Trip Report: Mali, April 19 - May 8, 1998

Tom Harrison, La Canada, California USA; TAHARRISON@AOL.COM

Next time you're in or around Timbuktu, be sure to do some birding.

I had a quick business trip to Mali, West Africa, at the end of April (1998), and while I would have little free time for birding, I brought my binoculars and an out-of-date West Africa field guide and hoped for the best. I figured, what the heck, when you bird a country for the first time, even the most common birds will turn out to be lifers.

We flew into Mali's capital city of Bamako and headed off to the Hotel Tennessee. While inexpensive (around $40 US), it was a bit too cramped for our team, and, after the first night, we switched to Le Grand Hôtel. The Tennessee offers all the amenities (air conditioning, showers, swimming pool, phones), but the rooms are quite small and cramped, and we had boxcar-loads of video equipment. Le Grand Hotel (cost around $60 US) was a very nice hotel by Africa standards, including a terrific restaurant and great arts/crafts and antique shopping. I often get good species just birding hotel grounds, but neither of these hotels had much to speak of in that respect.

Because this was business, not birding, I couldn't exactly scream, "Stop the car," every time I saw a bird of interest. So, balancing my field guide on one knee and my binocs on the other, I became fairly adept at car birding.

It's not as hard as it sounds, because this is savanna birding -- desert scrub. So the birds are relatively visible (unlike jungle birding which, I was to find, is far more frustrating).

In and around Bamako (including the outskirts to the northwest and to the east), we had:

As for the weather: It was 115°F when we arrived. Of course that was in the city; our assignment was to film in the bush (desert). Off we go...

On the outskirts of Bamako we saw their new weather station. The folks there are quite proud of it, but I'm not quite sure why they need a weather station in the first place. IT'S HOT!! Any questions?

Just before entering the town of Segou, we stopped to do some filming of the Niger River. And while we never went as far as Timbuktu, we did stare off down the Niger, wishing we had a couple of days to explore that ancient city. The banks of the Niger proved productive for birds as well:

About six hours east of Bamako later, we hit Bla. Aptly named. The guide book describes it as "gaspingly hot". And that was the promotional copy.

No phones and only limited electricity. Just miles and miles and miles and miles of scrub desert, sprinkled with villages of mud huts. A chief of one of the villages invited us to join him for a traditional Malian meal, pronounced "toe". They assured us that, generally, there are no actual toes in this meal, but we politely begged off.

The people were open, friendly, very colorfully garbed and quite curious about us as we made our way from village to village.

May 1 is a national holiday in Mali, which means, naturally, that you can't buy ice. Turns out that the cooler in the back of the open pick-up truck doesn't close anyway. In fact, it sort of turns into a convection oven after about an hour in the sun. So by 7:30 am, our drinking water had just about reached boiling. Which is good if you want tea on a cold winter morning, but not quite so desirable in the desert.

By 9:30 am our blood temperature was 44°C. While I don't have the exact conversion formula, that translates to approximately 3 million degrees Fahrenheit.

But it's a dry heat.

So what do you do? No water to speak of. No ice. No phones. Miles from Timbuktu.

A nomad would call it quits. Throw in the towel. Hang up the boubou (traditional Malian outfit)... I know: let's go birding!

We spent several days filming in villages in the bush near Bla and Koutiala. In the process, we saw:

Our home base while filming in the bush was the Diatigui Hotel in Koutiala. It's really the only game in town, and the fact that it has electricity, air conditioning, showers and decent food made it a delightful surprise. There were phones in every room -- except they weren't connected to anything. The birding right around the hotel produced:

Our time in the bush was hot and exhausting. But we met some fantastic people and always were made to feel welcome in the villages. When our shooting was done, we headed back to Bamako. Le Grand Hôtel was booked, so we checked into Hôtel de l'Amitié (Sofitel) on the banks of the Niger. An impressive multi-storied hotel with great views of the city. Unfortunately, the service was disorganized and slow. As for the food, let's just say it was expensive, and it was the only time on the trip any of us got sick. The saving grace was that the grounds were quite nice, and I did some pre-airplane birding around the golf course where I picked up a beautiful pair of Pearl-Spotted Owlets along with African Thrush, Laughing Dove, African Yellow White-eye, and a Brown-Crowend Tchagra to finish off my Malian adventure. (Note: I feel pretty good about the IDs, but since all these birds were new to me, I'm certainly open to correction if you catch an obvious error!)

Then it was on to Côte d'Ivoire for a couple days of R&R before the long flights back to Los Angeles. I'll post a separate trip report on Côte d'Ivoire.

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; June 12, 1998; corrected June 17, 1998