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40 Hours: Dakar to Bamako During the Hot Season

This post has 7 parts:
Senegal?
The Bus
The Passengers
Hot Season is Hot
The Bad
The Good
The Cutest Girl in the World

Senegal?

I arrived in Dakar last Monday. I stayed until Wednesday night. Depending on what happens in Mali, I may spend more time in Senegal on the return trip. My first impression was positive. In my almost 48 hours there I did a lot of walking, bullshitting and yassa eating. If you didn’t know already, yassa is a delicious sauce made from lemon, chili and onion. It often serves as a marinade for chicken and other meat. The meat is then slow cooked and served with rice.

I got my feet wet with Wolof. African languages are incredible. They are simple and complex. They lend themselves to animated conversation (more on this here). My favorite word in Wolof? “Yes.” In Wolof: waow (phonetic spelling). It more or less sounds like people are saying “wow” all the time.

Senegal, je vien.

The Bus

One reason to start a blog: you meet cool people who you might not have otherwise. Sunny got in touch with me after reading my site. Turns out she would be in Dakar in April. She planned on heading to Mali sometime in May and after emailing back and forth we decided to take the journey together. Prior to my arrival, she had researched a few bus options.

Buses to Bamako depart daily. They are in the $50-60 price range and the journey lasts 24 hours. Give or take 16 hours.

You see, the bus was scheduled to leave at 8PM Wednesday night. It left at 9PM. We arrived in Bamako at 1PM on Friday.

Before I discuss the psychological implications of spending two consecutive nights on a bus in one of the hottest regions on the planet during the hottest time of the year, it would be useful to get to know the bus and its passengers.

If you take the bus to Dakar you may find yourself in a sleek Mercedes coach, or in a resurrected bone shaker. It’s a crap shoot. We found ourselves on the latter.

The rows were compressed and the aisle had been eliminated in favor of fold out seats. Fold out seats are problematic when people need to get off the bus. Unfortunately, getting off the bus would become a frequent occurrence in Mali, where customs agents took issue with a fat man in a pink shirt who was using our bus to transport an untold amount of merchandise that he planned on selling in Bamako or elsewhere.

Another problem with the bus:

This rear wheel well was not in good shape when we started the trip. It deteriorated drastically during the voyage. We can count ourselves fortunate that a breakdown was not thrown into the mix.

The Passengers

Senegalese and Malians, a Guinean, a few Ivorians and two toubabs: me and Sunny. There were mothers with 3-month-old babies. There were whole families. There were loners. There were those traveling in search of work (one guy was planning on taking buses straight through to Cotonou. This seemed insane to begin with, but once the bus ride stretched to 40 hours, we thought he would surely reconsider. He didn’t. When we arrived in Bamako he got on another bus. All this to go to Cotonou, where he has no family or friends. He is hoping to find work there, but doesn’t have anything lined up. Bonne chance.)

Everyone was friendly and the atmosphere was social throughout. There was heavy political conversation, mostly concerning the post-election crisis in Cote d’Ivoire, and there was plenty of joking. Passengers took turns watching babies, food was shared and everyone looked out for each other.

Hot Season is Hot

March, April and May are the hottest months in West Africa. In 2005 I was in Ghana during these months and I knew then that the hot season is no joke. But the hot season in eastern Senegal and northwestern Mali is on a different level. Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Kayes, the most populous town in northwestern Mali:

Kayes is nicknamed the “pressure cooker of Africa” due to its extreme heat; the town is surrounded by iron-rich mountains which contribute to the temperature. Kayes is often described as the hottest continuously-inhabited town in Africa. The average daily high temperature in the city is 35 °C (95 °F), with temperatures usually peaking in April and May at an average of 46 °C (115 °F).

During the middle hours of the day there is no relief. The breeze that passes through the bus is laced with 100+ degree air and it more or less feels as if someone is letting loose with a flame thrower on the interior of the vehicle. Dirt and sand take up residence everywhere. Creases of skin, nostrils, behind the ears. When the bus comes to a stop, it turns into a blast furnace.

The Bad

The heat is irritating when you are traveling at 70 km/hr. It is excruciating when you are motionless. Spells of nausea come and go, along with extreme thirst and fantasies of chilled beverages. We were stopped for 4 hours at the Senegal/Mali border. It is undoubtedly one of the hotter border crossings in Africa (and the world).

The previous night (the first night on the bus), someone attempted to rob me in a village in eastern Senegal. It was close to 1AM. The bus stopped and most of the men got out to pee on a half completed building and to drink tea. I was stretching my legs when a passenger got into an argument with one of the villagers. The passenger said the villager had taken his money. The villager denied it. They argued, but the passenger was outnumbered and eventually dropped it. I did not know who to believe. As I was walking back to the bus, a villager tried to snatch everything out of my chest pocket. I yelled, he ran off. Nothing was taken. At this point the driver understood nothing good would come out of a longer stay here. He began to pull away and we climbed back on as the bus rolled along.

The second night was more difficult than the first. Sacks of rice strangled my legs and the cool night of western Senegal was replaced by the furnace of the Sahel. We were delayed at every checkpoint. Customs agents repeatedly tried to exact a duty upon the fat man in the pink shirt. He had shit all over the bus, on top of it, underneath it. In Kayes, he loaded on even more cargo.

Side story: some passengers got off in Kayes. This took a while as some of the luggage was on the roof. One of the porters carelessly knocked over a bucket of sugar cubes.

They salvaged what they could.

And then let the kids grab the rest.

These children can be seen throughout Senegal and Mali (and elsewhere?). They carry tin pails and sing Islamic songs. They are sent out by the local Imam. Sometimes they are sent by their family. The money supposedly goes to their Koranic education, but I doubt that is always the case. It is admittedly something I know little about, however.

Fatigued passengers watched cargo go off and on while these children raced around us chewing dirt covered sugar cubes.

The Good

The satisfaction of finding a cold drink in the Sahel during hot season cannot be overstated. At a checkpoint, a man sits in a chair next to a dust covered freezer. There is no evidence of electricity anywhere, but the freezer is on and it is filled with ice and water and fanta and coke. I would put the first sip on par with sexual release.

The most redeeming quality of the hot season is the widespread availability of mangoes, the most delicious of all fruits (don’t try to argue this one with me). At a different checkpoint, I enjoy a mango that singlehandedly restores my life force. In some parts of Africa, mangoes are a steady luxury. Here, they are a 3-month burst of flavor.

Beyond food and drink, I learned some more Bambara and enjoyed the company of the other passengers. I also got to know Sunny, who despite not ever taking a trip of this kind, did not complain or break down.

And I came across transcendent music. At one of the longer night time checkpoints, a few roadside chophouses did business selling nescafe, tea and baguettes loaded with hard boiled eggs, chili and onion. I did not have an appetite, but I stopped to enjoy the music that was playing from a weathered radio. It was Amadou Sangare playing ngoni and sharing a Bambara story (l’Histoire de Moussa Tchefari Pere de Sabally). Bintou has told me she is going to explain the meaning of the story, but even without an understanding, this can be appreciated.

The forceful gnoni playing compliments Amadou’s dramatic voice. The night air held the song well and with its sharp reverb, it prevailed over quiet conversation and a distant radio playing Wassoulou music.

Here is a clip I took with a field recorder. I added a few milliseconds of delay. Around 42 seconds in, I get a better angle on the sound. If you have a moment, close your eyes and listen to this, preferably with headphones.

Amadoubusstop by lionsinthetiles

The Cutest Girl in the World

Finally, I would like to introduce you to Mariam. In addition to being the cutest girl in the world, she was also incredibly well behaved for a 40 hour bus trip.

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{ 34 comments… add one }

  • Jeremy Branham May 16, 2011, 3:25 pm

    Continually amazed by your life Phil. Great read and what an adventure traveling on a bus. Here in the US, people would be complaining and moaning and angry over a situation like this. Honestly, I may be one of them. However, you shared the adventure of it all without being very negative. It’s a snapshot of western Africa on a bus. Thanks!

    • phil May 18, 2011, 9:57 am

      It was not the most pleasant ride, but there were redeeming aspects of the trip. If and when I take the bus again, I will definitely go with another company, however. Thanks for the comment Jeremy. B well, PHil

  • Christy @ Technosyncratic May 16, 2011, 6:22 pm

    Wow. Just…. wow. This definitely sounds like an adventure! And while I disagree with you about the mangoes (oh yes, I went there), I completely agree about Mariam being the cutest kid in the world!

    • phil May 18, 2011, 3:29 pm

      Christy,
      I am preparing a fruit tournament bracket partially because of this comment. I’m also assuming that when you wrote your comment you weren’t thinking clearly. Sometimes this happens to me too… I’m glad you came to your senses when you saw Mariam though :)

  • Steph May 16, 2011, 8:13 pm

    Wow, what an adventure! Yea, that girl might possibly be the cutest in the world… adorable.

    • phil May 18, 2011, 3:30 pm

      Hey Steph,
      Glad you appreciate the cuteness of Mariam!! :)

  • Skott and Shawna May 17, 2011, 12:16 am

    Phil…this is awesome!!! These stories motivate and terrify us, as we prepare for our own West African adventure, likely beginning in September. One question for you…do you feel that taking an overnight bus is any more or less safe then just travelling during the day?

    Thanks for the wisdom,

    S&S

    • phil May 18, 2011, 3:37 pm

      Hey guys,
      I generally prefer daytime buses, but on some of the longer journeys (12+ hours) you are likely going to be spending some time driving at night. Dakar to Bamako is minimum 24 hours so there is not a whole lot you can do. The other option is to break up the trip, take bush taxis and sotramas and find lodging along the way, either camping or stay in villages. The good thing about night buses is there is less traffic and the air is cooler. The bad is driver fatigue, possible drunk drivers and poor lighting (some people drive without their lights on). And every now and then, livestock.

      You guys were asking about Mauritania visa. I met a girl (American) in Bamako a few days ago who couldn’t get a visa in Rabat or Casablanca so you might want to look into this further. Maybe make a few calls to get confirmation.

  • Jennifer Barry May 17, 2011, 1:27 am

    Dude, I live in Texas so that’s the equivalent of no A/C in July here! Ugh :( I know you are eager to see Bintou again but I think I would have waited for a bit colder weather.

    Mariam is ridiculously cute though. :)

    • phil May 18, 2011, 3:40 pm

      hehe well, I guess I could’ve waited until the rainy season :) Really though, it’s all good. I made it here and that’s the most important thing.

  • Katrina May 17, 2011, 6:49 am

    “Waow” — I LOVE that! Could that be the origin of our modern use of the word?

    And yes, cutest kid ever! I cannot imagine being on a bus for that long in those conditions. You are incredible. I’m glad the wee angel was there to make it all worth it. 😉

    • phil May 18, 2011, 3:42 pm

      Hmm not sure, but in any case I love saying it!! I think I started to confuse people in Senegal, because I was basically saying “yes” all the time.

      Bus was long indeed, but I’ve heard of even longer trips on the same route, and then there is the dakar to bamako train, now defunct, which was reputed to last over 50 hours!!

  • Bing May 17, 2011, 3:42 pm

    Cutest girl in the world is the cutest!
    I haven’t been on an African bus ride that long (yet), great endurance! good for you!
    And the language tips are great, too. I ended up on the Language Hacking Guide site from your blog, very informational.The Army gives soldiers free Rosetta Stone through our employee email site. I’ve been using it to get familiarized with some French, although I don’t think it’s the BEST thing ever like it is advertised as, at least its better than trying to memorize things just through repetition. Are you still planning on going to Cote d’Ivoire during this trip?

    • phil May 18, 2011, 3:46 pm

      Hey Bing,
      Glad you liked the post. Yeah, Benny does a good job getting at the heart of language learning in my opinion. I have never used Rosetta Stone, but I imagine if I got my hands on a copy for free I would put it to use :) Cote d’Ivoire is up in the air. I will let you know as soon as I know myself :) I have been talking with friends there almost daily. Their neighborhood is basically the only one in abidjan that still has a major security issue (yopougon). Glad to hear everything worked out with your visa! Look forward to hearing about your trip :) Take care, Phil

      • Bing May 19, 2011, 1:30 am

        Thank you Phil! I hope that things get better for your friends soon, I read that they are giving out free health care now. I don’t imagine that there are many groups there right now who are interested in having visitors, but I do have some basic healthcare skills (was a medic in the army) do you or your friends know of any clinics or places that could use a hand?

        Yes, keep me updated! Bonne chance a toi!

  • Ben Gubits May 18, 2011, 1:20 pm

    Glad you made it to Bamako brother!! I think you should have played some Settlers on the bus to pass the time! The desert heat is no match for the distraction of setting up castles and trading two Oars for for one Wheat. HAHA. Miss you budm keep on posting…….MUSIC MUSIC MUSIC.

  • Erica May 19, 2011, 1:58 am

    I think that 40 hours in that heat would have me vomiting half the time. You deserve a badge for that trek sir. I am already uncomfortable in the school buses going around Mexico.

    I love the details you included. You have a fantastic way of telling a story.

    • phil May 24, 2011, 5:58 am

      I did have a spell of nausea and Sunny did as well. It happened in the middle of the day at the border. The senegal/mali border crossing is one of the hottest in the world. And it was in the hot season. The one guy on the bus said the only crossing he had experienced that was worse was algeria to mali, which is literally in the Sahara Desert. Glad you enjoyed the post Erica. I have been digging the stories from Mexico :)

  • Jaime May 23, 2011, 10:32 pm

    I was introduced to your blog & to this post in particular by Over Yonderlust. She told me that I must read it & wow I am glad I did. I have had long transportation days but nothing like this. I dont know if I would have survived. Seems like it was a long crazy 2 days. I did love the story & pictures. As for the most beautiful girl in the world I would have to agree… she is!!! I so wanna just put her in my pocket and take her home.

    Ive never thought about traveling into these regions of the world but maybe I’ll have to look into it.

    • phil May 24, 2011, 6:01 am

      Hi Jaime, glad you found your way here via Erica :) It was a brutal trip. I’m not trying to forget about it, because I am going to be taking the bus on the way back :( That said, there were redeeming qualities, like mariam, who I also wanted to take home with me :) I would definitely look into traveling west africa. Insane us trips aside, it is one of the most vibrant and dynamic regions of the world. Take care, Phil

  • Ayo August 5, 2011, 10:59 am

    I try to avoid superlatives as much as I can but, WAOW, that girl is cute. My wife and I (both Nigerians) realized recently that we have not seen enough of Africa so we are thinking about a trip next year, possibly from New York to Dakkar and then finding our way to Lagos to see my parents and the rest of the family.

    Do you have suggestions? I will visit this blog to read more from you. You are too cool. By the way, is “toubab” Wolof for White people? It’s Oyinbo in my language, Yoruba.

    • phil August 5, 2011, 11:27 am

      haha, yes she is! Dakar to Lagos would be a very interesting trip! Would you do the trip by car/bus or plane? Thanks for your kind words :) I’m not sure whether toubab is a bambara or wolof word, but you hear it in both places. But yes, it means white person. I don’t speak Yoruba, but I knew that oyinbo meant white person because of this girl, Titilayo Oyinbo. She speaks fluent Yoruba!! Check her out over here: http://www.youtube.com/user/harshie111

      Thanks for the comment !

      • Ayo August 5, 2011, 5:11 pm

        Thanks for sharing information about Titi. It’s impressive what she is doing. As far as our journey goes, we will fly where flights are available and where overland travel times exceed 24 hours.

        Have you traveled a lot between African cities? Would be interesting to get your take on where to go. Also, I am trying to read older entries on your blog, learn more about what you are doing down in those parts.

        Thanks brother

        • phil August 6, 2011, 12:04 am

          I have traveled a lot between cities in West Africa by bus. But regional flights are definitely a good option and sometimes they can be priced very reasonably. My email is phil.paoletta@gmail.com if you want to ask me any questions :)

  • Jen December 28, 2011, 4:16 pm

    Hi! I’m planning a trip to western Africa, making my way from Accra to Marrakech via bus (though now that I saw how much BF visas are, I’m not so sure about that part..but in any case). I have been looking for what seems like forever to try and find what bus company goes between Dakar and Bamako. Do you happen to remember which one you took? Thanks for your help, this site has been awesome for trip planning!

    • phil December 28, 2011, 5:50 pm

      Hi Jen,
      There are many bus companies that do this trip. You won’t find information online, but once you are in Dakar you can ask around. I personally recommend Gana Transport. Most buses leave from Stade Leopold Senghor. Just make sure you get a ticket at least one day in advance. I think I took Bani for this trip, but with Gana the trip took 5 hours less. It’s mostly a crap shoot, though. Bonne chance :)

  • Jen December 29, 2011, 11:26 am

    Thank you for your help!

    One more question if you get a moment..have you ever heard of the VTE? It’s a common visa that supposedly exists in western africa for Niger, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Cote D’Ivoire. I’ve only been able to find information about it in Travel forums..such as:
    http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=1939376

    But i’m living in DC for the time being and so I might go down to the BF embassy and see if they have any idea if this is real. I hear that eastern africa is in the process of figuring out a common visa as well. That would be nice!! fingers crossed! have you heard anything about this?

    • phil December 29, 2011, 5:46 pm

      I have never heard of it. Definitely check with the burkina embassy. And please let me know what you find. I am in Cote d’Ivoire as I write this and I am almost positive that post-crisis this is not the case for them. They have a biometric visa that just started recently, much more expensive and in my case, difficult to obtain (I was in Accra at the time). Please do let me know what you find.

  • george glezmann December 31, 2011, 1:06 am

    Hi!……
    I just printed your blog to read later (I’m at work). I made the trip, last august, from Dakar to Bamako on aircraft, Kenyan Airways, and I felt like I cheated. I took the killer bus trip, trying to make it to Timbuktu, from Bamako to Mopti, where I runned out of time and without reaching Timbuktu, I had to make a U-turn and go back to Bamako and then Dakar to fly out of Africa. This time I will make it, but on bus all the way from Dakar to Mopti, so, I thank you for your info and wish you good and safe trips!….

    Cheers.

    george

    • phil January 2, 2012, 1:41 am

      Hey George,
      Good luck on your trip! Feel free to connect with me on email at phil dot paoletta @ gmail dot com
      Take care,
      Phil

  • Glezmann January 2, 2012, 7:42 am

    Phil,
    Thx a lot!. Seems like i’ll be on my way tomorrow and i’m ready once again for the trip. As i mentioned, this time, at least the trip from Dakar to Timbuktu will be entirely by land and river. I don’t know if there’s boat from Bamako to Timbuktu, but if there’s one, i’ll do that instead of those 20 hrs on the bus to Mopti.
    Thanx a lot and yes, i’ll get in touch!….
    Safe & good trips Phil!…

    George

  • Glezmann January 8, 2012, 9:16 am

    Phil,
    I just read your blog, finally. In my room in my desolated hotel, reduced 50% due to the “foreigner’ Scare” from the Al-Queda kidnapings and recent activity in the area…. Hotel in Mopti.
    Excellent trip!. I was suposed to make it on bus all the way from Dakar to here, but, right now i’m happy i had a gut feeling before my departure from Dakar and, last minute went and bought me an air ticket to Bamako.
    I got up yesterday at The Sleeping Camel, in Bamako and went to the “Gare de Buses”, got there at noon, bought my ticket for the 1400 hrs “Pullman” to Mopti and i left after sundown.
    This is my third bus ride in this exact route, trying to reach Timbuktu!, but this trip really hurt me, specially the last 105 kms. I saw the sign and thought, we’re there!…. A-ha!. It took us another 3.5 hrs.
    The driver was a chain smoker and the three kids had added onto the bus’ “cockpit” equalizer, disco lights and a super sound system from hell, so, i loved african music, but after last night, i got my life dosis :-)
    There are a lot of military and police checkpoints all over the road, like twice as many as before and now they actually ck people and docs.
    Have not seeing foreigners in Mopti yet, but i know people are scared. A girl contact me to sell me her “pinasse” ticket cuz she was goin, if, by 4×4.
    Thx Phil for you fantastic story/blog!…
    Take care!
    George

  • Jen April 9, 2012, 10:30 am

    Okay- Sorry that took so long! I went on vacation and then forgot…Whoops. Okay- So. One can get the VTE (Visa Touristique Entente) in Togo or Burkina Faso, but not in Benin or Niger. No one seemed to know if Cote d’Ivoire was still on it or not. And, even in Togo and Burkina Faso, it can depend on who processes your visa. Worth a shot to ask, I suppose! Still a bit confused about it all..

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