Leaving Mali was tougher than I thought. Not due to any particular attachment, although I did enjoy my time there. It was the wind and the rough, corrugated, roads. Mostly the wind though. It tried it’s hardest to blow me right back into Mali, even after I’d got the Burkina Faso entry stamped permanently in my passport.
This was the toughest section of cycling in a long time. I thought about getting a lift. Thankfully nobody offered me a ride. I may have been tempted. Instead, I fought the headwind, crawled slowly onward, stopped several times every hour, ate another mango, avoided another tornado.
Scores of little tornadoes crossed my path. Columns of dust and debris marched slowly across the desolate landscape. Their path predetermined by the direction of the wind, they were easy to avoid. Except for the one that crept upon me while I was devouring yet another mango, sheltering in the shade of a tree. Unnoticed until it was too late, the wind whipped up the dust and covered me and my mango with grit and sand. I hadn’t the energy to move out of it’s way. Only to hide my face in my shirt and keep my eyes and mouth firmly shut. As quickly as it had attacked, it passed. Continuing it’s journey overland the tornado went unhindered one way; I went the other, slower.
I spent the second afternoon resting under a tree on the Mali side, sheltering from the relentless, piercing sun. It was too hot to cycle. It was too hot to do much at all. We all sat in the shade – villagers, border police and me. As the air cooled, I continued until after a hundred kilometre day of cycling brought me to the Burkina Faso frontier.
Burkina Faso Frontier
Three men sat outside an isolated building. It was a large building, painted pink. Definitely a government office. As confirmation, a flag with a small yellow star centred on a red and green background stood to attention in the wind. I got my stamp as dusk drew in. I rested. We talked. ‘I’m going to like Burkina Faso’, I though. I asked if I could sleep there. ‘Of course’ was the reply and the youngest man disappeared only to return minutes later with a bucket of water. The shower did nothing to revive my energy. It did at least clean me a little. I laid to rest and was asleep in the time it took the chicken pecking ants from the ground to be caught, killed and cooked.
Awake with the first rooster’s call, I hit the road as daylight approached. Still a long ride to reach the tarmac road. I reached Ouahigouya in time for lunch. I enquired after a good place to go for lunch. I was directed to “l’Auberge”. Not a hostel as the name may suggest. But a bar, as the yellow diamond sign advertising Flag beer, at the entrance, implied.
Flag but no Flag
I first encountered Flag beer in St. Louis, Senegal. I rather liked it. This was fortunate since it was the most widely available beer in Senegal. Outside of Senegal, Flag beer is advertised even more extensively. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my time in West Africa, it’s this: what a sign says does not relate in the slightest to what is actually possible.
The prominent yellow diamond Flag sign does mean you are entering a bar. It does mean you can buy beer. It does not mean you can buy Flag beer. In all likelihood, you can’t. If you can, you’ve probably stumbled back into Senegal.
Inside l’Auberge was a dark, dank bar. Outside, round the back, was a pleasant enough yard with seating and tables each separated by a woven mat temporary wall. Crates of empty glass bottles lay stacked in disarray, waiting for collection. I saw a thin man tending a grill, beef freshly cut waiting to be cooked. I ordered food and a coke. There was one thing on the menu that day – beef (and it really was beef). I ordered beef and rice. A dish of beef in a onion and tomato sauce arrived with three cocktail sticks. No rice though. No rice available, but I could have bread. Having debated whether to use the cocktail sticks like mini chopsticks or to stab each chunk of beef one at a time, I opted for pouring it all into the baguette which eventually arrived and devouring it like a steak sandwich. Sauce dripped messily over the plastic table cloth.
I was sat with three locals. It was Friday afternoon and work was finished for the weekend. They were drinking a Brakina beer before, presumably, returning home to the family. Opposite, on another table sat a large, loud, obtuse man in a cowboy hat. He could not handle his beer. I was pleased to be in the company of the three gentlemen who told me to ignore the idiot, just as they were.
I passed several small villages on entering Burkina Faso. I may never have known the names of these villages if I hadn’t turned round to look. Usually you pass a sign with the village’s name on entering and another, with a red diagonal line through it on leaving. But these signs were only put in place for people already in Burkina Faso. If, like me, you were entering from Mali, the village was unmarked. Instead, when you saw the back of a sign on entering a village you had to turn back and see which village you would be leaving had you been travelling in the other direction. Did they not want Malians to know where they were? Like an ineffective equivalent of WW2 blackouts?
After Ouahigouya, safely in Burkina Faso, the village signs appeared. For an unknown reason, the village name was now printed twice on each sign. Once in CAPITALS. Once in lower case. I cannot fathom why.
Cattle graze, cattle’s gaze
I camped that night in the bush, trees and scrub sparsely covering the dusty land. I awoke in the night to rustling. Familiar now with many bush sounds, this I identified as cattle slowly moving and grazing. Cows are curious animals. Slowly, they circled closer and closer to my tent. Unable to ignore the persistent noise, I emerged from my cocoon, head-torch beaming. I was shocked to see devilish horned silhouettes. Fiery eyes illuminated, glaring back at me. Only cattle though. I shooed them away.
More concerning were the smaller illuminated eyes, at ground level. Spiders. They could stay there. I got back in my tent. I vowed never to forget to zip my tent up again.
I arrived into Ouagadougou early morning. Arrived with the taxis, motorbikes, carts. With people opening stores, arranging clothes stalls, drinking morning coffee, calls of ‘bienvenue’.
I passed several skinny men in tight lycra outfits pedalling on skinny racing bikes. A common sight in Europe perhaps. But this is West Africa. But this is Burkina Faso and cycling here is not just a means of getting from A to B. It is a popular sport. France has it’s Tour de France. Burkina Faso has it’s Tour de Burkina Faso. Where France has hills to challenge, Burkina Faso has heat. Lots of it.
I am doing my own tour of Burkina Faso, in my own time. I have plenty of time. That’s why I spent two weeks in Ouaga, as Burkina Faso’s capital is affectionately known.
I like it here.