Brighton2capetown - Mali

Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle

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Mali

18th November

Our arrival at the border with Mali came almost as a shock.  As we arrived in the border town of Kidira, there was a police checkpoint, but as is uncommon in Senegal, the men staffing it seemed not to be interested in bothering us, so we motored on through to the bridge.  As we crossed the bridge, we passed the sign declaring we'd crossed the border between Senegal and Mali with all the sense of occasion you get from seeing the sign on the Dartford crossing that tells you you've left Essex for Kent.  Realising we'd arrived in Diboli, Mali, without first having ourselves and the bikes stamped out of Senegal, we turned round and headed back for the police point.  We eventually found the customs office too, and after only about eight painful dismount-and-remount manouevres on the part of Dan we were back on our way to Mali.  Here, the customs and immigration posts were every bit as hard to find, the customs being a hut down to the right of the road on the way out of Diboli, and the immigration formalities being handled by the guys manning the road block at the edge of town. 

From there to Kayes was easy progress along smooth tarmac, the Mali police checkpoints taking no interest in us at all.  We arrived in Kayes and consulted the guidebooks to locate somewhere to camp.  There were no campsites listed, but a cheap hostel which appeared more like a borstal.  Again we were welcome to camp on the roof for a reduced fee, but the facilities were the worst we'd seen to date.  A swarm of mosquitos shrouded the toilet from view and the shower was caked in scuzz.

After watching the others pitch his tent and carry everything else he needed up to the roof, Dan struggled to keep up with the group as they walked to a nearby hotel for some dinner.  Clutching his back as he walked and taking very small steps, it was apparent to everyone that there was a fair chance we'd be staying in our salubrious surroundings for more than one night.

The traffic in Mali is different to that in Senegal or The Gambia.  You notice in the evening that all the vehicles have working lights at each corner.  On closer inspection, some even have repaired light lenses painstakingly glued together from a mosaic of other broken lenses.  At any given time, on any given square metre of urban road, there will be at least eight mopeds vying for position, swerving off the road to undertake slower moving vehicles or making sudden movements to avoid parked cars or stray animals.  The dominant brand is actually KTM, though not the well known chunks of Austrian off-road orangeness.  KTM out here stands for KingTown TianMa, proud manufacturers of the Power-K (basically a rip off of the Honda C90), painted in metallic pastel shades and probably punted out under the door of some chinese shed for less than we're used to paying for a Chicken Chow Mein.  Notably, a large proportion of the mopeds are ridden by women - something you don't see so much amongst the two-wheeled traffic elsewhere on our route so far.   The road quality is every bit as variable as it is elsewhere however, the now familiar situation of a smooth tarmac surface one street away from a pitted dirt track is every bit as common here as in The Gambia.

The next day dawned and Dan had already been up and about for about an hour.  At about five am, he'd found himself in need of the establishment's facilities, struggled his way out of his tent, aborted his attempt to stand up and collapsed back down half in and half out of his tent on the dirty hostal roof.  After ten minutes of building the resolve to have another go, he succeeded in crawling to the wall around the edge of the roof.  After another five minutes, he set about raising himself to a standing position at the top of the stairs, and held himself up on the wall for a bit.  Courage duly summoned and upper lip duly stiffened, he set off down the stairs to ground level, a process that took a mere aeon or so.  Dan's progress towards the little boys' room continued at this painful pace, and the return journey was no easier.  By dawn, Dan had arrived back in his tent, aware he wasn't riding his bike anywhere that day.

Ed was despatched to buy some suitably heavy duty drugs, and having educated the pharmacist on the use of Diclofenac, returned with a pack of the wonder-drug.  By late morning, Dan was almost able to prop himself up to eat some lunch, and by evening could hazard an attempt at standing.  He wasn't walking back to the hotel for dinner though, no matter how good the previous nights fried fish with tinned veg had been.  The others spent their day busying themselves with laundry, and going over the bikes to ensure no harm had come to them so far.  A loose subframe bolt on Chris' CCM was about the only damage spotted, so by evening the other five bikers were every bit as bored as Dan.

On 13th November, Mikey was keen to get off towards Bamako (Mali's capital) so he could make some progress towards his target of "Timbuctoo".  From what the rest of us had heard, the main reason for visiting Timbuctoo was to be able to say you'd made it - a place remarkable only for being difficult to get to.  Consequently Timbuctoo was not on our itinerary, so it seemed to make sense for Mikey to take the opportunity to get ahead, get up there and hopefully meet back up with us further along our route.  By the time Mikey was packed and ready to leave, it had become apparent that Dan was mobile and could probably be propped on his bike and transported, if not to Bamako, then at least make some progress in that direction which would be good psychologically.  Mikey left on his own and was followed within about an hour by four other bikers and one nervous and physical wreck on a motorcycle.  The riding turned out not to be so bad however, and with the aid of the uber-drugs, Dan was able to get almost comfortable. 

When Diema failed to provide any attractive looking accomodation prospects, the group agreed unanimously to continue towards the next town.  When the roadworks signs appeared, we all knew not to expect a UK style diversion, as we were on the only road for miles around.  Sure enough, the traffic was diverted onto a series of pistes alongside the road, occasionally crossing over it to avoid trees or other obstacles.  Faced with the option of staying sat on the seat with less off-road control and giving his spine a pounding, or gritting his teeth, standing on the pegs and doing his best, Dan opted for the latter. 

Progress was still slow however, and as the sun began to set, the group became aware that they were not going to make it to the next town in safety, particularly not with dark visors and tinted goggle lenses in place.   The dust prevented any riding with visors open, and the dust thrown up by trucks in front made it impossible to see the variable surface being ridden over during overtakes.   The time had come to find somewhere secluded to camp for the night.   The tents were erected under the last rays of sunlight, and a cold snack meal was prepared by the light of five headtorches -  which were switched off whenever pedestrians or cyclists were detected nearby to avoid the inevitable hassle.  

The 14th dawned to find Dan almost fully recovered, and whilst not completely pain free, actually quite relishing the prospect of continuing along the piste for the remaining few kilometres to the next town.  On arriving, we were all glad we'd not risked riding in the dark the previous night to make it there.  It was the usual slightly grubby back-water town, again with no accomodation of note.  Our bush camp a few kilometres back down the piste had been a much better option on several levels.  The place did yield some bread for breakfast though, and suitably stocked up with bread and water we made our way out of town to find a quiet spot for a bite to eat. 

By nine, we were on the road to Bamako, and it was tarmac almost all the way.  There was one confusing point within a few kilometres of the city centre where the road sign pointing to Bamako pointed down a road which after a few metres turned into a dirt track.  Figuring that the real road to the capital city was likely to be tarmac, we stopped to discuss, turn round and go the other way.  It was here that Ed's bike failed to start on the button.  It had a flat battery, and we were fairly sure we knew why.  The regulator/rectifier is part of the system that charges the battery and on Africa Twins, as with a few other Hondas, it's a known weak point and we had brought a spare with us.  However, with the luggage on the bike it's a pain to get to in order to replace it.  We elected to continue on grounds we weren't far from our destination and would then be able to work on the bike in the comfort and privacy of a campsite. 

We continued into Bamako, following the GPS towards the waypoint we had for a campsite south of the city.  Ed's bike chose to expire in the busiest area of town which was notable for its lack of women and children.  Given that children are a universal presence throughout urban Africa, alarm bells should have been ringing.  However, it wasn't until a plain clothes police officer approached us and told us that we were putting ourselves in danger by staying there that we realised that we needed to move on by whatever means.  With Ed's bike not running, the only option was to tow it out.  However, with Dan's back still not fixed, the obvious option of towing the stricken machine with the other Africa Twin was not open.  A tow-strap from Ed's footpeg to the luggage rack on the back of other-Dan's DR-Z was hastily arranged, and with our man Dan in the lead to navigate, the low-speed toubab cavalcade set off across the city.  During the low-speed ride in the high-thirties heat, Chris' CCM's cooling system was struggling.  Forced to stop, but with the rest of us unable to stop, Chris was left to fend for himself at a quiet looking petrol station on the edge of town, to be collected later. 

After Chris had been guided to the campsite at a higher speed to keep his machine from expiring, the spare reg/rec had been installed in Ed's machine and been shown to work, attention turned to Chris' struggling CCM.  There was a worrying tell-tale trickle of moisture coming from the bottom of the water pump, implying a failed or failing seal.  Thankfully other-Dan had experienced the same failure on his DR-Z which shares the same engine and knew of a good fix, so that evening the CCM's side casing was stripped off and the water pump made ready for repair. 

15th November was visa day, necessitating a trip into Bamako to apply for Niger and Burkina Faso visas.  No one knew where the Niger consulate was, but we had a phone number so we were able to get the cab driver to take us to a telecentre where we could pay for him to make the call to the consulate to find out where they were.  Already gaspingly hot at 10am, we were pleased to arrive at the consulate and be welcomed with a glass of water each and a while-you-wait visa service from an air-conditioned office.  By 11, we were out of there and on our way to drop off our passports at the Burkina Faso embassy.  For this one we didn't have a phone number, but we did have a GPS waypoint, so we were able to introduce one of our pair of confused cabbies to the the delights of satellite navigation, while the other followed.  With the passports dropped off, we were then in search of a working cash machine and some lunch.  We found the latter at a posh western hotel (we ate in the relatively-cheap-but-still-expensive-for-africa snack bar out by the pool) but the former was proving elusive. 

After a hectic cab ride out to the main Bank of Africa branch over in the east of the city, we were finally able to withdraw some cash, and then ensued the hilarious attempt to get to an internet café in a pair of knackered taxis.  The delapidated motors in question (a belmont and a bluebird for all you banger-fans) made valiant attempts to navigate the dirt tracks without the aid of any suspension bushes at all, to a part of town that neither driver knew, to go to an internet café that neither had heard of.  Finally we were able to catch up with some emails to friends and family, even if our neglect of this site continued as we'd not come equipped with pocket PC or cameras.

The 16th started with a close shave. In fact, more of a grade 4 for those of you familiar with a barnet chop at the barbers. The fantastic looking Shuanghou clippers bought in Nouakchott were pressed into action as Ed took the opportunity to explore a new profession in hairdressing and despite repeated overheating, a new hairstyle has been administered to a willing Dan, evidence of which can now be seen in future photographs.

Optimism at starting the next leg of our adventure into Mali  was placed on hold when, just about ready to leave, Chris spotted cracks in the rear wheel of his CCM while checking pressures. 

Closer inspection revealed many more cracks and the inevitable decision was made to try to get a replacement rim in Bamako as we figured we would have a better chance than elsewhere in Mali. The wheel was separated from its motorcycle and relieved of its tyre and off it went under the arm of a pillion Chris with Ed at the controls. A local scooter emporium had been spotted on previous journeys and with dictionary in hand, we began the process of chasing the friend of a friend of a friend of the original person who didn't know. The luxury of a short break to put away a filthy hamburger on the main strip was seized at halftime and then it was back to work for our industrious duo. After visiting a number of different parts of town, scouring the streets in search of likely shops and generally braving the suicidal midday traffic all we had to show was a "come back at 3pm" and a "come back tomorrow at lunchtime" from two helpful vendors. We headed back to the campsite, deflated but not beaten to face the others. The remainder had meanwhile been catching up with washing, changing the tyres on Linz's DR-Z, writing up text for this site and even sending out Ed's riding gear to be drycleaned. The day saw the team down to a single lead as the afternoon vendor could only come up with a shiny gold wheel in the wrong size and a wistful pipe-dream of how he could lace a 36 spoke hub to a 32 spoke rim, presumably using coat-hangers.  So near and yet so far.  "Hello? DHL? Do you have a next-day service to Bamako..?".

Our tyre strategy had originally been based on each rear tyre lasting the 4000 miles that had been reported by UK Africa Twin owners, and each front conforming to the usual motorcycle rule of thumb and lasting roughly double that.  This is why we had fresh rear tyres shipped to Mauritania, as that was around the 4000 mile point.  However, the rear tyres we left the UK on, while certainly heavily worn, are still plenty more than UK-legal after 6600 miles, and show no signs of going bald before the 8000 mile point.  So whilst we were expecting each bike to chew through four rear tyres during the course of a 14,000 mile trip, it now looks as though we may be able to complete the journey on two rear tyres each - i.e. the ones we left the UK on, and the one replacement we each already have.  This has left us with the tantalising possibility of not having to ship in any more rear tyres - and after the expense of the import duties incurred in Mauritania, that's a very appealing prospect.  However, neither of us are sure we could rely on our front tyres to be good for the full 14,000 miles, so we had already discussed the possibility of picking up some front tyres locally whilst we're still mostly riding on tarmac and the tyre is a little less critical.  This would allow us to give our original front tyres a break for a few thousand miles, and preserve them to be refitted when we get to the muddy bits further south, thus enabling us to avoid shipping in any front tyres, either.

Coincidentally, other-Dan and Linz's DR-Zs have each been carrying a spare pair of tyres, and the point had come for Linz's to be swapped.  This was because her rear tyre was very worn, and the tyres she was carrying would last from here to Capetown.  So it was that her high-quality part-worn tarmac-biased front tyre, of the correct size and rating for the Africa Twin was becoming available, and the same tyre off other-Dan's matching DR-Z would also shortly be on the market.  This was an opportunity too good to be missed for our budget-conscious duo: a purchase price of a couple of rounds of beers and a future favour was quickly agreed, and Dan set about wrapping Linz's old Pirelli MT90 around the front rim of his Africa Twin.


25th November

The eighteenth of November was Chris' 25th birthday, and as a special treat, the group decided to try to find somewhere to stay that had a pool for him to play in.  A short day's ride took us from Bamako to the tourist hub of Segou, where we found the Hotel de L'Independance.  This was an enlightened establishment with a pool and a healthy attitude towards those with a budget that wouldn't stretch to a room.  Here we were allowed to camp for a reasonable fee, and still make use of the pool. 

That evening, the hotel provided entertainment in the form of some traditional drumming, dancing and singing, and the hotel guests provided Gervaisian entertainment in the form of middle-aged germans trying to join in with the dancing and singing.  Meanwhile, at a table to one side next to a fountain, our group was hatching a plan for the following day.  With Chris' rear wheel still in a sorry state, it was considered prudent for him to minimise mileage, particularly as we still had no clear picture of the rate of deterioration.  Linz was feeling a little under the weather, so with other-Dan staying behind to keep her company, it was decided that only the original Brighton2capetown duo would take the detour up to Djenne, to visit the famous mud mosque. 

There is tarmac almost all the way from Segou to Djenne, if you want it.  There is also a piste part of the way, which saves some miles, but in the interests of saving both time and wear to the bikes, the tarmac option was favoured.  The only challenge presented to us came just before our arrival in the town, when we came to the river.  The map shows that at Djenne the Niger river is not so wide, and one could easily believe that the tourist tax levied on all foreign vehicles taking the turning to Djenne might, by now, have funded a little bridge.  Not so.  In the absence of a ferry terminal as recognised by european holidaymakers, or even a loading ramp as familiar to the residents of Georgetown, the ferry across the river to Djenne takes the D-day landing craft approach to docking.  The boat simply pulls in as close to the shore as it dares without running aground (the captain no doubt having first eyeballed the tonnage of vehicles waiting to board) then lowers the ramps into the shallows to allow the vehicles to be loaded.  Each vehicle then simply drives down the sandy river bank into the muddy water, and up the now wet, polished-steel ramp. 

We have been viewing our bikes as rather charming rolling anachronisms - they're a far cry from the light-weight high-tech superbikes we're used to.  After a ride, they smell of hot machinery in the same way as might a Spitfire returning from a dogfight above the skies of Kent, though perhaps a four-tonner returning to the aerodrome with supplies from the village would be a more appropriate analogy.  With the addition of an artificial horizon to the cockpit and perhaps a bakelite bezel and radium-tipped needle to the rev-counter and air-speed indicator however, the imagery would be complete.  With these thoughts kept firmly in mind in an attempt to banish biker-nightmare memories of wet manhole covers and diesel spills, our intrepid duo braved the waters of the Niger river and boarded the ferry.

From our personal Omaha on the opposite bank, there was a short stretch of piste into town, and the place was small enough for us to easily find our way around.  The famous mosque is impossible to miss, and the almost equally famous Monday market was in full swing in the square in front.  Djenne market is popular with the tourists on grounds that it's not aimed at tourists - it's still a local market for local people.  It sells everything from fruit to bicycles, but refreshingly there's not a hastily-carved replica ethnic souvenir in sight.

What you can't escape however, is the influx of euro-tourists.  These are clearly a more interesting, intrepid and charming bunch than the majority of those in Senegambia, but a small part of us couldn't help but feel a small pang of false nostalgia for the place as it must have appeared to western visitors before they started arriving by the minibus load.  It's hardly fair to complain about others enjoying the place though, and once we'd got used to seeing white faces everywhere again and accepted our place back on the beaten track, we were very glad to have made the journey.

The 20th dawned on the roof of the auberge where we were camped, and the opportunity to get up, packed, breakfasted and off to photograph the mosque without the market was seized.  From there, we had the short piste back to the ferry of nightmares, and then tarmac back to San to join the road towards Burkina Faso, country number nine.

The road south from San was not as good as we'd hoped, a mess of repairs consisting of red mud packed into some potholes, and not others.  This made it difficult to work out which orange patches to ride over, and which to swerve violently to avoid.  Before long however, we hit the t-junction with the Sikasso road onto which we turned to head towards the Burkinabe border, and were treated once more to smooth tarmac which made us realise there had been an easier way. 

We hit the exit formalities somewhat before we'd expected, and explained to the customs officer what to do with our carnets, which he duly did and sent us on our way towards the police post fifteen kilometres further on where our passports would be stamped out of Mali.  From there it was a further short ride to the formalities at the entrance to Burkina Faso.


Mileage to Date

  • 6800 miles

Damage Sustained to Date

  • The lid supplied with Ed's container of DEET-based insect repellent has been destroyed by contact with DEET-based insect repellent
  • The extended sidestand foot on Dan's bike was grit-blasted to bare metal on the piste to Ouadane and is now corroding gently
  • Both bikes lost their left-most windscreen bolts on the piste back from Ouadane - clearly a hitherto unknown Honda weak point.
  • The pannier on the right of Ed's bike lost a little of its powder coating in one corner due to it's interface with the Moroccan tarmac
  • The panniers on both sides of Dan's bike each lost a little of their powder coating in one corner due to repeated interfaces with soft sandy ground around Lac Rose in Senegal
  • The front mudguard on Ed's bike was displaced by a stone on the piste to Ouadane due to the mudflap bizarrely added by a previous owner
  • The groundsheet and flysheet of Dan's tent were both perforated by termites during the bush camp at the side of the road to Bamako
  • Dan's gloves started to split their seams in France
  • After their first month of being subjected to african sun, the leather parts of Dan's gloves have faded back to the colour of the animal from which they came
  • The Regulator/Rectifier on Ed's bike failed somewhere in Mali, finally stranding Ed's bike with a flat battery in a particularly dodgy part of Bamako
  • Dan's youthful good looks were obscured by a beard somewhere in France and the situation continues to deteriorate
  • Dan's twenties passed away in The Gambia after a ten-year struggle with inevitability