Mali is a country that oozes mystery and historical significance, bringing together an illustrious amalgamation of fantasy and imagination, drawing on the romantic tales of the Sahara desert with the mysterious and foreboding African charisma. Once home to the greatest empires in Africa and later held as a French colony, the historical mystique still holds firm today with the legendary Timbuktu, a city many people still don’t believe exists, the mosque at Djenne and the remnants of the once great river trading ports that were at one time one of the most significant in the world.
Despite this, very few travellers in recent history have had it on their radar. This is in part due to the perceived instability of the region and the risk to personal safety and security that comes with travelling in the country that unfortunately overshadows the country’s significant history.
The largest religion in Mali by far is Islam with a large proportion of the population practicing Muslims. There are however small pockets of other faiths and religions too, including a few ancient indigenous beliefs.
The official language of Mali is French, and it is widely spoken thanks to the influence of French colonialism. Although there are a variety of other national languages in common usage too, including Arabic,Bambara, Bozo, Bomu, Maasina and many more. English is also widely spoken, especially in markets, ports and other places travellers will frequent, but it does help immeasurably if you learn at least a little French or Arabic.
It is important to remember that Mali is still predominantly Muslim and conservative however, and travellers should respect that in both their dress and behaviour. Both men and women should not expose too much flesh and women in particular should cover up. Long trousers and a top that covers the shoulders is normally sufficient, but a shawl is handy for covering up further if you want to visit a place of worship.
Unless you are a citizen of the relatively neighbouring countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Chad, Gambia or Cameroon, you will need a visa to get into Mali. Officially you need a letter of invitation to obtain one, but in practice hotel reservations in advance usually suffice. By applying in advance to the Malian embassy you can obtain a 3 month single entry, a three month multiple entry or 6 month or 1 year multiple entry visas at incremental costs. Check on the relevant Malian embassy websites for the current costs.
All the routine vaccinations such as the MMR vaccine, varicella and the diptheria, pertussis tetanus vaccine for example are highly recommended for everyone. Any traveller should already have the full course of routine vaccinations that are provided throughout childhood and early adulthood. The UK provide these free on the NHS and are often given routinely. If for some reason you do not have any of these, or if you are unsure, then go and see your GP or staff nurse at a local travel clinic.
Yellow fever is also an essential vaccination for anyone travelling in Mali or South of the Sahara desert, as the disease is present in the area. Proof of vaccination (the yellow book) is required by the Malian government for entry into the country, and it will also be required if you are heading to any other country after Mali.
Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Polio are strongly recommended for all travellers visiting Mali, as there is a strong chance of contracting these diseases there. Polio is also a strong risk in India and travellers who have not had the adult booster shot are recommended to go and get it as soon as possible before departure.
Hepatitis B, Meningitis and rabies are only recommended to certain travellers in at risk groups, such as those who will be working with animals or spending extended periods in rural areas away from medical facilities. Speak with the nurse or doctor at a local travel clinic to do a risk assessment on your trip and see if you should get these vaccinations.
Malaria is a high risk across all of Mali and anti malarial prophylaxis is highly recommended for all visitors in any area, speak to your nurse or GP to see which prophylaxis is right for you. Dengue fever is also a significant risk and anti mosquito measures are advised at all times.
Crime and Safety.
It is important to note that as of approximately September 2012 severe travel warnings and restrictions have been in place due to Islamic extremists controlling various regions within the country and the resulting military response of the French and other governments. As of July 2013 the situation has settled with NATO forces moving in, but is still extremely volatile and for once the travel warnings should be heeded. As the situation settles further travel will resume but extreme caution is still recommended for the immediate future.
Apart from recent unfortunate events, there is a generally high rate of crime in Mali due to political instability, especially petty crime. If travelling in Mali you should exercise caution, keep a close eye on your belongings and be aware of your surroundings. There is no reason to blow this out of proportion and keep this from letting you travel here, just be a little more aware of things than you normally would be at home.
The police do maintain a high presence in some areas, particularly the larger towns and cities, and it is important to have your passport and papers on you at all times as odds are they will check.
Touts are also a large problem for travellers, as they are in most places, especially around travel hubs and in the larger cities, but these are easily ignored or dealt with.
Costs and money.
The Malian currency is the CFA Franc, but Euro’s are a good back up currency to have in case of an emergency. ATMs are hard to find outside of major cities so you should carry enough currency to last if you are heading off the beaten track.
Whilst Mali is a generally poor and therefore relatively cheap country, recent and past troubles have led to many businesses aimed at travellers to close down, and a lack of competition has led to an increase in prices. In general though costs are still relatively low by western standards.
Accommodation costs are relatively cheap, those travelling on a budget can still find places to sleep (usually very basic rooms with a cot or a rooftop with a mattress and nothing else) for £1 or £2 GBP a night. A private room in a moderate hotel will be roughly £30 – £40 GBP, and costs can rise considerably for larger hotels.
Food however is extremely cheap in Mali, and by shopping in markets and eating street food or in small, local eateries you can eat very well on just a few GBP a day.
Transport costs are reasonable, but can quickly add up if you plan to travel a lot cross country or over the borders. For short distances, local Peugeot taxis or minibuses will get you where you need to go for a couple of GBP, but getting a long distance train ticket can be anywhere between £10 -£50 GBP or more depending where you want to go. The epic Bako to Damakar route costs around £60 GBP for an marathon three day trip that is an experience in and of itself.
Activities can be quite expensive depending on what you want to do, and costs can add up very quickly if you want to do a lot. This is because for many activities hiring a local Taureg guide isn’t only smart, it is essential.
When to go.
Climate wise Mali can be visited at any time, but temperatures can be extremely high in the hot season from February to roughly May or June. The rainy season in October or early November does cool things down very slightly but can also cause localised flooding around the riverbanks. This generally causes little problems for travellers though.
Timbuktu, even the legendary name conjures up thought of a mystical land, associated with the end of the very world itself in some genetic memory throwback to a time when the world was flat and Africa was inaccessible. Even now there are many people who do not even realise it actually exists outside of children’s stories, but it does, and is now an important and bustling centre of trade and a must see on your trip through Mali.
Centre de Recherches Historiques Ahmed Baba.
This UNESCO world heritage site was one of the biggest reasons to visit Mali and an amazing sight to behold. Unfortunately much of the unique collection in this important and historically significant library was lost early in 2013, burned to the ground by insurgents. All of the knowledge and history lost due to pathetic religious fundamentalism is heartbreaking.
Grand Mosque, Djenne.
This isn’t the first grand mosque on this site, in fact the current building sits on top of the ruins of its predecessor, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. When anyone thinks of Mali, this is the image they see, and is as ubiquitous to this country as the Taj Mahal is to India. Whilst maybe not as famous, it is equally as impressive in its own right.
Join the salt caravan.
Let’s get this straight right from the off, this isn’t a tourist friendly experience. This is a working salt caravan that travels between Timbuktu and Taoudenni in the same way it has done for centuries, mostly by camel with a few 4WDs beginning to add to the caravan over the last few years.
You will need to hire a guide and at least three camels if you want to join the caravan, and the trek is very hard, with long hours, camping under the stars, little sleep and food eaten on the go. But as an experience, it is truly a once in a lifetime chance to experience a cultural phenomenon that has been around since ancient times.
Camp in the Sahara desert.
Hire a Tuareg guide and sleep under the stars in the famed Sahara desert, the Tuareg camp is a cultural experience in and of itself.