Disclaimer: Mali like the rest of the Islamic world has now become a dangerous place to visit so the following information in this blog about the Festival is now outdated. I am leaving it posted on the net to show how it was once a safe place to visit.
Well in 2007 we decided to go to Mali and make it to the Festival au Desert 2007 in Essakane just outside of Timbuktu.
It would have to be one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences that we have ever had, and if you have seen this website, then you know that we have certainly had some amazing experiences to compare it to.
However, it was definitely one of the harder countries that we had to research and getting information on doing it ourselves without using a tour group was REALLY hard, so we made sure we took plenty of notes to write up these following tips to help anyone else who wanted to do it independently.
These tips are mainly things that you may not find written about in a guide book, so you still need to go through the book to get a feel for Mali in general.
Information was very difficult to come by, and typical of African bureaucracy, a lot of information wasn’t available because things were left to last minute to make public.
We ended up traveling through Mali independently, but we didn’t do the festival part by ourselves. However, if we ever went back, we would have no problems doing it independently, so we hope these tips might help you guys who want to do the same.
Being intrepid adventurers who normally hate tour groups, we started out trying to do most of it ourselves, and initially we did most of our research on the Lonely Planet Thorntree forums.
Fortunately, we met a bunch of amazing people and found that a UK girl Kirsten Brand had started a yahoo group where other like minded people could get together and make arrangements for the festival.
This was invaluable to have made email contact with other travelers, so I would recommend networking before you get there as it will help starting a group for transport.
WHO ARE WE
Just so you know about us and our level of experience… we are 2 Aussies aged 35 who were living in Ireland at the time. We are widely traveled especially in South America, but had never been to sub-Saharan Africa before. We didn’t speak French but got some Michael Thomas CDs before we left which were handy and which we would recommend.
We were in Ireland at the time and found that the Malian consulates in Belgium and Paris were less than helpful, didn’t answer the phone or emails, and couldn’t speak English. Or they were really hard to find enough info about opening times to warrant a budget flight over there.
But we tracked down a lady in the Mali consulate in Geneva and she spoke OK English which was enough to organize the whole thing on the phone. We had to buy swiss francs and had to put these into the envelope along with some money for the return post which was a bit unnerving, but our visas were returned within the week to Ireland which was great!
HOW WE GOT THERE
We flew with Royal Air Maroc organized completely on line from their website which flew from Paris to Casablanca to Bamako arriving 2.35am. Cost 391 euros per person. Arriving at 2.35am was not a problem as we arranged to be picked up at the airport by our hotel, which is recommended as there are heaps of touts even at that early hour.
Royal Air Maroc was the cheapest of all flights from Europe except for Air Afrique which had a hard to use French website and also stories of losing luggage where posted on the thorntree, so that put us off.
We spent 18 days in Mali all up which was perfect as we didn’t take the pinasse. We felt that we had time to do everything that we wanted to do in this time and even had some buffer days to sort things out. It also worked out perfectly for the Djenne markets on Mondays. Our itinerary is as follows which gives you an idea of time.
4/1/07 Thurs-Arrived Bamako and explored on foot
5/1/07 Fri- Taxi to Point G lookout and walked down to the Museum and explored markets
6/1/07 Sat- Bus to Segou 3.5hrs (3000CFA) and explored
7/1/07 Sun- Bus to Djenne carrafour (crossroad) & got there at 11pm after a 5 hr breakdown. Easily got a ride into Djenne by a private vehicle even at 11pm at night! 5000CFA each for 4 people.
8/1/07 Mon- Djenne markets which were amazing. Then organized a private vehicle to Sevare 2500CFA.
9/1/07 Tues- Picked up by Balanzan tours and drove to Timbuktu
10/1/07 Wed- Day exploring Timbuktu
11/1/07 Thurs- Drove to Essakane and set up camp Festival Day 1
12/1/07 Fri- Festival Day 2
13/1/07 Sat- Festival Day 3
14/1/07 Sun- Up at 4.30am to head back to Sevare and got in at 2.30am the next day!!! Mainly due to breakdowns.
15/1/07 Mon- Explored Sevare
16/1/07 Tues- Organised trip to Dogon, drove to Sangay and started northern Dogon walk
17/1/07 Wed- Walked to Youga Nah and vehicle back to Sangay
18/1/07 Thurs- Stayed in Bandiagara to organize the Southern Dogon trip
19/1/07 Fri- Day 1 Southern Dogon walk
20/1/07 Sat- Day 2 Southern Dogon walk
21/1/07 Sun- Day 3 Trip to Koro to catch the bus to Ouagadougou
HOW WE ORGANISED IT
OK, first up, I guess we cheated a bit as we went with Balanzan Tours. I was quite happy with them as by African standards they were quite good. Transport from Mopti to Timbuktu was in a big off road truck like an overlander which was roomier but a bit slower than a 4×4. They provided tents if needed but they were a bit old. All meals were prepared in a central eating tent.
Their price was EUR 385 per person and the period was from January 8 to January 15 = 8 days from Mopti to Timbuktu to Essakane and back to Mopti.
What we got was
Ferry fees for the Niger river,
The Gas for the vehicles
The food prepared on the festival site 3 meals a day during the festival
The festival entry pass is 149 per person which was extra.
I’d be happy to recommend them as we had a good time, but there were some minor hassles with punctuality which are probably more of an African problem than just with the company.
They also had a price for a flight from Bamako to Timbuktu as well which was well under the official asking price on the official website.
WOULD I GO WITH THE OFFICIAL PACKAGES
Basically NO, the official website for the Festival sent us to other tour companies and their prices were a lot higher than Balanzan so I would not recommend going through the tour companies from the official website from price alone. Speaking to people who did, the tenting accom was in Tuareg tents which were often crowded with no security for your belongings and also prone to exposure in sandstorms.
Other companies include Saga tours which we heard used the Tuareg tents as well and we had heard mixed reports from them but they were one of the most expensive.
DOING IT BY YOURSELF
Although we didn’t do it by ourselves, we hung around with people who did and it was not that hard and I would consider doing it ourselves if we had our time again.
Before we left, our main concerns were transport availability and food and lodging at the festival. We were worried that all the local vehicles would be booked and that all the facilities would be poor, and that the language would be a problem.
Basically, we had no reason to worry. There were heaps of vehicle owners who had touts running around offering and bargaining transport from Djenne to Mopti, and Timbuktu to Essakane. There was also heaps of Pinasse touts in Djenne and Mopti offering the trip to Timbuktu also.
You can buy food at the festival but it is very basic Malian food. No snack foods that we could see, but you can buy biscuits etc in Timbuktu. Beer and water seemed to be available. Definitely bring muesli bars etc from home as the choice is limited for snacks.
The festival is spread out over a large area. The central stage is set into a depression in the sand dunes and a sand dune in front of the stage serves as a natural stadium. There is an area for markets and fantastic silver work jewelry and beads are sold here.
There are some truly disgusting toilets that you would never want to use. There is no running water so all water is brought in by bottles.
There was a single eating building serving basic Malian food. Everything has sand in it so get use to eating gritty food. Dried fish and tough chicken and muttony goats are staple diet with rice or potatoes in a tomato and onion type sauce. There were also a couple of bars set up selling beers.
Most of the tents were set up around the central stage and most groups seemed to have an area that they use. For example our company used an area on the out skirts and it would take about 6-7 minutes walking to get to the stage.
On the outskirts the ground is harder dirt as opposed to the stage area which is mainly sandy.
Toileting mainly consisted of taking a long walk into the surrounding dunes or dirt at night and digging a small hole. There weren’t any smelly areas so I assume that everyone walked far enough away to do their business.
Security was in good supply with plenty of military personnel. Before we left there was talk of terrorist attacks from Al Queada linked rebels and many foreign advisories like the US and Australia had travel warnings. The British one was more balanced. We even heard that Peace Corp volunteers were banned from going due to the security risk. You can read here about how freaked out we were.
However, we felt safe and felt the military presence was appropriate and the area was so big and people so spread out that it would be unlikely that any sort of attack or bomb would be damaging or worth it.
The Tuareg men disappointed us a little as they use hard sell tactics to sell their jewelry and also camel rides. And a few hassled people for money for taking photos which was a bit sad. Hence be a bit discrete when doing this and please don’t give money out blindly as it encourages this aggressive activity.
Entrance to the festival was via wearing an armband which is purchased at the time. There were officers patrolling looking for people without the arm bands and they seemed to be pretty efficient, so it isn’t worth scamming your way in.
There were heaps of beggar kids at the festival and looking after your belongings is a real concern. One of the benefits of being with a group meant that we could lock our tent and the guides watched our stuff.
In the Tuareg tents, things are a bit more exposed so you may need a good padlock and also may want to leave gear you don’t need in Timbuktu.
One of our big fears of doing the festival by ourselves was the fear that all the transport would be booked out by tour groups and locals and that we would get stranded.
Well, we can safely say that there was no shortage of transport offers, and you needn’t be worried about this. There are heaps of touts putting together vehicle groups and getting back seemed to be no problem either.
I can’t remember the actual prices that some people negotiated but I will say that you pay for what you get. There was everything from 4x4s to trucks to open tray trucks. There were people offering transport from Djenne, Mopti and Timbuktu. I think I remember a price being 15000CFA from Timbuktu to Essakane.
We used buses to get to Djenne and then 4x4s after that. And yes the bus broke down for 6 hours before Djenne.
OK this is important. Just before Timbuktu, there is a ferry to cross the Niger River which takes about 1 hour as it also goes down stream a bit. The ferry stops dead at 7pm and there were actually fights to get onto the last ferry. A LOT of vehicles got stranded on the wrong side of the river until dawn.
The moral of the story is that you should prepare for a night on the river bank just in case your vehicle is late, so don’t get separated from your warm clothes and don’t pre pay for accom in Timbuktu in case you don’t make it. Oh and make sure you are carrying food and water just in case.
We didn’t take the Pinasse but lots of people liked it as just having downtime for a couple of days. It seemed easy to organize as there were lots of touts around. Sorry we didn’t do it so we don’t remember the costs, but I seem to remember someone got it for 16000CFA, but don’t quote me on that. I heard the price was from 20000 to 40000CFA.
THE MUSIC PROGRAMME
The program wasn’t available until the day that we arrived in Timbuktu. Even then there was a lot of spontaneous swapping of bands so we missed some bands as they came on earlier than we expected. Also meal time clashed with some of the better bands which sucked. Mainly the program ran 1-3 hours late so that the last act was normally on at 1-2am which also sucked since it was really cold then. There were big gaps between the bands for set ups, so it was all very unorganized.
The production of the sound was excellent though.
We used the Bradt guide which was the first time we had used anything other than the Lonely Planet. It was excellent and I shall use these for Africa from now one.
Firstly, there is a shit load of sand from the Harmattan winds so everything gets covered in fine dust. It is seriously really sandy and there were a good few dust storms and one day we woke up covered in sand in our tent. Check our pics if you don’t believe it.
Take zip lock plastic bags for anything that you don’t want dusty like your camera and electronics. We took plastic bags for our SLR camera and even then it had to be cleaned when we got home.
If you easily get sinus or asthma problems make sure you bring the right drugs and some antibiotics for respiratory infections as a lot of people got sick from the dust.
We took our own tent and would advise it as the Tuareg tents are just a tarpoline hung over a depression in a sand dune and they don’t have any sides so you definitely cop the sand storms. This is where you will be sleeping with a lot of the official tour companies or if you do it alone.
Also in Djenne, the hotel rooms were festered with mosquitoes and really hot, but with a tent we could pitch a tent on the roof.
Also some of the supplied tents with our company Balanzan had dodgy zippers which jammed with the dust.
Do NOT underestimate Crum Crums. Crum Crums are the sharp thistles that get into your shoes and clothes and are very painful and very sharp. I would almost recommend having enclosed shoes as they even get under feet when wearing sandals.
If you are using a blow up sleep mat make sure that you carry a repair kit and detergent to find the leak as it is almost inevitable that you will get a leak from crum crums.
Also make sure that you bring cold weather gear as nights were really cold and the wind is also really cold, so wind proof clothing is good.
It is worth getting a scarf of some sort to work as a mask for the dust. There are Tuareg ones for sale in Timbuktu.
The sand is really cold at night so if you plan to stay up and watch music on the dunes, then bring something to sit on as the sand can really sap your body heat.
OK we didn’t speak French and got along just fine. In fact this is probably the best time to go as there are so many musicians, and journalists from the UK, France and Canada so bumming of other travelers who speak French was easy. Also there were a surprising amount of younger kids who could speak in English in Timbuktu and Djenne and also at Essakane.
The most important thing to remember is to take heaps of money. Everyone we met underestimated how much money to take and getting money from Western Union and the banks can take several hours.
We took heaps of Euros which was fine and some small amount of USD. Several people we met had problems with their banks issuing money to a west African country even via western union as there are so many scams. I guess if possible, you may want to enquire about this with your bank before you go. A couple of English girls we knew had problems getting money from their Barclay bank account at a Western Union.
I can’t give you an idea of how much to take but we budgeted 100 euros for 2 people per day and we just got through. Believe the books when they say Mali is an expensive place. It is mainly in organizing transport and the fact that banks are few and far between.
ATMs are only in Bamako and even then will only lend out small amounts. The ATM in Segou didn’t work and Timbuktu doesn’t have an ATM.
Do NOT bring a mastercard as these are not accepted anywhere and we had to a bail out a couple of people who got stuck. It is cash or Visa!
The CFA rate was 655CFA = 1 euro when we were there.
Getting a phone SIM card is dirt cheap and recommended if you are wanting to organize transport or a guide to Dogon. Card was 4000CFA with 2000CFA credit.
Internet was available in Timbuktu but it was very slow and a huge queue was there as there aren’t many terminals. Also the connection is unreliable and we were not able to upload photos due to the code word interface that they have. Elsewhere in Mali internet was often found at the Somatel telephone exchanges.
DOGON AND GOING TO OUGA
There are no shortage of Dogon guides but you must get a recommendation as we met a few people that got stuck with a nasty guide that swore at them, didn’t talk to them and who ruined their experience.
We had a great guide who we would fully recommend. He even carried mangoes for us in his backpack to surprise us. His name is Oumar Guindo and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org Mobile +2232441110 Home +2239368531. We used him for the southern part of the Dogon walk.
We used a different guy for the north Dogon, but we’ve stopped recommending that guy since we heard that some others who used him had some problems.
Just some advice for the Dogon walk. We met in Sanga and walked to the Yougas with 1 night out, and the guide arranged to get a lift for us to drive back which made it feasible in 2 days. The Yougas are much more scenic and mystical than the south and more quiet with less tourists.
The south takes 2 nights and we left Bandiagara and walked to Teli with Oumar. It was not as scenic as the north with a lot of tourists and towns selling lots of touristy type stuff which detracts from the authenticity a little.
If you are going to Burkina Faso, we slept at Ende on the last night and walked to Teli and got the guide to organize a car to take us to Bankass where they found us a van to take us to Burkina. We were in Ouga late the same night.
It is worth contacting the guides in advance of the festival so that you don’t have to hang around waiting for them to return. There is only a little phone reception on the Bandiagara escarpment so if the guide you want is on a walk, he will not be able to contact you until he returns. Internet is not freely available so it is not easy to get them on email close to the time they go. We got a few names just in case we couldn’t get the guide we wanted. We still had to hang around Bandiagara for a day which was boring.
OK I can’t think of anymore tips, so if there is anything else, just leave a comment and I’ll see if I can answer it.
PS To read our blogs on Mali, just back track to the preceding blog entries from this one.
PPS Our photos are at the following link