Descending into the heart of Mali on a dark African night, Tim Dawe feels the literary connection on his arrival in Bamako.
Sitting in Casablanca’s Mohammed V airport waiting for my flight to Bamako, capital of Mali, the late afternoon light floods in through extensive glazing, bouncing off stainless steel columns and tile floors. Morocco is wonderful. Now starts a different African adventure.
After an uneventful night flight the plane descends and is on the ground. Passengers clank down steel steps onto a hot tarmac and an atmosphere of warm cottonwool. 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 250 metres, rectangular light spills onto 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 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 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/hr. 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 is 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 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 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.