The Bandiagara Escarpment in Le Pays Dogon
( Dogon Country )

Even in the early morning, the temperature was quite high as we set off towards Bandiagara

Ninety minutes later on our arrival,
we would have liked to stop for a cool drink. But it was getting far too hot to waste time being hassled by the ever present army of bumpsters, having to argue the fact that there is no actual law preventing us or anyone driving into Dogon Country without hiring one of them as an official guide.

 So we drove straight on to our final destination of Sanga, passing through picturesque
Dogon villages leading to the edge of the Bandiagara cliffs.

Sanga is a small village, but does have a couple of shaded restaurants serving tea, coffee, soft drinks, beer and food. We quenched our thirst in one of them whilst trying to negotiate a deal with one of the genuine local guides, Banya saying that he had seen it all before and preferred to stay with his car ........ again, said with a smile. Remembering that he had also preferred to do this on the last occasion when we went climbing at Songho,  I now realised why he had been so relaxed about it all at the planning meeting and why he had told us that the walking / climbing would be no problem to him !

One of the young lads seemed quite keen to talk, but less keen to guide us than he was to drink his beer. Whether this was a ploy to try to charge a higher than normal price when we eventually persuaded him to do some work, we never did find out. Lunchtime alcoholic drinking and guiding don't go together in my opinion, so he was discarded forthwith. In walked David Dolo .. a very pleasant guy and a former inhabitant of the mission that John at Mac's Refuge used to run in Sanga village. Yes he would love a soft drink and would be pleased to take us to see some Tellem houses.

Walking through the sparsely housed village and down a gentle slope towards the the plain leading to the edge of the plateau, we realised that the heat was now around 50 degrees C ( 122+ F ) and were glad we had brought plenty of water to drink .. although heavy to carry, we hoped we had learnt our lesson in Songho the previous year, when we forgot to take any with us and suffered severely.

The far-off rocks which marked the edge of the plateau, where we would descend to the village of Banani, seemed an awfully long way away .. and they were ! Nearing the edge, we looked down over the plain below we could see a range of sand dunes in the distance and  just how far we had to descend to the village .. that was a long way as well !!

Wondering how we could get down, our guide David beckoned us into a dark cleft in the rocks. Grateful for the partial shade that this gave us, we began a long and very steep descent .. following a path, that has been used for thousands of years, through the rocks and down the side of the cliff.

Descending was not too much of a problem, apart from the searing heat .. the further we went, the more splendid became the views. Far below, the tiny village of Banani, its buildings almost perfectly camouflaged in its surroundings with their thatched roofs and mud-brick walls. High above, as we neared the bottom of the cliffs, we could see some of the ancient Tellem houses.

Little is known about the first people to inhabit the 125-mile escarpment other than that they were small in stature and were called the Tellem. Planters and crop growers, they fled here to safety 1000 years ago, but were no match for the Dogon hunters .. originally believed to have come from the Nile Valley and who were fleeing from the spread of Islam .. when they arrived to take over the Tellem lands around 600 to 700 years ago.

The Tellem built their houses in and amongst the caves halfway up the cliff wall and the Dogon still use them as burial places, often hauling bodies up on the end of ropes. Only those young men of the village, who have special permission and skills in climbing, are allowed to climb up to these houses. An incredible a feat of strength.

Arriving at Banani at last, we met two of the village elders sitting in the shade of a heavily thatched Togu-na .. the bantaba or meeting place for the men of the Dogon .. built of stone and wood and never high enough for a man to stand .. thereby diminishing the forcefulness of any arguments.

Walking through tiny alleyways between the equally tiny houses, we found a café selling delightfully cool drinks from a gas-powered fridge. I think we could have spent the rest of the afternoon sitting there .. but not wanting our  legs, already tired from the descent, to seize up completely .. we continued our stroll around the village. The villagers were smiling and friendly, but I was conscious that to them, we must just be yet more tourists invading their privacy, which made me feel slightly uncomfortable when taking photographs of them .. kindly, my friends in the Togu-na did consent.

Tourism brings much needed revenue to the region and the Dogon people, who are justly proud of preserving their heritage and their ways of life. Luckily, apart from the younger generation of boys queuing up to be guides, most villagers seem to have been little affected by modernity or tempted to make too many changes to accommodate the tourists, other than to provide basic amenities for food and beverages. Long may they continue to stay so little unchanged .. for they are surely unique.

We saw their small houses, the obelisk-shaped granaries, a tiny open air-market, animal pens and beehives at the base of the cliff and stupendous views of the ancient Tellem houses, perched high up the cliffs on narrow ledges. All of which are far better understood from their visual forms, which can be viewed by clicking the picture to the left, than from any amount of descriptive text that I could write.

Even if I had had the strength to lift the camera, as well as putting one foot in front of the other on the ascent up to Sanga, I don't think I could have captured any better photographs than I had taken on the descent. The strong afternoon sun and the effects of the walking already completed were beginning to tell as we wearily climbed back up to the top of the cliffs. Alaghi and I, bathed in perspiration and stopping every few minutes to catch our breath, with David waiting patiently without once breaking into a sweat .. it took us a good hour to get to the top.

Taking a slightly different route when we did reach the top, David led us to a small Dogon house, with a room right on the edge of the escarpment .. affording a super view of the surrounding area, cool soft drinks and a selection of ancient Dogon artefacts ( looking as though they were made all of 10 days ago ! ) for sale at such high prices .. I lost my breath again !!

Between this house and our taxi, containing a soundly sleeping Banya, was a huge cave with a low ceiling .. in which 20 or so merchants were selling a range of similar ancient Dogon artefacts.
We looked, smiled and .. after much difficulty, woke Banya so that he could drive us back to Sévaré.

Thanking David for his excellent service .. we settled our account with him, agreed to pass on his best wishes to John ( Mac ) his former mentor .. and to recommend him to any of my readers lucky enough to be able to visit this area. You can contact him on ( 00223 ) 2442013 to similarly assist you IF you are a reasonably fit and healthy .. not afraid of heights or deep drops on either side and can put to the back of your mind that if you should slip or overbalance and break something ( and there are plenty of opportunities to do so ) .. emergency help is a considerable time and distance away.
I asked David what would happen if someone had an accident. He told me that on previous occasions unlucky tourists had had to be physically carried back up the cliffs by their guides. Phew, lucky us !!

Please be aware: the way we went on our trip is definitely NOT for the weak or faint hearted.

Balini can be reached by road in 4 wheel drive vehicles which are available for hire in most towns .. but it rather takes the adventure out of it.

Banya, by now used to my exclamations of "Oooh look at that !" .. kindly stopped every time he heard them, so that I could take more photos of this unique scenery, on the way back to Mac's Refuge in the early evening .. arriving just in time for dinner and a very, very sound night's sleep, before our attempt to cross the desert and reach the fabled Timbuktu the next day.

This was new territory to both Alaghi and I, would we find anything of interest or nothing at all ?