An April 2003 trip
to Mopti by Invicta73
Quote: I chose to base myself in Mopti primarily because of the relative proximity to some of the biggest draws in Mali. Happily, not only did the aforementioned highlights really deserve their must-see reputations, but the hectic port itself also proved to be an enjoyable place to visit.
Meanwhile, a similar distance to the west is Djenné, one of the region's most beautiful and fascinating destinations. The town truly evokes a bygone era, and more notably is the home of a spectacular and justifiably renowned mosque, which is the biggest mud-brick building in the world.
Life in Mopti mostly revolves around the hugely important and constantly lively harbour, which gives the whole place a vibrant and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Meanwhile, the old quarter is also worth exploring due to the number of intriguing narrow streets that are lined with typical Sahel style architecture, in particular the Grand Mosque.
However, less pedestrian forms of transport are required to reach the Dogon Country or Djenné. For such journeys road travel either by public transport or as part of an organised excursion are feasible options. Travelling on the Bani is a slower but more charming way to reach the latter. In addition, it is possible to hire some of the numerous pirogues for more localised river excursions.
Hotel | "Hôtel Kanaga"
Built by the French chain Sofitel during the early 1980s, the hotel has subsequently changed ownership, and has also undergone a recent refurbishment. It is located just under a mile north of the centre, set back a little off of the main riverside road.
As perhaps befits somewhere that takes it name from a type of tribal mask, regional styling inspires the aesthetic theme. The main building's concrete façade somewhat mimics that of the mud architecture typical of the Sahel region, and the interior features many fine examples of traditional handicrafts, including a wonderful wooden door created in Timbuktu's renowned Diem Tendé workshop. In addition, the typically Malian friendliness of the staff combines with the décor to ensure that a refreshing flavour local predominates throughout.
The rooms are nicely arranged and comfortable, and have all of the usual high-end facilities, such as modern air conditioning units, en-suite bathroom and satellite television. Elsewhere there is a decent swimming pool, and also Restaurant Le Doun Ka Fa, which offers a menu featuring good quality western dishes and African specialities.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 9, 2003
Despite taking its name from the local tribe of fishermen, a Senegalese family actually own and run the establishment. In terms of décor, the open air but covered building is fairly basic, although by no means unpleasant. Meanwhile, the service makes up for general lack of speed with a relaxed and good-humoured demeanour.
The bar is open from early morning until late evening, and the usual selection of drinks, including beer, is on offer throughout the day, whilst food is available at breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. On paper, the menu is fairly typical of the region, featuring simple European style fare, such as croissants, bowls of soup and plates of spaghetti with simple sauce, but the quality is better than normal, and the very reasonably priced dishes are for the most part tasty and wholesome.
However, the main attraction has to be the wonderful position overlooking the busy port and the river. In addition to being the perfect vantage point for observing the colourful activity of the harbour, it is an excellent location from which to enjoy the sunset.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of drawbacks. For example, certain items are occasionally unavailable due to shortages, although to be fair, that is not exactly too unusual anywhere in the country. In addition, the presence of tourists attracts people trying to sell handicrafts or excursions, who can sometimes be a nuisance. Meanwhile, the waterside setting means that there are often numerous and persistent mosquitoes, which are frequently a much bigger annoyance.
Bar Le Bozo
Attraction | "Mopti Sights"
Having grown to current proportions only in fairly recent times, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is not a great quantity of venerable buildings around. Nevertheless, the oldest district, known as Komoguel, which is located just to the east of the modern centre across a bridge, is pretty traditional and fairly atmospheric. The district's main draw is definitely the Grand Mosque, which is an attractive, if not overly awe inspiring, example of the local mud brick religious architectural style dating from 1935. Typically, non-Muslims will find it difficult, but not necessarily impossible to gain entry, but is possible to appreciate the beauty of the structure from the flat roofs of some neighbouring residents for a small fee.
Close to the place of worship is the larger of city’s two markets, which is where traders sell locally produced commodities. Meanwhile, the other is in the newer part of town, and will probably be of more interest to tourists. All kinds of traditional items are available in the tightly packed bazaar, including pieces of bogolan mud cloth, Fulani jewellery and Dogon handicrafts.
However, the real heart of Mopti is the bustling harbour on the Bani, close to the meeting point with the Niger. It is a constant hive of activity throughout the day, with boats arriving, departing, loading and unloading cargoes including slabs of salt, spices, vegetables, people and livestock. Perhaps the single best vantage point from which to observe the fascinating scenes unfold is the terrace of Bar Le Bozo. It is also one of the best places to organise a trip on the river, which is definitely a highly recommended activity.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 9, 2003
Around Mopti - Dogon Country
The city's history started during the 13th century, and it quickly grew to be a major terminus of the trans-Saharan trade routes, and also a centre of Islamic learning, just like Timbuktu. Conquest by the Moroccans nearly 400 years later started a decline that has led to the present day impression that time has stood still for many generations.
In terms of orientation, Djenné is mostly a tangled maze of atmospheric narrow streets that occupies a small island in the midst of a river. Hiring a local to help with navigation might be a good idea, especially as doing so will also stop the otherwise almost constant pestering by rival would-be guides.
Every single piece of architecture seems to have been constructed almost exclusively using mud. There is a multitude of well-preserved traditional residences with distinctive façades, the most notable of which is the lovely Maïga House, a particularly fine edifice.
However, the obvious highlight is the spectacular Grand Mosque, which is the largest mud-brick structure in the world, built in 1905 at the location and in the style of a much older predecessor. The structure definitely ranks as one of the most amazing things that I have ever seen anywhere. It is breathtaking in terms of scale and beauty, and almost defies the normal rules of building. A trio of tall and curvaceous minarets and a multitude of smaller conical towers resembling termite mounds dominate the outside, whilst hundreds of wooden beams protruding from the smooth surfaces add to the striking appearance. The latter are not just decoration, but are utilised as scaffolding during the great communal effort following the annual rains to re-render. Unfortunately, it is not possible for non-Muslims to enter ever since a Western photographer apparently used the interior as an exotic setting for some pictures of scantily clad models. A very small compensation is that an excellent external view is available from nearby roofs.
Most of the week, the immense place of worship rises dramatically at the back of quite empty square, but a large and lively market fills the space on Mondays. The combination creates a scene that is extremely memorable, but I feel that a better appreciation of the mosque's absolute majesty is easier in more sedate circumstances.
Finally, there is also a couple of other points of interest in the city. A small museum displays archaeological exhibits from Jeno, the ancient original settlement in the area, whilst less informative and more mystical is a sacred well attributed with magical powers, and Tapama Dienpo, the reputed grave of a young girl sacrificed to placate the spirits.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 9, 2003
Around Mopti - Djenné
The picturesque geography of the area is among the main reasons for spending some time there. The defining feature of the local landscape is the 100-mile long Bandiagara Escarpment, which separates a rocky plateau from the dusty plain below. The countryside is not only picturesque, but is also particularly good terrain for hiking, especially in the vicinity of the cliff.
However, what makes the place really special is the utterly distinctive culture of the local tribe that it is named after. Numbering around 300,000 people, they moved into the vicinity several centuries ago in order to avoid the encroachment of Muslim tribes. The migration proved to be so successful that the way of life has survived to this day pretty much intact, thanks mainly to the rugged and remote nature of the territory. The animist religion and cosmology is a remnant of the traditions that once predominated in the region, and is renowned for both elaborate rituals and intriguing artistic expression. To be honest, it is far too complex to explain here, and anyway learning something about the beliefs from the friendly locals is probably the most fascinating aspect of being in the area.
The villages, especially those along the foot of the escarpment, are not only aesthetically unusual and very attractive, but are also physical representations of the traditional ways, especially the intricately carved wooden doors and window shutters that feature symbolic designs from the mythology. The mud-covered granaries, which have conical straw roofs and that stand on stone plinths for protection against pests, are another common sight. Every settlement also has a squat dry stone thatched building where the older males gather to socialise and debate issues. Meanwhile, carved into the rock face are the former dwellings of the Tellem, the mysterious original inhabitants, which have long since become burial chambers.
Although hiring someone in Bankass or Sanga to give a guided tour and act as an interpreter is by no means essential, it is undoubtedly extremely beneficial. Otherwise the level of cultural understanding gained will be minimal, there is the danger of causing accidental offence, and missing best hikes and places to stay, as well as the most interesting things to see, is a real possibility.
Finally, it is even more vital than usual to practise responsible travel. The way of life has only continued due to lengthy isolation, and thoughtless tourism could easily succeed where history has previously failed. Dressing appropriately, bringing one's own water, resisting the temptation to hand out frivolous gifts, and other such common sense measures are critical.
For starters, it possible to travel along the Niger to what is in effect the stopping off point for Timbuktu, Korioumé. Ferries go there when the waters are sufficiently high enough, whilst smaller but slower pinasses transport both cargo and passengers along the same route all year round. Although in many ways there cannot be a more pleasant and romantic way to get to the famous city, it is not particularly comfortable, and as the duration is at least two days, it is only really a feasible choice for those who are not on a tight schedule when in the country. A much less time consuming option is to head in the opposite direction to Djenné which takes a few hours each way, but can be more difficult to arrange as the road is nowadays the preferred connection.
Travelling in the ubiquitous pirogues is also a worthwhile activity. Although not nearly as luxurious as the basically similar gondolas, the traditional non-motorised canoes do still perform a significant role in everyday life long since ceased by their Venetian equivalents. The cheapest and quickest way to ride in one is to pay a few coins to cross the mouth of the harbour, saving a bit of walk around it or a dirty wade through. Meanwhile, longer and more interesting journeys can easily be organised, particularly at Bar Le Bozo. A reasonable price is around 2,000 francs per hour, but the initially quoted price can be much higher.
Two good alternatives are to travel to a local village or just cruise along the rivers, and I chose to do both on separate occasions. Caution is advisable if arranging the former because it is possible to end up somewhere that the entire population seems to comprise only souvenir salesmen. However, in my case the settlement visited, known as Kakalodoga, was actually not such a place in any way whatsoever. Instead, it was a picturesque but hectic spot as the day drew to a close where women cooked whilst the men repaired nets. The overall effect revealed a lifestyle that has clearly changed little for many years and is much simpler than the more urban areas more frequently seen by tourists. All in all, it proved to be a very interesting insight to how Mopti would have looked in the past. The other excursion was far more relaxing, and involved simply appreciating the numerous lovely scenes along the majestic waterway as the setting sun bathed it beautifully in an orangey hue. Among the many memorable things seen were children playing football on a sandbank and nomadic fishermen watching a generator powered television whilst camping for the evening on dry land. Perhaps the only real shame is that most of the wildlife that once would have been in attendance, such as hippopotamuses, is no longer resident in the area due to the density of human inhabitation and water traffic, although numerous kinds of birds are still common.
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