Go back to Mali.
We reached Ouagadougou in the evening after a series of flights via Seattle, Paris and a 2 hour stop in Niamey, Niger. Salvador picked us up at the airport and after a quick money exchange with some after-hours contact we were finalizing Mali plans over some excellent grilled fish at an outdoor restaurant – the last non-chicken/non-veggie/non-goat meal we’d have until returning to Ouaga more than two weeks later. Salvador informed us of a new gendarmerie or military station near Hombori and multiple road blocks in Mali that could pose a major obstacle. Those were a consequence of the recent terrorist attack on a hotel in Bamako more than a thousand kilometers away from Hombori area. The best solution would be to camp in the mountains and away from the main road (and away from the gendarmes and bandits or jihadists – none of them are fond of hiking apparently)…and to roll the dice on not running across any issues during the drive up north into Mali. Salvador had also prepared and packed the supplies we’d need including non-perishable food, water and extra diesel for the car.
Next day, we left Ouaga promptly at 6 in the morning and headed north towards the town of Kongoussi some 100 km away. The road was paved but potholed to the point where it was usually quicker, not to mention better for the car, to drive in the ditches on either side. We reached Kongoussi in time for the market to be in full swing. There we picked up a few hundred pounds of fruits and vegetables (including ten watermelons) that would keep us scurvy free for the next two weeks in Mali. Our first encounter with an African market and we loved it! Another 100 km, this time on an unpaved road, brought us to the town of Djibo – the last major outpost in Burkina. Here we stopped for some late lunch and most importantly the last beer for the next two weeks. North of Djibo, we left the roads and proceeded essentially cross country (another 100+ km) relying on Salvador’s familiarity with the area and some donkey cart/motorcycle tracks through the vegetated sections. Views of donkeys were supplemented by camels here. We passed Peul peoples’ encampments and traditional (mostly) Dogon villages including a stop in a village of Lassa which on that day held a small market. By the time we reached the next village, we were in Mali. No checkpoints, no indication of any kind that we had traversed from one political entity into another. In the fading light, we pulled into the village of Sebendourou (Seguendourou) where Salvador delivered some school supplies and got an OK from the village elder for us to camp in the relative safety of the village (right in the center square in fact). We bought a live chicken which was turned into a tasty stew with some of our fresh veggies in about two hours. We sat-in on a kids’ Quran recitation class by the campfire and faded out to sleep under a star filled Malian sky – the first of countless fantastic experiences yet to come on the trip.
In the morning, we brewed up some coffee and chugged down a quick breakfast all while being surrounded by the entire village populace. A free show no doubt. This would prove to be a common occurrence and something that we’d quickly get used to – stop in the middle of nowhere for some quick lunch and in a minute we’re surrounded by 20 children watching our every bite. We continued our northward drive across a progressively more barren plain of the Sahel and within the hour got our first glimpse of the objective. Like a huge sail ship appearing through a dusty haze on the horizon – there she was, the Hand Of Fatima (or Main De Fatma). Its five principle formations partially superimposed on one another and effectively reduced to two along our line of sight. Two kilometers outside of Daari, we joined the “paved” road and pulled into Salvador’s old encampment area near the base of the towers. It is hard to get a sense of scale of the formations from photographs – they are huge! The sight (and the wind!) blew us away. This was a little taste of the conditions for the next 4 or 5 days.