Dogon Country

Currency = CFA
£1 = CFA 1000
US $1 = CFA 520
1 Euro = CFA 656
at that time

Our driver Banya turned up on time and we headed for the town centre in search of more camera batteries .. as those purchased in Bamako had been well-used in Djenné. Mac's advice to try the Mini Prix proved correct and thankfully I found some newly date-stamped, genuine Duracells at CFA2000 for 4, the first we had seen on our travels since leaving Bamako.

Before heading out to see the Dogon villages, we visited Baba Cisse and his Farafina Tigne shop in Sévaré, spending some time looking at the magnificent collection of beads and artefacts in his
museum. I forgot to ask if he was related to Aly Cisse .. but the Cisse family certainly seem to have the monopoly on bead and artefact supply in Mopti and Sévaré.

We left the day's itinerary entirely in the hands of Banya .. knowing that we would need more than the one day we had left to completely explore the Dogon area .. but gave him fair warning that I would be leaping out of the car to take photographs at every available opportunity.
This I did, taking many pictures of the typical
roadside* scenes of trees, buildings and animals.

Having taken a different direction out of Sévaré from the Bamako route we were used to .. and heading happily through the countryside on a good road .. he suddenly veered off to the left and drove carefully down a bumpy laterite track towards some rocky outcrops.
"Where is this?" I asked .. "Songho" said he," You will see some wonderful sights here !"

Overcast at the start of our journey, the sun was now shining out of a clear blue  sky .. with gangs of men 'repairing' the road .. in actuality making it more bumpy than it had been .. and flocks of animals sheltering under trees .. it was perfect weather for taking pictures**

We drove into a car park on the edge of Songho village to be met by some local guides.
Banya encouraged us to enlist the help of one of them to show us something special, but declined the invitation to come with us .. preferring to rest in the shade for a chat with his friends. Getting very hot by then and having forgotten to bring some bottled water with us ..
we tried to buy some cool drinks. But the only ones available were warm, as there was no electricity in the village to power anything to cool them with. No problem, a quick stroll round here and cold drinks will be available in the next village, we thought .. and declined to buy any.
A BIG mistake !

Factfile 27: Temperatures can climb to over 50 degrees C in this part of West Africa, which must sound horrendous to those people more used to a moderate climate. However, if you drink plenty of liquids .. preferably not alcohol which concentrates very much faster in the blood stream .. and indulge in as little physical exertion as possible during the heat of the day, life is not unbearable. Early mornings or late afternoons are ideal times for what unknowingly we were about to attempt. 11 am on a clear day with no water and the sun burning down, is not !

Pointing out the two rocky outcrops*** rising on each side of the village, our guide asked which one would we like to look at first. At the one on the left we would be entertained by traditional dancers and singers .. hoping for a less touristy experience, we chose the one on the right !

From a distance it didn't look very high .. but as we arrived at its base, instead of walking around it, our guide headed up into a steep-sided mountain with the agility of a mountain goat. Dutifully we followed him, not knowing what we would see apart from a good view over the surrounding area. Neither breathing more heavily than normal nor slipping on the shiny rock faces, despite wearing very worn plastic sandals, he set a fast pace. We must have been an amusing sight. Alaghi, who had never climbed anything steeper than a flight of stairs, in a European-style suit and his best leather shoes followed by a severely out-of-breath me.

Two weeks of inhaling copious amounts of dust had given me what is known in The Gambia as
a fresh cold. In common with most of the Toubab travellers we met, I had a head full of catarrh and a streaming nose .. not best suited to any orm of exercise in severe heat.

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Up and up the steep inclines we went, scrambling over loose shale, jumping from one large rock to another and squeezing through what at first seemed impossibly tight clefts in the rock faces. Passing ancient ruins of village houses and tiny fields with stone boundaries .. dating from long ago when Songho was first built .. far above the surrounding area, giving it safety and security.

I really must commend Alaghi for his bravery. Perspiring freely from a mixture of exertion and nervousness at the sheer drops we were so close to .. he only bottled-out once during his first ever experience of
mountaineering . This was when we came to a gap of around 2 metres wide between two ledges, spanned by a narrow slab of rock .. with an 80 metre drop beneath.
I was trying not to think of the difficulties we would have if one of us slipped and was injured .. what Alaghi was thinking, I know not .. I expect he was probably saying a few quiet prayers !

By now, literally gasping for breath from the heat, the catarrh preventing normal breathing, the lack of water and what felt like a lack of oxygen .. I was ready to give up as well. Our guide, still breathing no harder than normal .. smiled and kindly showed us a longer but slightly safer way round. As he only spoke Dogon, which Alaghi had a little difficulty in understanding,
we were still no wiser as to why we had to go to the very top .. but we would not be beaten.

At last we did reach the top and the views from 100 metres above the surrounding plain, were indeed splendid. Standing on the original village site and looking down on the present-day village of Songho* we could see the mostly ruined buildings of a second old town, nestling in the valley between us and the other mountain.

Our guide walked over to the edge and jumped down onto a ledge just below us. We followed and the real reason for all our suffering suddenly became clear .. a cave ** with rock paintings decorating its roof .. just tall enough to crawl into. This, according to The Rough Guide, is the village's circumcision site, where the participants sit for the ceremony in advance of competing in a 3 km running race .. with a sack of millet and the wife of his choice for the winner.

A Muslim village which keeps its animist traditions very much alive .. the cave-paintings looked as though they had recently been refreshed, although I was assured by one of the local lads that this is only done once every 60 years. Perhaps this was the 60th year !

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The journey down was no less traumatic or potentially dangerous. But on reaching ground level, we walked past herds of goats*** Songho's newly built school and a plantation of young Baobab trees .. to return to the car park. Thankfully intact, but pretty much exhausted.

Our guide cheerfully asked if we were ready to climb up the other side to experience the traditional entertainment, but the look of horror on our faces .. inducing hysterical laughter from the other guides and our driver .. was answer enough. Not waiting for anything else, we jumped in the car and asked Banya to take us with all speed to the next village that would have cool drinks .. and would he please stop laughing, or we would return and take him up there with us !!! I have never been so thirsty or so out of breath in my life. It was worth the experience .. but if we had known in advance what Banya's plans were .. and had better planned to time our visit away from the heat of the day, it would have been much easier.

The town of Bandiagara 15 km further up the road, seemed a long way, but after an hour of sitting in the shade of a small café, two litres of water plus numerous cups of tea / coffee and a sandwich .. we had  recovered. Having to withstand a lot of pestering and firmly putting down a brewing argument between Banya and an assembled group of local tourist guides, didn't help. They were virtually insisting that we had to take one of them on our journey around the Dogon villages and voices had to be raised before they finally stopped hassling us.
The worst transgressors ? The same two language experts from the Djenné restaurant !!