Bamako felt considerably different than Guinea, from where we just arrived by road. Everything felt bigger and more touristic. We chose the Hotel Jamana – a small hotel downtown Bamako – to settle for the night. Within walking distance was a local food store and – of utmost importance for my travel pal, Evgeny – a Chinese restaurant.
Big city infrastructure
Immediately upon arrival, I started to call all the travel agencies, as well as the drivers for whom I had written down the addresses before leaving for the trip. When we prepared to hire a car with driver to travel around West Africa, we quickly found out that tour agencies in Dakar (Senegal) were either too expensive or simply unwilling to conduct such a journey. We might be ignorant to some of the legal aspects back in Senegal – such as tour operators not being able to move freely across West African borders.
Nevertheless, we found out that tour operators in Bamako fill this Senegalese void. Mali tourist cars all seem to come with a “carnet de passage“, which essentially allows drivers to cross borders within Africa. Needless to say that during preparation we decided that we had to organize the major aspects of our tour here in Bamako.
Happy New Year in Mali
Arriving without bookings and reservations is not to everyone’s taste. But Evgeny and I found out that this is actually the essence in our travels. Basically, we arrived at the hotel with no further travel arrangements, nor visas for the upcoming countries. To make things more difficult, we arrived on the 1st of January – which means that it was high season for European tourists with a lot of agencies closed. The ones that were open had firm bookings with more organized people than we are.
But this is Africa: One agency gave us a direct phone number of an independent driver they knew to be reliable. We arranged a meeting at the driver’s home in the next morning to discuss prices, visa and – last but not least – our intended itinerary. This is how business is done here: Even though the agency earned no money, they pointed us in the right direction.
While waiting for the meeting, we went to visit downtown Bamako. Our first sight, the Grand Mosque of Bamako, was a bit dull. However, the market square right next to the mosque is quite amazing. Our walking tour included the Bamako Cathedral and the “Place de la liberté” (Liberty Square). There, we felt that all the scents, colors, noise and hectic traffic wore us down. So we decided to go back to the Chinese restaurant located near our hotel. After only a few hours exploring Bamako, the air-condition of the restaurant was a welcome relief.
Itinery changes due to a civil war
Next day, we met Mamadou, our driver. His 4×4 car was in good condition and so we decided to outline our route. Our intention was to do a big loop through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and back to Mali through the Ivory Coast. However, Murphy’s Law struck: One of the few visas I obtained back in Switzerland was the Ivory Coast’s one. But that country went into a serious civil war in the meantime. All the travel agents and our driver seriously warned about going there and this mean that not only my visa was pointless, but our itinerary had to be changed.
Since I did travel quite a few times to Ghana – back in the 90’s – I knew that there is a well connected airport in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. Therefore, we decided not to drive back from Ghana by car. We agreed on the “one-way” fare with Mamadou and figured out that we might visit instead Sierra Leone or Nigeria by booking flights out of Accra. During the talks with our driver, we also established, that most of the visa’s for the upcoming countries – except for Ghana – could be easily obtained at the land borders. Evgeny, Mamadou and I agreed to leave Bamako very early next morning.
Our first stop was the small town of Ségou, where we had breakfast. This town felt refreshingly “laid back” after the bustling capital city, Bamako. It probably felt that way, since we were much more relaxed. Because we finally managed all our transportation until Ghana.
Leaving the town by car, continuing past the landscape dotted with baobab trees, I watched for a moment Evgeny’s satisfied smile. I knew what went through his mind: We were now organized and at the starting point of yet another great journey.