You know you sometimes get consumer lifestyle questionnaires through the post and there’s a section asking your travel preferences? Well, if I could be bothered to complete one then my ideal choice of holiday would be independent with a few good friends for about a month. Whilst it wouldn’t be my least ideal holiday, there would have to be a damn good reason for me to voluntarily go on an overland trip with a bunch of total strangers. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a problem with people, some of my best friends are people and some of those friends were once strangers I met while travelling.
So, the aim was the Festival au Desert and two of us were planning to go. We didn’t think two experienced female travellers would have much trouble getting to Timbuktu independently and we started bucketing for flights to Mali on the net. Then all of a sudden it was only me going. I’d been looking forward to travelling with my sister again and I really didn’t want to go without her. Neither did I want to go alone, although I did think about it. I’m not scared or nervous about it – I just like travelling with friends. One night sitting at the computer I found myself idly googling Festival au Desert yet again. And yes, there were ads from one or two overland companies going to the festival but I could tell from the style of their websites, their prices and the accommodation that I’d have to become the type of traveller I’m not very fond of. Anyway, they were fully booked. However, midway down the page was a new ad. It was dead simple – something along the lines of Festival of the Desert 2006, Timbuktu, overland, places left etc etc. That was it and there were no further details on the link to the website. So I phoned the next day. Turns out new brochure still at printers so website not up to date. Anyway, I explained about wanting to go to the festival and the nice man on the phone explained all about it. There would be about 20 people travelling around Mali in the back of a large orange truck which, although classified as a passenger coach, looks not unlike an army truck. Twenty one nights would be spent either camping in hotel grounds, on hotel roofs, wild-camping or for a couple of nights only, hotel rooms. The trip leaves Bamako taking in Segou and Mopti by road, then 3 days by boat up the Niger to Timbuktu and on to the festival. Be prepared to dig. After the festival by road to Dogon Country for a three day trek followed by another road trip to Djenné. Then back to Bamako. You can book your own flights to Mali or they’ll do it for you but you’ve got to get your own visa. Everyone would have individual jobs to do as well as being a member of a cook group when required. And on it went. The more the guy talked the more I found myself thinking it didn’t sound too bad. I liked the idea that you’ve got to pull your weight, I liked the idea that you’d be in a vehicle that wasn’t closed in and protected from the elements, I liked the "responsible tourism" ethos and I really liked the friendly laid-back manner of the guy on the end of the phone. If there’s such a thing as an award for the most subtle sales pitch then he should get it. For personal reasons I asked if it would be possible for me to have a place held on the trip for a few weeks longer than the deadline for booking and paying. No problem.
The following week I received the new brochure. Right, let’s see what it has to say about their Sounds of the Sahara trip. Now I’m not a holiday brochure sort of person (there’s only so many glossy wide-angled photos of hotel pools a person can take) but this brochure was really quite good. Not a hotel pool in sight and it wasn’t glossy either. The photos were excellent, a good mix of action, people and predominantly unfamiliar location shots. The only thing it could have done with was a smattering of "Itinerary? What itinerary?" shots. Trucks being dug out of sand, mud or snow, or maybe a couple of breakdown shots would be good for those wanting to know what it means when a trip is described as "challenging" or as a deterrent for those who could be described as "not a team player," bone-idle or both. I wonder if the absence of photo captions is an accidental or deliberate omission. I found myself wanting to phone up and ask where places in the photos were. Anyway, I found the information about my trip to be clear and concise and the pricing calculation to be simplicity. There’s little point in providing anything other than a basic proposed itinerary as it’s made quite clear that political and environmental change can happen overnight in some countries they visit. And it’s not just big stuff. When the date of the Festival au Desert was changed from 6-8 January to the following weekend just days before the trip was due to start, Kiwi Claire ( the trip leader) had to reorganise the whole itinerary and rearrange arrangements on top of all her other pre-trip work. The new itinerary worked well although the trip from the festival site to get people to their flights in Bamako was certainly challenging. One day was 16 hours of travelling over rough piste covered in thick layers of red dust with scarves over your mouths to help you breath. There were understandably a couple of snippy exchanges in the back of the truck on that particular day.
Snippy exchanges on the trip were rare, although a few people who had been on previous overland trips said they thought this was because we were only together for 3 weeks. During the first few days Claire was great at making sure there were no "loners." Rotas and jobs were arranged in such a way that you’d have worked with everybody on the trip by the time it was over. Where there were decisions to be made about the itinerary they were put to the vote. It didn’t really take long for people to feel at ease with each other and again I think this was due for the most part to Claire. Neither were we bombarded with information in one dollop – instead we had informal briefing sessions at the start of each different stage of the trip. The trip leaders are not specialist guides so if you want to know about the birdlife, the geology or the education system then take a book or talk to a local. I’d rather be away somewhere like Mali with someone who knows how to treat anaphylactic shock rather than identify a yellow-crowned gonolek. Neither was there anything to complain about regarding the cooking and camping equipment. Even for the most inexperienced camper, the two-man canvas tents were a doddle to put up and a really practical design. Everything you needed to prepare, cook and clear up after a three-course meal for 20 or so people and a stash of basic foodstuffs was there. The thing that amazed most of us was how all this stuff fitted in, on and around the truck. It was like the Tardis.
Of course, there’s one really important thing to consider on this sort of trip – the driving. It’s dangerous territory on those roads and we had nothing but praise for the skill of Claire, our driver/trip leader/mechanic/agony aunt who not only had to deal with some appalling driving conditions but also other drivers slowing down to get a better look because she was a she and she was driving a truck!
I had a great time on the Dragoman Overland "Sounds of the Sahara" trip. I worked out that there was no way I could’ve done all that stuff either with my sister, or alone, within the 4 weeks we’d planned and it probably would’ve cost more. So now I find myself of being in a position I never thought I’d be in – I’m going to recommend an "organised" trip. If you want to go to the Festival au Desert and see a bit of Mali as well, but you have a limited time frame and budget and you don’t mind "basic" then, obviously the best way is to go with a travel company who will try their damnedest, by whatever means available, to get you where you want to be. From first contact to the end of the trip Dragoman Overland was excellent and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone except a sociopath.
Details of next years Festival au Desert and Festival du Niger trip can be found at: www.dragoman.com.