Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa, bordered by Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Mauritania. Mali is a developing nation, and remains ones of the poorest countries in the world. However, it encompasses some incredible sights, including three UNESCO World-Heritage sites. And, of course, there's Timbuktu!
Mali is divided into eight official regions, plus a federal district enclosing the capital
The capital is Bamako.
The Sudanese Republic and Senegal became independent of France in 1960 as the Mali Federation. Senegal withdrew after only a few months, and the Sudanese Republic was renamed Mali. The country was then governed by dictatorship until 1991. In 1992 the country's first democratic presidential elections were held.
Just under half the population is less than 15 years old. The great majority of Malians are Muslim, some also practice indigenous beliefs, and a tiny number are Christian. Around 10% of the population is nomadic. Most Malians work in agriculture and fishing.
Air France flies daily from Paris-Charles de Gaulle to Bamako (and return). Royal Air Maroc fly less often - though more cheaply - than Air France, however they generally require you to connect in Casablanca in Morocco. There are also smaller companies, such as Point Afrique, who fly cheaply to & from Mali in the busy tourist season.
Many African and pan-African airlines fly into Mali, for example: Air Senegal, Air Mauritania, Tunisair Air Afriqiyah and numerous others. Some of these airlines also have feature connections to Mopti.
The airport is about twenty minutes drive from the centre of Bamako. There are fixed rates for taxis to different parts of town: to find them, cross the roadway in front of the airport and go the the right-hand end of the block of kiosks. You will see a group of taxi drivers and a board with prices. As at December 2004, the price was 7500 CFA Francs (around USD$15). There is even well-hidden restaurant: follow the exit road past the barrier and you'll see it on the right, surrounded by trees, about 50 metres from the terminal building. They're very friendly and serve basic but filling and tasty snacks.
There are several ways to get to Mali by car. From Europe one has to cross the straits of Gibraltar, Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania. There are no longer any problems crossing Western Sahara along the coastal road. You will need to have your car and passport information ready to hand over at the various checkpoint however. There is now tarmaced roads all the way from Europe to Nioro du Sahel (apart from 3kms at the border between Western Sahara and Mauritania). There should soon (within the next few months) be tarmac all the way to Bamako. Another option is to ship the car via a nearby seaport, for example Dakar in Senegal. There are no asphalted roads into Mali from Senegal so a 4x4 is strongly recommended. In the past the most-used road route was the asphalted road from the port of Abidjan in Ivory Coast. But since a rebellion in September 2002 the north of that country has been in rebel control. In April 2004, the road was in poor repair, and frequent rebel roadblocks made the journey risky. Most roadblocks could be passed with good humour and a 100F CFA "present", but the dangers of unsupervised young men with automatic weapons far from authority are obvious. It is also possible to ship to Ghana and then drive up through Burkina Faso.
It is possible to reach Mali by bus, from a variety of African cities. These include, but are not limited to: Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire, Accra in Ghana, Lomé in Togo, and Dakar in Senegal. There is public transport almost all the way from Europe to Mali be it buses or bush-taxis. The only exception is from Dakhla, Western Sahara, to Noudhibou, Mauritania where you can easily get a ride with a Mauritanian trader.
Mali has two large rivers that are navigatable at least part of the year, both of which cross into neighboring countries.
The main cities along the paved road into the north are connected via bus (Bamako, San, Segou, Mopti, Gao). There are several different companies but they all do have the same prices. Normally a ride to Mopti (600km, half the way up), endures approximately eight hours; a ride to Gao up to 12. It is not improbable that the bus breaks down and needs a repair; or stops to help another bus out. It's possible to make a reservation several days before, recommended during the tourist season.
By taxi brousse
To get around one can take the "Taxi - Brousse", the bush taxis. They are the main connection between towns which aren't connected via bus. They are very slow and they sometimes break down or stop to help other broken down taxis. So sometimes the ride takes longer than expected.
To get around by car, a 4x4 is strongly recommended. There are very few asphalt roads, and they are all single-carriageway outside towns, though most are in good condition. One leads into the North of the country (Bamako, Kayes, Segou, San, Mopti, Gao), another branches off after Segou to cross the Niger at the Markala dam and goes as far as Niono, while another goes from Bamako to Sikasso and on into Ivory Coast. There are private people who rent out their 4x4 cars for a ride. Make sure you've got insurance and a carnet de passage, and plenty of petrol.
It is possible to travel across Mali by plane, as numerous companies have sprung up in recent years. It is possible to fly (usually from Bamako) to cities such as: Mopti, Timbuktu, Kayes, Yelimané, Gao, Kidal, Sadiola, and others.
The planes, typically, are Czech turboprops (LET-410s) and small Russian jetliners (Yakovlev YAK-40s). Air travel in Mali is fast but, compared to a bus ride, expensive. It is not, however, foolproof - often you are at the mercy of the carrier, who may choose not to fly on a certain day if too few passengers show up! You can generally get tickets at the airport before flights, however the best bet is to book a ticket in advance.
Société Transport Aerienne (STA) and Société Avion Express (SAE) are the two most popular, and most reliable, carriers.
It is possible to travel around Mali by boat, however this is very seasonal. The most common option, only really possible in the wet season, is a barge to/from Timbuktu. There are also very small boats, "pirogues" in French, which are available to be hired almost anywhere - they are essentially large canoes. When the big boats are not running you can still charter a pinasse (like a big, motorised pirogue). Or use one of the public pinasses. These will run for another 3 months or so before the water levels being too low for them as well. You can navigate the river all the way from near Bamako to Gao, though the level drops more rapidly in the portion between Bamako and Mopti.
French is the official language, but Bambara (or Bamanakan in the language itself) is spoken by 80% of the population, along with numerous other African languages (Peulh/Fula, Dogon, and Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people). Outside the bigger towns few people speak French, and even Bambara gets rare in some regions. Very few people speak English.
There's plenty of great crafts in Mali. Various ethnic groups have their own characteristic masks, there are some great instruments, blankets, bogolas (a type of blanket), silver jewelery, leather goods... The Touareg, in particular, have great silver and leather goods inclduing jewellery, daggers, spears, swords, boxes... Buying some local music is also a good souvenir with some of the world's best musiicians coming from Mali.
Treat tap water with suspicion. It is often so heavily chlorinated that one suspects few bugs could possibly survive in it. But short-term visitors will be safer with bottled water. There are several cheap local brands, but be warned that they are only drunk by foreigners and wealthy Malians: don't rely on finding bottled water in shops patronised by "ordinary" Malians. Soft drinks such as Coca-Cola or Fanta are more widely available and safe. But remember that Coke will make you want to go to the toilet, and so may leave you more dehydrated than before you drank it - a serious problem in this stunningly hot country. Street vendors sell water and home-made ginger and berry drinks in little plastic bags. They are often iced which makes them very refreshing in the heat. Generally, you shouldn't drink these without treating them first. However, one which is called "bissap" in French and "dabeleni" ("red mouth") in Bambara, is made from hibiscus leaves that are boiled during preparation, and so generally is safe to drink. In Bamako, it is possible to purchase at most corner stores treated water in small plastic bags for 50 CFA; these are much cheaper, and of course more environmentally friendly, than bottles. The bags are marked with a brand name; be careful not to mistake them for the tap water that is sold in unmarked plastic bags by street vendors. Also widely sold in this way is sweet milk, which is also "bottled". The advantage of the milk is that it is normally clean because the bags are industrially filled. Fresh milk can also be bought from buckets at the roadside in some villages.
be careful of non vegetarian food
There are various types of accommodation options of various prices and qualities. All tourist areas have hotels or Auberge and many places will also have homestays. You can also opt to sleep on the roof terrace in some hotels - not only the cheapest option but also the pleasure of sleeping under the stars. Use your misquito net and be prepared to wake to prayer call.
Mali has numerous musical instruments you can learn. In particular it is a popular place to learn how to play various durms (Bongo, Djembe...)
In Mali you have a high chance of encountering the police. You should always at least carry a copy of your passport and visa. Only carrying a driving license is not sufficient and might lead to a ride to the police office - if you're not prepared to bribe your way out. Notice that the police in Bamako often stops taxis.
You are technically required to have an international vaccination card showing immunization against yellow fever, although customs officials do not often check that you have the card. It is also recommended to get Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, typhoid, and meningitis vaccinations. You may also consider getting a polio vaccination due to the recent outbreak of polio in Northern Nigeria that has spread around the region.
Food and water
Stay away from dirty food and water. To the rule "cook it peel it or forget it" should be paid attention. Also water should only be drunk out of sealed bottles or after it is sterilized through boiling or chemical utensils. The food is another issue. It's sometimes difficult to know if it's cooked long enough. Also the, to Westerners, unusual spices are sometimes the cause for sickness, especially diarrhea. Also expect little stones in the meal (teeth!). For the traveller the main danger is diarrhea. If diarrhea is acute, the best medicine is to rest and to eat and drink much. During the illness the body will lose a lot of water and salt. With Coca Cola (sugar and water) and pretzel sticks (salt), which are available everywhere, usually one is after a couple of days again on top. There are also instant powders available which have the amount of glucose and salts that are needed.
The greetings are very important. One should learn the greetings in French, better Bambara. Even if one wants to buy fruits or a bread, the vendors should be greeted in a proper way. It's very important to show a general interest in the other person, so it should be asked after the family, the work, kids, and so on. The answer is simple: always "ça va" (everything is okay). The other must not answer in a negative way! Example: "Bonjour (good morning), ça va (how are you)?" "Et la famille?" (...and the family?) "Et les enfants?" (...and the kids?) "Et le travail?" (...and your job?) ...