Spent a week in Mali coming into Kayes on New Year's Eve.
We were travelling with our Mauri friend and came in from Selibabi, Mauretania.
Had to sign a release form with the Mauri gendarmerie, twice, relieving them from any responsibility for my family. I had heard stories of expensive army escort and other problems on the Mali side, so I was a little concerned as we crossed the dry river bed to Melgue, and went to the custom's office.
But it was business as usual. "You should check in with the army post on the town exit." We did so, and the touareg officer (he was from TB2) asked if we wanted an escort? "No, we're good" I said. And he said Bonne route.
The passage to Kayes was an uneventful 4-5 hours on the piste. We did have time to check out the marvellous baobab forest.
Kayes was also like before. Surprisingly cool this time of the year. Slept rooftop on the rail hotel, which was even a bit chilly. Did the papers next day and we went on (couldn't get insurance until Bamako as everything was closed on Jan 1).
I had no intention of going near Diema or try the RN1. That would take us less than 200 kms from the beards. Instead we went SE on the goudron to Bafoulabe, following the railroad and the Senegal river.
From there, you take the ferry (5000 CFA)
This is a beautiful spot where the Bafing and Bakoy rivers join to make the Senegal.
Then follows a long and very dusty (even more so now when the chinese are working on it, preparing for goudron) piste along the Bafing river to Kita.
There is another possibly shorter/faster piste following the Bakoy that I will try another trip.
This piste took the rest of the day, stopping to see the hydroelectric project at Manantali. After a chicken stop at Kita, we continued to Bamako but the last two hours were after dark, thus breaking rule no. 1 for driving in Africa.
Tried to get the gendarmes at the checkpoints to take some interest in our safety without success. These few hours were the only on the entire 10000 kms trip that I was slightly worried that something bad could happen.
Coming into Bamako from the north at Kati I had to bribe the gendarmes and then we drove quietly to the Sleeping Camel (I found a much better route than the usual, avoiding a hundred doudans, most of the traffic and checkpoints - take a left at the gas station after the Douane stop. Takes you straight across a plain to Kolouba, the presidential palace, from where you descend right into Centre Ville).
Others at the near empty Sleeping Camel had been less fortunate. Some had to pay 50000 CFA for armed escort Melgue-Kayes, until before xmas. This was after the Frenchman was kidnapped in Diema.
Those going over Nioro had to pay 20-50000 CFA (less if they were more than one vehicle) and take one or two armed soldiers in their cars.
Now what those soldiers would do in case of an attack by even one truck with armed beards I wouldn't want to know.
Some drivers had been made to overnight at the garrison in Diema, sleeping next to the kidnapped Frenchman's campervan. Feeling very insecure with the Malian army guys around.
Traveller's are advised already in Nouakchott not to take the Route d'Espoir over Ayoun l'Atrous and Nioro to Bamako, for safety reasons. Most people do it anyway, like the French who was kidnapped - he had done it so many times without a problem....
I can't give any advice on this, other than:
-if you really have to go that route, sleep in Ayoun and leave very early
-make no stops before Bamako other than for passport police, customs, and for fuel.
Bamako itself was on the surface much like before, but with less traffic - you could actually breathe in Quartier Fleuve. Bistro Bafing didn't serve brochettes anymore. Many or most businesses are cutting down, people scrambling to get by. Police was more corrupt than ever, making driving around downtown near impossible - if I was waved at just one more time, I would not stop, not roll down my window, not talk to them (except, if I had to, in Swedish) and certainly not let them have any of my documents.
If you let them, you're screwed!
I got insurance and visas for Burkina, and we were relieved to get out of Bamako.
(I heard a few days ago, there were protests in the streets, two bridges were closed and some people were relieved of their 4x4s. So maybe we were lucky).
The road to Sikasso was surprisingly bump free and in excellent shape.
Islamism is strong in Mali, but the southern version of Ansar Dine is more benign than the northern version, so far
For those wanting to know what's really going on in Mali, Bamako Bruce is really good
Bridges from Bamako | life in a budding West African metropolis