Although it is one of the world’s poorest countries, the landlocked West African nation of Mali has long lured European travellers, drawn by its arid landscape, exotic-sounding cities and vast river system.
Much of the land is desert or semi desert (65 per cent in total), but Mali remains self-sufficient in food, largely thanks to the fertile river that runs through it – the mighty River Niger.
It was along this great waterway that some of the greatest explorers of the past, such as Mungo Park, Heinrich Barth and Gordon Laing, travelled in search of the river’s source and mouth.
On the floodlands of the Niger and Bani rivers lies the city of Djenne, the so-called ‘Jewel of the Niger’, whose roots stretch back as far as 250 BC. It’s home to many astounding mudbrick buildings, not least of all the Grand Mosque – the largest mudbrick building in the world. Highly skilled master builders, known as baris, maintain this architecture all year round, especially during the wet season when parts of it can melt away.
Elsewhere, a hike along the Bandiagara escarpment in Dogon country will take you into the heart of a complex and elaborate culture where pink sandstone houses and granaries perch on the cliff edge and hogons (priests) provide spiritual advice.
Any British traveller coming to Mali will surely also want to visit Timbuktu, that byword for remoteness. Salt caravans still journey to the crumbling city, making its beautiful mosques and tombs more accessible than you might imagine.
Local low-down: Mali
Every year Mali hosts the Festival in the Desert, a three-day event that takes place amid the barren landscape of Essakane, two hours from Timbuktu.
It originated out of the traditional Tuareg festivities, when the ‘Blue Men of the Desert’ would meet to make decisions and share information. Today it attracts the best musicians from Mali – home to Amadou and Mariam, Tinariwen and Vieux Farka Touré – Mauritania and Niger, and increasingly from the wider global community.
Camel racing, swordplay, tindés (women’s songs), exhibitions and games take place in the day, saving the music and lightshows for the evening. The next festival takes place between 10-12 January 2008.
Dogon mask festivals The Dogon people living on the Bandiagara escarpment recreate the mythology of their ancestors through mask dances performed at funeral ceremonies, the Sigui Festival held every 60 years, and the Dama ceremony that takes place every 12 years. For the Dama ceremony, the men retreat into caves and make masks to mourn those lost over the past 12 years. These masks, worn for dances over five days, help them ward off evil spirits, as the souls of the dead are said to reside within them. Towards the end of the ceremony, water buffalo and hyena masks are worn to forecast the Dogon’s future.