A Trek in Dogon Country #1

This must be the prime tourist attraction for visitors to West Africa. And as most visitors set out from Mopti (map), that must be the prime attraction for the touts, going by the numbers who infest the place and who can make your visit a misery. Thus it was fortunate for me and my battered, dusty and sun-worn patience that after a three-day journey by truck from Timbuctoo I was delivered to an obscure vehicle depot on the northern outskirts of town. Those who arrive by bus from the direction of Bamako are confronted by folk determined to be your helpers the moment you step off your bus.

Not that I escaped for long, as my hotel’s receptionist had ‘a friend’ who could help me with my tour, but I begged off, saying that I wished first to rest from my journey, as indeed I did. I had chosen to stay at the Hotel Bar Mopti, a brothel (but with a wing reserved for those wishing to stay longer than a few hours), that was a bit out from the centre of town, in a quiet area. By comparison, the other main choice, Le Campement, is central but adjacent to the main road and its noise. Another option would be to stay at nearby Sévaré and put up with a commute via the numerous shared taxis in exchange for less annoyance.

So I wander about Mopti, viewing the splendid mud mosque (from the outside as I’m not a Muslim), and fending off helpers. Already they were tiresome, and they lie as easily as they wheedle. My only official requirement was to report my presence at the police station, and as I explained this to one fellow who wanted me to visit his stall instead, he claimed that “It is closed now”. Well, it wasn’t. He had accosted me as I had gone into the Post Office, and had waited for me to come back out. Actually, I probably need not have visited the police (nor paid their “fee”), as it was only further east that they were determined about foreigners reporting in. However, I didn’t want any bother on this issue if I were to be stopped at a checkpoint, as I was later, on leaving Djenné.

Ferry Boat Tombouctou

Ferry Boat Tombouctou

Mopti is otherwise quite a pleasant town to wander around. It has interesting sights, a scenic location by the riverside, and being low water (in May), I was assured sight of the ferry boat Tombouctou waiting by the riverbank, as well as the horde of canoes, and pirogues used for long journeys.

I also was looking for other travellers, as I hoped to participate in a group trek in Dogon country. This can, of course, be arranged via travel agents back home, or by agents in Bamako, or agents here. You would get a good trek, arranged to suit you, and a good guide, and for this you would pay startling amounts. I, however, am a cheapskate, and hoped to find other persons who spend less in order to travel more. Thus I lurked in the Dogon Patisserie in the centre of town, writing letters and eating custard squares (yes, a weakness), fobbing off would-be guides and souvenir vendors, until a 3 p.m. rendezvous with some folk I’d met while seeking a bank that changed travellers’ cheques with only painful commission.

Jo (N.Z.) and Jorge (Mexico) turn up. Earlier, they had been considering a short Dogon visit via Land Rover for CFA 240,000 and were ready to say ‘No’ to the agency. Now they report that after further discussion with the agent they have instead decided to go to Timbuctoo and back as well so that the venture will cost CFA 340,000. Erk! They could fly there and back for 90,000 each! This is about £340, and a painful sum, but they are on a side trip from a Truck Africa group and have limited time if they are not to miss the truck. This sort of bite is what I hope to avoid. Meanwhile, we are being pestered by inquisitive touts, so we retire to the hotel for further chat in peace as they were interested in the coast of Ghana, from which I had recently come.

Also at the hotel is a Dane, who had had some bad experiences with his guide and now is being so severely harassed by touts that rather than venture out himself, he asks me to fetch him a dinner from the street stall no further than twenty yards from the hotel’s entrance. A plate each comes to just CFA 750.

The next day as I’m wandering around the waterfront I pass by the bus arrival area and spot three fellows obviously just arrived and already beset by helpers as they puzzle over their street map. So I help too. Their choice is for Le Campement, as they’re ready to sleep outside. For CFA 2,500 each they have space on a concrete courtyard, access to showers, but nowhere to stash their gear. My room is costing me CFA 4,500 and is locked by my own padlock.

We sit by the bar and chat. They also are off the Truck Africa group, and intend a Dogon visit but on a cheaper regime, and probably without a guide. This is my inclination also, and it appears that my hope to find others interested in a week-long venture has succeeded already. Mike (NZ), Sam (UK) and Chong (UK) are ready to leave in the morning if possible, but in the meantime, dusk has arrived so it is time for dinner.

Chong couldn’t resist choosing Bar Bozo, where we are shown to a table with a nice view over a lagoon back to central Mopti. Even as we approach the table, there are offers of guides. The fellow who gets to us first takes a seat, and discussion begins. He starts by claiming that the ‘night stay’ and ‘village visit’ fees are 1,000 each per person, but backs down to the 500 quoted in Lonely Planet. As for the guide’s fee, he wants 10,000 a day between us. Humm. A nice round number. Much tiresome talk later he has reduced to 6,000 then 4,000 but we’re fed up. Food eventually arrives: for 1,500 a not-so-good plate of spaghetti tomate nowhere near as tasty as the street cook’s stew that was less than a quarter of the price. Of course, her overheads are lower. Meanwhile, yet more talk. The only way to cut it short is to leave, so we do, resolving to head out to Bandiagara in the morning.

In the morning, Mike is not able to come, as he has been struck down by a stomach problem, and the others are contemplating a change to a shorter trip. Our journey to Bandiagara starts late and is further delayed by stops to tighten wheel nuts, so we arrive around noon, to be met by waiting helpers, eagerly sniffing for money extraction opportunities. We want a donkey cart to convey our baggage the twelve miles to Djiguibombo, a Dogon village atop the SW end of the escarpment and a standard starting point. There are offers of vehicles, and motorbikes, but a donkey cart will do as we have all afternoon to get there. A fellow eventually comes down to 5,000 despite the objections of others at this lack of solidarity, and takes us to the far side of town where we can have lunch at his compound while arrangements are made. There are many guide offers, plus assertions that visits without a guide are forbidden. Yeah, yeah. When we’ve paid for lunch, we’re ready, but now the cart’s price is back to the standard 7,500 so get stuffed.

We walk back into a crowd of jabbering helpers who’d waited by the gate; the cart may now be 6,000 but we’re not interested. Let it be clear: such eagerness betrays the expectation of a fat profit. However, there is word of a pair of Italians leaving tomorrow, whom we might join for all or part of their journey so we allow that fellow to take us to his compound to discuss possibilities. Muhammed’s price is for a five day venture, at 25,000 “All inclusive”. This sounds attractive and is comparable with the Bozo discussion, so in to discuss details without the rabble jostling us.

Sam and Chong need to be sorted out first, and there is a lot of confusion. Everything is possible, but just what is planned is not clear at all. To obtain fixity, I insist on paper and pen and a sequence of days and places. Eventually, clarity is reached. Chong and Sam will part from the group at Dourou, about half-way to the end point of the week’s trek at Sanga, and transport will be arranged for them to get to Bankas, from which they will head south and away while I will continue with the Italians to Sanga (then back to Bandiagara) for the full trip I wanted.

So they are happy, and proceed to write out a fair copy of the “contract” of specifics. But when it comes to the money, half down and half at the end, their proffered 2 x 10,000 puzzles our guide. It transpires that he meant not 22,500 for five days, but 22,500 each for each of the five days! Good grief! (Which is not what we said) CFA 225,000 in a country where the typical daily income is 500, and that’s not yet counting money from me or the Italians. We leave in disgust, all further offers disregarded.

Outside we are mobbed yet again. We reject further offers of vehicles for 40,000 (“But it is late now!”) and motorbike rides (7,000 each, I think), then hear again an offer of 5,000 for a cart. It is accepted, but becomes 6,000 as we wait for it to be fetched. Damn this, but we want out, and most of the day has been wasted already.

The Italian comes out, also angry. He and his wife are paying 10,000 a day each for their seven-day venture, so why should the guide try to extract 22,500 a day from each extra person? He accepts that for a larger party the guide receives more, but also rather feels that the per-person cost for all should fall. Ah, shared costs are of no interest in the face of the prospect of multiplied profit, which has however not materialised. Uncontrolled avarice has been baulked by obstinacy.

At four p.m. our cart is ready and at last we’re away from the village of greed-maddened maniacs. Such is the collateral damage from tourism.

It is a long road, with much construction in progress. We’re crossing a dry plateau and although there are trees there are still dusty, rocky areas between except for cultivated areas, currently bearing no crops. The donkey plods along at an easy walking pace, despite the near continual encouragement from the driver. Kicks to the balls, arse, side; blows with a stick until it is a shredded stump but that is no respite, except for a short pause for a fresh branch to be ripped off a trackside shrub while the donkey glumly waits.

Sam gets on the cart to lie down: the heat has got to him but he is lying on metal sheet. We stop at a well (our driver does supply some care to his animal) so I fetch some water to souse him, and also rinse out his T-shirt, a black T-shirt. By now it is six p.m., and the sun is near setting, so he does well enough. Chong is way ahead by now, walking comfortably.

We continue into the evening as a near-full moon rises. We’re all walking now, except of course for the driver, and the poor donkey is slowing down. Not that the driver’s arm nor his leg seem to have tired much: kicks and blows continue. The road is still easy to follow, though the stretches of construction are now separated by unmade track. It would have been a slow, lurching journey by vehicle. Finally, at about nine p.m. we’ve arrived at a large but near silent village. This is Djiguibombo, and our driver conducts us to the compound for visitors on its SW side, close to the road. He arranges dinner for us (4,000 for three), which must be made from scratch, and some buckets of water for washing, and shows us the stick sleeping racks under a shelter. Sleep at last at eleven p.m., another late night.

Such sleep as could be managed was punctuated by braying from the donkey, a poor reward for one of our buckets of water. And with the dawn come the flies, so no sleeping in for us. Even though I have my sheet over my head, somehow they manage to find my ear to divebomb. BbbbzzzzzZZZOP!

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