Saturday, January 15, 2011

A walk in the park

We need cash and Djenné doesn’t have ATM’s. We wanted to avoid the hassle of the busy river port town of Mopti, off the main road to the north, but now it seems we have to head there anyway. To our satisfaction, Mopti’s sister town Sévaré saves us 25 kms of detour and a lot of time by providing us with money, fuel and a Lebanese-ran overpriced supermarket. We are ready for some bush camping now! We are unsure what to expect from Dogon country; rumor goes it is as empty as Djenné right now, but we fear a massive overload of guides and hustlers, so we are determined to stay away from the most-visited villages along the escarpment. Only we don’t know if our bikes (and we) will be fit for the tracks: our GPS doesn’t indicate quite well if these are on top or on the slope of the escarpment…

We enjoy a nice lunch in Bandiagara before choosing the road crossing the center of the escarpment near Douro. It starts off as a stone-paved single lane track, leading through orchards and farmland into the hills. Fences, houses, everything seems to be so nicely kept that it feels like we are in a theme park. The onion fields are remarkably green and fill the air with a prickling scent. People are waving at us from their fields or donkey carts. Here and there, the road is in worse condition and soon the loosely strapped bag with canned tomatoes and beans escapes unnoticed from Isabel’s bike. Someone along the road is going to have a lucky day!

Just behind a terrible stretch, with loose sand, pointy rocks and a row of donkey carts blocking the passage, we stumble upon a magnificent view from the edge of the escarpment. It would make for a perfect camping spot, but alas we are soon surrounded by children climbing the escarpment via the centuries-old stairways, sometimes carrying large baskets on their heads. They are nice though, braiding Isabel’s hair and eagerly eating the bread we offer them. We are inclined to stay where we are for the night, until a young man appears and summons us to his father - the village chief of Yawa - to ask for his permission. Tony and I get back on the bikes, reluctantly riding back up the horrible slope. In Yawa, we are told that there is no way around staying at the village’s guesthouse. It’s a small compound made of piled stones, on the very edge of the escarpment, just outside the beautiful traditional village. We agree and bring the news to Isabel and Boni. Some sweating and cursing later, we are sipping lukewarm beer and making corned chicken sandwiches. No dry spaghetti tonight, we’ll think of something to do with it tomorrow morning.

We spend a comfortable night under the stars and wake up before sunrise. The chief’s sons Abrahan, Ousmane and their friends are keen on showing us around and we accept their offer. Ousmane takes us through Yawa and further south towards a few huts squirming into the escarpment’s cracks. The settlement has been abandoned and nowadays people inhabit more comfortable thatched huts several meters lower in the valley. Every time we come across a few huts, we are asked for cola nuts, which we don’t have, or money, which we don’t like to give. In the larger village of Douro, back up the plateau, we buy a few things from the “boutique” to give to the elderly sitting under the thick straw roof that serves as their board room. The tea that we hand over to Abrahan as a present for his father is later being prepared and consumed by the son and friends. We really don’t know what to think: where does tradition stop and tourist milking take over? And why doesn’t the turbaned Tamasheq that walks through the village - and is told to be a stranger - give cola nuts to passers-by?

Back in the “guesthouse”, we are wondering if we might have missed the most spectacular sights of Dogon country. Where are the famous hanging villages from the Lonely Planet Highlights? Could it be Nombori, just a few kms north from Yawa? I am dispatched by the others to follow the GPS tracks north and report back to them. Abrahan joins me on the pillion seat and we descend into the valley. At the bottom of the slope, the nice road disappears into deep sand. I decidedly watch the dunes at the horizon and keep on riding. By avoiding the steepest slopes and the rutted main track and instead ploughing through the grass, we arrive at the top of the dunes. From there I can see Nombori and it is indeed a wonderful sight. Why didn’t they take us here this morning?

Isabel, Boni and I decide to meet the challenge and walk up to Nombori before sunset. Boni’s feet still hurt after his fall in Senegal and it promises to be a difficult walk. Ousmane joins us on his pink flipflops. After an hour and a half, we can see Nombori in the distance. Going any further will take a lot of time because of a difficult river crossing, so we call it a day and walk back. The orange and red sunset over the weird rocky formations is just stunning. Dogon country deserves its fame. It is downright beautiful and we are glad we came here despite the negative advice. Now there is only one obstacle to tackle: getting out of here.

To go south, we need to cross the dunes bordering the escarpment and follow a sandy track for about 20 kms, before arriving at the gravel track to Burkina. Early morning, we are ready for the action. With my on-the-ground knowledge of yesterday, I get through the dunes without major difficulties. However Isabel gets stuck in the sand so I walk back, take over and ride her bike to the point where Tony and Boni have joined mine. Isabel catches a ride on the donkey cart of the chap that wanted to help her but didn’t quite know how to ride her bike. From here, the track is less difficult and we progress slowly but steadily towards Koporokendié. It seems as if I have spent too much energy in the dunes, as I am the only one to drop my bike several times in the sand, mostly at very low speed or even when I’m about to ride off. At one point, Boni helps me lift it but forgets to apply the right technique and oops… back ache! From then, his speed slows further down. It takes him so long to arrive at the next village that I rush back, feeling guilty about leaving him with his pain. Upon turning after I’ve found him, I drop the bike another time. That’s it now!!! I’m alone and there is 250kg of dead weight on my left leg. A handful of children are looking at me from a safe distance. No intention to come any closer and help me. After several minutes, I manage to get loose and another quarter of an hour later I have unloaded the bike, lifted it, reloaded it and repaired the hand guards. Only to see Isabel coming in my direction to help… my love. That’s it for today and I am going to be more careful now! Luckily from Koporokendié it’s a straight, though bumpy, gravel road to the border.

For more pics, see album "A walk in the park".

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