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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Mali: Gao

Slabs of salt on a market table in Gao
Slabs of salt for sale in the market in Gao; salt is mined deep in the Sahara by the poorest of the poor

As the ferry pulled in to Gao, the last port on the Niger that's served by regular transport, I felt a familiar sinking feeling. After a delightfully laid-back and hassle-free three days on the ferry, it was time to plunge back into the chaos of urban West Africa. I didn't really want to bother with it; I was thoroughly enjoying lounging on the deck, watching the world go by from a comfortably safe distance.

The market in Gao
The market in Gao is a smelly place, with the prize going to the makeshift stalls selling cows and goats

The Tomb of Askia

The Tomb of Askia in Gao
The Tomb of Askia in Gao is a a good example of the Sahel style of mud mosque, as found throughout Mali

However, like plants to light, tourists are drawn to tourist attractions, even if they don't sound like much on paper, and answering the genetic call of the toubab I set out to track down the Tomb of Askia, Gao's one claim to fame. Situated out on the northern outskirts of town, this tomb of a 16th-century ruler is a classic Sahel-style building in the shape of a pyramid, made from dark grey mud and sporting the porcupine spikes that make Sahel mosques so distinctive.

The Backstreets

The Tomb of Askia in Gao
The sticks that make mud mosques look like porcupines act as scaffolding for when new mud is applied

If the Tomb of Askia is the after-effect of a night on the tiles, the backstreets of Gao are Alka Seltzer and strong coffee. There aren't many pretensions to tourism in central Gao and it's all the better for it, as the riverside market is authentically busy, swamped with interesting things to see, and is easy to walk around without constant attacks from people selling Tuareg pipes, woven carpets or treks to Dogon Country. All you get is the odd strange look and kids shouting, «Ça va, toubab?» while holding out their hands for a quick palm slap. It's delightful.

Gao's rooftops from the top of the Tomb of Askia
The rather uninspiring view over Gao from the top of the Tomb of Askia