds of antelope, or of elephant tracks. Sad.

Then we left for Mali, where then border formalities were painless, although not too fast. We were told about the beautiful new road, the Southern Corridor to Bamako. Four hours, and we will be there. They did warn that we had to be at the bridge by three, and we were, ten minutes before, just in time to see a crane begin to demolish the temporary bridge. And the permanent one will not be ready to carry traffic for months! Chinese planning!

The result of Chinese planning: A bush camp in Mali
So we turned back on the long road, and almost 800 kilometer, three days and three bush camps, some of the worst roads on the trip and sadly frayed tempers, we are in Bamako. Now we think we should have taken a picture of the Chinese engineer, to invite all readers to stick pins in.

We have done some 10 000 km since leaving Pretoria, and the straight line distance home is just over 6 000km!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The call of the open road

The road goes ever on and on ...
When I was a kid I used to look at trains, and think that they are off over the horizon where things must be better, life sweeter, school would not give homework, and the skies would be bluer. Later I watched aeroplanes, believing that where they went girls would be prettier and not so hard to get to know.

And always there was the road, leading on to who knows what miracles and mysteries.

When we were in nice, ordered, directed, rigid Morocco the people spoke with a tinge of envy of Mauritania, where everything goes, and where we would get spare parts for our cars.

In Mauritania we were disappointed with the heat, the dirtyness and decay of the tourist spots, and we were told that Senegal was a better place, where people were learned, everything was written up and life was just better.

Ferry at the mouth of the Gambia river.
After the utter chaos of the ferry crossing at Rosso and the anarchy of traffic in Dakar we hear that in the Gambia there is no bribery, and officials are not allowed to hassle you. I am sure the beaches are cleaner, the girls prettier, the food nicer….

Perhaps that is why we travel. Already we have made acquaintenance with people who had never left their towns. Some mentioned this with some regret, some with pride. But I am drawn on by the magical names of Banjul, Mopti, Djenne, Timbuktu, Ouagadougou… Who knows what wonders we will see?

And, having seen them, will we not return and find that home is very much like these places, and the people, after all, very similar?

Statue on the skyline dominating Dakar
We admired the famous statue, in Dakar, supposed to symbolise the African Renaissance. Critics call it a Soviet-style attempt at immortality by some politicians. And the news has several reports about politicians that seek to achieve immortality by being re-elected, or having their sons inherit the leadership of their countries. So perhaps it was fitting that we should visit the mysterious stone circles in Senegal, and we hope to visit those in Gambia as well.
Who lies here?

Time has passed, no memories remain
Nobody seems to know who built these, rough hewn from local stone. They are not big, perhaps man-size, but it must have been hard work for people with crude metal tools to produce these, then move them and place them in symmetrical circles. Romantically named the King’s tomb, the biggest site in Senegal is said to have more than a thousand stones. They rest, leaning slightly to one or the other side, some resting already in the ground, remembering someone lost in the mists of time, someone that lived in these flat, fertile plains and wished to be remembered.

Time, wars, the rise and fall of empires, slave raids and civil war had wiped out all memory of those who had erected the stones, but they remain, a mute witness to the attempt at immortality. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mechanics on the move!

We have passed the 5 000 km mark, and now the maintenance monster reared its head. The problem of the front axle oil seals raised its head as well. These oil seals keep the oil from the front differential from the wheel bearings and velocity joints. I had my doubts about them before the trip began, but was assured that they were OK. However, the first time we had to use the 4X4 the joints started showing oil.

Black market petrol
On our way from Atar to Nouakchott, with the outside thermometer showing 62 degrees, we thought to fill some petrol, just to be sure. In the small town of Akjoujt we sought a filling station, but they all had only diesel. Eventually we were stopped by a guy who had been phoned by the others: he had 20 liters in a jerrycan.

We did filter it, but on the last few kilometers to Mouakchott the Cruiser began to hesitate, missing some beats.

The Auberge Menta referred us to Omar, who introduced himself as an African mechanic, who does not need any manuals, thank you!

Dismantling was not a great problem, but to find the right grease was. And, I pointed out to Omar, this is a Japanese car, and grease is not grease. After rejecting his proposed greases from the UAE and SAR, I took him to Toyota Nouakchott, where the right grease was found.

Caution: Bush mechanics at work!
We had to make do with the filters we could find, I had the right oil to hand, and after a hard day the job was done to my satisfaction, and to the manual’s specifications. The next day we tackled the aircon, and after two attempts had found a replacement compressor, filled it with the right (old style) gas, and the thing was churnig out cold air like an ice machine.

However, the work on the front axle had affected the steering somewhat, and in Dakar I found a Speedy to look at that. These guys confided that their electronic machine did not work, but they adjusted it by hand and eye, then checked the gearbox oil, filled the battery, and blew out the air filter, just to make sure I understood that Speedy is not just a garage, but a place where a South African would find service!

And now to find a way to replace the window winder mechanism that had given up!