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Sahara

Day 37: Dakar to Bamako

Michael Palin - SaharaJust when it seems we might be destined to spend the rest of our lives in Kayes, a shudder runs through the train and we jerk into motion. Our endlessly cheery guard reckons we'll be in Bamako at ten o'clock tonight and slaps his hand in mine to seal the prediction.

The scenery changes now, as we cross the land of the Malinke people, from whom Mali took its name. This is more like the heat-cracked plateau of Mauritania than the flat bush country of Senegal. Escarpments and weirdly sculpted rocks rise around us. We stop at stations without platforms, surrounded by thatch-roofed rondavels and mud huts, where women with charcoal braziers in one hand and corn-cobs in the other ply the train, selling bananas, roast goat, loaves of bread, tea, smoked fish, yams, bags of nuts.

At a place called Mehani we are becalmed again, waiting for a train from Bamako to come through on the single-track line ahead of us.

I feel tired, unwashed and greasy, but I keep my spirits up by reading Sanche de Gramont's The Strong Brown God, and imagining how immeasurably more awful it was for the British explorer Mungo Park, as he made his way through this same territory in 1796, intent on becoming the first Westerner to set eyes on the fabled River Niger.

Dusk is falling as the Bamako-Kayes train comes in. It pulls up opposite us, each window crammed with faces.

The last sight I remember before night falls is crossing the Sénégal for the very last time, at the point where, fed by the Bafing and Bakoye rivers, it is a majestic half-mile wide, its banks turning a deep ruddy brown in the dying light.

It's ten o'clock and we are still so far from Bamako that I cannot even make light of it with our friendly guard. Faced with the realisation that we shall have to spend another night on the train, the spirit seems to have gone out of everyone. They just want to be home, not on this hot and sticky train, full of people but empty of almost everything else. There is an air of resigned listlessness as we swing once more into the darkness.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 37
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Mehani
  • Book page no: 120

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