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Challenge Diary - Page C - into Mali to Timbuktu

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Day 14 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.

Ian in search of a chassis

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 finest.

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 problems here.

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 the morning. Very hot. 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.

Heading south


Heading south

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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 the country.

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 properties!

Next mission is to visit the police again to officially enter Mali.

Camp. Somewhere near Nioro

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. Victory!

Camp. Somewhere near Nioro

We drive a mile or two up the road and make camp in a sandy clearing.

Day 15 Tues 9th Jan 297,475km - Nioro to Bamako

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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 insurance.

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 Didieni [map], 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).

Smiles en-route

Smiles en-route

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.

Day 16 Wed 10th Jan 297,981km - Day in Bamako

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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

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.

Day 17 Thurs 11th Jan 297,981km - Bamako to Niono

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Farewell to Nick. Bamako

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 security areas.

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 later.

George's double puncture

George's double puncture

We get as far as the town of Niono [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.

Day 18 Fri 12th Jan 298,350km - Niono to Dioura

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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.

George, Ellen & Tim

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 will be.

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 Timbuktu

Typical track to Timbuktu

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.

Women & children carry the water

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 Dioura [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 to pose

Most Malian's are happy to pose

A couple of trucks pass us in the night, otherwise we sleep well.

Day 19 Sat 13th Jan 298,500km - Dioura to Timbuktu

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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 Soumpi. Huge termite mounds continue to dominate much of the landscape.

One of the more 'restrained' termite mounds

Another repair to the radiator

One of the more 'restrained' termite mounds

Another repair to the radiator

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!

Visibility can sometimes be a problem

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 a problem
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 the message.

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 at Timbuktu

A beer for Tim & George at Timbuktu

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

the group photo of all those who made it to the end of the T4 Challenge

Bouba & Tim

Left to right (Ellen not in picture).
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.

Day 20 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 miles).

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 town!

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 hygiene conscious.

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 objective.

After showers and some beers we all meet up for a Malian supper, taken 'al fresco' in the back yard of a restaurant.

Day 21 Mon 15th Jan - Relaxing in Timbuktu

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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 >>

Tim and the new owners of the car

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 vehicles.

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.

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