Don's diary

December 24, 1999

Wednesday

I spend the whole day driving, passing through Boni and Hombori, two tiny African villages to the east of Bamako in Mali.

Along the way, we pick up a soldier who has an AK-47. His weapon-handling makes me nervous. Djabi (our vehicle assistant) stays behind as he's ill with malaria. Now we are four in the Land Cruiser.

We are somewhere in the desolate Gourma region, southeast of Bamako, deep in the bush looking for elephants. There are estimated to be only 400 Gourma elephants in the whole of Africa.

"None around," the Fulani nomads tell us.

Thursday

I drive for 12 hours again. We search for the tiniest of settlements, using obsolete French colonial maps, a compass and the Global Positioning System. Our aim is to build up a map of the elephants' movements, whichwill allow us to create a conservation plan.

When approaching the flimsy-looking mud and straw huts, villagers initially hide, only to then turn around and approach the vehicle. I notice they like my sunglasses. They touch the Land Cruiser, but the starting engine makes them flee again. We ask about elephants, but they have not come through yet.

Friday

We start the day early as the heat is oppressive today. No luck finding elephants' spoor.

Close to midday we notice a sandstorm building up some few kilometres away. The sky turns into a red mass that embraces the horizon behind us. The locals call it the "red wall". It seems far but it travels very fast. Within minutes it hits us. Everything around is tinted in red and orange tones; visibility reduces to a few centimetres. We suffer it from inside the Land Cruiser, loaded with four people, windows rolled up. The strength of the wind makes the truck rock. Forty-five minutes later, it starts to fade. It rains but the droplets stain everything red for they carry the dust. I wonder how the elephants can shelter from it in this barren landscape.

Saturday

Wake up at 5am and move into elephant country. Our information indicates that the elephants must be around this area.

Shortly after dawn we see fresh elephant spoor, which we follow with the help of a Fulani hunter. Four hours of hiking in the bush at temperatures as high as 48°C and we return to the Land Cruiser with no sighting of elephants. So, back to covering more land in the Cruiser, only to have a rear tyre pierced by a fallen tree branch. As I change the wheel, it starts to rain, just what I need.

Sunday

We keep driving, as we want to get as close to the elephants as possible. Their tracks disappear in this rain. We risk a lot by driving now and we pay our toll: bogged down within minutes. Three hours sinking in muddy ground, digging and swearing.

Monday

With the spoor washed away, we decide to travel to Niger to meet three scientists. We leave Hombori, and 22 hours and nine police and army controls later, we arrive at Gao - a town at the eastern fringe of Mali. There we cross the Niger River on a perilously over-laden pontoon.

The road is a wreck due to the rains. We find trucks rolled over and cars bogged down. Not very promising! We survive this section of the road and arrive at Niamey before midnight. Hector Medina is a surveying

and mapping consultant from the University of East London.

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