Planet of the Dogon

Trekking in an isolated corner of Mali, Lee Atkinson discovers a countryside and culture that's out of this world.

It takes a long time to say hello in Dogon. When you meet someone, you must always ask about their health. Then you must ask about the health of his wife or her husband, followed by inquiries about the health of his or her parents, children, animals and crops. Once done, the person you are greeting will ask exactly the same questions of you. No matter what the circumstance, the answer to each question is always the same: sewa, or "fine".

It's a melodic back-and-forth that starts as you approach and trails behind you like an echo as you walk by, only to be repeated with the very next person you meet. A never-ending chorus of sewa, sewa, sewa, forming a background soundtrack, accompanied by the thump, thump, thump beat of women pounding millet that follows you wherever you go in the Pays Dogon.

The Pays Dogon, or Dogon Country, is an isolated area in eastern Mali, not far from the border with Burkina Faso. A major feature is the towering Bandiagara Escarpment, a 500-metre high, 150-kilometre long line of cliffs that cuts through the Sahel (the edge of the Sahara).

The Dogon live in villages of mud-brick houses that cling to the rock faces. Rugged and remote, the best way to explore the region is by foot.

Unlike the rest of Mali, which is predominantly Muslim, the Dogon are animists and ritual and ceremony are still integral to their way of life. On our first day, not far from the city of Bandiagara, we visit the village of Songo, where high up in the cliffs above the village is a rocky overhang covered in vibrant red rock art, a male circumcision site where we can see rock stools stained with blood.

We make our way across the top of the rocky plateau and down the canyon, shimmying down rocky slopes and through rock tunnels before emerging in what seems to be a different planet.

Vast green fields of onions form a patchwork against the dun-yellow sands of the desert, painstakingly watered by hand from large calabashes, the hollowed-out shells of gourds that serve as an all-purpose bowl or bucket throughout Mali.

Clusters of tiny mud huts, each topped with a cone-like hat of thatch, form tiny communities, stubbornly clinging to a culture and a way of life the 20th century (let alone the 21st) seems to have passed by, despite being one of West Africa's most popular tourist destinations. There is no power, no running water, no mod cons. Everything is hauled by hand, carried on the head (if you are a woman) or by donkey (if you are a man). If you want to get anywhere, you walk. There are no shops - if you need something you either grow it, make it, mend it or buy it at the weekly market.

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We spend the next three days walking from village to village, scrambling up and down the escarpment, stopping to buy fresh mangos and peanuts at local markets and occasionally creating a small riot when we buy a calabash of fresh goat's milk to share among village children who trail us as we walk, eager to hold the hand of a toubab, or white person.

We visit the home of local medicine men, the exterior walls studded with fetishes and various parts of dead animals, and pay our respects to the Hogon, an untouchable hermit who lives alone in the cliffs the spiritual leader of the village.

We pass mysterious cave-like Tellem houses, high up in the cliffs, that are now sometimes used as burial chambers. Not much is known about the Tellem, other than they were a pygmy-like race that inhabited the area before the Dogon arrived in the 14th century. How they managed to scale the cliffs to their homes is anyone's guess, although legend has it they knew how to fly.

At night, we sleep out under the stars on the rooftops of campments - local houses that provide basic food and sleeping space for travellers - lulled to sleep by the braying of donkeys and waking to the sound of crowing roosters and, always, the drumbeat of the pounding of the millet.

We eat what the locals eat dishes of millet-based cous cous or rice with a bitter, watery sauce made from peanuts, or if we are really lucky, a stringy piece of chicken or "mutton", more likely to be goat than anything else. Breakfast, however, is always delicious, a feast of piping hot millet cakes straight from the griddle.

The Dogon people are famous carvers and everywhere we go we see ornately carved doors and window shutters, each telling a mythological story, covered in fertility symbols or depicting ancestors to help protect the family within.

Idols are everywhere, some elaborately carved depictions of mother and child or the much venerated twins, others with arms raised praying for rain.

Some are less obvious, a lump-like altar of mud splashed with millet or daubed with goats' blood but absolutely sacred and not to be touched or photographed by outsiders, lest a new sacrifice needs to be made.

But the most famous carvings are those of the masks, worn during ceremonial funeral dances called dama, many depicting animals or representing hunters and spirits. In Tireli, we watch a version of the dance, a colourful parade of masked dancers, some wearing masks up to three metres high, others on stilts, that seems to magically transform the dancers into the animals or beings that their masks represent.

On our final day we pass a group of women, each laden down with a large wooden calabash full of grain balanced on her head, a baby tied to her back with a colourful sarong.

I am in awe of their strength: the market they are headed for is a good two-hour walk behind us and I know how heavy their loads are I had tried to lift a bowl of grain the same size just the day before and couldn't manage to get it much higher than my knees, let alone balance it on my head for hours whilst struggling though soft drifting sand ... with a baby on my back. Nothing seems to daunt these women though and they smile as they pass by.

I get ready for a protracted round of greetings but it seems this time, a simple "a va" is sufficient.

The writer was a guest of Peregrine Adventures.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

We flew to Mali (Bamako) via Hong Kong with Kenya Airways (about $3200 return), but thanks to a rather dodgy fuel procurement policy, we were left unexpectedly stranded in Cameroon on the way home, resulting in a two-day delay and countless missed connections. Best bet is to go via Europe with Air France. Fares start about $3000, one way, Sydney to Bamako, see www.airfrance.com. See zuji.com.au for good price and stopover comparisons.

Getting around

A guide is essential for any trekking trip through Dogon Country. Peregrine Adventures offers three itineraries in Mali and each includes a three-day trek into the Pays Dogon World Heritage Area. Tour prices range from $4600 for 13 days to $6165 a person. Groups are limited to 15 people. See peregrineadventures.com or phone 1300854500.

When to go

Best time is between November and January, when it is dry and relatively cool. You need to arrange a visa before you leave home.

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