Leaving early, we drive a few kilometres to the small village of Dourou where the trek starts. We pack day bags of essentials – water bottles, wet wipes, toothbrushes, towels, underwear and a change of clothes – then at 4pm we set off, hiking 7km to Nombori village.

Our local guide Malik has given each of the girls in our group a traditional name to fit their personality. Mine is Djenba, which means ‘happy one’. “We’ll see,” I think as we start the ascent up the 500m escarpment.

Luckily the climb is gradual, and the spectacular panorama at the top makes it more than worth the effort. I sit on the precarious lookout post – a small sliver of cliff with just enough room to stand – and take in the remarkable landscape around me. To my left the escarpment dominates the skyline and to my right are rolling sand dunes, while in front of me the rainy season has left mile upon mile of green farmland, interrupted only by narrow flowing streams.

There’s not much time to linger, though, as time is against us. The descent is trickier and we need to reach the plains and arrive in the village before sunset. 

We make it to Nombori just as night is falling to find a village typical of the Dogon region, with small single-storey mud houses nestling into the cliffside. The villagers come out to greet us and, as is polite in their culture, ask everyone a series of questions. The greeting might be time consuming, but it’s rhythmical and nice to listen to.

After a dinner of couscous and tomato sauce I retire to a small stone room – it’s raining slightly so there’s no rooftop camping tonight – to get some rest before our early start the next morning.

The sun beams in at 5.30am, and after a short tour of the village we’re off again. We’re covering 16km on the first day, stopping only for lunch and to witness the famous Dogon mask dance in the village of Tirelli.

By about 8am the temperature has already soared above 30˚C. The sheer heat makes walking very tough, and sooner or later we all slip into our own worlds. At a brief rest stop I sink to the floor, defeated, and look up to find a fellow trekker leaning against a baobab tree, his face pressed up against the trunk enjoying this precious moment of shade. We‘re all feeling the effects.

We arrive in Tirelli to a long table filled with cold bottled water. The traditional mask dance is performed to passing tourists as well as an audience of village elders who, to my surprise, continuously heckle the male dancers. We watch a cast of 30, dressed in brightly coloured masks and costumes made out of the wood stripped from baobab trees.

After a short rest we’re back on the road and off to Ireli, where we will stay the night. It’s been two days since we left relative civilisation. I’m tired, uncomfortable and desperately wanting a shower.

That night I climb up to the roof of a village mud house and into my mosquito net-covered mattress. I lie down and stare into the night sky. With the Milky Way’s hazy band of white lights twinkling in front of me, I feel like I can see right through to the centre of the universe.

I wake in a much better frame of mind, ready to ignore the pain from my blistered feet. We traipse through crocodile-infested waters, get eaten alive by flies, and eventually climb back up the 500m escarpment in the midday sun to reach the village of Sanga.

I collapse on top of the escarpment and look over the Dogon country, feeling an enormous sense of achievement. Mali has more than lived up to the drama of its first impression.

Dogon culture

Village life
The Dogon people can be traced back to the 14th century and are a mix of Muslim, Christian and animist. Village life is male dominated, with animist men allowed up to 10 wives. All villages contain a toguna – a small stone temple in which the men discuss village goings on. The toguna is only a few metres high, so in a heated debate if anyone wants to storm out they have to crawl, which isn’t quite so effective.

And death
The villages’ graveyards and funerals are for men only. Funerals are a time of celebration in the Dogon culture, and it’s feared that women would be too emotional at them. Women
can visit their loved ones only after three months have passed, but not during menstruation.
The Dogon believe men and woman are born with both sexual components. The clitoris is male and the prepuce is female. Circumcision is performed on both sexes, so men and women can assume their proper gender.

On location
Dogon villages are carved into the side of the escarpment, where centuries before the Tellem lived. The Dogon believe the Tellems were ‘mystical flying pygmies’, due to their homes being built high into the hills.

Mask dance
The dance is performed in an array of colours. This has been modified from traditional colours used to represent humans – black for skin, white for bone and red for blood. The dance is performed by men ranging in age from 15 to 50 years old. Characters are determined by the dancers’ ancestors.

Highlights of Mali

Be sure to visit the Unesco World Heritage Site of Djenne, which is built entirely of mud. The bustling market lies at the foot of Africa’s largest mud building – The Grand Mosque.

Niger River
Cruise along the majestic river on a pirogue, hovering just inches above the water. If you’re lucky you’ll see herds of grazing hippos. The sun setting over the river casts beautiful silhouettes of the Bozo tribe fishing.

This town is refreshingly different to all other towns in Mali. Wander down its wide, tree-lined streets marvelling at the old colonial buildings. The shores of the River Niger offer an ample supply of photo opportunities.