Travel Story Start of Darkness: "Welcome to Bamako"

While we don’t recommend travelling to Mali, we don’t like parts of the world to drop from our consciousness. Descending into the heart of Mali on a dark African night, Tim Dawe feels the literary connection.

I’m bathed in light bouncing off the stainless-steel columns and tile floors of Casablanca’s Mohammed V airport. My flight to Bamako, capital of Mali, leaves soon. Morocco is wonderful. Now starts a different African adventure; one of a different hue.

Out of a black sky shot with lightning the plane circles, descends and lands routinely. Passengers clank down steel steps on to a hot tarmac to an atmosphere of warm cotton wool. At first glance it’s nowhere. Without moon or stars the world is inky black. A sweep of the horizon indicates jungle shapes.

In the distance, perhaps 250m, rectangular light spills on to the ground. With no instructions beyond the on-board French equivalent of “Welcome to Bamako”, we moths tentatively move towards the flame.

Around the halfway mark first excited voices advance, then sets of white teeth followed by bobbing shapes. The rushing touts tug at my wheeled suitcase, increasing my clenched grip.

This airport terminal, technically “international”, resembles a 1950s outback aerodrome. There are no discernible barriers. Inside is pandemonium. Low-wattage light gives a film noir effect, yet the characters seem to be from Mad Max. The excitable touts run the place, all giving orders, while uniformed men lounge in deckchairs casting a bored eye over the new initiates.

My wife and I have a hotel booking, which includes an airport pick-up service. I have the confirmatory email bookmarking my copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Time passes without service. Weariness gives way to anxiety. At least we have our luggage. One young man with some English offers help. He wants coins to phone our hotel but there is no currency exchange. Fortunately he does not persist; in fact there is no pay phone, only a wall-mounted airport phone dangling from exposed wires.

There’s a brief discussion in a local language and I am put on to the hotel’s night manager. Something is said about being there earlier, then this: “I am alone. It is late. You should catch a taxi.” Anxiety meets fear and despondency.

All the passengers have gone; there are no taxis, if there ever were. We have no idea where we are or where we are going. We have no money. We cannot communicate. I try not to panic but have an understandable call of nature. I hasten to the only toilet and am instantly repelled. “The horror!”

It’s time to make decisions ... any decision. Our young friend has a plan — and, what’s more, transport. We follow him to the dark and deserted car park where a man, grey in the gloom, leans on a battered car; lots of incomprehensible chatter but no details or deal. The decision is made when junior stows our luggage and the grizzled driver hotwires the car.

We trundle off and I keep repeating to myself, we’re still alive. Actually, it’s a relief to be moving, albeit chuggingly at 30km/h. And that breeze is welcome, as is the dark silence. Dense jungle either side implies we are far from town, although we see some people walking purposefully, and dangerously, along this unlit road, while others doze under the light globe of a shopfront.

Suddenly there is agitated chatter between young and old in the front seat. We are running out of petrol. Well, of course! However, another shop light comes into view, there is a quick stop, some plastic bottles filled, and we are on our way.

I start to think we’ll get there; we will make it. I’ve done my research on Mali. (I know it’s not an Indonesian holiday destination.) It’s is one of the poorest countries on the planet. The term, dirt poor, is real; village life is harsh — and short. Like third-world cities around the world, Bamako is now a grouping of ethnically separated shanty towns, the emptied remains of failed rural communities, always crowded, sometimes violent.

At last, a dark city outline beyond a runway of dim lights bridging the black Niger River. Much of my research followed Michael Palin’s not dissimilar adventures arriving here for the TV series Sahara, and his landing at the Mande Hotel extending over the river. I’m heading there now.

The unpaid driver is volubly agitated. The surly duty manager sweeps him out, then points to a turret-shaped chalet in a courtyard; our accommodation. It’s 4:30am with a faint glimmer there will be another day. Welcome to Bamako! I feel sure tomorrow will be the start of a wonderful adventure in West Africa.

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