Hills of Gold

It was the first of December. A new month and perhaps another border crossing but like almost every other day on this trip I was facing off with a straightforward challenge that punched well above its weight on the dread scale.

The decision between inching forward or slinking back was a proxy for continuing my trip or abandoning it‚ÄĒto crawl toward my destiny or give up on myself and submit to the overbearing futility of existence. But, like a man on a ledge unable to resist the urge to jump, I was up early and ready to go. I was fed and fuelled with a healthy dose of adrenaline and had a prophylactic stash of nuts and bananas in my backpack to fortify me for a potentially arduous border crossing.

The original plan for the trip would've had me stick to the coast, making my way through the grasslands and rainforests of The Gambia and C√īte d'Ivoire and then to Ghana where Roma would meet me for a couple of weeks of tropical romance. Perhaps we'd take a side-trip to an island or two and enjoy a chance to argue about whether to take the rustic beach shack or the luxury villa.

Whether it was a desire to distance myself from that plan or simply the lure of Mali's mystique I'll never know but despite stern warnings (via the travellers' telegraph or official government advice) of failed states and jihadi kidnappings I chose to head east into the Sahel towards Bamako.

The road was in good shape for about a hundred kilometres but then started to deteriorate‚ÄĒpartly due to age and partly due to significant, aggressive road works the instigators of which had made no attempt to create an alternative route around. Damaged bitumen is always much less pleasant to deal with than any form of dirt and progress slowed while I overtook rumbling interstate buses mercilessly thrashing their fine Swedish suspension.

As I made my way further into eastern Senegal the inverse relationship between population density and friendliness held true and people seemed warm and unguarded. It was a beautiful day and I managed to muster an appreciation for the clear skies through my little clouds of loneliness and resentment. As I went, the landscape became gradually more lush and mountainous. Red outcrops adorned the ridges and felt as familiar to me as the koppies of the Eastern Transvaal which as a child brought the anticipation of game-park holidays that lay beyond them. Baboons, monkeys and warthog occasionally darted out of the bush onto the road in front of me, playfully reminding me of the annual family pilgrimage to the Kruger National Park.

I felt at home and briefly back in control in this faintly familiar landscape. Soon, I came upon another familiar sight: that long, stagnant queue of trucks that stretches to and from every border post. It would be reasonable to assume that my Rosso PTSD would be flaring up at this moment but I felt remarkably unflustered as I approached this smaller, calmer crossing at Moussala. Whether my confidence was thanks to the concealed banana I carried in my backpack or the much friendlier atmosphere in this part of the world I wasn't sure. Perhaps I was just getting the hang of these crossings.

I toddled down the corridor between the trucks and parked in front of a collection of poorly aligned buildings of various eras cramped in by an uprising of corrugated iron market stalls that lined the road on either side of the international boundary. After gathering and carefully checking all my paperwork I walked purposefully toward a group of border officials relaxing in the shade of a large tree. Surprisingly, one jumped up promptly to meet and greet me, assigning himself my guide through the gymkhana of passport control, police and health ministry (to check my vaccination book).

Part of me suspected I may have just stepped onto another extortion treadmill but I found all the officials courteous and the process straightforward. Soon it was all over and, having walked back and forth over the Senegal-Mali border a few times to acquire various stamps, signatures and a Malian SIM, I was officially free to wheel my bike through the boom gate that had been jauntily opened for me by a practised boot.

Just as I slipped under the long, white pole a traveller from another world (and time‚ÄĒpossibly dimension) putted through in the other direction on a bombed-out 80s bike from the heyday of Japanese cruisers. Helmetless, his leathery skin and long black hair faced the elements as he rode along slowly with what looked like a full-sized suitcase strapped to the seat behind him.

I stopped and I gaped, but the Easy Rider seemed oblivious to me and my unanswered questions as he disappeared between the curving corridor of trucks like an old ghost of the road, his story never to be told. I shook my head as if to clear a silly thought and kept moving.

So far, so good. I'd avoided illegal immigration status, enjoyed a hassle-free border crossing, ridden a good 400-odd kilometres without incident and (most miraculously of all) had managed to leave my hotel room and increase the length of the line leading back to London on my GPS by 5 percent.

That line inched along a route originally recommended by the underground overlander network I was gradually infiltrating on WhatsApp (via Facebook and the long-standing Horizons Unlimited Bulletin Board‚ÄĒThe HUBB). It was taking me from Tambacounda to Bamako via Kedougou in Senegal and through the border post at Moussala.

Along the route, and just after the border crossing, lay K√©ni√©ba‚ÄĒa small commune near the modest Fekola Mine where a billion US dollars of gold was extracted in the year I passed through the villages surrounding the mine. The region was modestly inhabited by quiet, humble people who had only ever known poverty but whose ancestors thrived in one of the world's most powerful kingdoms‚ÄĒbuilt from the mountains of gold that winked at them from the rocky, red outcrops along the high ridges just like those of my familial East Rand.

The riches of the Mansa Musa's Malian Empire had long since dissipated and the might of the great civilisation he ruled over remained only as a faint echo of pride. Nevertheless, the people I encountered seemed uninfected by the poisonous ideology of "inequality". Perhaps moulded by the honour of an ancient culture and tempered by the teachings of Islam they met you as respectful equals, seeking neither advantage nor pity‚ÄĒsubservient neither to whiteness nor wealth.

Arriving late in the afternoon at my intended overnight haven I found my way to the compound of Motel Kéniéba, a tired Spanish-style building in flaking, faded pink with an flagpole rising up optimistically from the hard ground of the courtyard. The architect of all of its grandeur no doubt intended it for more fertile grounds where lush gardens would've made it feel less out of place than the dry, red dirt on which it sat.

Though temporarily (an African term translating to "indefinitely") without power, Wifi, or hot water the hotel had its perks. Staff were friendly and keen to use me as target practice for their English. I learned that the receptionist, Mamadou, had been there for two years after fleeing Tombouctou in the country's heart and the Islamist war that plagued it.

In the evening, as the heat eased off, I joined a gathering of other guests sitting on mismatched garden furniture in front of the hotel. There I met a crew of Ghanaian drillers on assignment for some specialised work at the gold mine. One of them, Sule, was a quiet, stocky man who seemed as though he could crush ore with his bare hands and possibly drank crude oil for breakfast.

Sule was polite, measured and genial and I was keen to hear more stories of his explorations under Africa's geological skin but the show was stolen by another guest, gregarious Mamadou Jallow, a Gambian gemstone merchant who had many a tall tale from years spent living all over Africa. He entertained us with sketches from Benin where he kept his wife and children, to Madagascar where he had his gem mining business and to Nigeria where he'd spent 20 years. Jallow's stone-peddling had seen him jaunt around the globe like an excited child running to show-off a discovery to anyone who would listen.

Jallow clearly lived for an audience. His sharp mind was creatively chaotic but his heart was warmly in the right place. He eagerly reassured me about my onward journey to Nigeria and beyond and dismissed those that had warned me against travelling there. "These people are lying. You won't have any problem in Nigeria," he said.

The topic triggered the start of another one of his stories and he turned to broadcast to the group once again. "You know, I've been attacked in Nigeria eight separate times."

Jallow the gem merchant
Jallow the gem merchant
Running out of road
Running out of road
En route and en piste
En route and en piste
Truckloads of patience
Truckloads of patience
Out of place as always
Out of place as always
Welcome to the Hotel Kéniéba
Welcome to the Hotel Kéniéba
The red ridges full of gold
The red ridges full of gold
A place for quiet reflection
A place for quiet reflection
Sule on the tools
Sule on the tools

© David Baskind · 2022