Mali – African Reality. 

Disoriented and far from certain of location I awoke in a car passenger seat travelling through a bustling market, aware of being the subject of intense stares but was far too addled for any recovery. Surrounded by leering unfamiliar faces, noses literally pressed against the window: Beyond them baobabs casting scant shade over humped cows & hairless sheep tethered to mud-brick walls.

Ever heard of Bamako? It lies beside the Niger River, principal city of sub-Saharan Mali, West Africa. A land locked nation more than half of which comprises little else but sand. Timbuktu maybe a more familiar name than the capital: It depicts the asset and detriment of the nation within town’s bounds. Residences on its northern frontier are literally covered by encroaching dunes as the Sahara engulfs on its southern migration. A few hundred metres away one drops into the Niger River’s basin: lush, productive fields that grant Mali unique stead, agricultural self sufficiency. Three months of rain with hard bedrock to maintain drainage render the Niger into a single green spine sufficient to sustain thirteen million residents.  High rank in the African cotton production league coupled with gold reserves bolster exports but do not address a chronic foreign trade deficit. Only a few of its larger cities have power and plumbing no where is there drinkable water.

Rudimentary French eases passage through this nation, a linguistic remnant of imperialism and a benchmark sign of local education. Curiosity always grasps the young, they won’t resist taking a close look at foreigners; if their questions are delivered in French their region must have a good school.

Maintained and militarily controlled highway out of Bamako towards Gao is the route to fine monolithic quartzite, straight, flat and reasonably well surfaced; initially brown dusty fields, baobabs and rough villages float by, structures degrade with distance from the capital. Mud bricks prove staple construction supplies: Occupied buildings displaying fine brickwork and up-keep whereas cruder structures told the tale of attrition, rainy seasons melted the structure back to ground.

Dried, shriveled, husks of former crops still stood tall in the fields; granting impression of a land sucked dry over night? Small pools could be spotted at great distance from their encircling thatch, but one must always beware of African water, nine times out of ten it will be dangerous. If the prehistoric, sharp toothed, powerful jawed, reptilian inhabitants don’t peak interest the single celled physteria will, given time. It’s not necessary to drink from a pool simply wading will provide opportunity for critters to gain entry through the pores in one’s dermis!

Ecology subtly shifted following the settlement of Douentza (Timbuktu junction), riding up onto a rocky plateau then immediately dipping into its canyons and causeways, shunning the outstretched baobab arms the skyline leapt upward grazing across the top of a five mile unbroken 800m cliff band. Towers, boulders, sheer valleys snaking secretly away from the transit artery in every direction. Surprisingly, even amid such abundant precipitous terrain the Hand of Fatima stood out, four sharp fingers with a needle like thumb. Kaga Pamari forms the spiky thumb, Kaga Tondo the largest tower, Wanadoo, Debridu two snub fingers and finally the sheer Suri Tondo.

Undoubtedly the neighborhood’s most striking formations, a little taller, a little more slender plus a touch more formidable.  

Abruptly dismounted the tarmac, trundled through a Fulani tribal village and halted, finalizing the journey in the afternoon shade of the Hand. Climbing partner, Cedar Wright had already secured the Fulani Chief's permission to dwell and climb on their land. Jimmy Chin, Even Howe, Kevin Kau & Andrew Chapman were already settled into basecamp enjoying a break from the still strong winter sun.

Around camp dry washes channelled former flows to more dehydrated millet, corn and yams again strange, rapid draining? I think the five days my compadres had spent here in basecamp instilled a voracious climbing appetite. Immediately upon arrival Cedar ushered me up slope to recon the climbing potential, perfect iron hard quartzite; only cause for concern being the discovery of a three metre Mamba skin beneath Kaga Tondo! Locals assured us that during the 40°C cool season reptiles are not active.

Kaga Tondo the largest 'finger' made an obvious prime objective, via its north pillar. From native Bambara the name very simply translates to "Big Rock”.  

Timed for a mid-morning kick off to allow the sun to do its worst and be leaving the north pillar as we commence. Climbing went quickly and smoothly: Scale proved hard to judge in this primarily flat region; the 800m route doesn't display size from basecamp and en route offered only a similarly abstract perspective. Felt like riding aloft the Kansas plain in a tiny plane. Rock was of excellent quality, sometimes brittle and blocky but never dangerously loose just one or two sections requiring added caution. Difficulty capped at 5.10 yet remained sustained throughout. Bird and bat guano literally added heaps of character; in places all the cracks were lined some heavily coated. Style of ascent involved moving together at either end of the rope, "simul climbing": This technique eliminates the need to stop and create a belay anchor each time a rope length is climbed. Climbing in 'blocks' allows several hundred meters of ascent before stopping to trade equipment and the leading task; a technique that greatly reduces climbing time.

Kevin & Andy filmed from adjacent Debridu and were pleased with their position and resulting footage. Jimmy and Evan shot on the lower portion of the climb then traversed off to free the scene for Kevin's more distant perspective.

Kaga Tondo's North Pillar is dubbed the world's longest sandstone route: Most importantly it proved a very, very fun outing. We neared the summit as residents enjoyed their evening meal; cracks spilled all sizes of birds into the sky: Swifts, Hawks, Eagles, Vultures and a pair of massive Storks. Named storks solely from their looks, we never got a decent view they preferred surveying from high while displaying proportions of a Cessna aircraft. A truly wonderful and unique summit experience.  

Grand climbing plan had always been to enchain all the Hand’s fingers in a single climbing day. With a route under our belts, necessary logistics of the peaks at hand and a grasp of the rock’s character we began with Kaga Pamari: Ascended via the very recently established "Chin-Howe" route; fine work from the photo team resulting in a sporty (distance between protection points) 5.10+. Kaga Tondo's South Pillar, next across the skyline,  5.10 A2 with aid climbing being limited to a short bolt ladder straight out a ceiling. Mainly free climbing on stunning rock in great locations, this particular climb proved the highlight. Above the roof the route maintained the apex of the south pillar, an arm-span wide fin with a hundred mile view either side. Shorter towers Wanadoo (5.9) & Debridu were climbed without ropes, up and down. Debridu relented after only one technical pitch of 5.7. Finally, Suri Tondo could be claimed the most aesthetic digit comprising Fatima’s Hand. Ascent initiated just as the sun crept into diffusing dust robbing the horizon of clarity or definition. Cedar admirably scrabbled through the first guano coated 5.11 crux to be confronted by more crack climbing with bat induced cruxes. Hardest section of that first pitch was avoiding a short carcass chocked section, holding one’s breath was mandatory. I began the next pitch as sunset truly stirred the living fissure residents. Bats became increasingly agitated by alien presence: From within the fissure many small eyes peered back reflecting my headlamp. Very unsettled, they were slowly creeping towards the lip. The cliff would dip through short overhanging sections forcing my tentative hands to utilize jams inside the crack; first I’d slap the rock and yell at the furry, spooky seagull sized critters. To tell the truth, I was muttering and shouting at them for the entire rope length. Encompassing a steep, slippery 5.11 layback followed by a very memorable mantle onto a nasty hump of semi-petrified guano. Final seventy-metre pitch was thankfully free of crack life and deposited us atop Suri Tondo eleven and a half hours after commencing with Kaga Pamari: The first traverse of the towers. Descent required rappelling our same line of ascent. We shared a small ledge while pulling the rope from a rappel anchor, Cedar's deafening screech almost caused permanent ear damage as a particularly large bat careened into his chest en route towards the night. Descent in the dark continued without further event.

Falais du Bandiaghara became the following locale on a slow exodus from Mali: Famed haunt of the rock dwelling Dogon tribe and mythical Tellum: Occupiers of improbable villages built into caves part way up overhanging cliffs. The Bandiaghara is both a several hundred mile cliff band and the region's principal city name. Cliffs have kindly shed thousands of smaller chunks perfect for a couple of climbers seeking something a little different. The rock was honestly as good as any I've ever touched, similar to the famed 'Iron Rock' of Hueco Tanks state park in Texas.

Civilization on the Bandiagara plateau began with the Tellum's flight from religious influence. Caves provided ideal seclusion & security to follow their Animist, “Voodoo” beliefs. After the Tellum disappeared, Dogon took over the region and also managed to remain veiled from the outside world until "discovered" by French explorers a century ago. Tellum settlements are no longer occupied, many of their caves are burial chambers still used for high ranking Dogon. The latter occupants prefer to build at the cliff's base and are famed throughout West Africa for farming skills. French farmers travelled to the Bandiagarha intent to give advice on onion production yet found themselves exporting freshly gleaned agricultural skills.

Three days was all we could afford, a mere glimpse of the intriguing Dogon and their perfect climbing environment. Boulders abound, the locals are willing to follow along and try their hand, plus the untapped six hundred kilometre cliff-line of the Falais du Bandiaghara displays magnificent potential long into the future. Dogon are steeped in mystery, remarkable for their knowledge of astronomy and have an unshakable belief in Aliens. Convinced they were paid regular visits by intelligent beings from the Sirius star system, imparting to them knowledge and wisdom which has proved the backbone of their culture. The Dogon knew of a white dwarf, companion star to Sirius, long before its presence was detected by conventional astronomy?


© Kevin Thaw