In retrospect, yesterday's forced rest day was a good thing; the thought of going from the Kidira-Kayes bus journey straight onto the Kayes-Bamako train doesn't bear thinking about, though at the time we'd have jumped onto the train if there'd been one. Thank goodness there wasn't.
It wasn't that the train journey from Kayes to Bamako was stressful – actually, it was great fun – but I would have spent most of it asleep if there'd been a Thursday morning train, and that would have been a shame. Taking a train trip in Mali is an experience you don't want to miss.
I'd been told we could buy our tickets at three o'clock on Thursday afternoon for the 7.15am train on Friday morning, and sure enough there was the queue – not too long – in front of the ticket booth with the 'Kayes-Kita-Bamako' sign. Excellent, I thought, there'd be no pissing around with the inshallahs and head wobbles I'd been subjected to in Tambacounda. Queuing I can handle; every queue has a front, after all.
Unfortunately the touts were out in force, and they leapt at the chance to earn a buck or two. 'All the tickets are sold out,' they told me. 'This ticket booth is closed for the day,' they chimed. 'I can buy you a ticket and you won't have to wait,' they said. I smiled, wobbled my head and said I was happy to queue; the one thing I had was plenty of time, and as they were hassling everyone in the queue, not just the toubabs, I figured that either the touts were talking rubbish, or nobody else in the queue was going to get a ticket either. I just ignored them, much to their consternation.
The queue, which was about 30 people long when I joined it, took one-and-a-half hours to grind its way to where I was standing, by which time the French for my order was etched in my skull. I'd offered to buy three tickets in first class for Steve, Oliver and me, as my French was supposedly better than theirs, and it couldn't have gone more smoothly. It might have been the slowest queue on the planet, but I came out clutching three tickets for the 7.15am train, a snip at CFA12,000 a seat. Brandishing them like trophies of war, I caught the eye of one tout who had insisted the tickets were sold out, and slapped him on the back with a big smile. He laughed; being economical with the truth is one of the rules of African touting, after all.
On the Train
We got to the platform for 7am, just to make sure we didn't miss it, and we found our seats with a minimum of fuss. The seats in first class are generously spaced with two sets of two seats across the width of the carriage, and as I settled in after the fiasco of my hat I idly wondered how long it was going to take to cover the 510km southeast to the capital of Mali. When Steve had gone from Bamako to Kayes it had taken him 12 hours, and that was after the train had sat in Bamako station for five hours past its scheduled departure time; but every journey has its own story, especially when the only thing you can say about the timetable is that it is never right.
In the event we only sat in the station for two hours before the engine tooted and the train lurched forward with a screech, and so started a long crawl through a dry, dusty landscape that would see us arrive in Bamako ten hours later at 9.15pm, a remarkably good time compared to some of the stories you hear. Steve was also an expert on the Dakar-Bamako train, for which the scheduled timetable says the train leaves Dakar at 10am on Wednesday morning and arrives in Bamako at 3.30pm on Thursday afternoon. I don't think this has ever actually happened; Steve finally arrived in Bamako in the wee hours of Saturday morning, which made me rather relieved that I'd been unable to experience that for myself.
Unlike the express train, the local train stops at loads of places on the way, and it makes life much more interesting, because that's when the excitement starts. When the train rolls in, the market comes to town, literally; women run up to the carriage windows with all sorts of food and drink balanced on their heads, and people spill out of the windows and doors to buy whatever they need to keep them going to the next stop. People pile off the train at every stop to stretch their legs, pray to Allah or chat to their friends, and with a blast of the horn and a screeching jolt, the train eventually pulls off again and everyone scrambles back on. It's a hoot, watching the world go by from the comfort of a first class seat.
It's pretty comfortable, too. Judging by the multilingual sign on the toilet door, the Bamako train once plied the rails of Europe, and the carriages feel like slightly faded but perfectly pleasant versions of trains from another generation, which is exactly what they are. My seat was properly sprung and barely ripped, the windows were smothered in dust but were all present and correct, and compared to the buses, this was luxury indeed. The ride was considerably smoother, too; the train went through some bumpy patches where we were bounced around on our leather seats like eggs on the back of a bicycle, but I was impressed by the quality of the service. And who needs punctuality when you've got the desert outside your window?
The landscape is fascinating, if only because it is so desolate. This is the semi-desert of the Sahel, a dry and dusty band that's sandwiched between the Sahara to the north and the coastal rainforest of Ghana to the south, and it's pretty harsh stuff. It's hot, dry, dusty and remote, and its light brown hue is broken only by the occasional river that meanders through the parched landscape, leaving greenery in its wake. Villages of circular thatched huts and crumbling concrete buildings line the track, and lone farmers, wandering through their fields, stop and wave as the train rumbles past.
Another interesting sight on the way is the proliferation of bush fires. Everywhere along the route are the scars of fire, the blackened earth and broken trees poking out from under new growth. We even went through a couple of active fires, and the heat as we shot past the flames – which went right up to the edge of the track – was intense.
The one we went through after the sun had set was particularly impressive; it felt as if we were crossing the plains of Mordor, but it also showed how localised these fires are, as the area covered by the fire was quite small. It's common practice in West Africa for farmers to start bush fires intentionally, as it kills off old vegetation and encourages new growth for cattle to graze, as well as flushing out wild animals and killing off crop-eating insects; these fires had all the hallmarks of manmade fires, much like the fires in outback Australia. Then again, judging by the number of cigarette butts that got thrown from the train into the tinder-dry scrub, I wouldn't be surprised if there were quite a few unexpected bush fires out here, too.
There's plenty of evidence of burning inside the train, too, but this time it's from the engine at the front. I don't know what kind of engine the Kayes-Bamako train uses, but it throws out clouds of black smoke every time it accelerates, and light, fluffy bits of soot float in through the windows throughout the journey, layering everything in a fine layer of black. I made the mistake of wearing my cream-coloured trousers for the journey, so it wasn't long before I was a fetching two-tone colour, with dirty grey on the front and clean cream on the back.
But it didn't matter; we arrived in reasonable time – despite an hour's stop just outside Bamako to change the engine – and by 10pm I'd found a comfortable bed in a friendly mission catholique and could finally celebrate my arrival in Bamako.