Isn't it funny how the memory of one's travel fades with age like a favourite old snapshot. It was 1985 and I remember leaving Mopti and arriving in Djenne quite clearly and yet I can recall virtually nothing of the journey with the exception of driving across a long causeway across the Bani River floodplain at the confluence with the mighty Niger River as we approached the ancient town of Djenne. It was hot and hazy, that much I do remember - 45 degrees centigrade and being May, just before the rains it was also very humid. There had been a sand storm and the sky had a weird orange hue. I wandered the dusty, narrow alleyways and markets, peering into darkened doorways and gaping in amazement at the gleaming gold jewellery dripping from the local women. Each earring looked as though it must weigh at least a kilo. It was a wonder that the women weren't tripping over their earlobes.
I joined in a game of football with some ragged kids who were scuffing a battered, deflated plastic ball about the market place amongst the equally ragged chickens and skinny donkeys. Another memory which remains sharp is that of a mud brick goldsmith's building deep in the depths of one of the alleys. Crouched over a blazing crucible filled with molten gold was a dessicated old man of who knows what age. Pinned to the wall behind him was a poster of Madonna, scantily clad in a little lurex number. But here's the thing.......the poster was upside down.
Of course the highlight of any visit to Djenne is the Grande Mosque. It's hard to describe. It has an alien, almost organic appearance - like an enormous sandcastle topped by several rounded spires, each one decorated with an ostrich egg. Inside it is dark and deliciously cool and provides sanctuary from the heat for the elderly and infirm who are found comfortable corners of the interior and are tended to by the mosque members. It is a very humane arrangement.
The town site itself has been inhabited since 250 BC. The first mosque was built there in the 13th century, but the current structure dates back to 1907. In 1988, three years after my visit this ancient city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It remains a pretty tough place to get to. As it is, Mali is not exactly a mainstream tourist destination and Djenne is remote even by Malian standards. It is about 350 kilometres southwest of Timbuktu which is widely recognised as being the world's most isolated town.
These days it's a two hour taxi ride from bustling Mopti, which has a pretty impressive mud mosque of its own as well as a fascinating river port. Or there are buses once a week if you're lucky. The best way to see this part of the world is with one of the overland adventure tours that operate in the region.
ROAD TO TIMBUKTU
From AUD $4,925 Countries Visited: Mali
Duration: 13 days
Valid until 30 June 2012
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