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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Mali: Tambacounda to Kayes

There comes a point in every nightmare journey when things have already gone so spectacularly wrong, that you have no choice but to give in and laugh. It's a huge relief when this happens; it means you can get on with enjoying the awfulness of the trip instead of worrying about whether you're actually going to get anywhere.

Easy Steps

I didn't waste any time, and after sending a quick email home with my revised plans I shot back to the hotel, grabbed my bags and took a taxi to the gare routière to see what the options were. The map made it look relatively simple; the first stage, 177km to the Senegalese border town of Kidira, was along a top-class sealed road, and from there to Kayes (pronounced 'kh-aye', to rhyme with 'eye'), the first stop of any significance in Mali, was only 105km along less major roads. After Kayes the road deteriorated into dirt tracks, but apparently Kayes is connected to Bamako by a daily train service, which would mean I could still experience a West African train, something I'd rather been looking forward to.

Welcome to Mali

On arrival in Kidira we got exit stamps from the Senegalese border guard, took a taxi across the border to the dusty town of Diboli on the Malian side, and got our entry stamps for Mali. I was pleased that my Malian visa was in order; the immigration official demanded payment of CFA1000 – which was a bribe, because you don't have to pay anything if you already have a visa – but I couldn't be bothered to argue, so I coughed up, got my entry stamp and wandered back to the bus station, an official visitor in Mali. And that's when things started to go spectacularly wrong.

Under the Stars

Ten minutes into the journey we had to stop at the first police checkpoint, pile out, and show our passports. All those who had identity cards – i.e. the Senegalese and Malians – had to queue up in the police station to have their details recorded, and then we all crammed ourselves back into the van. By now we were getting good at it; in a squash like this you don't give an inch, and everyone remembered exactly which postage-stamp seat was theirs.

In the Shit

As my watch ticked on to 4am, we finally arrived somewhere, though quite where that somewhere was, I couldn't work out. A man opened the back of the bus and asked us to climb out, and I realised it was the customs post outside Kayes; we were close, but the fat lady hadn't sung yet. We piled out and queued around the police station, showing our documents and smiling our most innocent smiles. And as we stood there, rubbing the sleepy dust from our eyes, our bus pulled away with all our luggage still on board.