A 4WD odyssey through Mali's plains

Driving through the landscape of Hombori, Mali. Pictures: Courtesy of Norhayati Abu Bakar, Agencies

Sunday, April 11, 2010

THE globe-trotting Bruneian, Norhayati Abu Bakar, and her husband, Harun Kurt Eichbauer, have embarked on the second leg of their odyssey, this time driving through Mali with their trusted four-wheel-drive Jambo.

Norhayati's expedition is in commemoration of Brunei's 25th Independence celebration. The journey is supported by the people and government in Brunei as well as the private sectors that are enthusiastic in making both Norhayati and Harun's journey a success. In this edition, The Brunei Times is given the exclusivity to present Norhayati's travel notes from her journal entitled "From Brunei to around the World 2009 - 2010, 25 Years Brunei Independence Expedition".

Bamako, Mali

Monday, March 15

We arrived late in Andrew's camp which was located on the river Niger. Arriving at around 6pm, we could see the entire town, populated by about 1.5 million people, which by the hour become more as people from the surrounding areas drift into the town in search for a better life.

"How are we supposed to find the camping grounds?" asked Harun. Plotting the location via GPS, we drove down into the river valley and the masses of people. "Drive on route 14.8 km to destination." We did as we were told ... we drove on through the evening traffic and further away from town. One point of observation ... It is troublesome to drive in certain towns in Mali, especially near markets, as vendors quickly approached our four-wheel drive nicknamed Jambo and offered their merchandise to us. Slowly we drove on through the street filled with vendors.

At almost every stop along the journey, we frequently asked passersby, "Camp La Cactus ... do you know where?" Unfortunately not many were familiar with the camp. Meanwhile it was getting darker.

Maybe we have plotted the GPS wrongly and once again I plotted. "Drive for another 1.2km and then turn left." We did so, there came a junction into our headlights and a track leading to the river. But no signboard. The track was bad ... filled with holes as big as a wheel barrow. "Is this the road?" We doubted it, but our GPS showed we were on the right track and was supposed to drive for a further 500 metres. We finally found the place about half an hour later. Andrew's man was waiting on the road for us, fearing we would not find the camp. Slowly we drove into the yard, I noticed that we were the only visitors.

Tuesday, March 16

After paying our dues which was about $25, we were on route to Mopti, a town north east only 650km away. The drive was strenuous, but we were able to reach the town.

When we did arrived in Bamako, we immediately find the bearest "Total" diesel station. Onlookers here were curious about our Jambo and started to take pictures and asking question. "Where is Brunei? Where are you going after Bamako?" "Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is your king, right? I have read about your King. He is generous and your country is very rich." After telling them about our beautiful Southeast Asian country, we continued on our journey.

We finally arrived in Mopti town later in the evening.

Wednesday, March 17

We left Mopti and went to the land of the Dogons. Some have heard about this tribe, while others did not. If ever you're in this part of the world, a visit to this place is a must. The Bandiagaro escarpment, a mountain ridge, is a treasure trove for an adventure. Here lives the people of Dogon, known for their complex culture, their carved doors, masque stilt dances, and dwellings build right into he vertical cliffs of the escarpment.

Their tradition tells that they arrived here around 1500 AD. It was not until 1920s when French soldiers and a group of Christian missionaries tried to convert the Dogons, but with little impact.

Sanga village was the first to be visited by us.

The local villagers told us of the Sigui, the most important ceremony of the Dogon. It takes place every 60 years and can take several years. The last one started in 1967 and ended in 1973, the next one will start in 2027.

The Sigui ceremony symbolises the death of the first ancestor (not to be confused with Lebe) till the moment that humanity acquired the use of the spoken word.

The Sigui is a long procession that starts and ends in the village of Youga Dogorou and goes from one village to the other during several months or years. All men wear masks and dance in long processions. The Sigui has a secret language, Sigui So, that women are not allowed to learn.

It was about noon time when we left the village, and we drove along the mountains on dirt road and saw some old Dogon dwellings along the route.

Driving on, we found a place to sleep about 150km before Gao.

Thursday, March 18

We started our trek to Gao very early in the morning. Ibn Batuta, the greatest Muslim traveller in the 14th century, who have visited Gao writes, "Gao is a big beautiful town with nice houses. The Negros hunt people from other tribes and eat their prisoners."

By following the river, we came in time to the border, and after some cold drinks and a few minor bank notes, we proceded with our trek, and by 8.30pm we checked into a hotel in Niamey, the capital of Niger. We were dead tired again.

Friday, March 19

We stayed in the hotel to rest for a day and we managed to update our website.

The Brunei Times