Day 1: Bamako. Arrive in Bamako and transfer to the hotel. The rest of the day is free to relax or explore this vibrant city. Overnight Hotel Tamana or similar.
Bamako: Within Bamako, you will find a couple of tall buildings (a bank and a hotel), but most are modest. In the older parts of the city there are some old colonial buildings which are now used for government agencies, hotels, schools, and other functions. Most of the larger houses, with beautiful flowering trees, gardens and a swimming pool (necessary in the hot season) are inhabited by the expatriates and well-off locals.
By contrast, the typical Malian home in Bamako is smaller and is either made of crude cement bricks or the typical building material for Mali, mud bricks. Don’t be surprised to find goats, sheep, chickens, donkeys and cattle roaming the streets. The owners let them out so that they can find their own food and they graze on whatever is available.
Le Drale Cattle Market: If you want to venture out of the city there is a cattle market every Saturday at a place called Le Drale just beyond Kati to the north west of Bamako. People come from a wide area to buy and sell cattle, catch up on the local gossip and stock up on essential supplies at the nearby food market. It is an interesting excursion and offers an opportunity to see the countryside surrounding Bamako.
Day 2: Kangaba region. Head south from Bamako to the region of Kangaba, home to the Malinke and Bambara people. We visit the Kamandjan stone arch, and also travel to the gold mines of the region, where it is still possible to see people searching for gold in the traditional ways. We end up in an area famous for its griots – traditional West African storytellers – and experience a concert given for us by local musicians. Overnight bush camp. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Kangaba: The Mandé area located between Mali and Guinea was called Bouré. This was the source of much of the gold that made famous the caravans, which left Djenné, Timbuktu, and Oualata in direction of the Mediterranean. Still today the gold diggers dig narrow and deep wells. They disappear in the darkness of mysterious galleries, and from there they return with the ore, which the women crush in search of the traces of the precious mineral.
Day 3: Selingue. We drive to Selingue where we take a boat cruise on the large man made lake, fringed by shepherds bringing their livestock down to drink. We also visit Bambara and Malinke villages. Overnight Campement Yalla or similar. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Bambara people: The Bambara ethnic group are part of the Mande group of people, descended from the founders of the ancient empire of Mali. Although most Bambara today adhere to Islam, many still practice the traditional rituals, especially in honoring ancestors. Society is based along distinctions of caste and age groups, and the Bambara practice complex initiation rituals as a way of passing on traditions.
In the 17th century the Bambara had organized themselves into two powerful kingdoms, Kaarta and Segou, but these were destroyed by the aggressive Tukolor Empire towards the end of the 19th century. Every Bambara village is made up of many different family units, usually all from one lineage or extended family. Each household or gwa is responsible to provide for all of its members, as well as to help them with their farming duties. Bambara homes are characteristically bigger than homes of most other West African groups. Some of the dwellings hold as many as 60 or more people.
Day 4: Senoufou and Fulani villages. Continue our exploration of the region as we visit Senoufou and Fulani villages. The Senoufou are spread throughout Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast and are renowned as a mystical people with strong traditions, while the Fulani are a pastoral group whose women often tattoo their faces. We finish the day in Sikasso. Overnight Hotel Wassolou or similar. Includes: (B), (L).
The Fulani: The Fulani, also known as Peul, are traditionally nomadic, searching for new pastures in arid lands for their sizable flocks of sheep, goats and cattle. Fulani women plait their hair and often wear silver coins or discs into their hair, and sometimes have tattooed faces. They are the largest nomadic group of people in the world and can be found in many different parts of Africa, from Guinea to Sudan.
Day 5: Missirikoro Caves - San. Travel to the caves near the village of Missirikoro, used as both a mosque and a place for animist worship. The caves are dotted with the remains of worship – animal skulls being the most notable. We visit the caves and then head to a Bobo village to watch their traditional dances. Overnight Hotel Teriyah or similar. Includes: (B), (L).
Bobo people: The Bobo are to be found throughout Mali and Burkina Faso, where they have given their name to its second city Bobo Dioulasso. It is believed that they moved to the area from regions to the north, due to linguistic similarities with other groups to be found there.
Traditionally the Bobo would use leaves and fibers for both clothing and for their impressive masks, which play an important part in Bobo culture – this is of course becoming less the case now as modernity infringes upon their lives but it is possible to see traditional costumes in the dances that they perform. Bobo are primarily farmers, growing sorghum, millet, yams and maize.
Day 6: Nan – Saye region. We cross an area rarely visited by western travelers, stopping to explore traditional Bambara villages en route. This evening we experience a traditional Bambara mask dance. Overnight bush camp. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 7: Djenne. Head to Djenne – the ‘Pearl of the Delta’. We spend time exploring the town including its marvellous mud mosque and its excellent examples of traditional architecture. Overnight Hotel Maafir or similar. Includes: (B).
Djenne: Situated on an island in the Niger Delta, with a population of around 10,000, Djenné was founded in the year 1250. The city thrived because of its direct connection by river to Timbuktu, and lay at the head of trade routes leading to gold and salt mines. Old Djenné was named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1988, and about 2000 of the traditional houses have survived.
You can easily get a feel for what sub-Saharan Africa must have been like a century ago. At one time, Djenné rivalled Timbuktu as the pre-eminent centre of trans-Saharan trade and Islamic scholarship. With the decline in trade routes, Djenné is now an agricultural town with a burgeoning tourism industry.
Djenne Mosque: Djenné’s most famous site is the mosque which is actually the third built at the site. The first mosque was built by the Soninke king Koï Kounboro who destroyed his palace in the 13th century for its construction. The second mosque was built in the 19th Century by Sheikh Amadou who left the first one to fall into ruin after it became "contaminated" by evil practices. The third (and present) Great Mosque (constructed 1906-1907) is built on a raised plinth platform of rectangular sun-dried mud bricks that are held together by mud mortar and plastered over with mud. The walls vary in thickness between sixteen and twenty-four inches, depending upon their height.
These massive walls are necessary in order to bear the weight of the tall structure and also provide insulation from the sun's heat. During the day, the walls gradually warm up from the outside; at night, they cool down again. This helps the interior of the mosque to stay cool all day long. The Great Mosque also has roof vents with ceramic caps. These caps, made by the town's women, can be removed at night to ventilate the interior spaces.
Day 8: Dogon Country. We travel to the country of the Dogon, one of West Africa’s most enigmatic groups and certainly one of the most fascinating. We visit a sacred cave used for initiation rituals, as well as a stunning fortified village tucked away in the rocky countryside. Overnight bush camp. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Dogon: The Dogon are an ethnic group located mainly in the Bandiagara and Douentza districts. The precise origins of the Dogon, like those of many other ancient cultures, are lost in the mists of time. The early histories come from oral traditions which vary according to the Dogon clan being consulted, and limited archaeological excavation. Because of these inexact and incomplete sources, there are a number of different versions of the Dogon’s origin as well as differing accounts of how they got from their ancestral homelands to the Bandiagara region.
The people call themselves Dogon or Dogom, but in the older literature they are most often called Habe, a Fulbe word meaning ‘stranger’ or ‘pagan’. Certain theories suggest the tribe to be of ancient Egyptian descent. After living in Libya, they are believed to have migrated to somewhere in the region of Burkina Faso, Guinea or Mauritania (different scholarly sources give different places for this period). Around 1490 AD, fleeing invaders and/or drought, they migrated to the Bandiagara cliffs of central Mali.
The concentration of Dogon villages of the Bandiagara escarpment are one of the most recognizable sights in Mali and an essential part of any visit to the country. Originally the Dogon lived in dwellings cut into the cliff face – some of these remain today with steep rock-cut ladders leading up to them – but over the years more and more of them have migrated to the plains at the foot of the cliffs.
Days 9-11: Dogon country exploration. We spend three days exploring this enchanting land with its picturesque villages and strong customs. We hike to some of the most spectacular but least visited villages, and spend our nights camping in the Dogon countryside. We also have the opportunity to attend a traditional mask dance, and visit an Ogon – a fetish priest whose home is an important shrine for the hunters’ cult: from the wall stick out animal skulls, ritual objects and wooden statues that carry recent traces of sacrifice. Two nights camping, one night simple hotel at Sangha. Includes: Days 9-10 – (B), (L), (D); Day 11 - (B), (L).
Day 12: Mopti. We leave the mysteries of Dogon country behind and head to the town of Mopti on the banks of the Niger River. We explore the town and some of its main sites including its port, a kaleidoscope of colours and people and a great example of the importance of the River Niger. Overnight Hotel Doux Reves or similar. Includes: (B).
Mopti: Located at the confluence of the Bani and Niger rivers, Mopti is built on three islands connected by dykes. It is a real melting pot of West African culture with many tribes calling it home, including the Bambara, Songhai, Fula, Tuareg, Moors, Bozos, and Dogon. It has a busy river port and pirogues and pinasses carry goods up and down the river. The Marche des Souvenirs is busy and colourful. If you don’t fancy shoving your way through the crowds at street level you can retire to one of the cafés nearby and gaze down on the melee while you enjoy a cool drink.
Bozo: The Bozo are known as fishermen and boatmen and their annual catch constitutes one of Mali's principal exports. They also engage in agriculture, with rice and millet as the staple crops. Corn, peanuts, onions, okra, and peppers are also grown. Market gardens produce a variety of fruits and vegetables for sale. Fishing is the responsibility of the Bozo men and boys. The women raise vegetables and tobacco, which they sell in the markets. Other agricultural work, however, is done by the men. Each Bozo village also has at least one professional hunter, who hunts hippopotamus, crocodile, and manatee.
Days 13-15: Niger River Cruise. Three days of navigation on the Niger River on our pinasse, through the most interesting part of the internal delta of the Niger. In this region on the edge of savannah and desert the immense water basin is divided in hundreds of branches, lakes and ponds, like a vast spider’s web. We pass villages inhabited by Fulani, Bozo and Songhay, some of which are reachable only by pirogue.
We have excellent opportunities to observe everyday village life, and see beautiful examples of adobe architecture, with mosques built according to the traditions of each individual ethnic group. In this part of the river we can also see the Saro, houses of the Bozo people used during their initiation rituals. We end our trip on the river at the fabled city of Timbuktu. Two nights camping, one night Hotel Colombe or similar. Includes: Days 13-14 – (B), (L), (D), Day 15 – (B), (L).
River cruise: We use a ‘tourist’ version of the traditional pinasse. Our boat is still made of wood but it is powered by a motor and is privately chartered so that there is only our group on board. There are simple seats and a roof or canopy to protect from the sun. We take a supply of bottled water with us on the boat and food is prepared on board by our cook. Breakfast and lunch are taken on board but we eat dinner on the banks of the river. Food is generally excellent; breakfast will usually be bread with jam or honey and tea/coffee. Lunch and dinner will consist of pasta, potatoes or rice with a delicious sauce followed by watermelon.
There is a simple toilet on the back of the boat though some people prefer to get the boat to pull over and find a convenient bush. Except for birds, an occasional passenger boat and the fishermen throwing their nets, the river is quiet. Every now and then you will come across a village with women doing the laundry by the riverside and children playing and waving at you.
Our pinasse will stop at some of these villages so you can stroll around and get a picture of how people live along the river. In the evenings we moor by the banks of the river and set up camp. The camp sites are not pre-determined but are wherever the captain thinks is suitable – generally some distance from a village and preferably away from stagnant water and the consequent mosquitoes. At night the crew erect a table and chairs for dinner and we eat by the light of paraffin lamps.
Day 16: Timbuktu. We spend time exploring this mythical city, for so long the focus of African exploration and once home to immense riches. We visit the14th century Djinguereber Mosque, the oldest mud building in Africa, and explore its colorful markets. Timbuktu’s old quarter has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is packed full of interesting monuments including the houses of early explorers. During our time in Timbuktu we aim to show you not just the main sites but a little of how the local people live, and so we take dinner in the family home of a local salt merchant for a real introduction to typical Timbuktu life. Overnight at Hotel Colombe or similar. Includes: (B), (D).
Timbuktu: Few places in the world have a mystique as alluring as Timbuktu. The name is so wrapped up in legend that you could be forgiven for thinking the place was a figment of the imagination. Although Timbuktu has lost a good deal of its former splendor, it is still a ‘must see’ for visitors to Mali. Though its population once reached 100,000, it is now probably no more than 15,000.
Today Timbuktu is a city lost in the desert, overtaken by both history and geography. It seems only a matter of time before the encroaching sands of the Sahara blanket the city forever. Consequently tourism has become increasingly important to Timbuktu's remaining residents. It is strategically located on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, 10km north of the northernmost loop of the Niger River.
It began life as the terminus of a camel route that brought goods from Arabia to sub-Saharan Africa, developing from a modest 11th century Tuareg trading post into a major financial centre and one of the most famous sites of Islamic scholarship in the Muslim world. Its wealth, like that of many Sahelian towns straddling the trans-Sahara trade routes, was based largely on gold, salt, ivory, kola nuts and slaves.
The decline began when it was captured and sacked in 1591 by the Berber armies of Sultan Mansour of Marrakech and when Europe's maritime nations began using routes along the coast of West Africa, breaking the Tuareg's monopoly on trans-Sahara trade. Wandering through the narrow twisting streets of the old section of Timbuktu, you’ll see two and three-storey mud houses with huge wooden doors decorated with studs and carvings, bread being baked in dome-shaped ovens, and the central market where you can bargain for anything from leather goods to camels.
The Djinguereber Mosque is the oldest and most famous of Timbuktu's mosques. It dates from the early 14th century when Emperor Kankan Moussa took control of the city from the Tuareg. Legend has it that the mosque has a door that has never been opened and it is said that the opening of the door will signal the end of the world. Although visitors are no longer able to enter the mosque they can see it from the outside.
Timbuktu is a center for the nomadic Tuareg people, known as the ‘blue men of the desert' because of the swathes of indigo cloth they wrap around themselves. The Tuareg are famous for their fighting ability and their metalwork (best seen on their decorative silver swords). Unfortunately, their nomadic life has been disrupted by the droughts which afflicted the Sahel in the 1970's and 1980's and many have been forced to become urban residents or farmers.
Days 17-18: Gandamia Mountains. We head south from Timbuktu into the Douentza region, and the Gandamia Mountains. These mountains form a spectacular area of pinnacles, canyons and valleys and are almost totally unknown to tourists. On our way here we stop at camps belonging to Fulani, Tuareg and Bella families. In the mountains we visit small settlements in a lush valley totally surrounded by arid mountains - stone villages inhabited by the Songhai tribe, believed to be the descendants of the kings of Gao, who mysteriously disappeared in the 16th century during an invasion by Morocco. One night bush camp, one night at San in Hotel Teriyah or similar. Includes: Day 17 – (B), (L), (D); Day 18 - (B).
Day 19: Segou. Drive to Segou and explore the city, once the center of a powerful Bambara kingdom and with an interesting old quarter. This evening we will experience the unique Hauka ceremony – unlike any others in the region, with spirits of old colonial masters being called upon. Overnight: Hotel Independence or similar. (B)
Segou: The area around Segou has always been home to the Bambara people, but rose to prominence in the 18th century when loosely grouped villages untied under the leadership of Biton Coulibaly. Coulibaly based his new kingdom at Segoukoro – a small village not far from present day Segou which it is still possible to visit today, and which now houses his tomb. From here he set about expanding his empire, conquering nearby tribes to create a powerful kingdom.
The kingdom of Segou prospered for around a hundred years before the aggressive Tukolor Empire conquered the town in 1864. Segou is today regarded as Mali’s second city, and is a fairly relaxed town for its size. There are two distinct styles of architecture within Segou – the French colonial style and the traditional Soudanese style, with good examples of both to be found. Nearby are Bozo fishing villages, which are possible to visit by pirogue.
Day 20: Bamako. Return to Bamako and take a tour of Mali’s vibrant and bustling capital. We visit the excellent National Museum with its collection of masks, sculptures, weapons and other artifacts relating to the rich cultural heritage of the country. We also visit the traditional blacksmiths, still following practices handed down through the generations. Overnight Hotel Rabelais or similar. Includes: (B).
Day 21: Bamako. Tour ends. Includes: (B).
Also see tour packages in:
Africa Mali Local Culture Cultural Journey Archeology/History