MW Mobile Blog

For friends, family and the random search engine visitor. This blog started as an experiment in mobile blogging from my Palm TREO 600 700 Prē HTC Evo,Samsung 5. Now serving as a simple repository of favorite activities. Expect bad golf, good fishing, great sailing, eating, drinking, adventure travel, occasional politics and anything else I find interesting along the way including, but not limited to, any of the labels listed here...

Friday, November 30, 2007

Bring me the head of Kokua Agbelengo Agboglo (aka - "Paul")

Our second desert camp is surrounded by bigger dunes, less scrub, and wide vistas of nothing but sand. It was the coldest night of the trip. The crew were all wearing ski parkas, knit caps and mittens. I wake at first light and climb the large dune to greet the sunrise and...

I am soon joined by Maria, Matthew, and Jan.

Panorama of 2nd Desert Camp - Click image to enlarge.

The view is spectacular, with the sun peeking over the horizon in the East, the camp at our feet to the South, Araouane on the horizon in the North, and our footprints trailing back along the crest of the dune to the West.


When we return to camp I attempt a butt slide down the steepest part of the dune, but end up simply sitting in the sand. The whole sorry episode is recorded on video by an Emmy Award winning television producer (said video to be updated here once I get the sand cleaned out of my video camera and repaired).

Me and Sigrid

After breakfast a camel train from Araouane arrives. We each don a shesh (Tuareg turban) climb aboard the camels, and set off across the dunes.

Susan and Wes

Separated at Birth?

Susan in Sahara (left) and Tuskan Raider - The "Sand People" on Tatooine (Right)

It is while sitting on the camel with the camera extended arm length into the wind, shooting video and these still shots, that enough fine grain sand is blown into the camera that it shuts down with an angry error message - thus ending all video for the duration of the trip.

Matthew (I think)

Jan

Susan and Bart

Matthew, Sigrid, Yowouga


Somewhere along the way, I get the idea that it would be cool to sit cross-legged on the camel, as I vaguely recall Peter O'Toole doing in Lawrence of Arabia. This turns out to be a particularly bad idea. As I raise my legs, my feet appear in the camel's field of vision, spooking him, and he lurches forward. I faithfully obey Newton's laws of motion, and remain in approximately the same spot in space until discovering, cartoon-like, that there is no longer a camel beneath me. I fall to the sand in a heap, much to the concern and amusement of my fellow travelers. Dusting myself off, I get back on board, and manage to complete the rest of the ride without incident.


We tour Araouane, once a great trading port on the the shore of the Sahara sea of sand, now mostly derelict, it's two hundred inhabitants eke out a meager living supporting infrequent camel caravans, supplemented by tourist dollars. I did not get the name of the local teacher and guide (pictured here) who escorted us around the town, but his presentation was remarkable. His quiet demeanor accentuated his dignified pride in the town's history, and evident deep sadness in it's current state. We would find another connection to Araouane amid the manuscripts in Timbuktu a few days hence.

Back in the Land Cruisers, we turn back South and head for Timbuktu. Not many picture for the ride back, but there were plenty of stories. The journey proceeded in fits and starts, as one vehicle after another would get stuck in the sand, blow a tire, or simply break down. The entire convoy would, of course, stop and wait for the wayward vehicle, often with one or more Land Cruisers backtracking to help.

It was evident that we were not making the progress over the ground that Paul had planned. Our lunch location was determined when the rear brakes on Kofi's truck failed completely. While we ate, we watched in amazement as his land cruiser was jacked, blocked, brake fluid drained and the right rear wheel assembly stripped down to the disk and pads. Out in the middle of nowhere. A jury rigged repair was effected, but the group was getting concerned about the implications of the continuous delays. If we did not get close to Timbuktu for tonight's camp, it would seriously compress the few short touring hours during the group's one day in Timbuktu.

The issue became critical when Kofi's vehicle broke down again a few kilometers later. This time there would be no repairs. A variety of options were discussed and rejected, including splitting the group and driving into the night. It was decided that the only viable option was to consolidate, drive as long as it was safe, set up camp in the dark, break it down in the dark and get moving at first light. Passengers and supplies were transferred to the remaining vehicles. Much to Kofi's chagrin, his car was abandoned for the night. It seemed like a good plan at the time, but it left no safety margin should any problems occur at the end of the day. Which, as Murphy would have it, is exactly what happened.

Maria was now riding with Matthew, Sigrid and me in John's "Zebra" land cruiser. Light was starting to fail when we hit a patch of soft sand and buried both right wheels up to the axle. A click ahead, Bouj identified a campsite, circled the wagons, and two vehicles marked the spot. We could see a third Land Cruiser midway between us flip on their headlights to mark the route to camp. The last vehicle soon appeared to help John dig out. It was decided that the passengers should be ferried back to camp while the vehicle was extracted. Sigrid and I got in the car, but for reasons I still don't understand, Maria and Matthew stayed behind. We all assumed the the truck would go back to pick them up. As it turns out, Maria and Matthew would walk to camp in the dark, led by Bouj. You'll have to get that story from them, but I heard Maria relate an episode where she was scrambling over a dune in the dark, to find Matthew standing there looking back at her in disbelief. "Bouj is praying." he whispered.

It occurs to me that a side story from the day should be explained. Earlier in the day, as we we waited for the Tuareg military entourage to repair a flat tire somewhere behind the last dune, my idle mind began to weave a Larium fueled paranoid fantasy regarding the well armed Tuareg military entourage, who, it could reasonably be perceived, were deliberately trying to slow us down. After all, we really did not know who they were, who they were protecting us from, and whether the tour was paying them enough to give us the kind of - you know - "protection" we need. And they had guns. Lots and lots of guns. And they were Muslim and wore turbans and were kind of scary looking. Recognizing this for the irrational paranoia that it was, I decided to share it with a sensible, level headed fellow traveler, expressly to be reassured that this was indeed a laughably irrational fear. I chose Matthew as my confidant, thinking a government budget accountant was exactly the sort of solid common sense citizen to provide that reassurance. The conversation had exactly the effect I hoped, so that by the time I was back in camp waiting for the rest of our gear, I had forgotten all about it. Matthew, on the other hand, now standing on a dune in the dark, not knowing the direction to camp, not knowing where the Toureg entourage were to be found, accompanied only by Maria and Bouj (who was currently prostrate facing Mecca on the dune in front of him), could thank me for the paranoid fantasies now rattling between his ears. Coincidently, he was on the same Larium dosing schedule as me. Poor bastard.

Well, No harm - No foul. All vehicles and personnel made it back, and the camp was successfully set up in the dark. Over dinner, with a little wine and Johnny Walker Red Label to take the edge off the day, there was nothing left to worry about. Nothing, that is, except the continuous bolts of lightning flashing in the sky in front of us, behind us, and on both sides of us. But there was really nothing to worry about. After all, this was the dry season. I asked Jan, who lives in the desert in Arizona, if she thought it would rain. "No" she said. "I don't think so." When I asked Paul if there were covers for the screen tops of our tents, just in case it rained, he assured me it would not rain, and they were really not necessary. But just to humor me, he instructed the crew to dig out and distribute the covering flies for the tents. So there was really was nothing to worry about - until the moment the skies opened up, the dry season rain shower started, and we all scurried back to our tents to affix the covers before everything inside got soaked. Nothing to worry about at all. With nothing to worry about, I could relax in the tent, and think back to the conversation over dinner, when Paul got exasperated with my questions about the lightning and possible rain and finally exclaimed:
"Don't worry! I tell you - it will not rain! If it rains, you can have my head!"
I lay in our tent in the dark and rain, listening to Mark laughing hysterically alone in the tent next to ours, and wonder what the hell I am going to do with Paul's head.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Niafounke to Araouane Rally - The Movie

As promised. It is almost a year later, but I finally got around to it.

I am posting this on 11/11/08 but backdating the post to the dates the video was shot - November 29 & 30, 2007.

Wes takes the wheel.
video


NOTE: About the music and the band featured in this video -

I only heard them once, in the courtyard of that crappy hotel in Niafounke'. I recorded a couple of songs from my camcorder, balanced on a glass serving as tripod on our table. During a break, I asked the lead singer the name of the band and if they had any CD's. Language got in the way, but the next morning one of the guys from the band showed up with a cassette tape. This is what is written on the tape:
Abdoulaye Cisse' (Guitar)
Rec. at Niafounke' 2.01.07
prise de Son- mixage - mastering
Yoan Jaunequo
That's the best I can do for credit. I'd be interested if anyone recognizes the song.

If you would like to ehr the song featured in this video without interruption, I've posted it in the blog here and YouTube here.

Lost in the Sahara & The Niafounke - Araouane Rally

The breaking dawn brings us our first good look at our desert camp. Several of us climb a nearby dune to take it all in.

As camp is broken down, we meet our "military escort" for the Tuareg desert country. A dozen or so turbaned, robed, and camo attired irregular militia ride shoulder to shoulder in the back of a pickup truck, brandishing rifles, AK-47s, and machine guns. For Americans who have been bombarded with images of terrorists on our TV screens for the last six years, they look exactly like - well - Al Qaeda terrorists. Frankly, I really don't understand the the dynamic of this transaction. Are we paying them to protect us from bandits, or are we simply paying bandits for "protection"? Perhaps it does not matter. In any case, they are happy to be photographed, and quickly become a favorite photo subject for the group.


Rolling again. Wes has done some recreational professional race driving, and he talks Sidu into letting him drive his Land Cruiser. The morning drive devolves into the the Niafounke - Araouane Rally. Despite Bouj's best efforts to keep the caravan in a single line, the cruisers are now bombing across the desert, sometimes in parallel tracks, sometimes in line, weaving and passing each other amid the scrub and dunes and ravines. I blame Wes, as he is having "too much fun" driving.


We stop at a major well/watering hole/oasis on the top of a sandy hill. It is a bee-hive of activity, with camel caravans, herd of cattle, flocks of sheep and goats, donkeys, and desert travelers of every attire and hue, waiting watching, drawing water, or (in our case) photographing the proceedings. Sigrid shoots camel portraits, getting some good shots with notoriously temperamental models.


Sidu moves into our car with John, so Susan can ride shotgun with Wes. The desert begins to take it's toll on the vehicles as we press on. Flat tires and stuck vehicles provide opportunities for frequent breaks. "See you at the next breakdown." Mark says cheerfully as we climb back into the car. After one such break, Susan and I swap vehicles, so I can shoot video of Wes driving from inside his car.
Note to Reader: Video of Wes driving in the Araouane "rally" will be updated here at some unspecified future date - after I get the sand cleaned out of the camera and repaired or replaced.
UPDATE - 11/11/08: I finally got around to it. The video is linked here.
Just after the camera battery runs out of juice, during another bone-jarring bump, the supplies secured to the roof suddenly shift, a spare tire tethered to the roof rack breaks loose, swings like a pendulum, and smashes directly into the driver windshield. Wes never takes his hands off the wheel, and disaster is averted as the safety glass cracks but holds. Beyond the jarred nerves, there is no injury to Wes or myself. The windshield itself did not fare so well, and is now a spider web of cracked glass.

Over lunch, Wes decides that he has had enough, and leaves the driving responsibilities to Sidu. I return to the Zebra Cruiser with Sigrid. Breakdowns and delays continue in the afternoon, but we manage to get to our second desert camp by sundown. We are in the shadow of a large dune, and we finish setting up camp in the dark. The temperature is dropping and the wind picks up. For the first time on the trip, I am cold at dinner. Sigrid is exhausted and dines on power bars in the tent.

Sigrid stakes out our second desert campsite.

The toilet was set up behind a bush only about 70 meters from our tent. In the night, before the moon has risen, I decide to make my way to the toilet. I am using a small maglite flashlight, but in the moonless night, it is only useful to illuminate the ground directly in front of me and to destroy my night vision. In the dark I give up looking for the "official" toilet, and use a handy bush. As I start back to the tent, I become disoriented and am not sure of the correct direction back. The shots of whiskey after dinner to fortify myself against the cold may have been a contributing factor. Not wishing to compound my error by striking off in the wrong direction, I stop and take stock. I am lost in the middle of the Sahara desert. I turn off the flashlight, determined to stand there in one spot until my eyes adjust to the dark. After several minutes, I can see the outline of the large dune, but before I start to move, I suddenly realize that I am not alone. A few feet from me, one of the Tuareg militia is standing and looking at me. Dark robe, dark turban covering most of his face, rifle slung over his shoulder, he points in the direction of my tent. I say "Merci", and proceed directly to the tent and crawl into the sleeping bag. Feeling much better about our Tuareg escorts, I am soon asleep, secure in the knowledge that I have survived the ordeal of being completely lost in the Sahara desert for 30 long seconds.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Desert Camp

We cannot get out of the Niafounke "hotel" fast enough. Over breakfast, a member of the band finds me and I buy a cassette tape. The name of the band is Abdoulaye Cisse. I have not listened to it yet, and do not know if it has the Lynyrd Skynryd cut, I'll update here as soon as figure out what I did with my old Sony Walkman. We drive the main route from Niafounke to Timbuktu, watching the Timbktu mile markers tick down, then abruptly take a left turn off the road and head North into the desert toward Araouane.

First stop is a dune in a marshy area, overlooking a farming village. Hiking up a nearby hill, we explore ruins from early inhabitants of site and take in the expansive view. Sigrid's feet are acting up, so we go back to the car, then I scramble back to the group, which is now exploring a site that is reminiscent of a mini Stonehenge. Wes declares that "This is the most important site we have seen on this trip." Jan is dubious.

It is a hard driving day. Desert terrain shifts from rocky hill and marshland, to scrub with stunted trees, to burr laden grasses and thorny bushes, to dunes and sand.

We visit a beautifully painted Falani home, where Sigrid shoots some portraits.
We also stop at a village market, where I buy some salt from a local vendor, and Matthew gets in touch with his inner libertarian, finding a way to "Question Authority" in a unique new way. Sigrid and I are riding with John in the "Zebra" Land Cruiser (the only vehicle with zebra stripes painted on the sides). The sand is very soft and deep, and we get stuck a couple of times.

At one point, with John's land cruiser buried to the axle in the bottom of ravine, a camel caravan ambles up, waits to be sure that the desert tourists manage to get their vehicle moving, than proceeds on into the desert. Lunch is at a Taureg camp under a tent on the canvas covered ground.

Bouj rides in the lead car and directs the caravan over the dunes. At every stop, he spends more time on the cell phone than a software sales rep at quarter end.

With progress slower than expected, we finally set up our desert camp at dusk, some 15 kilometers short of the planned camp location.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

An African River Runs Through...
Sweet Home Alabama

I was up early, but Wes was determined to be the first at the breakfast table, and I dutifully document this rare sighting. After breakfast, we break camp and get back in the boat. I start lobbying Paul to help me find a line and hook in one of the villages, so I can troll behind the Pinasse. The boat captain is dubious, we never get a line, and I miss the opportunity to fish the Niger. [Note to Self: Popeil's pocket fisherman for all future trips.]

Earlier in the tour, Wes picked up the game of Mancala, comprised of six bowls cut out of each side of a wood board, with four beans in each cup.

It is a count and capture game with many variations, and has been called the national game of Africa. Paul introduces us first to the game of "Fives" then to the more sophisticated game of "Two and Threes" and I am soundly thrashed by Paul in an exhibition match.

Wes and I decide to team up and between us, with much plotting, scheming and consultation, manage to beat Paul. He did not take the loss well. Taking advantage of his multi-lingual skills, he curses in German throughout the entire game.

The cruise ends as we pull in to Niafounke. The Land Cruisers are there, and bags and trucks meet us at a nearby hotel. The itinerary actually calls for this to be a night of camping. Paul tried to keep expectations low by calling this "hotel camping", but there was no way to prepare us for how truly grim and depressing the roach infested rooms actually were. No one wanted to stay in their room any longer than necessary. We soon congregated in the courtyard and broke into the liquor supplies. While we wiled away the afternoon, a band set up in front of us for our evening entertainment.

Paul introduces us to Bouj - TransAfrica's man-on-the-ground in Timbuktu, and our desert guide for the next three days. The importance of the Sahara guide is a topic in Marcus Villier's book Timbuktu:
"The deep knowledge of the desert is a tradition that goes back into ancient times. Ibn Battuta commented on this matter of Saharan guides 'A guide there is someone who has frequented it repeatedly and has keen intelligence. A strange thing that I saw, is that our guide was blind in one eye, and diseased in the other, but he knew the route better than anyone else.' The French explorer Rene Caillie had written in his journal in 1824 'Though without a compass, or any instrument of observation they possessed so completely the habit of noticing the most intimate things, that they never go astray, though they have no path traced out for them, and though the wind in an instant completely covers with sand and obliterates the tracks of the camels. ' ... Caravans small or large, were organized under the leadership of an experienced desert guide called a khabir. The khabir had full authority over the caravan, and could order its route and the timing of marches. He was also responsible for its well-being and liable for accidents and losses it might suffer... He could also, if he was unscrupulous, sell out the entire caravan to Tuareg raiders." - from Timbuktu by Marq De Villiers & Sheila Hirtle
Bouj is our khabir for the next three days in the desert.

Dinner was chicken and rice, which I found to be tasty, if a bit lean and tough. Others found it inedible. Everyone liked the peli-peri, and we purchased a bottle to take home.

The band was fun and loud. Electric guitar, bass guitar, casaba percussion and a chewed up drum set with cymbals that looked like they had been used to chop wood. The musicians were young - just kids really - but they played with real musicianship, earnest enthusiasm, and soon attracted an audience from around the neighborhood. I'd describe the sound as a rock and rap inspired fusion with West African sounds. One song sounded particularly familiar, but I could not quite identify it. Then it hit me. Lynyrd Syknyrd's "Simple Kind of Man". Really. No shit. Lynyrd Skynyrd. We were listening to a young Mali band playing a 1973 Southern Rock hit on the banks of the Niger River in Niafounke, Mali in 2007.

At this point of the trip, I suspected that my travel companions were getting a bit annoyed at the video camera that seems to be surgically attached to my right hand, so I thought I would give it a break and leave the camera in the room. But as I sat there in an advanced state of cultural cognitive dissonance listening to the Mali band play a tune from my college days, Mark turns, looks over at me and says "You have to record this." I run into the room and manage to get the last bit of "Simple Man" on tape.

Looking at the lyrics with a fresh eye, I can see where this song might strike a responsive chord in a struggling garage band trying to make it in a poor African fishing village.

Simple Man - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Mama told me when I was young

Come sit beside me, my only son
And listen closely to what I say.
And if you do this
It will help you some sunny day.
Take your time... don't live too fast,
Troubles will come and they will pass.
Go find a woman and you'll find love,
And don't forget son,
There is someone up above.

And be a simple kind of man.
Be something you love and understand.
Be a simple kind of man.
Won't you do this for me son,
If you can?

Forget your lust for the rich mans gold
All that you need is in your soul,
And you can do this if you try.
All that I want for you my son,
Is to be satisfied.

Boy, don't you worry... you'll find yourself.
Follow you heart and nothing else.
And you can do this if you try.
All I want for you my son,
Is to be satisfied.

[Note to Reader: Not sure how the tape turned out, as the video camera is now inoperable from the windblown Sahara sand, but when I get the camera fixed or replaced I will update this post with the tape if it is listenable.]


UPDATE: 12/07/2008
I finally got around to it. The tape did not have enough of "Simple Man" to make it worth uploading. OTOH - I really liked this song. Wish I knew what it was and the name of the band.



I only heard them once, in the courtyard of that crappy hotel in Niafounke'. I recorded a couple of songs from my camcorder, balanced on a glass serving as tripod on our table. During a break, I asked the lead singer the name of the band and if they had any CD's. Language got in the way, but the next morning one of the guys from the band showed up with a cassette tape. This is what is written on the tape:
Abdoulaye Cisse' (Guitar)
Rec. at Niafounke' 2.01.07
prise de Son- mixage - mastering
Yoan Jaunequo
That's the best I can do for credit. I'd be interested if anyone recognizes the song or knows the name of the band.

Monday, November 26, 2007

River Camp

Maria on watch as we cross Lake Debo.

Up and rolling around 7:15. We've repacked our bags in order to consolidate camp gear for the river trip. Breakfast is mediocre, and guests are nickel and dimed by the hotel (example: milk on the cornflakes cost extra). Just one more indignity by the Hotel Relais Kanaga. It is about a 10 click drive to Konna, where we meet and load the Pinasse that will take us up the Niger River to Niafounke.

In the pinasse.

The cruise up the river is pleasant, as we leisurely enjoying sights and scenes floating through shallow grassy marshes, delta mazes, and across Lake Debo. Some scenes along the river:

Egrets, heron, plover and kingfishers with black and white markings are all along the river.


Men fishing with nets, lines, and baskets, plying the river in pirogues, dugouts, and larger boats of every shape, size, and configuration.






We visit several villages including Gouna, Aka, Siebi, and Sibo, mostly Bozo, but some Filani. Paul explains again the specialization among the ethnic groups. Bozo primarily fish, while the Filani make their living from owning and tending cattle. Some sights from the villages:

Jan and her fans.

Imam

Wes and kids

Fisherman and net

Young and old goat.

The reader may be wondering how I remembered the names of the villages...

Easy. I used the same cheat sheet as our guide.

It is a good day to relax, enjoy the scenery and get caught up on the journal.


We make camp on a flood plain as the sun sets on the far side of the river. Main course for dinner was beautifully grilled Capitan. It was delicious. I eat more than my share. We were happy to learn that room was found on the boat for our liquor supply, so we enjoy wine with dinner and cap off the meal with an after dinner scotch.


River Camp - 360 degree panorama - click image to enlarge