Mali - Attractions
You'd expect the capital city of one of the poorest countries in the world to be sullen and down-at-heel but Bamako is a brash cacophony of music, motorbikes, and people buying, selling and trading under the hot midday sun. Despite its problems it's got chutzpah.
Unfortunately the colonial-style Grand Marché Market burnt down in 1993. It's due to be rebuilt but until it is the stall holders are simply conducting business alfresco on the pavements and side streets around the old site. This greatly increases the chances of getting lost as all the streets begin to look the same but you can find everything here from indigo cloth to gold to tapes of African music. There's also a traditional medicine vendor should you find yourself running short of travel essentials such as porcupine quills, dried birds and monkey heads.
The Musée National is one of the best ethnographic museums in West Africa with architectural features inspired by the old-mud brick structures in Djenneé and a wide range of tapestries, masks, funeral objects, and weapons. The museum is desperately trying to hold onto its cultural treasures but is fighting an uphill battle against collectors illegally buying ancient terracotta figurines in Djenneé for next to nothing. Don't buy into this cultural devaluation: save your francs for the legal stuff.
Bamako is on the north bank of the Niger. The core city centre, where you'll find the main markets, shops, restaurants, and some hotels, is the triangle formed by Ave du Fleuve, Blvd du Peuple and Ave van Vollenhoven. The Grand Marché (or what used to be the Grand Marché before it burnt down) is in the centre of this triangle.
Falaise de Bandiagara
A hiking trek to the Dogon country, travelling the length of the Falaise de Bandiagara or Bandiagara Escarpment, is likely to be the highlight of any visit to Mali. The Dogon have a complex and elaborate culture and are well known for their art work. The treks are a great way to get a first hand look at the pink sandstone houses and granaries carved out of the cliff face, and to gather tips on gardening in very small spaces. The Dogon grow their crops in small plots on the cliff ledges.
If you are there in April you can see the spectacular five-day Fête des Masques which is the Dogon's major festival and involves liberal amounts of dancing and millet beer. The other regular event in Dogon life is market day, occuring every five days. These are lively affairs that don't get into full swing until around noon and are usually greased with a bit of a joke-telling session, some local gossip, and the ubiquitous millet beer.
The Bandiagara Escarpment is 135km (84mi) long and runs from Douentza in the north to near Bankas in the south. Bandiagara, Bankas and Sanga are all popular starting-points for hikers. Bandiagara and Bankas are both about 550km (340mi) northeast of Bamako, while Sanga is about another 40km (25mi) further north. To get to these jumping-off points take a plane, bus or boat from Bamako to Mopti, and from Mopti a mini bus or bush taxi.
The Niger River Route
The Niger River is the life blood of Mali, entering at the southern end of the country and running into the interior as far as Gao, before doing a sharp right hand turn and flowing back toward the ocean. Boats run up and down the river between August and November and it's one of the best ways to see the interior of the country. Most travellers find the journey fascinating, and it gives them a chance to experience the hurly-burly of port life along the river. Conditions on board tend to vary: at best it's still not quite shuffleboard and margaritas aboard the Love Boat; at worst it's a floating hellhole with no extra charged for the sweltering cabins, dirty toilets, food shortages, sandbankings, and cargo spread everywhere.
Mopti, lying on the inland delta, is one of the biggest cities along the Niger with one of the most vibrant ports and a large bustling market. It's also the centre of the local tourist industry and suffers from hard-sell overload. Travellers have reported being mercilessly harangued by local youths offering themselves as guides, or trying to off-load postcards and souvenirs and refusing to take no for an answer. Some of these entrepreneurs are not averse to a little bit of free enterprise so watch out for the scams that end up with you being parted from your money. Before Mopti is the junction town of San, which is quieter than the other places but has a traditional ambience that other towns seem to have lost. Gao is the last stop before the Niger turns and heads back to the ocean. It's well and truly in the Sahel and is extremely hot but has a picturesque market place, stunning sunsets and the Tomb of the Askia (a 16th century ruler), now used as a mosque.
Boats run from Koulikoro, 60km (37mi) east of Bamako, to the interior city of Gao, 925km (573mi) northeast of Bamako. Journeys may be anything from one day to a week long. In theory a boat leaves Koulikoro every Tuesday and arrives in Gao the following Monday stopping en route at a number of towns. The return journey begins in Gao every Thursday and arrives at Koulikoro a week later.