On the Road to Timbuktu, Dakar to Bamako

“Hey guys” shouted Matt Kerr, “I think that might have been the border back there” as we sped across a bridge. Cyr and I couldn’t hear what he said, since we were in the back seat of the truck, so we just ignored him. Just after the bridge we stopped, the driver got out, and ran to a control point and we were not to follow. Matt said “are you sure that wasn’t the border?” “No way man, you don’t just go driving through borders accidentally. Trust us, you’ll know when we hit the border” we said.

Sure enough, we continued on for a while and hit what looked like a border and it seemed we’d be there for a while. There was some customs work that needed to be done on the Toyota Hilux we bought a ride in and paperwork in Africa is not taken lightly. It was shipped from Europe to Dakar with the intention of selling it in Mali for a profit. While we waited, we helped Frenchman with a DVD player he had just installed in his Mercedes. He was very thankful and after chatting a bit with him Andrew asked if this was the border. “No” was the reply. “The border was several kilometers the way you came. You are in Mali now”.

Fantastic, we’d crossed the border illegally and were now stuck in no man’s land for the second time on the trip. We were already pushing our luck since two of us (not me) didn’t have visas and hoped to get them on the border. Not having an exit stamp from Senegal was not going to make that any easier. We also didn’t relish the idea of going back to Senegal and begging for forgiveness. They probably had a warrant out for our arrest. That too, would be less than pleasant.

Our new French friend offered to help us since we helped him get his DVD player running and back we went into what could only be a bad situation. It felt like going to the dentist office. The best you can hope for is that nothing terribly horrible will happen to you and so it was here, it felt like we were already on our way to jail. We rode to the border outpost and prepared ourselves for another onslaught. Sure enough, after the formalities were done, one of the guards lost his cool and from what I picked up in French, he was not happy. Our new friend did a fantastic job sticking up for us and gave the guard a full on tongue lashing, but alas we were sent to the police station to have a “word” with the head honcho. I focused on the bright side and figured that by spending a night or two in jail we’d have no problems keeping on budget.

Termite Mound through Truck WIndow

So there they were intently playing Scrabble and not too interested in breaking it up to deal with us. One of them finally moved into the office and we told them only that we needed to fill out the exit paperwork. He moved agonizingly slowly and I new that things would get much more complicated if the border guard decided to make an appearance…which of course he did. We were almost done with the paperwork when up pulls our buddy the border guard and starts making his way into the office. I positioned myself so that I could clearly see the border guard getting closer and the police commandant filling the paperwork. Just as the guard made it to the steps the commandant lifted the stamp and hovered it over the passports. “Come on, come on! Stamp damned passports for the love of god!” I screamed internally. But no, his hovering cost us the battle and the guard was happy to interrupt the process. So very, very close to freedom!

We had some explaining to do and after some apologies they let us through. At this point we figured out where the Senegal border was and we concluded that we’d better start working on the whole Mali thing pronto. By now it was dark and we’d been at the border for hours. We walked down the road and found someone who looked official. He asked us right away if we had visas, we said we needed two. “Ah” he said merrily, “that is an infraction”. Now Matt was very scared that he’d be rejected at the border and have to repeat the trip we’d just done (more on that later). He doesn’t know French, but he did pick up on the word infraction. I assured him that everything was alright, but he certainly didn’t believe me. In fact he was almost panicked. As expected we got around the infraction by a judicious use of cash. The guard was good natured about it and Andrew and I expected it, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Baobab Tree

Fourteen hours earlier we left Dakar at night after striking a deal with some guys in a truck stop. We were told to meet them there with roughly 20,000 cfa each and they’d take us all the way to Bamako. We handed over the cash and instead of hopping into a truck they loaded us into a 4×4 Toyota, things were looking good. We shot into the busy streets of Dakar, hit traffic, and before long it was dark. I never asked, but I don’t think I was the only who wondered if we were really headed to Mali.

Matt had had a long trip to Dakar and the jet lag helped him fall asleep in the front seat. Not far from the out skirts of Dakar the tarmac turned not to dirt, but more like to a crater field. It was so rough our heads regularly hit the truck’s ceiling, while wearing our seat belts. Many painful hours later we pulled into a dirt lot in a town full of people for some rest. Looking back the scene reminds me of pictures I’d seen of Mogadishu. I was concerned for my safety, but I was so beat up and tired I got out of the car and draped myself over the fully loaded truck bed. Though engines, tires, and the like normally don’t make for comfortable sleeping, I was out of commission in seconds.

Donkey with Cart

It wasn’t long until I was rattled awake by the driver and we were back on the god forsaken road. 14 hours into the trip the sun was coming up, revealing a dirt two track next to the paved road. I looked at it enviously, and we finally turned on to it finding it just as glorious as I expected. Suddenly we were passing cows, 7-foot tall termite mounds, all the while racing down a dirt track – everything that makes Africa … well, Africa.

I thought we had it bad, but then we started passing the buses we considered taking from Dakar. It should suffice it to say that, of the many we passed, none were operational any longer. At one of stops Matt got out and I said “hey Matt, why the hell is your arm bleeding?”. He responded, “oh I was resting my head on my arm when I fell asleep last night “. How he slept through that ride is a mystery and how he slept while his head bashed a hole in his arm is even more confounding.

Matt and the Hilux

We had several more good experiences on our way most of which were the result of pulling over so our driver could nap while we wandered around meeting folks and we did eventually make it to Bamako and no, our driver did not take us there. Instead he kindly dropped us off at the side of the road and got us a cab for the small ride to the capital of Mali. So my fears were realized, but it could have been worse – much worse.

Sun Rise