If you’re looking for a tranquil stay, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you like your markets colourful, clamorous and spilling into the surrounding streets, appreciate energy that illuminates the night and hanker for the opportunity to befriend open and friendly locals, Bamako might just get under your skin.
In Mopti, tourism is a contact sport, with more guides, pinasse owners and touts per square metre than anywhere else in Mali. That said, clamour is central to Mopti’s charm – its port is Mali’s most lively and interesting – and you’ll have to pass through here if you want to take a pinasse trip to Timbuktu.
Gao, the former capital of the Songhaï Empire, is one of the most important towns of Mali’s illustrious past. Like Timbuktu, however, Gao can feel like the end of the earth, a cluster of nomadic settlements pushed onto the Niger River’s shores by the Sahara Desert that dominates to the north. Expeditions into the desert are a highlight of a visit here, as is the lively port.
Niger River Route
For most visitors, a journey through Mali means following the course of the great Niger River as it winds its way through the southern skirt of the Sahara. You can go mostly by road, or sometimes by boat on the river itself, branching off at key points to see such wonders as the Dogon Country.
You wouldn’t come here just to see Kayes (pronounced ‘Kai’), but as the principal settlement in the west of Mali, it can be a reasonable place to break up the long journey between Bamako and Dakar. Kayes is hot and dusty, and was the first place the French settled in Mali (several colonial buildings remain).
Western Mali is hard work – transport is infrequent or nonexistent, tourist infrastructure likewise and most of the sights are few and very far between. The region’s appeal lies, however, in these very facts. This is Mali largely untrammelled by tourists and the modern world and losing yourself here is about deep African immersion.