November to January diary entries, Toulouse to Bamako.
CNN 4th of November: "You always will remember where have been 7pm eastern." I am in Toulouse, it is already the 5th, 5am. "Yes we can," Obama repeats. Today it seems we are all Americans, - a bit. This certainly is historic. But why doesn't Obama smile? Still stressed? So much pressure? My weakness for Africa , I shiver. These pictures on CNN tell of hope.
In Toulouse I buy some Land Rover parts - for Bamako, on the 10th I leave southern France, l'Ariège (wiki) and Haute-Garonne, the old hippy market in Montbrun-Bocage, near Montesquieu-Volvestre and the many languages that are spoken here, German and English is nearly as common as French. Relaxed, people settled here years ago. Maybe this is where I come to stay too, one day.
The morning I step on dog's shit, a good omen? The Pyrenees in a short distance, snow covered peeks, haze below. Then into Spain, Castllia y Leon, then La Rioja.
Mountains, snow, night, eventually a roadside motel for the sought after red wine and a tortilla. So cold at night.
The news, Nissan workers stop traffic in Barcelona, Bush meats Obama, 33 dead in Iraq.
I meet friend Daniel. Daniel's getting married. He is busy. I go and look for some more Rioja on my own.
Next morning I buy some more Land Rover parts - for Bamako. Oh, - so hung over.
Down slowly, Toledo (wiki) its cathedral, south, olive trees as far as the eye can see. Later pine woods. I detour a bit. Even on dirt roads. An orange sunset. Spain's interior is untouched wilderness. Extremadura (wiki). Freezing at night at this time of year. Cannot avoid a severe cold. Somewhere around here must be lake. La Siberia, part of Spain's largest water reservoir. Morning is misty. So beautiful and quiet, still freezing. Sober again.
And so I continue driving the smallest provincial roads I find, this must have been driving 30, 40 years ago. One day I take time for Spain and Portugal. Real time. How long have I been saying this.
Too quickly I get to Tarifa. But I seek warmth. Wait a day in Tarifa. No concept. However something is driving me. Let the spirit drive me. Take over.
Then I set over to Morocco.
15 Nov - Chefchaouen.
And Morocco is slightly warmer. Still though have the shakes. So I spend my time reading African Dirge from Peter Scholl-Latour, (wiki), get myself up to speed on African politics and those involved. Baffled I am by this German intellectual's pointed views and insights into Africa, a continent the journalist/writer has covered for some 50 years. In the mean time (South) Africa's Miriam Makeba dies. "I never understood why I couldn't come home". (Obituary IHT). Didn't she live in Conakry for many years?
Chefchaouen, a second look around after - the last time. Still shiny white and blue, clean and neat, but freezing. Sunday early morning, sitting on terrace in central Chefchaouen, cafe Nass-nass (half espresso/half foamed milk in a small glass), reading, watching mummificated, speechless creatures, heads between necks and turbans, hats, scarfs, hoods of djellabas sit deep, no faces visible. No heating in homes, just blankets against the clinking cold at night. I too bought a hat the night before.
Then, after escaping the drug lords from the Rif in their shabby Mercs or Golfs - all the way to Ketama, ... the road leads over 2000m of altitude. There I have another coffee, Nass-nass, nice, the sun is warm, warming me.
And there they are again. How many nationalities and generations of dope smokers must they have seen, Abdoul and whoever, his brother or just a cousin, all the same family. How many obscure stories must they have delivered to lure their prey to follow them. "I am sorry, but I don't smoke, not even cigarettes these days". They're hard to convince - my faut guide friends. I leave my sunny spot. Then soon later, - Fes.
17 Nov - Fes.
Fes, a second look around after - the last time. Walking around alone, inhale and do what I have set out to do - take pictures. Morocco this year celebrates 1200 years since the foundation of Fes by Idriss II.
But I need/am longing to get to Marrakech, film festival now, need a shower, change socks, wash clothes, am longing for a hotel room. A week on road, in poor health condition. It is really vagabonding, what I do!
20 Nov - My road, Middle and High Atlas.
Out of Fes, up the Middle Atlas, cannot resist but take a larger detour. Till Ifrane all looks more like Switzerland, huge pines, a forest, this is the green side of the enormous Atlas mountain range. I need to see the other side. Ifrane left turn, towards Boulmane and within a few miles the terrain changes completely, becomes desert country. I am on the other side now. A lake, it had rained so much here in recent weeks. A plateau, above 1600m of altitude, High Atlas peaks in reaching distance.
And really in this empty wilderness is where I feel happy. I stop the zen plays "Kowalsky", an early morning San Miguel, some French pork sausage, some Spanish Manchego cheese, Moroccan olives, well spicy from Marjane.
"Kowalsky", by Primal Scream, after the road movie "Vanishing Point" (wiki), which is starring Barry Newman, 1971. It just ran on TV again someday in October. Blind DJ Super Soul calls Kowalsky the last American Hero. "The question is not when he's gonna stop, but who's gonna stop him". Since years this film had this fascination on me.
The last big junk of Manchego in my mouth, I drive on, Habib Koite, Mali takes over. Yeah, yeah I am on my way, slowly.
So south via Zaidia, then Midelt, further south, Er-Rich, here I have been then, I turn right over the the Ziz and start climbing the High Atlas from the East. A remembrance route. One of the most beautiful drives, a constant ascent, one valley, the rains have destroyed lots of roads here, rebuilding is underway. Just before sunset I get over the passage of 2600m altitude. Imilchil soon after, too scared of the cold, I role down again to Beni Mellal. Marrakech next morning and a shower, and nice food, fried kidneys, rice and olives.
21 Nov - Marrakech.
The 8th edition of its International Film Festival.
The Icelandic contribution Country Wedding by Valdís Óskarsdóttir is hilarious. A bit like real life. Also the Russian film Wild Field by Mikhail Kalatozishvili set in the Kazakhstan steppe.
Funny it wins the "l'Étoile d'or (grand prix) du Festival" (Jeune Afrique).
Nights in Marrakech started getting so freezing, Jemaa El Fna is distinctively emptier, only the spicy tea business seems to has its client flow. Sleeping fully clothed with 4-5 layers on, socks, hat, covered with all the blankets avail has become usual to me. Marrakech's cheap medina hotels lack all heating of course. Somehow my brain refuses to remember this week summer 3 years ago when I lay here in bed a full week sick from a heat stroke. Well - summer is summer, winter is winter. I leave.
A short trip to Casa, - and back. And more of the same. Nearly 3 weeks in Morocco. Spent a year here over last 4 years.
Early Dec - Western Sahara.
One long drive down. Hate it. Don't stop anywhere. But at least past Tan-Tan I have left the cold behind me. Always close to the ocean. The morning a slimy humid salt layer covers the van, the type the wipers do not manage. Western Saharan desert then is flat.
This is actually good luck for Brazilian Jose. A real hero. Maybe the grandest of all of us weirdos that go through Africa. Never travels more than 100km a day. Shall take him two years to get to South Africa. For the World Cup 2010 he says.
The hotel at the end of the world, just before the border, indeed added a 3rd floor, amazing luxury in the making, can rival any modern design in Laayoune or Casablanca. Euronews is in Spanish on outside flat TV. My morning Nass-nass a delight, top service by waiters in white shirts black ties, as already 2 years ago.
08 Dec - Nouakchott, Mauritania.
Moroccan border facilities take endless about 3 times as long as Mauritanians. "It seem they do that on purpose". Says the only other Austrian I meet. All in all 4 hours. The van is slow. I arrive late in Nouakchott. Auberge Sahara has wifi now. Here is Eid al-Adha (wiki), fête de mouton, Tabaski as they say in West Africa. My 3rd Tabaski in a row that I attend down here. I have got to move on ...
Nouakchott cannot hold me for long, not this time, I want to move on, the flu, the second or third since I left Vienna, still is such a burden, the road to Bamako so long, 40 police checks, I leave at 8 in morning. A diarrhoea, put too many chilis in my spaghetti the night before, forces me off road, the rear of the van sinks in, stuck. Fulfilling my duties in nature, the desert, behind some scrub.
This is past Aleg, this is the region where the French tourists were shot dead last year same time around, allegedly Al Quaeda, following Paris Dakar was canceled ..., I wink down a Mercedes, Mercedes 190 is the most common car in Mauritania, 4 friendly men don't hesitate, strip of their white daras, we try push the van back and forward, then the two women in their black Saharawi melhwas or malaffas come and push as well. Women are huge, have big legs and bottoms, so strong here.
And clever, they go and break off some scrub branches from my bush. With those under the tyres, well, we succeed, I am on my way again shortly after, after they tried make me convert to Islam on the spot. "Say the magic words".
Truly friendly people. I reach the border past midnight. Visa is issued on the spot, for a month. I sleep in Nioro du Sahel. Mali, what a relief. Such a quiet morning after 1000km. It's always the same, you enter Mali and all the stress falls off. The customs guys are all Tuareg, like my guitar, from same town as Tinariwen, Kidal they claim.
10 Dec - Bamako.
I am on my way, my road, what a quiet morning. The first baobab, a small one, I put Ali Farka Toure (wiki) on, Mali blues greatest, later the earth turns red, skies a bit harmattan (wiki) diffused and I know where I am.
I arrive in Bamako, later this 10th of Dec 2008.
20 Dec - Bamako.
A week in Bamako, talking Africa to Peter, my consul, I drive him round, he likes being driven, he likes talking, even more his own language. Started repairing my Land Rover with my mechanic Issa. We are making progress. The air in Bamako is dirty, dusty from harmattan and pollution. A layer of slime on the lungs, everyone coughs and spits all the time. So do I, a forth or fifth flu in the making? My bones and muscles ache from the labour on the Landy.
I sell the 209, it'll be a taxi, will run for many years that come. This is the 3rd MB bus I leave down here. They are loving them. The first still runs, tells me Guindo, "still runs, for our Islamic centre", transporting dead people, they never paid the customs, it still has my plates on. "Who would stop a burial vehicle, on duty for an Islamic cause?" he laughs. He is still proud that he managed to organise it for his community 3 years ago.
This is pre Christmas, silly season, with surprising regularity 19th Dec is my birthday, I turn 44. I benefit going out with Julie, she has come back to Mali 4 month earlier. In the Savanna we see and listen to Songhai musician Baba Salah (photos on this Irish produced page are mine), such an impressive desert guitarist. The band of kora virtuosi Toumani Diabaté (listen in on his myspace, so beautiful) (wiki) is on every Friday in the Marquis Diplomat. Toumani the griot, who has just been declared Unicef ambassador for his country, or so, rarely joins his group, but maybe luck will strike next week. As this is - silly season in Bamako as much as elsewhere ...
And Mali for sure is heating up a bit, the Tuareg rebellion moving south. 20th an army camp was ambushed near Nampala (BBC). Been through there with Hasna 3 years ago on way to Essakane. Ahhh. I miss my boys.
24 Dec - Bamako.
Guinea news, president Conte is dead, after 24 years in power. Unclear is the situation on the ground. May god help Guinea this Christmas.
It mustn't be like that, Ghana shows off, shows how it's done, (Christian Science Monitor)
04 Jan 2009 - Bamako. Toumani Diabaté, Cheick-Tidiane Seck.
It takes only 2 weeks and Toumani Diabaté (listen in on his myspace) (wiki) joins his band on Friday 2nd of Jan in the Marquis Diplomat. Toumani has built this group of top artists over so many years, la symmetrie, or symmetric orchestra, 20 to 25 musicians, some 5 just percussion, ngonis, guitars, vocals, his sister just one of them. So there I stand in the Diplomat in between the musicians, between his formidable dundun and bell and the djembe on the other side, the tamani, or just behind the drums, what excellent snare drumming, 2 meters away from the master himself. And behind the master another master, Cheick-Tidiane Seck, and his distinctive screaming keyboards/synth., le guerrier, the worrior as they call him stars as a guest. I enjoyed him so much and take his pictures in Segou 2008. I move to the rhythm, close eyes, hear all these instruments. Or just the melange, la symmetrie seems to be an instrument in its own right. How privileged to be here, so close, I knew some great event was in the making, now I can leave Bamako.
Bamako beginning of Jan, start of the festivals. Many whites join in on the tour, musicians, journalists. I spot guitarist Leni Stern, BBC's Lucy Duran.
Well as for me after spending Christmas day and New Years day with my mechanic and all time in between, I now finished packing the Land Rover, will be on road shortly, wherever it'll take me.