Home to Timbuktu, the city that’s become a byword for African exotica, as well as ‘world music’ superstars and relentless, drought-ridden deserts, landlocked Mali and the life-giving Niger River that flows through it are essential West African experiences.
Capital Bamako is the place to groove to the music, as home to a plethora of those musical stars. It’s a clamoring, technicolored market town where immense, castle like buildings and a real rough round the edge vibe (not helped by substantial litter problems), and the perfect place to sample that uniquely Malian ginger and hibiscus juice, served in a plastic bag.
Next head for the spiky, fortress-like mosques of legendary Timbuktu, a dusty desert town that’s every bit as exotic as reputation leads you to expect. Whilst no longer the center of Islamic culture that it once was, the city’s full of seductive, crumbling grandeur, and looks all the more enticing when the streets sporadically fill with sand. The Niger River is a great way to get there, winding through the greenest parts of the country on an old rickety slow boat, stopping intermittently at tiny river side towns to sample spicy grilled chicken or freshly fried river fish.
The century-old brick mosque at Djenne is another African icon, stood beside the vigorous ‘ Great Market’, and with walls covered in imposing spikes. To get right into the heart of Malian culture, however, the Dogon Country is the place to be. With spiky roofed huts and stilt walking tribesman abound, as well as rustic cave houses built into craggy hillsides. In amongst the huddling huts of villages crammed into narrow valleys you’ll find wall art, and astonishing views across sandy plains broken only be the odd lonely, sheltering tree. The complex rituals and cultures that accompany the Dogon’s step back in time villages are remarkable.
With such a high concentration of iconic African scenes and phenomenal sites, Mali rightly sits - alongside Kenya - near the top of any African overland itinerary. The mixed tribal culture and astounding architecture seldom disappoint, and most travelers leave with a bag rammed full of street-side CDs that keep the vibe flowing long after they return home. Africa at it's best.