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Mali is at the heart of northwest Africa’s historical kingdoms and trading routes, and boasts a profusion of unique visitor sites. Add in the opportunity of taking road journeys across vast tracts of desert or Niger riverboats to the fabled metropolis of Timbuktu, as well as seeing people keeping to traditions inherited over many centuries, and Mali is the destination of choice for those with a zest for life.
Mali has a 12,000-mile road network, of which one-quarter is paved. The unsurfaced roads are hazardous to drive on during and immediately after the rainy season. In the capital of Bamako, there are military checkpoints on many of the city streets.
Driving licences: visitors from the UK can use their UK photo licence to drive here. Those using older licences without photos should obtain an International Driving Permit prior to departure.
Which side does Mali drive on: the right.
Inter-city highways: 62mph (100kph)
Built-up areas: 25mph (40kph) or 37mph (60kph)
Alcohol limits: at present, there is no upper alcohol limit for drivers. Safety considerations should dictate safe limits in this country where being involved in an accident under the influence of alcohol could have significant ramifications.
Driving age: 18 years.
Seatbelts: no laws regulating the use of seatbelts have been enacted here.
Mobile phones and GPS: the use of a hand-held mobile phone while driving is illegal. No laws govern the use of GPS, yet few places here have been mapped anyway.
Cost of fuel in Mali: surprisingly, petrol is not much cheaper here than in the UK. In remote locations of the country, it is even more expensive.
Car hire and fuel payment: credit cards are not widely accepted and visitors are restricted to using them at major hotels and international car hire suppliers.
Insurance: all rental vehicles are required to have third-party insurance but it is better to pay an excess fee to cover possible damage to hire cars.
Traffic and parking: parking in Bamako is a chore due to the number of motorcycles in the city. In Timbuktu, streets made of sand are not conducive to cars. Outside the main cities, there are no parking restrictions, but it is better to avoid leaving your vehicle in isolated spots. Traffic can be chaotic in the cities but is rarely an issue outside urban areas.
The only operational trains in the country are the thrice-weekly services running between Bamako and Kayes near the Senegalese border. The route used to continue to the port city of Dakar on Senegal’s Atlantic coast, but was suspended in 2009.
Official Bamako taxis are yellow and sometimes have a taxi sign in English on top of them. Passengers need to agree on a fare with the driver before getting in, with a ride anywhere in the city possible for under £2 (more for locations across the river). Other options for getting around the city are shared taxis, which come in two different styles. Sotramas are green minibuses and bachees are covered pick-up trucks. Both run on set routes and are always packed with locals. From city to city, brousse taxis are an alternative to buses and the only means of reaching some of the more isolated destinations.
Assuming land borders are open, Mali has international bus services from Dakar (Senegal), Abidjan (Ivory Coast) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). The services mostly terminate in Bamako and stop at multiple destinations en route. Long distance buses in the country link the capital to cities such as Mopti, Gao and Segou. Journey times are lengthy and breakdowns frequent, with Bittar Transportation one of the most reliable operators.
There are river ferries on the Niger which link Bamako, Mopti and Gao. Ferry timetables are not fixed and passengers might have to wait for days for a ferry to depart in the dry season. There are riverboat services on other waterways during and after the wet season.
Bamako Senou International Airport, a 20-minute taxi ride (£10) from the capital, hosts direct flights to and from Paris (Orly and Charles de Gaulle). Pricey internal flights serve Timbuktu, Mopti (for access to Dogon) and Kayes (for western locations and Senegal), among other locations, from Bamako.
For most visitors, Bamako is their first taste of Mali. Stunning architecture, museums and picturesque botanical gardens are among the draws here. The nearby Point G Hill offers panoramic views of the city.
Timbuktu, on the southern border with the Sahara, is a must-visit spot for intrepid travellers. The Grand Market, Sankore Mosque and camel treks into the Sahara Desert await visitors who journey to this exotic hot spot.
Mopti, east of Bamako on the Niger River, is the gateway to Dogon country and the UNESCO World Heritage site at Bandiagara Escarpment. Knowledgeable guides lead tourists on trips to the cliff-side Dogon villages and ancient burial chambers.
Djenne is also accessible from Mopti. The town’s Great Mosque is one of the world’s most majestic sights. Unique adobe architecture and Djenne-Jeno ensure Djenne remains on the itineraries of international tourists.
Boucle du Baoule National Park is on the road from Bamako to Kayes and is another UNESCO designated site that is noted for its ancient tombs and rock art.
The rainy season in this part of Africa runs from June to October. In Timbuktu and the Saharan regions of Mali, there is little rain. From mid-February to the start of the rains, it is hot and dry, with daytime temperatures frequently hitting 40°C and above. November to January is the best time to visit as the weather is cooler and roads and rivers are more easily navigated.