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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.
I had it all planned, you see. I spent three days in Tambacounda waiting for the Wednesday express train to Bamako, which was due to arrive in Bamako on Thursday afternoon (though more likely Thursday evening, as the trains never run on time). This would give me Friday to get a visa for Burkina Faso, my destination after Mali, and if everything went according to plan, I'd be able to shoot out of Bamako and into the more interesting countryside at the weekend. 'This should be fun,' I thought to myself.
So I got myself up at the crack of dawn on Wednesday, packed and wandered up to the train station to buy a ticket for the evening train. I walked down the main street, by now a familiar sight, handing small change to the urchins and exchanging pleasantries with the proprietor of the shop where I'd bought all my water over the last few days. Yes, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I popped into the train station and headed straight for the chef de gare's office. And there he was, true to his word, sitting out the back.
«Bonjour» I said.
«Bonjour» he replied.
'I hope you can help me,' I said in my chirpiest French. 'I'd like to buy a ticket for the evening train to Bamako, if possible.'
«C'est supprimé» he said, shrugging.
I didn't know what supprimé meant, but it rang a bell; I was sure I'd seen it crop up in a menu on one of the French computers in the local internet café, but I just couldn't place it. Luckily I'd brought my trusty dictionary, so I fished it out, hoping for the best.
'Supprimer, supprimer, supprimer,' I muttered as my finger wandered down the page. 'Ah, here we are. Supprimer, transitive verb, re holidays, bus service etc.: to cancel. Oh shit.'
It took a while to sink in, but there was no train. No train. It didn't matter how nice I was to the chef, I wasn't going to be able to buy a ticket, first class or otherwise. The next train wasn't until Saturday night, and I'd go mad if I had to wait that long. I was going to have to put a brave face on it; the only alternative was a bus into Mali, and I'd heard some pretty unpleasant rumours about that particular journey.
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.
Things started well. I got to the gare routière at 10am and found a bush taxi heading for Kidira with only three vacant spaces. I took one of them, leaving just two, and an hour later those got filled – a short wait given the time of day – and I started my trek northeast towards Mali.
As if this wasn't lucky enough, I shared the taxi with a couple of friendly Spanish guys, Steve and Oliver, one of whom had already done the same journey, only the other way round, from Bamako into Senegal. This had to be good news; he'd know where the immigration points were, where to catch buses and so on. Things were looking up, and by the time we arrived in Kidira two hours later, I felt good. I was a stone's throw from Mali, I was in knowledgeable and pleasant company, and the sun was shining high in a cloudless desert sky. 'This should be fun,' I thought to myself for the second time that day.
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.
'Hello, we'd like three places in a bush taxi to Kayes, please,' I asked the chef de gare in the dusty stick shelter that is Diboli's excuse for a station.
'There are no bush taxis today,' replied the chef in time-honoured fashion.
'Um, what about this one?' I asked, pointing to a bush taxi right next to the shelter.
'No, there are no taxis today,' the chef repeated. 'You must take the bus, over there.'
I followed his finger, and there was a minibus, about the size of a large transit van, that could maybe hold 18 people. That didn't sound too bad, so we shrugged our shoulders, coughed up CFA3000 each, and settled in to wait for it to fill up. There were already a few hardy locals in the shelter, and I hoped that the wait wouldn't be too long; this was, after all, the only usable road border between Senegal and Mali, and the train wasn't running until Saturday, so I had high hopes. It was one o'clock; we had the whole of the afternoon to cover the 105km to Kayes, which would be plenty of time.
By two o'clock I was a bit thirsty, so I wandered over the road to buy some water. It was cold; I was happy. Man can survive on water alone for a very long time, should the need arise. I sincerely hoped I wouldn't need to prove the theory.
By three o'clock my stomach started to rumble, so I wandered over the road to the shop again, and bought a packet of coconut-flavoured biscuits which tasted as though they'd been sitting in the desert sun for five years. There was no 'best before' date on the packet; I was grateful for that, at least.
By four o'clock I was starting to get a bit sick of the view from the hard wooden bench in the bus shelter, so I decided to go for a wander round town. It took three minutes, but at least the people were friendly. Either that or they were laughing at me...
By five o'clock my arse was numb, my brain was numb, and my mind had slipped into that half-waking state when things seem neither real nor dream. If I could only summon up that feeling at will, travelling through the desert would be easy; the problem is that my mind only starts shutting down after hours of doing nothing, by which time it's already wearing thin. It was around this point that I started visualising my plans gently floating away down the stream of life, with me stranded on the bank, powerless to do anything but watch. At least the visions were more pleasant than the reality of Diboli.
At six o'clock there was a flurry of activity as the bus boys called for our luggage and strapped it to the roof. I was disappointed to see there were no goats or sheep, but having winced in sympathy with the poor donkeys hopping round in Diboli's afternoon heat, front legs hobbled with incredibly short lengths of rope, I guess it was for the best. Life in the desert is hard for humans, but it's a darn sight worse for the animals.
The sun went down at a quarter past six, sinking into the dusty horizon with a beautiful silhouette effect. Desert sunsets and sunrises are something else; the sky was a bit too hazy with smoke from all the cooking fires, but we were a captive audience, and in a place like Diboli, you take all the entertainment you can get with good grace.
By seven o'clock I was getting hungry again, but luckily a woman came round selling mutton sandwiches, consisting of a bit of baguette with mutton brochettes stuffed in the middle, along with some unidentified sauce and onions. I ate two; they were manna from heaven in this town of dried biscuits, fading light and dusty lungs.
At a quarter past seven people started milling round the back of the bus, so we grabbed our bags, rushed down and managed to join the queue exactly at the back. Normally this is a bad move, as you end up with the shitty seats, but in this case it was a complete disaster; this was the most crammed bus I've yet seen, and we were stuck at the back, jammed against rear doors that looked like they'd fly open at any minute (in the event they only flew open twice in the whole journey, and nobody actually fell out, though it was close). The bus, a standard transit van with windows, had a hard wooden bench down each side, and another down the middle; each end was topped off by a bench too, but you couldn't see the benches, let alone the floor, because they packed us in so tightly the only thing visible was squashed human.
To pass the time I counted the number of people. Including the babies, children and touts hanging off the back, we had 33 people jostling along in a van that would house a maximum of 16 in the West. I was dovetailed into the rear offside corner, one buttock wedged an inch higher than the other by the way the benches overlapped. In my right armpit was Oliver, and on my left was a young woman with two children, one of them a baby whom she breast-fed every now and then. But at least we were moving...
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.
The first tyre blew at 9.15pm, some two hours after we'd initially rolled out of Diboli, so out we piled yet again. Blown tyres are a fairly common event – I'd had one in Senegal and one in the Gambia already – but they're slightly more fraught affairs on dusty roads where there's precious little traffic, no light except for starlight, and no settlements. I wondered what it would be like to break down terminally in the desert; luckily I'd seen the bus boys pack a couple of spare tyres, so I knew we'd be fine.
The second tyre blew at 9.45pm, and again we flooded out onto the dusty highway. By this time I was rather getting into the stars; this being the desert, the sky was beautifully clear, and the moon was little more than a crescent, making the stars particularly brilliant. I was quite enjoying these breaks; they enabled me to get the circulation going again in my legs, which was a bonus.
The first replacement tyre lasted until 10.50pm, when a heavy lurch to the right indicated all was not well. By this stage we had our exit plan down to a tee, but this time things weren't so rosy. We'd run out of spare tyres, and we were stranded. The only solution was for the driver to hitch a lift with a passing truck to Kayes, and to come back with some more tyres. I had no idea where we were, but nobody seemed to mind; throughout the whole thing the busload of men, women and children were delightfully upbeat, and apart from a few resigned shrugs, being stranded in the desert wasn't going to get them down. Oh no.
While the driver thumbed down a truck, the bus boys went in search of wood. The desert air, clear and fresh after the smoky dust of Diboli, was turning cold, and I soon started shivering, but a few minutes later we had a roaring fire going on the road in front of the bus, and everyone crashed out on the dirt, jabbering away in Wolof, Bambara and French. I loved it; it was just like camping in the desert, if you ignored the occasional truck that shot past, showering us with dust. I lay down on my sarong, my daypack cushioning my head, and stared up into the stars as the party bubbled on around me.
I think I must have drifted off, because by the time the driver came back with another tyre, it was 2am. We poured water on the fire, smiled at each other and shoehorned ourselves back into the bus, heading once more for Kayes. By this time I'd given up worrying about actually getting anywhere, and decided just to enjoy the ride as much as possible; something told me the night wasn't over yet, so I slumped against my neighbours and watched the starlit world bouncing by in the dark.
By 3.15am I was freezing. I'd been allocated the window seat, which would have been a bonus in the middle of the day but was another story in the middle of a desert night, and I only had a thin shirt to keep me from dying of cold. Then, like manna from heaven, someone turned the heating on, and my legs started warming up. Ah, it was bliss! I idly wondered why nobody had thought of this before, as it had been cold for quite some time, and then a thought occurred to me. African buses don't have heating, and if they did it wouldn't reach the back of a transit van packed with people, and with the sluggish logic of the wee hours it hit me that it wasn't the heating. In a charming display of friendliness, my neighbour's baby had just pissed all over my trousers.
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.
The man next to me in the queue yelped and ran after the bus, and frazzled by the cold and the time of night, I ran after him. 'Stop, stop,' he yelled at the bus, and then he suddenly tripped, fell and completely disappeared. I screeched to a halt, wondering where on earth he'd gone.
I heard him yelling, somewhere down below; it turned out that in the pitch blackness he'd run straight into an open sewer. Open sewers are a common feature of the developing world, and are nothing more than water channels down the sides of the road that carry everything away to the nearest river; in the heat they're active enough to be creating new life forms, and the one he'd fallen into was particularly big. Torches appeared, and there he was, apparently unhurt apart from a few grazes, standing knee-deep in raw sewage at the bottom of a 20-foot trough. 'There but for the grace of God,' I thought, and shivered with something other than the cold.
Thankfully he managed to get out, and after some more immigration time-wasting and a token unloading and loading of the luggage to satiate the custom official's ego, we packed back into the bus and trundled along to the bus station, which we reached at 4.30am. Then it was a quick taxi ride to the train station, and I could almost smell success, as the train was due to leave for Bamako at around 7am. I might just make it to Bamako in time after all.
As if. Bounding up to the ticket booth, I smiled the smile of the terminal insomniac and asked about the train to Bamako. 'There is no train today,' said the chef. 'Today is a Thursday, and there is no train on Thursday. The next one is tomorrow, on Friday morning.'
By this time, though, I wasn't fazed. Instead I simply shrugged the shrug of the African traveller, found a flop-house to crash in, and collapsed into bed.
'Welcome to Mali,' I thought, as I slipped into dreams populated by buses, hot sun and – worryingly – warm, wet patches.