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Day 38: Bamako

Michael Palin - SaharaAs if this second, unscheduled night is not wretched enough, my bowels, so well-disciplined since Western Sahara, suddenly demand attention. It's as if they know that it's hot, the train is unstable, there's no water left in any of the lavatories and there's someone sleeping in the corridor who I have to step over each time.

As my internal convulsions match those of the train, I look in vain for any sign of city lights, but it's not until five o'clock that I hear J-P outside my door.

'Breakfast in Bamako,' he announces cheerfully.

Forty-three hours after leaving Dakar, eight hours later than schedule, having covered the distance at an average speed of 28 miles per hour, we creak to a halt at Bamako station at 5.40 on a Monday morning. For a moment all is quiet. The first streaks of dawn light pierce the clouds in the eastern sky, the smell of a new
day edges out the smell of an over-used train, and though we can see only the darkened outlines of station buildings, there is an air of expectation.

Then the doors swing open and for the first time I realise just how many people have been aboard the Dakar-Bamako express. And how much they've brought with them. The narrow platform is soon submerged beneath people and their stuff. Chairs, sofas, lengths of carpet, great bulging sacks, cooking stoves, lengths of piping. All become weapons in the fight for the exit.

We are trying our best to film this, which only adds to the chaos. Two men offering us taxis and cheap hotels follow us everywhere. Somewhere further up the platform there are cries and shouts and people fall back as a scuffle begins. A man suspected of stealing has been dragged off the train and is being savagely beaten by his fellow passengers.

I make a scrawled note in my diary: 'Bamako Station, 5.40 am. The Heart of Darkness'.

Breakfast in Bamako. Part Two. A couple of hours ago I felt like a piece of litter ready to be swept up and thrown away. Now I'm sitting by the banks of the River Niger with a cup of coffee and a plate of bacon and eggs in front of me. I'm washed and freshly dressed and have just seen a sunrise as beautiful as any since this journey began. Deepest gloom has given way, suspiciously quickly, to pure, uncritical ecstasy, as we sit on this terrace on stilts built out over the river that will lead us to Timbuktu. A golden sun grows in confidence. There is a swimming pool, fresh fruit, and a day off to rest, relax and generally wallow in the delights of not having to move.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 38
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Bamako
  • Book page no: 120

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