Monday, January 05, 2009

No Roads Lead To Gao

Getting away from Timbuktu proved to be more difficult than getting there in the first place. The town only has a meagre 15km of of paved road linking it to the outside world: one branch leads to the river and another to the airport. Apart from that it's just dirt tracks. I was wanting to go to Gao, the main regional centre in the southeast of the country close to the borders of Niger and Burkina Faso. Direct transport, be it by car, truck or river is very patchy. Even after a whole day spent asking people in Timbuktu I was still unable to find anything going in my direction (when travelling previously, where time wasn't a major factor, I would probably have waited until something showed up, but my time has become far more precious to me now that I only have a handful of weeks of holiday a year). So instead I swallowed my reservations about retracing my steps (the cardinal sin of the ardent traveller) and opted for a back seat in a beat-up Landcruiser down to Douentza, a small town on the main east-west highway. It meant a detour of several hundred kilometres but at least I would be on the main road and onward transport to Gao would be a mere formality ... or so I thought.

After a bumpy and uncomfortable 200km I got off at the highway in Douentza at 10:30am (following a 4am start from Timbuktu) and asked around when the next bus for Gao, some 400km down the road, was due. I was told 7pm. I told the people to stop joking and tell me the truth, and it turned out that they were. The prospect of spending 8 hours or more at that hot, dusty crossroads did not fill me with enthusiasm and so I shouldered my backpack, walked to the edge of town along the Gao highway and installed myself beside a speed bump ready to pounce on any passing traffic and ask them for a ride. Despite it being the main (only) road linking the east of the country there was very little traffic: one battered truck; a single Landrover with German plates driven by a couple who didn't stop; and a convoy of four, new Landcruisers with Dutch tourists and plenty of spare room but no inclination whatsoever to stop. I know they were Dutch tourists because I had spoken to some of them the previous day in Timbuktu, and still they did not stop, not even to say hello. needless to say it made me a little depressed and quite a lot more angry. By 2pm it had become oppressively hot and I had slunk into the shade. An hour later I heard a low rumbling and a shiny white lorry that would not have looked out of place on Europe's motorways rumbled into view. I dashed up to the road as they slowed down to a crawl and shouted "Gao! Gao!" into the driver's open window. After a few seconds an arm emerged and indicated for me to get in round the other side. I quickly grabbed my bags and fed them up to the co-driver before following them myself.

My rescuers were Issa and Abu Jamal, two Moroccan truckers who were hauling a load of sardines from Tangier all the way to Niamey in Niger. They had been on the road for 8 days already and were in part glad to have some company I think (though not as glad as I was to get a lift). Riding with them was quite an education as it gave me a rare view into how trade is done in Africa. Every 50km or so they would have to pay a péage at some village that had erected a makeshift barrier across the road - the amount would vary and be heavily dependent on their negotiating skills. The fee was supposedly for the use of such a great road and to ensure its high quality maintenance, though I doubt this very much, as in places the road was so potholed that the lorry slowed to less than 20km/h for long stretches. They were naturally none too pleased and (rightfully) said that the poor infrastructure and corruption stifled trade. They were extremely helpful to me and insisted on taking me all the way to Gao that very day even though we didn't arrive until 1am and they were visibly tired from the long drive. It's such acts of random kindness that I will never be able to repay that become etched in my memory.

The next morning I headed into town to find my contact in Gao - a girl called Meg who ran the local Peace Corps house. As it was the New Year holidays there was quite a full house with corpists from all over the region. It was fascinating to hear their stories about life in small, Malian villages and the communication problems that arise not because of language, but from completely different ways of perceiving the world and value systems. It was also a welcome break to be able to spend some time with people with the same background as myself where the connections are easier. The town of Gao itself was definitely worth a visit. Being the easternmost town in Mali (it's actually located exactly on the prime meridian, in line with Greenwich) and quite far from other attractions it receives fewer visitors and so is easy to walk around without feeling hassled. Although Gao was also an imperial capital very little remains to betray its past, instead the sand streets are lined by simple mud-brick houses or simply walled enclosures with semi-permanent tents and various domestic animals. Indeed the local goats have the run of the town and I was amazed when I went to the post office. It must be the first public building, of any sort, to have an entire menagerie of farm animals: in the small compound of the post office building there were cows, goats, chickens turkeys and donkeys. Just outside the town, on the other bank of the Niger is the town's main attraction, a tall sand dune called the Dune Rose. At sunset it changes colours with the sinking sun and you also get an unparalleled view of the rich Niger plain on one side, and the dry Sahelian scrub on the other. The contrast could hardly be greater. My time in Gao is now over though: I'm a bit more relaxed and recharged and I even managed to have a shower! From now my road heads westwards until I hit the Atlantic.

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