The capital of the fifteenth century Malian empire. The old site is still a living village just up river from the modern Segou which hosts The Festival On The Niger. Situated on the banks of the Niger, our pinasse journey across Mali begins here. Or it is a lunch time stop off, to visit the Bogola mud cloth workshops, en route to Djenné.
Djenné is a gem: an ancient seat of islamic learning, an important trading city on the Bani river, a World Heritage site with the world’s largest mud building - the Grand Mosque - and one of the liveliest markets in west Africa.
Like the prophet Mohammed, Timbuktu - the great seat of knowledge, learning, gold, salt and travel - should not be described. It is enough to attain the city that marks the end of the known world, and the beginning of the unknown world.
The Dogon Country
The world feels different when you come out of the Dogon country.
Something of the barren escarpment landscape, the starlit night sky, the Dogon belief system,
the strange origin stories they tell of their history and their mythology, lingers around like a dream.
The Dogon live in villages spread along a 200km escarpment between the Dogon Plateau and the flat dry plain below.
You will trek between these villages and stay in village owned guest houses, sleeping out on the roof under the incredible canopy of stars in a Dogon night sky.
Lay down to sleep to the echoes of drumming and village voices reverberating along the escarpment walls, remembering stories of transformation - crocodile in pools, foxes and tortoises, tales of the Dogon pygmy predecessors, the Tellem.
As you dream perhaps you encounter the Tellem, flying amongst the stars, their spirit in the Dogon psyche and traditions all that remains of them.
The Dogon country is an extraordinary landscape and a fascinating people, far removed from anything you know or have experienced before.
The Niger River
The river Niger - one of the great African rivers. For me the Niger tops the lot for the sublime mix of stunning and varied landscapes, birdlife, unique cultures linked together in a peaceful and respectful co-dependence. And no crocs so you can swim!
The Niger has been the life-line of the people of Mali for thousands of years. A majestic and serene river, its source is only 200 kms from the coast of Guinea. It then makes a 2000 km journey towards the Sahara and Timbuktu before turning 130º and heading south and south west towards Niger and Nigeria where it spills out into the Great Niger Delta and the Atlantic Ocean.
In Mali the river’s gentle flow and the seasonal flood plains of the Inland River Niger Delta have been the resource of empires, defined the relationships between Mali’s people and been the inspiration behind its long and sophisticated music tradition. You cannot understand Mali without knowing the Niger.
Our boat is a "pinasse" - a long wooden motor powered craft. For three days we chug down the river, stopping off at little fishing villages perched on spits of land that break the wide horizon, visiting towns with intricate mosques built in mud, maybe pop in to see the widow of Ali Farka Touré, and catch the market of Dire. We camp outside villages.
All in all a very relaxing trip through another very beautiful landscape.
Malians are mad for their own music. So much so that they hardly look elsewhere for their musical nourishment. Even by Africa’s own high musical standards, Mali towers at the top.
The roll call of top class artists is as long as your arm: Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita, Amadou and Miriam, Tinariwen, Toumani Diabate, Oumou Sangare, Bassekou Koyaté, Mangala Camara, Rokia Traoré and many more.
The main festivals are The Festival Au Desert near Timbuktu which takes place for 3 days around the 10th of January, and The Festival Sur Le Niger at Segou at the beginning of February.
The two festivals reflect the two Malis. The Festival Au Desert, with its spectacular setting in the dunes outside Timbuktu began as a celebration of Tuareg desert cultures.
The Festival Sur Le Niger, set on Segou’s banks on the river Niger, is a celebration of all the cultures and music of southern Mali and West Africa in general, and being more accessible, it has a bigger Malian following.
There are a number of other smaller Tuareg festivals in Mali - The Festival of Camels at Tessalit, the Festival of Essouk, Anderaboukam. These are remote, authentic Tuareg festivals, the roots of the Festival In The Desert.
These festivals take place between Christmas and mid February. Their dates vary and they are not on every year. If you are interested in one of these please contact me.
Here is Anne Harkin on a trip to the Festival Of Camels: "Thanks From Here 2 Timbuktu for a unique and unforgettable experience! I loved that wild chase across the desert, the colour and life of the markets, the fabulous "biblical" scenes of robes, donkeys, sheep, goats, the spectacular geological formations of the Hombori mountains and the Bandiagara cliffs, the amazing architecture of mud mosques, straw houses, flat-roofed houses, granaries etc etc. Thanks for making all that accessible."
My favourite landscape is the desert. The peace, the simplicity, the open vistas - life is pared down to its basics - land and sky, sun and rain, day and night, food and water.
My Mali desert safaris take you to the Tuareg or Tamasheq region of the Adrar Des Iforas mountains in northern Mali. This is probably the most important area of the Sahara for the Tuareg now - one of their remaining heartlands.
I have a close relationship with a community of Tuaregs around the town of Aguelhoc, deep in the Sahara desert.
Come with me for camel trekking, bathing in pools of crystal clear water in the mountains, Tuareg mini-festivals and parties randomly found in the desert. Colourful robes and sparkling "voiles" (sails) swish and sway to electric guitar rhythm blues. We sleep under goat skinned tents, drive across flat expanses, past granite rocky out crops with bronze age rock art, stopping for tea or to eat or sleep wherever we like.
Another planet, another time.