Mixing it up in Mali
Suggestion : Print this out in draft form, on scrap paper, and use it for some bedtime, bathroom or weekend reading. Our journals are more like a chapter of a book and this is 13 pages. So relax and enjoy!
Exciting Photos: Just click the link below. Big thanks to Panasonic for the Lumix cameras:
Greetings from Accra, Ghana! I just finished an amazing expedition of the Cape Coast and am gearing up to head to Togo tomorrow. I know I’m way behind on the newsletters but this one will make up for it! Take a trip back in time with me to September 2007 and enjoy the ride in Mali!
Mixing it up in Mali
If you love African Music then you no doubt have heard of Mali. Some of Africa’s top stars called Mali home at one time, although many of them are now living the high life in Europe. And with amazing tourist attractions like Timbuktu, the Dogon Country and Djenne, Mali is one of West Africa’s top tourist destinations. Fortunately, I arrived during the slower “off season” where one can get a true taste of the culture without busloads of tourists snapping photos and filling up the hotels. The off season is really the rainy season and, although you get Mali all to yourself, you still have to be patient and tolerant of muddy roads, collapsed bridges and unexpected dumpings of rain when the weather was just perfect moments before.
My expedition to Mali got off to a very rocky start as I took “the road VERY less traveled”, even strongly discouraged, from Mali’s south eastern neighbor Niger. The sandy, dusty, barren road from the Niger border to the first significant town of Gao would have been a struggle on my bike and I took the locals advice to take transport north from the last town of Niger, Ayoyorou.
So at the end of the paved road in Niger I found what appeared to be an old yet sturdy diesel Land Rover heading off the next morning and I booked a coveted front seat. I was well rested and ready to rock onward to Gao the next morning, so I thought. When I showed up they were in the process of loading 19 people, dozens of bags of cargo, chickens and a few cute goats. When I strolled up with my huge tandem, 7 Ortlieb bags and a loaded BOB trailer I was sure they were going to turn me away. But this is Africa, where anything is possible.
My bike got deluxe treatment strapped to the side racks of the truck and the bags soon found a home under all the people and on the roof. It was all smooth sailing as I took my window front seat and we set off roaring down the dusty streets of Ayoyorou. I was happily chatting with the driver when suddenly his smiley French small talk was quickly displaced by a look of total panic in his face as we attempted to pull into the gas station. “Qui est ce, Mon Ami! Qui est ce!!” “What’s this look, my friend”—in the best French I knew at the time. The panic now hit the other screaming passengers and before anyone had time to think we smashed right into a huge wall on the backside of the gas station!
We were only doing about 15 miles per hour and luckily we did not hit it dead so we grinded to a halt against the wall to my right, the same side my bike was on, and were just 5 feet from a building head on! It was hairy. What happened? Our vehicle had no brakes! Luckily the Angels above were watching over me and the bike as we both walked away unharmed, as did all the passengers and cargo. I was sure this scary accident would prompt pandemonium among the other passengers as it was clear when he pressed the brake pedal that it hit the floor and the vehicle was unfit for a huge desert expedition. But this is Africa, where anything is possible—even the unthinkable.
They proceeded to push the car back to the station, fill it with gas, and told me that the driver just needed to learn how to pump the brakes and “plan for stops” in advance. Everyone in the truck seemed to accept this answer and something inside told me to trust the crazy consensus and continue on. “It’s all flat” they told me. “We really don’t need the brakes much”. At least that’s what I think I they said with my very limited French. When in Africa, do as the Africans. I stayed onboard.
With a fresh new war wound on the Land Rover we charged into the early afternoon sun making great time. But it did not take long for the nightmare to worsen. First we got a flat tire and had no jack to change the tire so we all had to lift the loaded Land Rover in the hot sun as a team to change the tire with the only spare on board just 30 minutes outside of town. Then just as we get rolling we get yet another flat tire! I take a few deep breaths and join the herd of other passengers and in the walk in the sun to a small village to wait for it to be fixed. Then, just as we are ready to drive away with our 2nd changed tire the gear box goes out after rolling about 50 yards! This is no joke, this really happened!
Luckily, at this time, I’d been living in Africa for over a year and had learned how to “go with the flow” and not lose my patience. I sat in the shade with my fellow expedition friends, played Tourareg music I recorded while in Niger, and practiced my French with the locals. About three hours later the driver came back with some part, put it in the car, and off we went. But with our 6 hour delay we had to tackle the drive to Gao at night, which made me quite nervous with a shady vehicle without brakes, as you could imagine.
The truck was running good, we hit the boarder to Mali, they paid their bribes, and I was optimistic that we would make it in a few hours. But it only gets worse. As we turned the headlights on for the evening drive they appeared to be working great at first. But as each mile passed the lights got dimmer and dimmer. Eventually, the truck died. And we were literally in the middle of nowhere. I stepped into proactive mode and pulled out my filming lights and told him to run the car without lights and use my filming lights to move forward. The truck was soon flying along at 60km an hour using one filming light and our driver Jacque could not be happier.
But our dead battery just could not spin the distributor cap any longer without a functioning alternator, even without the lights on, and we finally had to call it quits when the battery gave way. It was 3AM. We had been traveling since 9AM and had gone about 60 miles. By now, I lost my patience completely, snapped out my Sierra Designs tent from my bag, and fled to the bushes to sleep while my fellow passengers tried to revive the truck that had no chance. It was not fun. Add to that the heat, stinky sweaty body and a small hole I left in the front door of my tent allowing dozens of mosquitoes to eat me all night and you have the ingredients for a grouchy Jamie!
At about 6:30AM I was rudely awoken by the sound of ear piercing Tourareg music coming from an old boom box and some guy banging on the tent telling me the truck is leaving. I packed up the tent as fast as I could just to discover that we had over an hour to wait until the new battery they uncovered actually got the car to start. But finally it did, and we had about 120km to go to Gao. No sweat, so I thought.
Turns out our driver forgot to get gas when he got the battery and, you guessed it, we ran out of gas! How can it get worse? Hummmm, just you wait! We’re now in the hot desert sun waiting for someone to bring us gas, sweating, swearing and ready to kill our driver. After two hours we find some gas from a passing motorcycle, and off we go. Then, just when you think it can’t get worse, we roll into a small town and our driver kicks everyone off the truck, pays some bus company a few bucks, and we’re told we have to wait 4 hours for the next bus to take us the final 50km to our final destination!
So yes, it took me 35 hours of horrific travel to go a whopping 165 miles from Ayoyorou, Niger to Gao, Mali. But I arrived in good spirits considering the circumstances and met some great people in Gao who led me to a budget hotel with air conditioned rooms and I was all set after a shower and nap. I had to get some rest before yet another long, hot bus journey from Gao to the capital of Mali where I would be picking up some critical bike parts and camera equipment I desperately needed to continue my journey in Mali and Burkina Faso.
The next day’s 14 hour bus ride was a cake walk compared to the journey I just had but the heat, smell and lack of rest still took a mighty toll on me. Fortunately my good buddy from Benin Hugo had set me up with one of his buddies living in Bamako named Joachim from Sweden who had an amazing air conditioned house and offered to host me for my first night in the busy capital of Mali, Bamako.
After a decent rest I bid my farewell and pedaled to the four star Kempinski Hotel where I had my mom send my bike and camera equipment. I picked up my first guest rider Emmanuel on the way and arrived feeling rested and excited. I usually send my spare parts to nice hotels to ensure security and had arranged with the manager to pick them up that day. While I was there I decided it could not hurt to ask if they would host me while I stayed a few days in the capital filming musicians. The manager had some compassion on me after hearing my adventure from Gao and pampered me up with 3 days and 2 nights of four star luxury! It could not have come at a better time!
I spent several days in Mali’s busy capital and was blessed to meet some wonderful people and truly world class musicians who showed their stuff for the cameras. My good Malian friend Moussa who I met in Tanzania set me up with his brother in law Momo who in turn linked me up with Mali’s top Kora player Cherif to do a private performance that was beyond words. I then bumped into a budding hip hop singer Leudi who did a rolling performance while riding the streets of Bamako. Life was good, but I was itching to ride after getting the music recorded.
But the corrupt customs office had other plans for me. They did not want to release my package without some horrendous bribes. I hate paying bribes but they were playing hard ball. My short stay in the capital soon became 5 and I finally had to bite the bullet and pay the bribes to the customs office to receive my bike parts and camera equipment. I chalked it as a cost of filming and riding in Mali and began making my way to the magical Dogon Country region of the country. I finally hopped some transport to the town of Mopti where I would begin heading into the hills. The next day I was officially back on tour but horribly behind schedule due to the customs delays so had to bus it to the border of the region from Mopti to catch up.
As I was waiting for my ride I met a charismatic, smiling man who called himself “Boubacon John Travolta” or Bouba for short. We hit it off from the get go. He is a Dogon man, raised in the region I was planning to adventure in, and I could think of no better person to guide me through a region with a history dating back over 7,000 years. But I had a new idea: I would have him ride his own bike so we could leave my seat empty to pick up all sorts of Dogon characters along the way. He loved the plan, knew just where to rent a tough bike, and agreed to come along for about $20 bucks a day and with that fee he would arrange my food, translate and become the co-host of the program.
Bouba was trooper indeed and before we knew it we had a bike for him, the BOB trailer behind him and a place to store some unnecessary gear to lighten both our loads for a 4 day off-road, mountainous expedition into the Dogon Country. We were stoked. But before we left he shared with me a nasty injury on his leg that he said was bugging him. He rolled his pant leg up as we sat in the shade with this buddies and I almost lost my lunch! It was a massive, infected and utterly horrendous wound that was oozing all sorts of dreadful fluids! I pulled out my overstocked first aid kit and gave him a long scrubbing and clean dressing as the crowd began to form. I had no idea how valuable some good medical supplies would be until I finished up with Bouba.
Before I knew it I had three people showing me terribly infected wounds, some of them clearly several months old, begging the new “Doctor J” to dress them up. Two hours and several bowls of barley wine later we are all singing, dancing and celebrating the white dressings worn by my new patients. It was classic! I now carry an even bigger bag of supplies and it feels good to help folks out and they sure appreciate it!
Bouba and I made our first pedal strokes into the heart of the Dogon Country with cheers from our new friends and were in great spirits. The dirt roads and climbing began just out of town, but nothing major. And, considering Bouba was carrying the trailer and we dumped a bunch of heavy spare parts and hard drives, my bike was super light and we were flying into the setting sun!
We stopped to take some photos of an adorable Dogon village and, as always, were soon surrounded by cute kids and local villagers. One young man sat next to me when I was setting up my cameras and was curious as ever how it all worked. Bouba explained to him what Peace Pedalers was all about in the local Dogon language and, within just 20 minutes of riding out of town, we had our first Dogon guest rider named Sekou Oulogme from the Sinkarma village ready to ride with us! We were off to an epic start!
Sekou had a worn, torn and filthy white t-shirt covering his chiseled body but that sure did not keep his smile from gleaming off his face from the second he was invited to join us. He had no idea where we were going, for how long, or much more than an invitation to come play with Jamie and Booba but he was jazzed for the adventure into the unknown! He hopped on and we were soon moving on up the hill at over 20km/hour, all three of us giggling like kids as Booba translated the conversation between Sekou and I.
Sekou is a 21 year old farmer working on his family farm and has 4 brothers and 2 sisters. He spoke only a few words of French and no English so I was grateful I brought along Booba to keep the conversation going. We made several stops to sample funky berries from the locals, take pictures, drink Barley wine, meet Sekou’s friends and family on the road, and learn about the villages around his house. It was epic!
At one small village stop we met the chief who told us there were at least three people in the village suffering from Malaria so we set him up with plenty of Coartem medication and he continued to fill our bowls up with endless quantities of free barley beer. We did a slightly intoxicated rolling interview with Sekou and it was just about then that Booba pooped out from trying to keep up with us and likely overloaded on beer. Sekou took over the single bike and I gave Booba a break by pushing the tandem hard into the setting sun.
Sekou had some friends in a village that was “just around the next corner”. I put that in quotations to stress the obvious and frustrating experiences I’ve had in the last 35 countries with that very saying. Needless to say, we arrived just as it was too dark to ride another mile but were greeted like family by Sekou’s crew in a tiny village not even on the map. It was a long day and I was ready for some food and rest and luckily did not have to do much besides set up my tent right next to a cute hut where Booba would sleep. We invited Sekou to spend the night and eat with us and his huge smile beamed off my headlamp light indicting a huge “hell yes!”--no words necessary sometimes!
Booba went to work arranging food while I set up my tent under the stars. No electricity, no traffic, just a perfect night in Dogon Country! Our hosts Yaire and Djomty brought over a live chicken and asked me if I thought it was okay for dinner. I agreed, as long as I did not hear the little bugger die. My wish was somehow granted and before I knew it they had chicken, pasta and a local grain prepared on an open fire just as I finished an evening yoga session. They also cooked up some famous Dogon onions that the French pay top dollar for and words can’t begin to describe how delicious this meal was. I was in heaven, and so was Sekou , Booba and our hosts.
I invited Booba and Sekou to share my big tent but they opted for the hut and I was not going to complain as those boys sure know how to stink. I got a huge, warm, clean tub of water delivered with a smile by the shirtless and totally ripped Djomty and went to bed full, clean, stretched and full of joy under the endless stars of Dogon!
The next morning the sun got us up early and Sekou and Booba were dying to show me the “Peace Huts” up in the village above our campsite. After our hosts filled my belly with local millet and leftover pasta we hiked up a trail followed by a dozen kids into the village of Kama-Badjo. Booba explained the “Peace Huts” to me, which I found fascinating. They were purposely built very low and the chief would bring villagers in who were quarreling. Because the huts are so low, you can’t stand up to fight so you have to sit and talk it out. They have been doing this for over 5,000 years and it still works today! I may build one of those in my community one day!
Just as we were packing up the bikes Yaire came over to say goodbye with her two little boys Koumba and Djiguiba. Both of them looked sad and sick. Booba relayed my concern and, as the Peace Pedalers Angles would have it, both of her kids were suffering from Malaria! It was peak season and one of them was a high risk infant so there’s a good chance we saved a life that day. Yaire was so grateful when I pulled out the Coartem and Booba translated the instructions. There’s no better way to start a day than making one for a loving mother!
We got a later start than planned, but you can’t rush a precious morning like that. We had a 25km ride from Kama-Badjo to Sanga, the last town before descending into the real Dogon Country valley. Sekou decided to pedal along and we enjoyed a precious ride through rolling hills void of cars and loaded with endless mountain and village scenery that were truly stunning.
We arrived Sanga with kids chasing us and big smiles in every direction. We caught some much needed shade and filled up the UD Hydration packs full for the next stage of the journey while chatting away with the locals. Word got out fast that Sekou was returning home to his village and the tandem was in need of its next rider. Before we knew it a young man named Harouna Dollo was chatting passionately with Bouba and we found our next rider effortlessly as ever.
I sent Sekou back with some Malaria meds and some cash to get some food for his family and he and Harouna exchanged helmets with a smile. The Dogon Country expedition was moving along smoother than I could have ever anticipated. Harouna, Booba and I were soon pedaling the rough road from Sanga to Banani through amazing valleys of red rock followed by with endless views of cliffs and waterfalls, adorable villages and numerous wild river crossings. As an avid mountain biker, it does not get much better than this.
Harouna spoke some good French and since my “Afro-French” was a getting bit better, we were actually able to have at least a basic conversation. Harouna is 19 years old and shared his life as an artist of pottery and how he works daily to help his mother with his family. Although he mentioned the suffering that many of his villagers endure with disease and poverty, he was grateful for the close relationship he has with his brothers, sister and mother.
Now I’m not sure if it was the bike riding or just his nature, but Harouna was constantly laughing. I have never had a rider who laughed so much and it was contagious. Booba started laughing more too. We were just group of kids out riding in the mud and dirt and sunshine giggling for no reason. Life was good!
Before we knew it we quickly descending deep into the heart of Dogon country and it’s no wonder people have been living in this region for over 7,000 years! It’s precious. Check the photos—it’s beyond words. Just as we were arriving into Banani for lunch we went off a huge drop off and a loud, horrendous sound came from my back rack. The tire was rubbing hard against the rack and we soon realized that a rack mount had broken. And in this remote region, that is not a good thing. At the same time the weather was quickly changing from warm and sunny to cold, windy and loaded with ominous black clouds. And, to make matters worse, my last camcorder battery was now almost empty and there was no electricity in sight. I was starting to lose my enthusiasm a bit.
But Booba was beyond optimistic and it was infectious. We went into solution mode right away. He got the bikes stored in a new friend’s house out of the approaching storm and arranged generator to give us electricity to charge the batteries. I went to work on the rack and found just the right trinkets in my spare parts bag to fix it in just five minutes. The storm came on hard just as lunch of local millet and vegetables was being prepared by a local villager Jacque and the small generator hummed and spewed smoke as it gave us just enough juice to get a good charge in a few batteries while Horouna, Booba and I sat eating and watching the rain fall.
Horouna had to get back to his village so I gave him some medication, a bracelet and a few bucks to find a lift home. Just as the rain stopped, Booba and I were getting geared up to pedal off towards the small village of Ireli. We only met a few folks in the village but one man Jaque Quirou could not resist when he saw Horouna and I hug goodbye and saw me getting ready to pedal off. Jaque hopped right on without a question and the magic of Peace Pedaling in Mali continues!
We were now riding on the valley floor and there was not official road to speak of. On the map it showed some kind of “road”, but it soon became just a path. At first, we were loving it as the rain had hardened up the soft, sandy terrain and it was challenging yet rideable as we weaved through cute paths along the Bandigara Cliffs with spectacular scenery that made it hard to keep your eyes down. But the perfect ecstasy of valley mountain biking was short lived and we were soon buried in deep sand.
Deep sand is one of my least favorite conditions as it sucks the life out of you pushing and the going is very slow. I asked Booba if this is what we should expect all the way to the end of the valley and he said “Hakona Matata Brother! No Worries! It’s only bad today. Tomorrow it will be better”. And it was indeed bad the rest of the day. We were only able to ride about 25% of the terrain and the rest was pushing. But the local boys came out of the bush around every corner and were so helpful. Everyone took turns pushing, pulling and lifting the bikes through some truly testing sandy terrain.
“Jacque is a local and he knew what he was getting into”, I kept telling myself as resentment built for the nasty terrain. I really wanted to ride more with him, but the team pushing of the bike turned out to be quite bonding and we were able to chat a bit on the way. Jacque is a father of two children and owns a small business in Banani selling basic food items, soap and supplies. He loves his wife and kids dearly, but seemed a bit resentful that he was not able to see the world outside his village.
I wish my French was better as he had such a strong desire but I could not get much more out of the conversation. I did my best to encourage him to dream, to have a clear vision, and to believe he could make it happen. I think he got some of it as he said “Merci Jamie” many times after our talk.
We finally saw the village of Ireli in the distance and our crew of about 10 village kids, Booba, Jacque and I were all cheering as we approached. The setting sun was casting the most intoxicating soft light on the red rocks where the Telem tribes first inhabited the area 7,000 years. The Telem folks were living inside small caves hundreds of feet above the ground. It’s still a mystery to the Dogon people how they got into their caves as there are no stairs, ropes or vines.
We had no idea where we were going to sleep or eat, who we would meet, or what the evening had in store but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to experience. The kids, tandem bike and sweaty white boy turned plenty of heads and it was the village Catholic priest who was the first to approach us and invite us in for some tea . His name was Emmanuel Douyon and he was so gentle, looked right through my eyes into my heart, and we were brothers from the start!
We pushed the bikes into a corner of his house and he walked us up some narrow stairs where we were blessed with a truly priceless view of the entire valley to one side and the spectacular cliffs and Ireli village on the other. He filled a huge pitcher of cold water and got the tea brewing as we finally relaxed our exhausted bodies.
I was eying the flat roof of his house as a potential tent spot from heaven and Booba asked if we could spend the night. Emmanuel was more than happy to host us and Jacque decided to stay the night as well so Booba jumped up, did a bunch of pushups from his adrenaline high and danced around celebrating how awesome our adventure was together.
Jacque and I continued to hack away at conversations in broken French and my dictionary and headlamp got some good use as we ate an amazing dinner of pasta and delicious fresh baked bread cooked by our host Emmanuel. Jacque was a sweet man that I am eager to visit again—very genuine, warm and real. Although there were few deep conversations, I felt like we built a deep bond just out of our shared intention to know each other at another level. It was a very special evening under the endless stars that blanketed the freshly cleaned sky from the recent rain storm.
The next morning we woke up to the sound of roosters, children laughing and cows mooing. I peaked out of my tent and a 360 degree view of this precious valley almost brought tears to my eyes. I did a bit of yoga while Booba worked his magic getting food ready and we hit the village for some truly epic sight seeing. Pictures are worth a thousand words so check the album and you’ll want to visit Ireli no doubt! The ancient granaries, friendly villagers, Telem caves and life moving at a pace so relaxed that you can’t help but grow to love the place are waiting for you!
After an unreal meal of freshly baked little doughnuts, bread, jam and fresh brewed coffee we were ready for a long day to the end of the valley and back up to the top of the plateau. We knew it was going to be a tough day but we were all up for the challenge. I gave a hearty hug and a Peace Pedalers hat to our host Emmanuel and vowed to be back. That gift giving session led to Jacque and I exchanging our favorite necklaces and my setting Booba up with a fresh pair of Peace Pedalers cycling socks as his were beyond disgusting and he was now officially a Peace Pedaler!
We left in such great spirits and Booba was right about the terrain changing after Ireli indeed. The mean sandy road turned to hard packed dirt, meandering through one picturesque Dogon village after another, truly like a fairy tail. Kids ran after us with gleaming white teeth from their smiling faces, elaborately dressed women stopped their daily tasks to extend long elaborate greetings, and the red cliffs dotted in bright green trees sent us all oxygen we needed to pedal onwards.
The only major hiccup came when our trail gave way to a deep pond about neck deep and, believe it or not, it was more than welcome due to the stiffening heat of the midday sun. On the other side of the pond a group of Dogon women were washing clothes and they confirmed that it was indeed the right path onwards. So we simply clipped tight the seven Ortlieb drybags and practically floated our way across the little lake to the other side where the path continued along the river.
About five kilometers along the path on the other side of the river we stopped for a break and met a friendly man name Michel Poudiogo who was intrigued by our expedition and was eager to get a taste of the action. Since I knew Jacque had his wife and family back in his village I decided it was time for a new addition to our crew and Michel and Jacque exchanged helmets. It was then I got the warmest farewell I’ve ever received from my new friend Jacque who shared his feelings of connection with me over the last two days of riding and it almost brought tears to both our eyes. Check the 4 minute trailer for a taste of his farewell. It was priceless.
So with about 20km of off road riding still to go before hitting the next town our new guest Michel hopped on and was ready to rock. Unlike Jacque, Michel spoke almost no French and literally not a lick of English. The only vehicle we had at our disposal for connection was the Black Sheep mountain bike tandem, and we put it to full use. Michel had strong legs, great balance, and massive trust—the best ingredients possible for a dream guest rider in the rugged conditions.
It was all tight, technical single track trails and Michel and I soon became a team like no other. We hit every corner at maximum speed, flew over all the rooted sections as if they were not there, and drifted over wishy-washy sand sections as if we were floating. We became little kids, with no words needed, just giggles, grunts, sweat and grime connecting us as human beings from drastically different backgrounds and ways of life. When we stopped for a rest, with rushing heart rates and adrenaline pumping, I’d pull the camera out and we would both just scream in ecstasy whatever came to mind. I’m not sure what he said, but I know it was something positive. It was that kind of day—super, duper positive.
We finally arrived in the small village where it just so happened to be market day. Market day in any African village is a sight to be seen, but if you add the backdrop of the Banglidara cliffs and rich history of the Dogon region you have the magical components of an unforgettable day in Africa indeed! There were brightly dressed woman mixing up barely beer, grains and nuts being sold in the shade of a massive trees and every color fabric imaginable being pedaled by cheery Dogon women.
We were totally spent upon arrival and had a massive, sandy, grueling hill to climb to get out of the valley so Booba went to work rounding up a few youngsters looking to show off their strength in exchange for a bucks and bags of barely wine. We were in no condition to push the massive loads up after five hard hours of loaded mountain biking and our two teenage assistants Pierre and Soono almost got into a brawl fighting over who got to push the heavier tandem versus pushing the boring single bike and trailer up endless sand dunes.
For the next two hours we all worked as a team pushing our massive load of titanium and steel out of the valley towards the town of Dourou where we would somehow find a place to sleep, eat and rest before our final day back out of Dogon country to Severe. After we crossed the last river it was all up, up and more up. We had 10 liters of water from our UD hydration packs and plastic bags, which was had just enough fluids to get us to the top of the plateau.
Our arrival into the town of Dourou at sunset is an experience I will never forget. Booba gave the single bike to Michel and he ran up a rocky trail to start to get a place lined up for us to sleep for the night as the sun was setting fast. Just after Booba left our teenage duo ran out of steam and bailed out, leaving Michel and I to muscle through the last bits of steep, sandy terrain. But as soon as we lost our pushing power we miraculously attracted what seemed to be every kid from the upcoming village to take their place! We had kid after kid after kid jumping on, pushing and pulling the bikes up to the plateau where the sand finally gave way to some hard pack dirt and eventually pavement.
When Michel and I arrived there was a massive crowd cheering and greeting us at the entrance to the village. Booba informed me that he found a female Dogon rider to give the tandem a spin. “You must ride also with a Dogon woman, Jamie”. Booba said with a huge smile. “They are very strong and this woman they say is the strongest in the village”. I was pretty darn tired and hungry, but was not going to turn down the opportunity to ride with the strongest female rider in the village.
The truth is that any female rider in Africa is tough to muster due to the cultural differences so I had to take advantage of this very rare opportunity. I had tried over the past year in Africa to find female riders but it’s like pulling teeth. Women are rarely given any opportunity to step out of their roles as “mothers and workers” and I caught my fair share of nasty stares and flexed muscles trying to go against the cultural norms.
A moving mob, mostly women and female children, led our female Dogon rider like a prized fighter from the village gates to our mob of men on the outskirts. She was shy and timid at first, feeling all the eyes of her village on her. Booba translated as I asked her name and confirmed that she REALLY wanted to come out for a bike ride. Her name was Thabsille and her huge smile and her tough facial expression of determination as she gripped the handlebars made it unnecessary to wait for the transition from Booba. She was more than ready to do some pedaling.
I strapped on the helmet and pushed our machine through what appeared to be every available resident of the entire village to get to the road. Thabsille’s legs hammered the pedals as we flew through the village onto the open road. It was clear this woman wanted to ride, so as soon as I knew she was strapped into the pedals and got her balance I took the tandem off-road and we made our own trail over the rocks of the plateau, taking big dips and drops with Thabsille screaming and giggling like a little girl. The sun was setting, cheers came from the village as they saw our crazy route through the rocks, and it was the perfect end to a glorious day of adventure in Dogon!
I returned a panting Thabsille to her friends and family and it was time to say goodbye to our new friend Michel before finding our home for the night. Michel and I shared few words that day, but the smiles, sweat and teamwork were enough to make us both very sad to leave each other’s company. Booba explained the Malaria medication instructions and we sent him home with a few bucks and some meds to keep his family and village safe during the peak Malaria season. Like Jacque, I promised to be back, and I plan to visit this magical region at least once more in my lifetime.
Booba and I shared our desire to camp on the plateau overlooking the valley and we were soon led by dozens of people along the cliff through the village. This village has been around for 5,000 years, and life is for the most part unchanged. There are donkeys, chickens, cows, goats, stone granaries with thatch huts and ancient rock homes with smoky chimneys. We were led to the chief’s house where our request to camp was denied due a rapidly approaching storm one could see on the horizon. Instead we were given our own ancient stone house to set up our camp in for the night, a hot bucket of water for our baths, and an offer to eat with their family at sunset. Life was good!
As predicted, the storm came in hard and fast, dumping massive amounts of rain in about 30 minutes and then leaving as fast as it came. Booba and I tried to sleep in the stone hut in our sleeping bags but the rain was dripping in all night so we ended up setting up the tent inside the house. Neither of us slept very well that night for some reason, and the following morning came all too fast. Booba was burnt out and I could barely muster the strength to get out of the my soaked, muddy tent the next morning after three hard days in a row of riding in the rugged Dogon Country. If it hadn’t been for the commitment I made to reunite with our new friends back in Bandigara we would have slept in for sure!
We were welcomed in by a tired, shaky man named Kaman who could barely walk. He had been suffering for over a week with high fever, aches and was not able to keep food down. Booba translated the instructions for taking the medication and he got his first treatment on the spot. He was extremely grateful for the gift, possibility one that saved his life as the nearest hospital to his village is about 100km away. We left a few dozen treatments with Kaman who gave Booba and I a warm hug of appreciation as we left his hut.
Amani and I mounted up the tandem and the entire village was up to greet us as we rode out of town. Amani is a 21 year old young man who works on the small family farm to help his family. He loved to sing and shared several of his own licks with me as we rode through the lovely villages in the morning light. Once again, the language barrier kept the conversation from going too deep, but we had a blast riding through puddles and hitting some fast top speeds on the downhill descents towards Bandigara. He had to head back after about 15km so it was just me and an exhausted Booba who could barely keep his bike moving at the halfway point of the day’s adventure.
I took the trailer to let Booba rest and my bike felt like 500 pounds on our fourth day of off road riding. We made it back to town totally exhausted but the friends we met on our first day of first aid disbursement had kept their promise to repay me for fixing their wounds and had put together a welcoming crew including drummers, singers, barley wine and dozens of people to party down with. We were in no condition to start dancing and drinking and our new friends could tell. They helped us arrange a room at a the local Hotel LaFalaise (www.hotel-lafalaise-mali.com) for a few hours to get some sleep and Booba and I crashed out hard and woke up energized and ready to boogie!
It was a festive Sunday afternoon under a huge tree where the crowd was gathering. Booba and the crew put the word out that I was looking for transport towards Djenne but warned me that almost nobody goes anywhere on Sundays and it may be hours, if ever, before I get out of Bandigara. In the meantime, it was time to celebrate and I was offered countless glasses of barely wine, funky local snacks and exotic local dishes.
More and more people came and a huge dance party went down for several hours with locals of all ages. Many of the guys who I gave medical treatment still had their dressings on, now dirty and frayed, but healing wonderfully. We redressed a few arms and legs in between songs and dishes of food and it was a good day to be alive in Mali indeed. We finally managed to find some transport to Sevare at sunset and Booba and I bid farewell to the Dogon region and were on our way to explore Djenne together for one last adventure.
We arrived in Sevare in the evening and our dancing and drinking buzz was immediately killed when I realized I left both my cell phone and my important notebook back at the La Falaise hotel room in Bandigara! Luckily we called the hotel and miraculously somebody turned it in and it was waiting to be picked up. Booba agreed to make the mission the next day and meet me in Djenne that evening so we made the best of the situation and I treated him to a victory meal after unreal expedition in Dogon.
I got a late start the next morning heading to Djenne to catch the legendary Monday market and it was a tough day in the saddle. For one, I was totally exhausted after four straight days of hammering the Dogon Country. Add to that the wild mix of food and drinks that I consumed the night before, the lost items, the relentless mid day sun and the fact that there was not a guest rider to be found and you have the ingredients for a grouchy Binks.
But I finally made it to Djenne and I was not going to be disappointed as the place is stunning. I took a cool shower and a power nap and woke up to Booba’s smiling face wielding my cell phone and notebook so we were ready to explore! We set up the bike with cameras and mics and charged into the setting sun where we gave rides to dozens of local kids who went crazy when the tandem came riding into their town. Most of the adults were resting and praying as it was Ramadan time so we just frolicked around this ancient city for hours giggling and singing with the energetic youngsters who were unaffected by the fact that they were only allowed to eat after the sun set.
Djenne is another ancient city in Mali dating back thousands of years and houses the world’s largest mud structure, their mosque. I felt blessed to be able to experience the wild Monday market outside the mosque and a calm Tuesday morning exploring the area on foot as well. Booba and I shared our last moments together in Djenne having him translate all the Dogon voice files to English for the show and we were both starting to get sad about leaving each other.
The moment finally came where I had to make my way to Burkina Faso. I was way behind schedule so had to catch an evening bus to outside Djenne all the way to Bobo Dioulosso and Booba stuck with me all the way until the bus showed up. We spent our last moments under the shade at sunset, sharing, laughing and fixing up his war wound once again that had healed so nicely from the dressing and anti-biotic cream we put on it.
While under the tree waiting for my departure Booba told me that his family had some extra land in Dogon Country and he offered it to me if I wanted to build a house to have a home with him in Dogon. I almost started crying from the kind gesture. When the bus came we both fought back tears and vowed to stay in touch. To this day I’m happy to say that Booba and I are in contact and he relays my messages to all the riders on the expedition. If you ever want to explore the Dogon Country, ask around for Booba. You’ll find him smiling and waiting to show you the love!
I’ll share the 22 hour bus ride from hell for the Burkina Faso journal, and close this newsletter from Accra, Ghana where I’m getting excited for my adventures in Togo and Benin before the final stretch from Senegal to Morocco and into Europe. It’s been an amazing journey so far here in Africa and, although it is by far the most challenging project of my life and not without it’s major ups and downs, I’m as excited as ever!
Live Big. Give Big.
Special Thanks to our Silver Sponsors