Some time has now passed since my last footsteps in Africa yet the one man travel plan lives on as I try to write up my experiences and hone my travel writing talents with the aim of publishing and funding more odessies of curiosity.

As well as the writing side I am organsing exhibitions of photgraphs and paintings from my trip, partly for their asthetic beauty and partly so I can share and hopefully inform people about some lesser known parts of the world.

And then there is always the next trip... the journey never ends.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Journey to Burkina Faso

Madougou Market, Madougou, Mali.


We drove on, up and over high proud dunes, past occasional baobabs and mango trees, across sandy plains populated by burnt yellow grass, lone acacias and space. No roads just a track. Until reaching a Puel village, as they are known in these parts, though these nomadic cattle herders are found all across the vast expanses of the Sahel and generally are known as Fulani.

Many smiling men, woman and children came running to greet us; who were strange and unlikely visitors out here, away from any tour group. Beehive like straw huts, tall, thin, handsome people, with beaming smiles. The woman with strange dark tattoos around there mouths, like stubble, their faces with silver and gold piercings, the bandannas on their heads and their flowing dresses with delicate bright patterns. These people looked different to any of the other peoples I had encountered. I struggled to take it in, it was an all too brief glimpse into their world.

After much photograph taking (they loved posing for the camera and seeing themselves on a screen) and curious laughing encounters, both parties equally fascinated we pressed on to see Madougou market.
 
From out of the bush we entered the throngs of people; of different tribes, with differing languages and cultures. They had gathered from distant points in the surrounding land to trade and stock up on provisions. An age old cycle that binds these far flung and culturally varied peoples together.

Milling slowly with the crowd through the grey dusty avenues, we pass shadowy shacks and low benches covered in all sorts of strange roots and spices. There were dried leaves, dried dough like things, crystal soap, perfumed things, tobacco leaves and dried catfish.

People touch us, as we walk past, as if white skin might be different and stare with undisguised fascination in the same way you or I would stare at a man in a space suit walking down the high street.

There is a smell of fish, tamarind and peanut sauce mixed in with other things, I know not what. Donkey carts idle, pointing upwards like bones picked clean; amongst resting donkeys they create an arresting spectacle. I have a real sense of a bygone, far off trading post; Puel women and Dogon men make up wonderful unfamiliar scenes, whenever we stop we have an audience.

I am revelling in a fantasy when, I am reminded of the cruel nature of the world. I see a sick kitten roughly and without care put to one side. There is not the time to have concerns for something so small and vulnerable when life is a struggle and your own survival is often put to the test. I am here right now, but I am not living under the same conditions I am not tied by the same daily binds of these poeple. I remain but a tourist, this market is not my bread and butter and I will soon be on my way.

Next: Burkina Faso!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Dogon



A sketch of fairy tale topped grain stores tumbling

the escarpment face to the desert below

How do I describe this wonder world, the isolated and unique Dogon country in southern Mali? To start there is no division here between man and nature; here they are one and the same. The Dogon villages are unobtrusive in the landscape.

In contrast to modern cities where man is at war with his environment , obliterating all traces of the world of animal and vegetable for one of concrete and steel, the villages of the Dogon are at peace with the land and are still very much at home in it as they have been for nine hundred years. The environment looks to me beautiful but a tad hostile.

The nearest travel hub for the more remote parts of Dogon country is the Town of Bandiagara. The journey from Timbuktu to Bandiagara was a long one waking and leaving at the cold dark crack of dawn and arriving at night. Luckily for me I met a friendly young French couple during this epic and tiring journey. They were heading for the famous Dogon village of Sangha High on the Bandiagara plateau. Emanuel was taking his girlfriend their back to the village he had visited nearly ten years ago.

Emanuel had visited Dogon country to help build a school. During this time he met an interesting French man by the name of Alan who had decided on a decidedly different and difficult course for his life than most.

Alan was a self made chemist and by all accounts rich man, living a comfortable life in Paris. However in achieving a little prosperity he found himself restless and dissatisfied. So one day he told bemused friends and family that he had to leave, that he didn’t know why but it had to be Africa and he wasn’t coming back.

He now lives with his wife and child as a prominent member of the community. He has helped to set up a medical centre in the village of Sangha and has very much made himself at home. He also made Emanuel, his girlfriend and I feel at home for a few too short days.

Whilst in Dogon country we embarked on a 4 day walk, but here in the hot rocky wilds of Mali a walk can feel more like a punishing odyssey into the unknown. I enjoyed walking over the rocky sides of the escarpment through organic architecture, despite the increadable heat. The paths of lose stone winding up and down steep slopes through pointy straw roofed store houses and the amorphous shaped homes. All the while I trailed behind my new found French friends and our Dogon guide as I struggled to film and photograph whilst not being left behind.

This resulted in me practically sprinting the course of an already arduous hike across rough terrain and in stifling dry heat. At one point losing them as we walked through a village, I hastened forward (I was worried that without a guide I would walk into a sacred area and accidentally commit some heinous sacrilegious crime) and unwittingly stumbled into a field of shit. Dodging my way through this mine field I almost walked into a woman busy making a contribution of her own. Politley ducking past I pressed on just catching a sight of my disapearing friends. unscathed I duly noted to myself the dangers of falling behind.

Other worldly sunset in Dogon land The rounded roof tops of a Dogon village

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

timbukto

Timbukto more legend than real place? It certainly has a reputation to live up to but then wherever you go expectations are confounded and if they weren't would there be a point to going at all?

Cant get money out its hot and the deep sand of the streets pulls at you, slowing you down and sapping your energy. Dust blows in your face and gives the world a blurred otherworldly light making you think of far of outposts on inhospitable Mars. Battered signs loom rusty and pockmarked warning of the dangers of aids or proudly advertising joint developments between Mali and Algeria under the banner of pan Africanism.

The transition from blue green tranquil dreamworld to bleached mud brick and dust is sharp. From deep calm and a feeling of boundless Patience I become suddenly irritable and short tempered. My mind is unprepared for the dusty town and I don't enjoy arriving in such a legendary place as I feel I should. There is not the travelers euphoria I experienced in Old Segou. I guess Ive been flying high as a kite since then and now is a dusty hot come down. Just as new years eve is supposed to be the best night of the year but often isn't, arriving in Timbuktu should be a great experience accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction for reaching an auspicious landmark. It just doesn't feel that way.

I'm worried by a lack of money, the AT M's being temperamental entities in these parts, working only when the mood takes them. Its amazing that being denied access to little coloured bits of paper is what gives me a sense of desolation thousands of miles from home rather than the immense sand sea , the mighty Sahara that separates me from distant and familiar Europe.

More than anything I think that the traffic free streets of Djenne, the timeless grace of old Segou and otherworldly charm of the Niger have spoilt me. You can only oohh, aahh and breathlessly wow! so much. Eventually you just get wowed out and all the niggling doubts and daily discomforts come rushing in. To be wowed out in sub saharan Africa can be a tiring experience indeed.

There's been a problem with the camcorder shutter opening. Dust and sand ( I'm staying in a big Arabian style tent which is the cheapest option, looks very cool and is also sandy) has been working its inevitable way into every crack and crevice and not just in the camcorder. This all amounts to stress. Ive worked so hared on this project yet so many things could go wrong and I could lose everything. At times this trip has been magical but its no holiday.

After a day or two of simmering anger and frustration mixed with doubt an a little fear I start to relax. I'm enjoying the novelty of being in an ancient and infamous town where Tuareg traders arrive in caravans of camels from afar to bring salt cut from the baked ground in the inferno that is the center of the Sahara. A pattern of trade that is thousands of years old.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Somewhere on the mighty Niger River is a floating ethereal world of dreams



The river is a kind of khaki green while an angle of the waves catches the bright blue and light of the sky resulting in a pleasing mix of colours and light.

The view as I lie on sacks of grain and gaze out is bizarre , all water and sky with a thin strip of land floating dramatically in space. This water level perspective, a ducks eye view if you will is not one I'm used to.

Small details take on significance, a tree or a goat become singled out against the enormity of sky and water. In this space the humble goat is dramatised, given dignity his life made epic. Cows swishing their tails and rocking there heads back and forth languidly look striking
against a big blue sky. The smiling faces and waving hands of friendly villagers and excited kids shouting Toubab! Toubaboo! ( Toubab being the local phrase for foreigner ) Are like actors on a big blue stage, the bank, trees and huts like props to their lives which shine from this the strangest of perspectives.

The landscape is shining, ethereal and full of the exotic and timeless. Everything slides by like watching memories, as if time itself has been covered in treacle so as to slow things down and take the edge of reality. The movement so slow, the sights so unfamiliar I am convinced I am dreaming. If I saw a unicorn standing proud on the bank I wouldn't be surprised.

This cant possibly be real, floating past hippos and nomad villages is surely the stuff of dreams. I'll wake soon to a dreary wet day and go to dreary wet work to pay for a dreary wet life. But the dream goes on and on, time stretching out like the river, long winding and endless. I shake my head in disbelief at how lucky I am, how big the world is and how beautiful.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The most beautiful town in the Sahel



The dirty and frenetic docks at the riverside port of Mopti

I stayed for a few days in the mission chatholique a wonderful old sprawling place of many arched buildings in Segou. During the days I wandered the streets past mud buildings and stately colonial structures. Meeting friendly locals who were ever curious and open and then in the evening hanging out with French travellers and brushing up on my French. But as ever the open road was calling an so I left for Djenne, reputedly the most beautiful town in the Sahel and possessing the largest mud building in the world it didn't disappoint.


Goats are everywhere in Africa

This was taken from the rooftop of my hostel in Djenne where I would gaze out over the rooftops every evening and reflect on how lucky I am to be in such a place

In Djenne I rediscovered the artist in me. The town is isolated and its narrow medieval streets don't accommodate cars giving it an old world calm which fosters creativity.










For a few days I enjoyed the company of friendly locals who would always invite you to drink tea with them, I drew and painted and relished the slow pace of life. But as ever I was on a mission, I had to see the legendary Timbuktu the holy grail of traveling. Just the expression to have "been to Timbuktu and back" is embedded in our Psyche as a symbol of adventure, a place that is beyond the back of beyond.

To get on my way to Timbuktu I had to get to the river port of Mopti from which it takes three days by boat to get to Timbuktu. The Niger being one of the largest rivers in Africa with hippos living in its waters and ancient nomadic communities on its banks the journey was going to be an adventure in itself. In fact the journey to a distant exotic place like Timbuktu is the whole point of going, for the ride, to see what its like to get to the back of beyond.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

some much needed nurishment for the blog


African crafts are colourful and diverse


Masks that tap into the human psyche and talk to you


A mud brick houses old yet timeless

I guess it kind of apt that as Ive become progressively sick and worn down bu Africa so has my blog. In that sense its a true mirror to my experience's. I realise a sick blog is a boring one all it does is sleep all day. Thankfully as I am recovering so is my blog. I'm in new surroundings now and feel refreshed so.. witness my blog reawaken!

To get up to speed we need first to do a little time traveling to a time when I first discovered the awesome ancient wonder of Mali. My first experience of this other world that inflames the imagination was on arriving in the riverside town of Segou and specifically on reaching the seat of a past empire in Old Segou.

Old segou was the capital of a Bamana empire around 1712 which was one of the first of the Mali empires to acquire guns by trading slaves on the Gambian, Senegalese and Ghanaian coasts. The empire was superseded by the Fula empire of Masina and Segou was captured in 1861 by El Hadj Omar and its people converted to Islam.

Mali with its position near the trans Saharan caravan routes and possessing the mighty Niger river a life line in the harsh Sahel ( the name for the dry land on the edge of the desert) was the founder of many a large and prosperous empire. Though present day Old Segou seems far removed from such huge history changing forces it does connect you to a past world.

The old empire capital is now a magical village 10 kilometers from modern day Segou. When I first stepped foot in this place I was unprepared for the unfamiliar smooth lines of crumbling mud buildings that rise seamlessly from the dusty earth. The houses and mosques seem more plant like than architecture like a colony of giant fungus growths. One mosque grew a tall cactus like tower with wooden struts like spines sprouting from all angles. Another was fat and bulbous a turnip of a building the sun cracked mud giving the impression that it was set to burst at any minute.

I was feeling acute travellers euphoria, as if Id really arrived at some holy grail of discovery. We were shown a very old tree where elders sat and discussed the worlds troubles, the old palace a square structure covered in indented or raised patterns and vertical columns, and then introduced to a village elder an given a tantalising glimpse of the interior of a large family compound. Despite all this wonderment it wasn't until I first saw the river that I truly gasped in wonder. From this moment on Mali was a dream world to me. It helped raise my spirits and inspired me to step up my ambitious plans. From this point I could feel my language skills increase as did my filming and photographing skills but most importantly I learned to learn. By this I mean that I started to take something from all the people I met and to open my eyes and my mind to the world around me.

So what was this magical scene like? well I doubt I can give you an Epiphany or revelation by describing it, but maybe I can inspire your imagination by telling you of the scene that unfolded as we came out from the twisting narrow alleys of the village to the banks of the Niger. The space around us opened up accommodating several large trees, huge round green globes a top gnarled trunks. Glittering between the dark shade of the trees you could see the silver light of the river peppered with impossible green. In a hot dusty environment scenes of lush greenery and precious water beckon to you like sirens so I could feel my self being dragged along at an ever faster pace by an uncontrollable force. Coming out from the trees into the light I could see timeless images of Egyptian like zebu cattle grazing on green islands, white egrets stalked the shallows as fishing boats drifted by. Women were washing bright clothes in time honored fashion while a little up the bank the oldest mosque in the village presided over the scene nestled under the hanging tendrills and shade of a banyan tree.
Again I apologise for my sickly blog and its emancipated out put but there really is more to come.



Saturday, February 21, 2009

Timbuctou and the Tuareg


Inside a Tuareg tent: during the heat of the day there is little else to do but take it easy


Hundreds of years old manuscipts in Timbuctou which was a renowned ancient seat of learning


Hello people. I apologise for the downward trend in output for this blog. This is due to periods of hectic travel, followed by periods spent away from Internet access, followed by strange illnesses. None of this has been helped by the harsh heat of Subsaharan Africa or the slow Internet connections.

Bearing these factors in mind I realise I haven't even finished the last entry, but am keen to publish whatever time and energy will permit. So here are some more pretty pictures.

Ill fill in all the gaps and write things up as an when I get the chance. Honest.




Magical moments ensued when I showed the kids of the desert my camcorder and even my guide book for West Africa which they were engrossed by for a good half hour


Street life Timbuctuo


A Tuareg tent


A good reliable transport system exists in the desert north of Timbuctuo