Challenge Diary - Page C - into Mali to
Mon 8th Jan - Into Mali to Nioro
Everyone sleeping in their own mosquito-free tents last night.
3 o'clock in the morning sees Tim making the first of several
sprints to the toilet. This turns out to be an acute bout of 'camels
revenge' or 'Kiffa khazi'. 2 Imodium capsules are administered.
We all leave camp at 9.30am in one convoy. A badly potholed road
causes two cars to stop prematurely. Nathan and Frankie (Merc 240D)
have a broken suspension swinging arm mounting. Ian and Sam (Isuzu
Trooper) have a rear shock absorber, which detaches itself from the
chassis (or rather lack of chassis) and breaks a fuel line. The fuel
line is fixed at the roadside and the cars limp on to Ayoun el
Atrous [map]. It's here where we and the other two cars turn south to the
Mauritania/Mali border and Bamako beyond. We say 'bye' to the others
and in case of poor phone reception, agree that whoever gets there
first, shall leave a message at the Hendrik Khan hotel, Timbuktu's
Ian in search of a chassis
Get another 10 litres of petrol to fill up; we have 2 jerry cans as
well because of unreliable supplies. Diesel doesn't present the same
We fail to see the police on the way out of
Ayoun and get called
back by Anne Marie (via walkie-talkie).
The police (who were having lunch inside a shack) clearly wanted us
to offer a bribe for our 'transgression' and made a meal of
inspecting our passports, visas etc. In the end they let us go after
giving one of the officers some Aspirin.
15.00, all well with Tim's bowels, no 'unauthorised movements' since
Meet up with 3 Canadians working for Reuters in Dakar. They are in a
Toyota Landcruiser heading for a tour round Mali including Timbuktu.
After a brief chat they blast on ahead of us.
Nick is losing patience due to lack of speed on the badly corrugated
surface. It suits us to go faster and 'ride out' the bumps, but the
Fiesta can't do that.
Meet up with our Canadian friends again. They are parked on the road
verge with a shredded tyre. They don't seem to have much of a clue
about changing wheels, so we lend a hand.
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Loads of checkpoints for customs and police as we near Mali border.
At Koubeni [Kobenni on
map] we pay Mauritanian customs 10 euros to 'export' our car.
16.45 we enter Mali. First police checkpoint is manned by a very
friendly guard, no hassle, and gives us a good first impression of
Spoke too soon!
Arrive Nioro [map], first town in Mali. Policeman at the checkpoint tells
us to go to the customs office in the town centre and then to return
to the policeman for passport stamp. The town is a confusing mass of
cars, mopeds and donkeys but eventually we find the customs office.
It takes ages to get our papers sorted, partly because of the cars
but mainly due to the junior official who hasn't done this before.
The proper (experienced) customs officer eventually shows up and we
get on our way again.
We decide to check out the towns' only hotel before visiting the
police again. It doesn't take long to decide that we will definitely
not be staying at the hotel, mainly on account of the fact that the
only shower and toilet have no hot water, no roof, and walls that
are only just at head height. Added to this is the feature that
these facilities are completely overlooked by the surrounding
Next mission is to visit the police again to officially enter Mali.
All goes well inside the police station, questions asked, documents
checked, passports stamped. Then the immortal words are uttered from
the officers lips "there is a fee". As usual we ask if there will be
a receipt, a simple test to see if the fee is genuine or just
extortion. No receipt is offered and our policeman makes it clear
that we cannot leave the station without his permission. As the
officers English is limited, and the fact that he had foolishly
returned our documents before asking for money, young Tim proposes
we make a pact not to pay. A stand-off of silence ensues, and then
we start talking amongst ourselves about all sorts of rubbish. After
maybe half an hour the policeman capitulates and shows us the door.
Camp. Somewhere near Nioro
We drive a mile or two up the road and make camp in a sandy
Good nights sleep last night. Tim's tummy is not quite right yet so
one more Imodium taken as a precaution.
We all head back into town (Nioro) to change some money and buy car
Good road surface soon turns to badly corrugated road with sandy
tracks to the side. After a particularly bad landing, Paula and
young Tim loose their complete exhaust system in one go. It gets
separated into smaller pieces and stuffed into their car for fixing
on another day.
After around 150kms, decent tarmac is found again at
which takes us on to Bamako [map].
The usual checkpoints slow
our progress somewhat, but thankfully no more dramas today.
Anne Marie and Richard do a
great job of navigating us into and through Bamako city to find our
hotel, the Dakan. Pretty basic, cheap, shabby, clean-ish, but it
does have air con in the rooms.
Lots of interest in our cars
from the locals, who all seem to want to introduce us to potential
buyers, but only Young Tim and Paula will be selling their car just
now (Merc 190D with no windscreen and exhaust system on back seat).
Bad news, Nick gets a phone message from his boss, instructing him
to return to work ASAP.
Understandably, Nick is not happy. More bad
news is that Richard and Anne Marie confirm our suspicions that they
are not now going to risk the route to Timbuktu. They don't think
their Fiesta will survive he expected rough going.
With no other car to accompany Tim in his Escort, it would be
foolish and possibly very dangerous to try and make the estimated
900kms to Timbuktu alone.
Nick and Tim waste no time in implementing 'plan B' and set off to
try and find the Canadians to see if they will team up. During their
wheel change the other day, they mentioned the name of the hotel
they were going to stay at in Bamako. A 2-hour search and we find
them at the Djenne Hotel. Tim suggests a two car convoy or hitching
a ride, asks them to consider and text back, hopefully in time to
leave Bamako tomorrow morning.
Nick organises his flight back home and Tim gets some cash out of
their Barclays account from the BICIM bank, seemingly only one of
two places to get cash from a card in the whole of Mali. Next time
(if there is one) we'll bring cash only.
Have a brief look around some of Bamako. We include a trip to the
roof of the
Sofitel Hotel, one of the tallest buildings in the city
for a spectacular panorama of the city and Niger River.
Bamako from Sofitel roof
Laundry service. Bamako
Back at the hotel later in the afternoon and who should turn up but
George and Ellen in their Mondeo. They were the 'missing couple' and
had been trying to catch up with the group since Morocco. Tim wastes
no time in introductions and explaining the situation. Fortunately
George is all for getting to Timbuktu, although Ellen would much
prefer to do it in a hired 4x4, having heard stories of the
conditions ahead. George explains that his radiator has been
repaired several times already, and is worried that it will let us
down again, he also points out that the Mondeo's ground clearance is
not so good. Tim assures them that should the Mondeo go 'terminal'
during the next leg of our adventure, without Nick there will be
enough room in the Escort if need be. It's agreed we will leave
Bamako tomorrow in our own respective cars, maintaining the original
idea of getting to Timbuktu in an inappropriate vehicle.
We're a bit concerned about progress of our friends in the main
group, as we have had no messages for a day or two. We have to
assume that it is simply lack of mobile phone coverage.
Young Tim & Paula get 1,700 euros for the Merc before flying home.
Not a great price for a prized car, but they were in a hurry.
After breakfast we say our goodbyes to Nick who will be flying out
of Bamako at 3am next morning. He's still very sad and disappointed
to be leaving, especially with not having achieved the main
objective of reaching Timbuktu.
Before leaving town, Tim takes George and Ellen via the bank to top
up their cash. While at the bank there is more interest in the
vehicles from prospective buyers and a great temptation of an offer
of a 4wd to get us to Timbuktu and beyond. Subconsciously, Tim &
George reckon this may be considered 'cheating' or at least 'not in
the spirit of the adventure', especially considering their
respective cars are still 'runners'.
The Mondeo and Escort leave Bamako at midday, the aim is to get as
far as practicable towards Timbuktu in a north-easterly direction.
Farewell to Nick. Bamako
As Tim is now without a partner, Ellen keeps him company and assists
in navigation for much of the way.
We pass through Segou [map], a pleasant looking major town before crossing
the magnificent Niger River further north. At the bridge itself, the
army police get very upset when they see our cameras. They took a
lot of convincing that we hadn't actually taken any photo's before
they apprehended us. Apparently bridges like this are very sensitive
After passing over the bridge and out of sight of the army police,
we pause to take a few pictures of the river.
Although the road on this stretch is not particularly bad by African
standards, the edges are often broken away, leaving huge potholes as
permanent hazards. This fact became all too apparent when an
oncoming truck caused George to swerve, resulting in a front and
rear simultaneous blowout. So bad was the pothole that the steel
wheel rims had to be beaten out before they had any hope of
retaining a tyre again, never mind any air. In the meantime we had
five good spares between us so the damaged wheels could be fixed
George's double puncture
We get as far as the town of
[map] before some navigational
confusion, the end of the tarmac road and darkness force us to find
somewhere to stay for the night.
After a shower, a simple meal, and a brief chat to a couple of
locals, we retired to bed pondering our onward route ahead, which we
reckoned would be around 600kms of a combination of gravel, dirt and
desert tracks at best. But which way?
At least the hotel rooms were reasonably comfortable and provided us
with a decent night sleep.
After breakfast Tim seeks out information from a couple of hotel
guests regarding the route options ahead to Timbuktu. George heads
into town to get his wheels and tyres fixed.
One of the route options (favoured by the locals) is to head due
North East in an almost straight line to Timbuktu. The downside of
this is that for most of the way, there are no roads or tracks
marked on our fairly detailed map. It is also difficult to gauge how
difficult the terrain and navigation of this cross-country route
A local teacher (Mohammed Lamine) suggests that we could use a guide
to help us navigate. Tim thinks this could be our best option of
reaching Timbuktu within our now tight schedule. After much
searching and waiting, Lamine finds a local driver who is willing to
come with us (Mohammed Dicko), and a fee is eventually haggled and
agreed. George and Ellen are a bit sceptical but willing to go along
with the arrangement.
George, Ellen & Tim
Dicko thinks that our two wheel drive cars could make it, although
he doesn't have any memory or knowledge of similar vehicles doing
this before. He says our route is normally done in 4WD's or rough
terrain trucks. The alternative 'dog legged' route, going north then
east via Sokolo (as shown on our map) is allegedly no better and
will take longer.
Tim gets a text from the main group to say that they had reached the
town of Lere, they warned of problems with the police who claimed
their visas were 'not in order' and would of course have to pay a
fee to proceed. After negotiating the price down they continued
eastward. Despite trying to text back, Tim is unable to hear
anything else from them; phone reception only exists in the
immediate area of larger towns.
We leave Niono by midday and are soon out of the town and threading
our way through irrigation dykes and ditches before we're out in the
open semi-desert, punctuated by the odd village.
Heading towards Dioura [map] the tracks often divide and invariably meet up
again, we trust Dicko to pick the most suitable, compromising speed
for 'passability' due to our lowly 2WD status. Apart from the risk
of getting stuck in soft sand, it is difficult for George and Ellen
to follow Tim and Dicko closely because of the huge dust cloud
thrown up from the Escort when we are at a reasonable speed. We
drive with our lights on to help keep sight of each other. We manage
to waste over an hour on one occasion when we lost sight and got
separated. Trying to ask the villagers is futile because most don't
speak French (as in the main populous areas of Mali), but rather one
of the many local languages.
Typical track to
We stop frequently to re-fill Georges radiator which continues to
expel water at an increasingly alarming rate. A minor collision last
night and a few 'bad landings' today haven't helped.
Another problem becomes apparent. Although Dicko knows the route
very well, is a good driver and is happy to drive the Escort, his
interpersonal skills and attitude are giving us cause for concern.
He is a driver by trade and not a guide, he is most definitely not
used to considering others needs, even those who are paying him! Tim
gives him a good talking to. Explaining that we may want to stop
when it suits us, not just him, and that our contract does not
include us buying cigarettes for him, although we do offer to pay
for food, as this was not discussed previously.
The scenery is really quite stunning; the villages along the way are
exactly what you may imagine them to be in sub-Saharan Africa. Mud
buildings, colourful smiling people, and donkeys pulling water out
of wells. Huge termite mounds the size of garden sheds.
Women & children carry the water
We eventually pass through
[map] but soon after the Escort is stuck
in soft sand. George, seeing our problem, opts for an adjacent track
and promptly gets stuck as well; we can't believe it, all this way
and we both get stuck at the same time. We laugh it off but Dicko
doesn't see the funny side of it, he was driving and probably had
his pride hurt.
It's going to take a lot of
digging to get us out at the very least, it's 7 o'clock and the
light is beginning to fade. We decide to make camp there and then,
expecting that a truck or 4x4 will pass by and help us out with a
short tow. At worst we dig out the cars in the morning.
Perfect! Even before we've
finished putting our tents up, a decrepit Land Rover pickup comes
along and the occupants are happy to help.
The cars are pulled out,
assistants thanked, rewarded and waved off, and then we finish
putting up tents and start the business of making supper. Dicko will
sleep in Nicks old tent, he seems to find the experience quite
interesting, he is given the responsibility of making a fire while
the rest of us sort out food & drink.
We share fresh watermelon
followed by chicken curry. Unfortunately Dicko's Muslim faith stops
him from sharing our wine, we find him a can of coke.
Most Malian's are happy
A couple of trucks pass us in the night, otherwise we sleep well.
Dicko is keen to make an early start, presumably after gauging
yesterdays relatively slow progress in the 2wd cars. We pack up camp
and are away by 7.20am without breakfast.
To start with we make fast progress driving on fairly open and
relatively flat desert piste (70 - 100km per hour), lights on and
big dust clouds.
We catch sight of a couple of Jackals.
By 10am we are approaching Lere [map]. Tim had already told Dicko about
not intending to pay any bribes, and that it would be good if he
were to 'help' make this possible.
We rolled into the dusty town centre and had a tasty breakfast of
freshly cooked, salted goat and bread. As usual, a selection of cuts
was offered and we chose not to ask exactly what they were. Local
interest in us was becoming a bit uncomfortable, so we didn't linger
and made off as soon as we swallowed our last mouthful.
Either by luck or Dicko's knowledge and navigation, we managed to
completely avoid any contact with the police on leaving Lere.
Slower progress now as we pass through
Niafounke [map] and by 13.30pm
Huge termite mounds continue to dominate much of the landscape.
One of the more
'restrained' termite mounds
Another repair to the
We are now stopping with increasing regularity due to George's
radiator, which now resembles a colander again. Something must be
done soon or we risk permanent damage to the Mondeo's engine.
At the next village we attempt a radiator repair, this time using a
more organic method as recommended by the locals.
Phase 1. We allow the radiator to drain (doesn't take long, given
the number of holes); we then get a tablet of soap, some cotton wool
and instant coffee. The soap is cut into small pieces like granules
and mixed with a little water to dilute. Some coffee and a bit of
cotton wool are added to make the whole thing into a paste, with the
consistency of putty. This is now pressed into the holed areas of
the radiator. Water is added to half fill the radiator, the engine
is started to warm the radiator and 'set' the putty mixture. Small
drips are noticed but this is expected, and the next phase of repair
should sort this out.
Phase 2. We are told to collect two dried out donkey turds, (as we
are near a village, the place is littered with them). Back at the
car the excrement bullets are ground into dust and fibres and thrown
directly into the radiator header tank, followed by more water to
top up. Within a couple of minutes all the leaks have stopped.
Quick-Fit Africa style!
Progress continues more reliably now, except for another unscheduled
stop when the Escort is stuck in sand again. Lots of digging and
pushing and 40 minutes later we're free.
Brief stop at Tonka [map] for a roadside snack of seasoned sweet potato
chip butties followed by good piste to Goundam. This fast piste
(nearly a proper road) continues all the way to our main objective
and we arrive in Timbuktu (Tombouctou) [map] at 17.45. Horaaaah!
We tell our guide that we expect to leave for Bamako in a 2 or 3
days and arrange to rendezvous Monday morning to discuss
arrangements. Dicko will stay with relatives till we leave.
Visibility can sometimes be
Can you spot Georges lights?
As previously agreed with the rest of the group, and in the absence
of any recent contact with them, we leave a message at the Hendrik
Khan Hotel reception to note our arrival. Because of a recent local
music festival, nearly all accommodation is full. We manage to get
just one night at Hotel Colombe in the centre of town. As soon as we
have checked in, priorities are briefly discussed. Ellen goes for a
shower and George and Tim are up to the bar for a couple of
well-deserved ice-cold beers. We send phone messages home and a text
to the main group to tell of our arrival, we hope they are ok & get
Once again it's not long before there's lots of interest in our
cars. Should we decide to sell, there will be no shortage of buyers.
A beer for Tim & George
We meet 'Bouba', a city guide of Timbuktu, a very personable and
easy-going young man, a Tuareg with excellent English. Tim employs
him as a part time guide and 'fixer' for our stay in Timbuktu.
Bouba & Tim
Left to right (Ellen not
George, John, Toby, Frankie, Nathan, Ray, Anna, Philippe, Tim,
Nicola, Ian, Karl, Sam, Mark.
That evening we get a text message from the group congratulating us
and advising they expect to be here tomorrow, all very tired and
dirty, with some cars limping along and in need of 'facilities'. Tim
daren't tell them that all the decent accommodation is full and so
sets Bouba the task of finding something suitable, preferably so we
can all be together.
Sun 14th Jan 298,893km or 5,500 miles - Day in Timbuktu
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Total recorded mileage covered from Windermere is 8,500km (5,250
miles), however we have been running on slightly oversize tyres so
reckon our actual distance covered to be around 8,900km (5,500
With help from Bouba, we manage to secure use of a house for the
next two nights. It's in the final stages of being built, but has
plenty of rooms, two showers and two western style toilets. Sadly no
hot water, beds or any furnishings whatsoever except for a table and
chairs in a central dining room. At least we will all be together
and have private secure parking so the cars can be fixed up for the
final leg of the challenge, to Bamako.
Tim meets up with an Irish couple, Breda and Martin, who have just
arrived in a Land Rover. They came from the south on a road
described as 'horrendous' for the final 100kms, huge corrugations or
soft sand to the side. This route is one of the possible ways back
to Bamako. This route is not marked on our map, just like the one we
took to get here.
Soft sand is not only a problem in getting to and from Timbuktu;
it's also a big problem for mere 2wd cars in and around the streets.
The Escort gets stuck twice in the morning just trying get around
At lunchtime Tim gets a text to say that the group have finally
arrived in town and will meet up at the memorial. It's good to see
them all but crikey they look rough! Ian and Sam look like they had
been sprayed with desert dust in a wind tunnel and then freeze died
to preserve the effect.
Tim escorts them to the rented villa in the Escort, (made for the
job?). Rooms are surveyed and allocated. Laundry arranged for the
They all seem relieved to get here and it soon transpires that they
had a much tougher time and worse luck than us in reaching the main
After showers and some beers we all meet up for a Malian supper,
taken 'al fresco' in the back yard of a restaurant.
A day for relaxing, seeing the sights of Timbuktu, repairing
vehicles and trying to decide which route to take to Bamako.
A couple of local brothers continue to show what seems like genuine
interest in the Escort. Tim tells them how much he expects it to
fetch in Bamako (1,500 euro if he is lucky), they match the price
and include a ride to Bamako if needed. Given the road conditions
and significant risk of damage to the Escort in getting back to
Bamako, Tim decides it's too good an offer to refuse. Terms are
agreed (payment in Euros and/or Dollars), and a deal is struck.
New owners of possibly the smartest
car in Timbuktu >>
One of the other cars (Volvo 240) has a knackered water pump and
despite several attempts by the local mechanic, is beyond repair.
The car is sold and the 3 occupants will be shared between remaining
cars. All the other cars are fettled and deemed to be 'runners'.
Route options to Bamako are discussed and we agree on going south
via Douentza (horrendous road mentioned earlier). The main reason
for this is that once we get past the reported bad road/track, we
will be on good piste and then tarmac for the rest of the way and,
time permitting, may be able to take in the sights of Mopti
(important port on the Niger River), and Djenne (huge Mosque and
biggest mud built structure in the world).
Tim meets with Dicko and pays him off to return to Niono on his own.
The Escort is eventually paid for by the two brothers, they seem to
be delighted with their new wheels. Rather than overburden the rest
of the group, Tim arranges a ride to Bamako through a friend of the
Escorts new owners. If Tim rode in one of the remaining cars, and
then one of them had a terminal failure, it would be very difficult
to share another two or three bodies + luggage between the remaining
Meal tonight at the Hendrik Khan Hotel Timbuktu's finest.
Unfortunately the food was (in Tim's opinion) distinctly average for
a lot of money, perhaps tinned fruit cocktail is highly sought after
and very exotic in these parts.