Overland Through Mali West Africa

Photo of author
Last updated on:

Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission. Read the full disclosure policy here.

Travelling as a woman in Mali Africa

Mali in West Africa isn’t somewhere that too many people visit which is sad because I found Mali to be a great destination and a good introduction to Africa. While you could travel Mali as a solo female it wouldn’t be easy and you would really have to have your wits about you.

Overlanding is one way of seeing not must Mali but also more of West Africa. Having a truck full of likeminded travellers makes it easy to find someone to do the same things you do. As a female in Mali, it is always handy to have a travel companion just to have a little bit of increased safely.

Staying Safe While Travelling In Mali

Not that it is wildly unsafe in general, however ISIS has moved into the north east of Mali and is slowly making their way down past Timbuktu (yes that’s a real place!).

Women aren’t treasured in the ISIS community and kidnappings are a very real threat in that area. That said, it is possible to visit a large amount of Mali and overlanding is the ideal way to do it if you are a solo woman.

As far as I’m aware Oasis Overland & MadVenture are the only companies that routinely do this trip, however I’ve booked on a Dragoman trip for next January for the mid west coast so they may very well start doing the north west after COVID.

The red dirt and dust of Mali
The red dirt and dust of Mali

My Overland Tour Through Mali

I did Oasis Overland’s UK to Cairo trip from November 2016 which is 42 weeks long. At the time it was about $11,000 AUD but sits at around $13,500 AUD now.

This price on Tour Radar equates back to $77 per day. What is worth knowing is that this does not include your visa fees, and not many activities are included either on the West Coast either.

As the tour also does the east coast, once you leave South Africa on that leg there is way more to see and do that is included in the price of the tour. The west coast doesn’t have heaps of touristy options and of course what is available this year, might not be next year.

Once you hit the east coast you will need to add in the cost for all the Safari’s you do that are not included in the trip. It also includes almost no South Africa. I thought it was still amazing value for money, especially considering most of your meals are included. Most – not all!

These trips leave London once per year in November. I met the truck in Algeciras (Spain) as I was already in Spain, but most overlanders fly from London and get picked up in Gibraltar.

Anyway I digress! Back to Mali itself.

Crossing the border from Senegal into Mali

We crossed the border from Senegal at Kidira, which is kind of a town but not really. It’s pretty small and is really just a border crossing with some services to enable you to eat and drink when you inevitably get stuck for hours working on your paperwork.

We managed to get across the border, which literally is just these little huts with the boom gate across and we are out of Senegal and into Mali.

Once we got into Mali, we started heading down the RN1 highway towards Coulombo, where we bush camped for our first night in Mali. We had a spectacular sunset and the landscape kind of gets more and more kind of sparse, I guess, as we get more and more into Mali.

Sunset over the baobab trees in Mali West Africa
Sunset over the baobab trees in Mali West Africa

It’s flat, flat, flat, and there is a red dirt, not like bright red, more like a sandy color red dirt. There starts to be a lot of scrub and then our second night bush camping was in the middle of these Baobab trees which really felt like Africa.

This one I spotted actually looks like this really weird artwork. It literally looks like this man has been running along and just crashed headfirst into the bottom of the tree. It’s pretty cool, but could seem a little bit rude as well.

A Baobab tree that looks like an art installation to me.
Boab tree art work Mali, Africa

So we kind of pushed on for a couple of nights and into Kayes crossing over the Senegal River which is the first time we’ve kind of seen it. It was a market day and it was reasonably busy, but unlike what we had left in Senegal the color was much more subdued.

In Mauritania, everyone’s dress is pretty much a solid color (often black) and then you cross over into Senegal, and it’s just this explosion of bright hot pinks and aquas and yellows and it’s really cool.

Crossing back into Mali things do start to kind of die down again color wise. You still do see the African prints and there still are men on motorbikes with their bright color shirts on, but it’s more getting more and more into the monotone colors again.

The river when we cross it it actually looks pretty good. It actually looks pretty clean, there’s lots of thick grasses and bushes and I kept looking for a hippo but sadly I didn’t see one.

What is the Mali Landscape Like?

Most of Mali is flat and covered in red dust. There are area’s which are reasonably heavily covered with vegetation, but the vegetation seems to be mostly bushes that are very thorny and that the cattle don’t eat.

There are parts of Mali that are quite unique, like the rock formations of Sibi I mention further down, however most of it is flat and dusty.

You can fine area’s that follow the river that have a higher level of vegetation and are varying hues of green, but that is rare.

Travelling To Bamako From Senegal

We were heading towards Bamako after crossing the Senegal-Mali border which takes a few days in our overland truck. We come down through the country on the RN1 and then turn onto the RN25 which brings us down to the intersection at Kita. There is a couple of national parks and reserves on the way into Bamako, however we were kind of fighting time a little bit so we didn’t get to stop.

We were actually heading into Bamako to get our Nigerian visas because that was the only place in Africa that was issuing them so we had to get in to Bamako in a bit of a hurry. You never know when that will just stop!

The Senegal River at Kayes
The Senegal River at Kayes

Kati Intersection is something to see. It isn’t that far out from Bamako (maybe 30km’s) but it is the intersection of three major roads and all the little buses and mini vans refuel on the way into Bamako or drop people off to get on smaller vehicled for the drive into or out of the city.

There are people everywhere, its really LOUD, it’s slow going as there are people and cars pulling in and out all the time but it is really something to see.

A van full of people Mali
Kati intersection, Mali

Arriving Into Bamako

Coming into Bamako we head over the main bridge and see the Niger River for the first time. Once we get into Bamako we’re actually saying at theSleeping Camel which isn’t really a campground (it’s mostly got rooms), but because we’re in the truck they’ve obviously got an agreement with them for us to stay. Steve backs the truck in (it’s a very tight fit) and then directly beside us is this little camping area we can all squeeze our tents onto.

We intend to stay in Bamako for a couple of days, which turns out to be a week. I was desperate to get out to Dejenne, which is this stunning clay brick town, however unfortunately, the Nigerian Embassy just kept saying, “come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow”. Or they would tell us “we might need to interview you”. And this went on and on and on for days.

There was only three people on the truck that we’re not going to Nigeria, so they didn’t have to come to the embassy. Ugneous one of the Icelandic guys that I became quite good friends with actually managed to get on a bus and get out to Dejenne, which was as amazing as it looked.

It’s a however it is a bit of a challenge to get out there. It’s not that far from Bamako, but the bus tends to get there in the middle of the night so when you arrive, you have to kind of stop at this little stop and you have to rent a sleeping mat for 50 cents each. It sounded like a really cool experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go out there because every day the Embassy kept saying come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow and consequently we were going back to the Embassy every day.

I think that went on for 4 days. And finally, in the end they didn’t need to interview us anyway, which was really frustrating, because I was desperate to get out to Djenne, and it would have been one of the places that would have been quite challenging to get on my own.

Cyclists crossing the river Niger, Bamako.
Cyclists crossing the river Niger, Bamako.

How Safe Is Mali?

Mali is known to be a relatively dangerous country. The north west of the country, actually not that far out past Djenne, is under al-Qaida control and is extremely dangerous for westerners particularly. Al-Qaida is enforcing Sharia law, all women are forced to wear a full Burqa and girls are banned from school. The UN considers Timbuktu area to be its most deadly in the world.

Timbuktu is only around 500km north of Djenne and while visiting Djenne is still possible, I would NOT do it on your own.

If you stay in Bamako you shouldn’t have any other real concerns that you wouldn’t have in any other African city. Be aware, don’t carry anything of value, try not to put yourself in situations you can’t get out of and make sure you have cash back at your campground or hotel so that you can pay a taxi when you get there if need be.

When I went into the US after Africa, (and of course I had a Mali stamp in my passport) the border guards were “Mali!, you’ve been to Mali? What are you doing in Mali?” It didn’t stop my US entry but they were a little weird about it for sure.

I really liked it, the countryside was beautiful and quite diverse. I didn’t feel it was unsafe in the areas we were in, however you can’t relax and just wander aimlessly in Mali without considering what possible consequences there might be.

When Ugnius went out to Djenne he said it was just so sad because it is such a beautiful, beautiful town, with all the buildings including a mosque made out of mud. They hadn’t seen any tourists for months, maybe years, because of the whole terrorists situation a bit further out. So yes, it can be a challenge, if you stray outside of the main areas.

The Great Mosque of Djenne
The Great Mud Mosque of Djenne

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She’s always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.

Is Mali safe to travel as a woman?

I never felt in danger at any point in Bamako from anyone being aggressive towards me or anything like that. Most of the time I was with a couple of other people and the times that I was on my own I’m pretty tall and I don’t look like I’m easy to be messed with. I did stay very much within the really busy area in the city. I would seriously rethink any local long distance travel as a single woman simply because nothing ever goes to plan and I would not want to be on the side of the road on my own in Mali. You would probably be OK but women are not treated the same as they are in the west and there would be a chance you could find yourself with some unwanted male attention. I don’t say this lightly, but I would really reconsider travelling via ground transport in Mali.

Take Note Of My Own Mistakes in Bamako

I did make a really dumb decision coming home from the markets one day and got in what I thought was a cab but was in the end the car of a random guy. Thank goodness for bad traffic which truly saved me.

I had been in the car maybe 2 mins when I just got the creeps MASSIVELY. I remember looking up and he was just fixated on me through the review mirror. I asked him about the meter (which are pretty much non existent in Mali) and he grunted and had to look away for traffic. I immediately knew I could be in real trouble. I tried the door and the latch didn’t work. My stress levels peaked!

I pretended I was hot and wound down the window so I could reach the outside handle. It was an old car so I knew he couldn’t lock it electronically. I waited until we slowed in traffic, yelled and waved out the window and threw money I already had over the front seat to him and yelled “there are my friends” and jumped out.

Amazingly – he jumped out after me and started chasing me. I headed back toward the markets and spotted a group of local women coming out. I knew they wouldn’t speak English but at the same time I knew they would get my panic. I mimed I was being chased and ducked in behind them.

They immediately spring into action and started throwing their parcels at this man. There was screaming and yelling and I saw him get kicked in the shin at one point. He cut his losses and walked away but was not happy.

You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen 5 women in burqas throwing fruit at someone!

They were so gracious and insisted I stay with them and walk to the bus stop. They took my info and physically put me on the bus waving as we pulled away. About an hour later I got a text from one of their sons inviting me to dinner. He came with one of the women, picked me up, took me to their home, fed me and brought me back later.

It was one of the best nights I had in Africa. I thought google translate was going to overheat the conversation was so lively and fun.

The biggest challenge of the day was that I put myself in that situation. Even being a very experienced traveller it happened because I was in a hurry and trying to avoid getting yelled at by 40 drivers so I walked through the crowd and picked one from the street.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I ever asked him if he was a taxi. It was one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done and thank goodness for my spidey senses kicking in.

Anyway, apart from that, I really liked Mali. It was really beautiful when we headed out of Bamako toward Guinea. We were really lucky because on the way out from Bamako, there’s an area called Sibi, which is these really crazy kind of rock formations and places where you can hike and climb and Steve very kindly stopped the truck for a few hours and we all got out and hiked and climbed up the rocks.

Rock formations of Sibi, Mali
Rock formations of Sibi, Mali

Later on down the road, I negotiated with the local ladies for bananas and eggs and all sorts of stuff which was really fun. The border crossing into Guinea was actually really interesting, like so many are, in Africa.

Would I recommend Mali?

Honestly there’s not a lot in Mali. Bamako has this really cool kind of little museum complex, which has got some really nice national treasures and things like that & some really cool funky artwork. Obviously there’s the river, you can go out on a little boat on the river to watch the sunset and there are some big markets. The markets have everything you can buy. Anything from anti-biotics to sarongs, to pig’s ears, to fetish items, to whatever you want. It’s really cool but it’s really busy.

There is a great hiking area not far out of the city called Sibi which was great, but apart from that if you are in west Africa, sure check out Mali but I don’t feel I can “recommend” it as there isn’t much there.

Locals selling firewood alongside the road near Sibi
Locals selling firewood alongside the road near Sibi

If you’re not overlanding, the only way to get in and out, is probably to fly in and out of Bamako, however the airport is renown for being operational one day and just shut up the next.

So there’s not a lot in Bamako to see or to do, but if you are overlanding there’s quite a wide variety of landscapes and I actually really liked it. So if you were looking at going through Africa and you’re overlanding, yeah I would say Mali’s worth doing.

Photos From Mali

My Favourite Photo From Mali

Sunset on the River Niger, Bamako

I took this one on the river during a sunset boat trip. I just love it. It’s nothing special but I remember how quiet it was just as the sun was going down and the only really big building in Mali looks amazing with the light.

More Africa Posts

This is my only post from Mali. Unfortunately there wasn’t much else to report on but you can read more of my Africa posts to help plan your trip to this amazing continent.

Leave a comment