Leaving the town of Kankan on a road covered in a plethora of speed bumps .. the curse of drivers everywhere. With a short stop for a cursory glance at our papers in the police post, we also left the tarmac surface
and criss-crossed over a few kilometres of new road construction on a mixture of dusty laterite and sand. Large water tankers were flooding some areas of the road in an effort to keep this dust down .. which was only partially
Those of us with masks were wearing them, trying to stop both the dust and the exhaust fumes .. again with limited success. My supposedly advantageous seat by the window was actually no advantage in getting
any fresh air ! Such was the cloud of oily blue smoke surrounding the whole car, especially on de-acceleration, it was impossible to lean out far enough to escape it. Africans suffer the same as visitors and we were all
coughing and choking before too long.
Only the driver and his young apprentis .. curled up in the rear on top of our baggage ..
seemed impervious to the horrendous stench.
Factfile 18: With the high temperatures often experienced in West Africa .. way above even the hottest days in Europe .. the lack of a balanced diet or a ready supply of cool and clean fresh water, electricity
rare or non-existent, cleanliness levels sometimes a long way below the clinically sterile ones most of us are used to .. often uncomfortable transport, squashed like sardines in a can in vehicles mostly bereft of upholstery or
leg room .. little protection from mosquitoes and other menaces in the rubbish-strewn areas of major conurbations coupled with the interesting smells of raw sewage .. it could be supposed that non-Africans would suffer ten
times more than the locals - who, having been born into it, would manage with ease. Not so.
Many times I have been in situations of temporary hardship whilst in West Africa ..
looking around with awe and admiration at the perceived impervious stoicism of the similarly suffering locals .. very occasionally doubting if I would be able to endure it for as long as they could.
Looking around a little while later,
especially once really getting to know and understand them, one soon understands that they are suffering every bit as much .. and in some cases more than oneself .. but rarely display it openly or complain about these privations in public.
I never ever forget that I am so lucky to have the option of choice. To be with them in Africa or to stay at home in 'developed comfort', to sleep alongside them under a
blanket on the open ground or to pay for a comfortable hotel room. To eat with them or to buy European food when available, to be able to choose my form of transport and to be insured against accidents etc.
In most things .. I am fortunate to have a choice .. in just about all things, they have no choice.
So answer me this: Why are most Africans happy, smiling,
generous and caring .. whilst so many people living in so-called 'developed countries' have so much, but appreciate so little ?"
We followed the River Milo through the countryside, seeing the occasional small herds of cattle browsing amongst the regular and mushroom-shaped termite mounds and
occasionally bridging large rivers, whose beds were being used to make mud blocks for house building.
Following the Milo
Darkness was falling when we arrived in Siguiri .. for our papers to be checked and for more than the usual amounts of tea, coffee and soft drinks to soothe our red-raw throats. Boiled eggs with Tapalapa (
Fula bread ) sandwiches made a tasty snack and we headed to the edge of town for refuelling at a modern-looking petrol station. Our driver hopped out and stood next to the pump attendant, chatting
happily as our petrol tank was filled to the brim with diesel.
Just past the Bamako 218 km sign, 2 kilometres out of town .. the engine coughed, spluttered and died .. and we ground to a halt. Another small problem !
Factfile 19: It really doesn't matter whether you are in Africa or anywhere else in the world ..
if you fill a petrol engine's tank with diesel fuel .. this is the inevitable result !!
Whilst we wandered around the bush, enjoying being in fresh air for a change .. some praying, others
chatting .. the apprentis hitched a lift on a passing motorcycle and reappeared half an hour later with a litre bottle of petrol. Meanwhile the driver had been stripping the carburettor to pieces and cleaning it.
The bottle was wedged on top of the engine and connected directly to the carburettor so we could drive back to the petrol station .. which of course had since closed for the night. Luckily for us and perhaps
unluckily for them .. the staff had not yet gone home .. we had just made it with seconds to spare. A heated argument developed between our driver and the pump attendant as to just who was the biggest
idiot .. the pump attendant for putting diesel into a petrol car, or our driver who had watched him do it .. and who was going to pay !!
Who won and who paid for what is not certain, but eventually the station's generator was cranked into life and under the lights of the pumps, the fuel system was drained, washed through and refilled with
petrol. We sat at a safe distance in the darkness, sharing cigarettes and tepid soft drinks from their drinks' cooler some unexpected after-hours profits for them.
This small problem had added some two and a half hours to the journey time and our driver
.. previously not the slowest in the world .. took out his frustrations on the road ahead !
Severely ribbed surfaces that made your teeth chatter, hairpin bends, chicanes through road works and the occasional village with its associated livestock, all flashed past at indecent speed in the
darkness. The only thing to slow our progress were areas of talcum powder-like fine sand that evidently could only be driven through at walking pace. He almost missed seeing one of these areas
and before slowing down enough, the dust immediately billowed up .. completely engulfing our car from end to end. The reason for his caution was duly noted.
Before reaching Kangaba we stopped .. the driver got out clutching his papers and .. motioning us to stay put .. disappeared into the darkness. Assuming it was just another police check that thankfully
didn't involve us .. and by now suffering from both extreme tiredness and the advanced stages of carbon monoxide poisoning .. we stayed put and tried to sleep.
Twenty minutes passed and unable to breath easily or sleep .. I went to find out where he was.
Evidently so fed-up that he wanted some time on his own .. there he was, merrily chatting to some
friends in a roadside restaurant .. candlelit and hidden from our view .. enjoying drinks and a plate of food. "Goodness me, you appear to be enjoying yourself my good man. Is it possible that we might be
continuing our executive-style journey to Bamako at any point in the near future, perchance ?" ( or words to that effect !! ) stirred him into motion and we continued.
All that feasting must have tired him out .. for after a few kilometres he abruptly stopped the car, jumped out, woke up the apprentis and changed places with him. With a grinding of gears, we lurched
forward and carried on .. twisting this way and that .. taking many non sign-posted diversions off the pretty bad road surfaces, presumably to miss worse sections. I was just marvelling at his knowledge
and skills in direction finding when we started careering around many great piles of stones. The exhaust completely shattered and dropped off from the manifold and we shuddered to a halt at a
complete dead-end .. in the middle of a gravel pit !
Unsurprisingly the associated racket woke our driver from his slumbers, curled up on top of our luggage in the back. It didn't make him any happier than his previous mood either !! The exhaust was
tied up somewhere underneath with string .. in no way stopping any of the noise or fumes .. and we headed back out of the gravel pit and back onto the proper road. The engine popping and banging in
the still night air .. with the apprentis, following a severe bollicking
( chastisement of a somewhat serious nature ! ) .. consigned to his former place in the rear.
At 11.30pm the border crossing point at Kangaba were expecting us .. indeed they must have heard us coming for some considerable time. Papers were once again produced and stamped on the Guinea exit
side. On to the baggage check .. nothing amiss .. but just as we were about
to get back into the taxi .. we were approached by a couple of guys .. Chinese 0. 5 candlepower torches
in hand, asking for payment.
Not in uniform and with the blackness of the night so intense we could hardly see their faces .. they
made the near fatal mistake of demanding payment from an over-tired, sore-throated Toubab with his legally stamped passport securely in his pocket.
To avoid your blushes, dear reader, I won't repeat what I said .. but they didn't get any !!
The Mali entry side was not much better. It always seems that when it is dark .. and these places
never have sufficient lighting .. more liberties are taken. First the customs baggage inspection .. all our bags had to be laboriously untied from the roof rack by the lights of any of us who had power left in
our torch batteries .. then we had to stand beside our own possessions.
Absolutely nothing was checked and they all had to be re-packed .. an episode which took 20 minutes
or so and was of absolutely no benefit to anyone. Next the immigration office. My passport was stamped without problem .. but again payment was unfairly demanded from all the Africans, including
the Malian citizens .. despite all having correct papers. After the usual minor arguments and petitions, all paid up meekly .. but by this time, Alaghi had had enough as well.
Having passed through this border crossing on numerous occasions .. always with his correct
papers and usually receiving a similar welcome to that which we enjoyed on our entry to Guinea
.. this Malian welcome from a different night shift of border guards .. was the last straw !!
After arguing his case for a good 15 minutes .. he stubbornly refused to pay them anything and sat down at the side of the road in a one-man protest against corruption.
If I hadn't given him the money and coerced him into giving way and paying up .. he or we would still be there to this day. These so-called officials would have been quite willing to let him stay there
indefinitely, whilst they lounged on their beds in the shadows, watching a colour TV.
No payment .. no papers returned .. no travel .. regardless of any inconvenience to others !!
The noisy interior of our transport became even noisier and more heated with the combined derogatory comments aimed at corrupt officials in general and these in particular. We literally roared
into the ever more sparse bush of the Mali countryside .. over considerably rougher roads with what seemed to be needle-pointed rocks, just below the surface of the thick dust.
Our entry into Guinea had been marked by the appearance of Guinea Fowl .. here we were welcomed by Malian mice scurrying over the road .. and a galloping hare .. lit by our headlights.
The intervening hours, between the border and Bamako itself, were lost in a semi-conscious nightmare of noise, dust and fumes, until eventually we could make out the ambient lighting as we neared the city
outskirts. An enormous and very brightly lit power station was our first sight of Bamako as we banged, popped and clattered through the sprawling outskirts to arrive .. barely alive, with raw throats
and throbbing headaches .. at the taxi-garage at around 4am.
Only one café was open .. so we staggered over a large rubbish-filled storm drain to gorge ourselves on drinks, whilst watching the metre-long rats scavenging in the rubbish near our feet. We listened to
the UK football results on the BBC World Service .. which, by coincidence, were being played at full volume on the café owner's radio .. at long last we had made it to Mali.