Friday, 6 March 2009

Timbuktu to Ouagadougou - what a mouthful!

We're in Ouagadougou - where?! The capital of Burkina Faso - where?! Ok, so it's probably not the best known country. Landlocked between the expanse of desert to the north and the coastal countries to the south it's often overlooked. Being resource starved and one of the poorest countries in the world it doesn't pack the punch of many of its neighbours, but we're certainly enjoying it so far. We've timed our visit well. 'Ouaga', as it's affectionately known is the capital of African cinema and the home of Africa's largest film festival taking place this week.

We had another hassle free crossing into Burkina Faso, although it still took 4 hours, partly because there was no border at the border, We had a 50km drive between towns either side. The only indication of us entering Burkina was a slight change in the colour of the road, we then had to register ourselves in the first big town on the other side.

After spending a while feeling lost and confused driving round Ouaga we decided to brave the 'OK Inn', a name we'd been laughing about earlier in the day, but we could easily find it as it was on the GPS. We drove through a slightly dodgy looking lorry park into the immaculately groomed car park of the hotel. Upon entering reception and seeing the rooms costing £50 per night we asked if we could camp. 'Oui', was the response. The car park was better than many camp sites we'd stayed in, so we were happy. We then asked how much expecting it to be pricy. 'Gratuit, free', was the response. So we're now sitting outside by the hotel pool, drinking draft beer and about to order dinner. We even have decent showers and real flushing toilets. (Only had holes in the ground for a while). Probably our best campsite yet, and all for free. Lovin' it!

The evening we arrived in Timbuktu we were introduced to a guide who had taken a Scot under his wing. He was planning to head to Dogon country, and we thought we could save money by teaming up. So we met Caspar, and rejected the guide's extortionate price deciding the three of us should go it alone. We agreed to meet him on the south bank of the ferry two days later.

We had an enjoyable day in Timbuktu. Having beaten off many so called guides, we were eventually landed with two school kids who had the day off and seemed to just want to practice their English. They insisted in guiding us for free, and I couldn't come up with a good way of getting rid of them. We spent most of the day with them, settling down for tea with some Turegs for a while, before buying them a drink at the end of the day to say thanks.

Upon arrival at the ferry there was a car stuck trying to get off - a familiar story by now. Due to the water being so low at this time of year there was a very steep slope to climb, and this fully loaded car was struggling. As we were the only other vehicle around they asked for our assistance. No problem I thought, we'll just winch him up. So out came the winch. Unfortunately his battery was flat so he couldn't assist by driving up the slope, so we were just dragging this vehicle. This proved too much for the winch which broke free from its mountings with a loud bang. We then got out the recovery straps and tried to drag it out, eventually succeeding after about an hour with a round of applause from most of the village. Back to Timbuktu for us to get the winch fixed. Three hours later and £40 poorer we returned to the ferry hoping for a free ride across for the assistance we'd provided earlier. They had different idea, as there were no other cars waiting to cross now they wanted to charge us the cost for the entire ferry, and then double as it was now after 7pm! So after some arguing we got them down to the daytime cost, but they wouldn't go any lower than that.

We spent the night on the south bank of the river with some very loud frogs, waiting for Caspar the following morning. He eventually turned up 4 hours late, African transport, by which time we'd adopted a village load of children. Although entertaining for a while, as the games of catch started to get a bit tired, and yet more children were appearing, the arguing, fighting and tears started. Hannah eventually resorted to showing them photos from home that her parents had given us. This caused much amusement and shut them up for a while.

Due to the later than expected start we camped a hundred or so kilometres from Timbuktu before heading to Dogon Country the next day. We decided to take the short cut, taking the less major, but direct route. Unfortunately one wrong turn and we were 500m up on the cliffs on a 'walking and donkey track'. Our car driving through these Dogon villages far from the tourist area caused much excitement. We had children chasing us the whole way through villages, hanging off the back of the car, lots of shouting and excitement. 8 hours later we still hadn't made it to our destination so we settled down for another night.

We set off early the following morning to find breakfast and guides. The first village we hit there was a woman cooking at the side of the road so we stopped to get some food. She had unfortunately just run out, but as ever, there just so happened to be a 'guide' in the village. Every man in Mali will claim to be a guide, but we sat down for a discussion anyway. Solomon claimed to be the man with the knowledge, but he didn't speak English, so he dragged in his friend Calib, but Calib couldn't speak Dogon so we needed both of them. While discussing the logistics it seemed all they could offer us for breakfast (apart from millet beer, which they gave us at about 8.30am) was chicken, so we agreed to that. A whole chicken eventually turned up, feathers and all. The woman of the house plucked and cooked the bird, serving it up in a big communal bowl that we all dived into with our hands, discarding the bones on the floor. Caspar was the one lucky enough to get the chicken's head. About 4 hours after we originally arrived in the village we eventually left, well fed and with guides in tow.

It became apparent on the way to our first village that the guides didn't know the area at all, when they had to ask directions several times on the way. This carried on for the next few days, with them asking directions and having to employ other guides to show us the way. Still, they were nice guys and we got on well. Did a little walking and lots of sitting around, eating traditional food (always with hands - not easy when it's spaghetti) and drink - we asked for some millet beer, which materialised about 5 hours later - a 5 litre jerry can which kept us busy for the evening. Dogon Country itself is well worth a visit (although perhaps with guides who are able to explain what things are). The Dogon are an ethnic group in this area of Mali who have been sensible enough to choose an area of stunning scenery to make their home. Lots of very attractive villages are dotted around an escarpment which overlooks a vast expanse of savannah. Added to this is the intrigue of the mysterious Tellem people, a pygmy race who apparently inhabited this area in the distant past. Their waist-height houses are built into the cliff, often half way up, which fuels the legend that they could fly.

So, now in Ouagdougou. Put in our applications for the Visa Entente yesterday (Maybe someone should tell the embassies in Bamako it does really exist), which covers several of the West African countries, so hopefully that should be ready to pick up this afternoon. We decided we liked the police in Ouagadougou, after we went to the wrong police station to extend our Burkina Visa/get the Visa Entente, they helped us out by giving us a police escort across town to the right place, allowing us through the roads closed for the Fespaco Film Festival and refusing to take a tip at the end. This all changed however, on return to our hotel, via a roundabout which we've since discovered is a regular trap for European vehicles. We were pulled over for apparently going through a red light. On hindsight, maybe we did, but the lights were of the variety used for pedestrians at home, i.e. tiny and about four feet up a post, off the road and facing in a different direction. Our main issue was that the policeman who pulled us over was on the other side of the roundabout with no view of our lights. So yet again we were defending our case to African policemen. Documents were taken and we were told to come back tomorrow to collect them and pay the fine. Funnily enough, the documents came back to us pronto when we insisted on going to court and the camera came out for us to take phographic evidence of where we were, although we were still told to return tomorrow - a face-saving strategy I feel. Both they, and we knew that we wouldn't turn up - although it did mean we had to find a new, much more convoluted route into town to avoid the roundabout!

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