20,000 leagues under the sky, 2004- travel blog

Onion Fields

Djigibombo (Jiggy-bom-bo)

Road from the plateau

New mosque

Boabab trees

Tellem houses




New Teli

Hogon house

Tellem could fly


Village sunrise

Donkey parade

Little donkey


Route up

Along the fault

Dogon garden

Improbable rock

Rock formations

Plateau village

Chicken Rock

Secret valley

Millet field

Anamist village

Looking down


Anamist village

Village and cliffs


Route down

Looking back

Donkey shelter

Ende's Finger


Incredible and beautiful, maybe this was worth all the long uncomfortable taxi rides, the dusty towns and crap food.

Before I went to Djenne I'd made a vague agreement with the guy in my hotel in Sevare to go to Dogon country with him as a guide, his English was pretty good and I didn't doubt his claim to be a Dogon. I'd had a few chats with him and he came across as an amiable person and when I asked him various questions about the Dogon he seemed to know his stuff. I was too tired when I got back from Djenne to discuss it that night but said that I'd get up early the next morning to make final agreements although I told him that I didn't have much cash left and with no ATMs in the area said that I could probably only do 1 night 2 days rather than the 2 nights 3 days we'd originally said.

The following morning I did get up early and he told me that the bank near to the hotel had an ATM and it opened at 8am. I went there for opening time and it did have an ATM but the machine just kept spitting my card out. Back at the hotel I said that we would just have to play it by ear and probably only have one night. His all inclusive prive of 25000CFA was quite steep but I agreed to it as he said we would be able to get there on his scooter saving up to 20k in taxi fares. After paying him for the first day he disappeared for a while saying that he had to buy various things and fill the scooter. At 9am, nervously perched on the back of the scooter and wearing my main pack we set off. About 5km out of town he pulled over, we had a puncture, fortunately at 5km there is still mobile reception, much further and we (or he!) would have been walking back. He called a friend who came out with a spare inner tube then went back and brought a mechanic and within an hour we were off again. It's 63km from Sevare to Bandiagara where the main road ends, the distance markers are every 5km and I was counting them down in increasing discomfort, the wind was quite strong and kept catching my pack. With 20km to go I had to get him to pull over for a break but eventually after an hour and a halfs riding we got to Bandiagara where Mamadou said he needed to get the brakes adjusted as they hadn't worked since the puncture - now he tells me. I thought I was obviously paying him too much when he said that he wanted to go and by some local gems but he came back with a pot of Dogon jam.

From Bandiagara to the village of Kani Kombole was another 25km, this time on dirt track and the remains of an old and very subsided road. Dogon country is centred around the Falaise de bandiagara, a huge fault in the earth forming a long series of cliffs, there are villages on the plain below the cliffs and on the plateau above but most famously within the cliffs themselves. I expected to approach the area from the plain but the road actually crossed the plateau where we went through the brilliantly named Djigibombo, pronounced jiggy-bom-bo. Over the other side the road decended extremely steeply to the plain and I was very pleased that we had the brakes repaired. When we got to Kani Kombole I could feel that my face was burning from the sun and a little too late put some sun block on. As soon as we arrived in Dogon country I knew that Mamadou was a genuine Dogon, they have an elaborate greeting ritual which goes on for about a minute, on arrival in KK I got to hear it for the first time as M greeted everyone. The greeting is very formal and always follows the same pattern, the greeter asks a series of questions always answered in the same way "how are you/I'm good, How is your health/my health is good, how are your parents etc etc" and then the roles are reversed. It sounds like a duet as the greetings and answers are called out but it sounds even better when a group of people either greet or are greeted as the answers are called out in unison. I never got to hear a group meet another group, that would have been worth hearing.

We rested for most of the afternoon in the lodge in KK where we had lunch and waited for the temperatures outside to fall. At 4pm after a walk around the village we set off, Mamadou left his bike there and I left my pack, apparently someone was going to take both over to Ennde where we would spend the night. I very quickly realised that this was a special area, the views were stunning and the villages intruiging. The original people to live in the area were the Tellem who lived in tiny houses built high into the cliffs, many of the villages now completely innaccessable. The Dogon people are both reverential to the Tellem people but honest that they kicked them out of the area and cut down the forest and jungle surrounding the cliffs that sustained the Tellem and allowed them to climb to their villages. The First Dogon villages were also built on the cliffs but much lower down, most of these villages still survive but the people have generally moved down to the plain where life (and access to water)is easier. We visited one of the cliff villages and the climb was a killer even in the late afternoon. Just before sunset we reached the village of Ennde and the Hogon campement where my bag was waiting for me.

With no electricity (nor running water) there isn't a lot to do in the evenings here except drink a couple of beers and chat. Mamadou had asked me earlier if I knew any riddles and he spent the evening teling me some Dogon riddles, I impressed the locals by getting the answers to most of them - the one I couldnt get - What "room" with 4 doors do you go into every day and go through all 4 doors at the same time? And the same question for a "room" with 3 doors? Answer at the end of the write up.

With no lighting in the area the stars were amazing, the Dogon people are also famous for their cosmology so I was surprised to hear that they see shooting stars as an omen of bad luck, I managed to see many bad omens just lying back in a deckchair before I went to bed for an early night.

I woke just before sunrise and went onto the room of the camp to watch the sun come up and the village come to life. Breakfast was a bowl full of doughnuts with the Dogon jam from bandiagara, I've no idea what fruit it was but it was delicious. I wasn't sure what we had agreed for today, I was half prepared to head off to Burkina Fasso but after a "discussion managed to renegotiate a decent price to do another 24 hours and be back in Ennde the next morning for the journey south. We set off again along the track through the villages below the cliffs and passed through Mamadou's home vilage where we paid his parents a flying visit for him to give his father (the local "doctor") medicines he had received from tourists in Sevare. Apparently his dad didn't even go to school but took what I think was probably a first aid course a few years ago to become the medicine man. As we passed through most villages during the trip you could often hear the hypnotic sounds of the "jungle drums", I discovered that Hollywood has probably distorted another African ritual. In the centre of his village we passed a group of about a dozen women, they had arranged themselves in two lines facing each other, each of them was stood over a large wooden pestle beating the corn with a large wooden stick. As they carried on with there work they developed a series of rhythms using the slightly different tones that each of their "drums", the sound was magical and carried for miles through the plain but now I know that it's really women making flour not men about to make war.

Soon after leaving that village we headed for a fault in the fault where we had a steep and sweaty climb up the cliff face. Near the top we emerged into a steeply walled valley surrounded by strange rock formations and filled with a Dogon garden where lines of vegetables were being tended by a few farmers. The overpowering smell of fresh onions made me very hungry, fortunately we soon arrived at the village where we were stopping for lunch and a siesta. This village consisted of 3 sections, an animist section, a muslim section and the area we stopped in which was christian. In this section they kept pigs and Mamadou who isn't a very good Muslim managed to buy some pork to take with us for our evening meal. Once cool enough, but only just, we looked around this village, visiting the village hunter with his impressive wall full of skins and skulls and his array of antique guns, the animals must have walkied in front of him to have stood a chance of being hit. We walked out to an overhanging precipice with great views into the valley, over the plain and along the falaise.

The walk to the night stop was the first time that I realised that doing this trip without a guide would have been almost impossible as the route went throughsmall passes and valleys that you wouldn't even have known were there. This section contained some of the nicest scenery of the trek, Mamadou pointed out one rock formation that the say resembles a human thumb but I convinced him that from a slightly different angle it looks exactly like a chicken and renamed it Roc de Poulet. The night stop was in a totally animist village and although the accommodation was by far the most basic the village was the most interesting and again had fantastic views over the edge of the cliff. The pork we had for dinner was delicious. While walking that day Mamadou told me some dogon folk tales, my favourite although obviously not that old was this...

A dog, a goat and a sheep all took a shared taxi, the fare was 10 francs each. The dog paid first but only had a 25 franc coin so the driver told him he would give him his change when they got there. The sheep paid the correct money but the goat only had 5 francs and he said he would pay the driver the difference when they got there. When they arrived the driver realised that he was 10 francs up on the deal so drove off without settling up the differences. And that is why whenever a dog sees a car it chases after it to try to recover the 15 francs, goats always run away from cars lest the driver chases them for the owed 5 francs but sheep feel happy to carry on indifferent when cars go by.

The wind really got up that night and sleeping wasn't very easy, when I got up just before sunrise I found that the roof had blown off one of the buildings. I was keen to head off as early as possible as I wanted to make it to Burkina Faso for the night. The route down the cliff was another secret path down through a large crack in the cliff. Back in Ennde and reunited with my pack Mamadou arranged an ox-kart take me to Bankass then disappeared and came back with a Dogon necklace for me to remember the trip, I was quite touched.

The answer to the riddle: the room with 4 doors or openings is a t-shirt or top with holes for neck, arms and waist. The room with 3 doors is your trousers.

And my final remarks on the Dogon country, if you happen to go there in the future and expect to hear traditional music you may be disappointed, I'm afraid that I didn't leave the place untouched. After walking during the first day playing mp3s on my phone I seem to have converted the locals to punk music, they all wanted to copy the contents of my memory card, Iggy Pop proved very popular.

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