Mali - Off the beaten track
Djenné is often missed by travellers because it lies off the main route between Bamako and Mopti but is well worth the visit. It lies on the Niger River delta and is particularly picturesque in the rainy season when it turns into an island surrounded by water. It claims to be the oldest city in West Africa and it appears that little has changed in centuries. Djenné has elevated the childish pastime of mud-pie making to an art form; they've built an entire town from the stuff. The mud houses with their thatched roofs and wooden window shutters and doors decorated with paint and metal objects give the town its other-wordly charm.
The much-photographed Djenné Mosque intensifies this air of strangeness. Built entirely out of mud, complete with turret-like projections, it rises from the desert floor like an over-acheiver's sandcastle. It is the largest mud structure in the world and is one of the finest examples of Sudanese architecture. The only drawback is that it tends to melt in the rain and major mud-pie sessions are required after the rainy season to keep it from disintegrating. Unfortunately, non-Muslim visitors were banned from the interior after a fashion photographer and a horde of models ran amok in its interior but you can still get an excellent view of the outer walls from the roof of the Petit Marché opposite the mosque.
Djenné is about 400km (248mi) from Bamako and can be reached by bus or pinasse (large motorised canoe).
The ruins of Jenné-Jeno are an archeological site gradually being excavated by a team of professionals. It was once a thriving capital but was abandoned in the 15th century for unknown reasons. It is now a barren plain carpeted by a thick layer of broken pottery and debris, although iron implements and jewellery have been discovered there suggesting it was one of the first places in Arica where iron was used.
Jenné-Jeno is three kilometres from Djenné so getting to the archeological site is a matter of travelling to Djenné and then getting a bush taxi the rest of the way.
Ségou, the main city of the Bambara tribe, is near the ruins of Mbelba, an ancient capital of Bambara. This leafy tree-lined city is an antidote to the dusty congested streets of Bamako and the pace of life is considerably calmer. Ségou retains much of the faded glory of its French colonial origins and provides a good snapshot of what life would have been like in a French West African town. If you're there on a Monday check out the market which sells, among other things, the bright hand-woven fabrics for which the area is famous. While in Ségou you can take a day trip to Niono, known as the Venice of Mali for its system of canals and aquaducts. The mud mosque in Niono is almost as well photographed as the one in Djenné.
Ségou is 220km (130mi) northeast of Bamako along the Niger and can be reached by boat or bus. Bush taxis from Bamako to Ségou are less frequent but can be found.
During the Empire of the Mali, Timbuktu was a major stop on the trans-Saharan route and a thriving centre of commerce. Its fortunes began to fall when the monopoly on the trans-Saharan route was broken and gradually the city was abandoned and left to the desert, thus acquiring its reputation as an inaccessible and remote outpost. It is in fact rather difficult to reach although not quite as impossible as legend would have it.
Timbuktu is smack dab in the middle of desert surrounded by nothing except more desert. Getting there may be the best part of it (that, and the T-shirt that reads,'I've been to Timbuktu and back') because once you're there you may find that it doesn't have one hell of a lot to offer apart from sand, and that it has plenty of. Sand is piling up on the outskirts of the city and you now have to step down from street level to get into many of the houses. Timbuktu has three of the oldest mosques in the world that you might consider visiting although the only thing going for them is their age. They're not particularly interesting or in good repair. The inappropriately named Grand Marché is in the Old Section of the city, but it's not very large and doesn't sell many things. Despite the lack of major monuments, Timbuktu does retain a faded sense of mystery and enigma and has a feel unlike that of any other town along the Niger.
The best way to get to Timbuktu is by river, either by passenger boat or pinasse. If the river is too low for boats you can also take a bus or plane from Bamako. Timbuktu is 690km (430mi) from Bamako.