Desert orchid

French anthropologists have been bedding down in Mali's Dogon villages for decades, but Rhiannon Batten discovers there's also a boutique hotel amid the Saharan sands

Finding a boutique hotel in West Africa once seemed harder than forcing a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. The odd stylish B&B and a small, French-run chain of rustically chic auberges caters to the moneyed backpacker, but the region's scant collection of up-market places to stay has a long way to go before inclusion in the
Hip Hotels books is guaranteed. Most are resolutely grim corporate monoliths circa 1983, complete with authentically retro furnishings.

Finding a boutique hotel in West Africa once seemed harder than forcing a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. The odd stylish B&B and a small, French-run chain of rustically chic auberges caters to the moneyed backpacker, but the region's scant collection of up-market places to stay has a long way to go before inclusion in the Hip Hotels books is guaranteed. Most are resolutely grim corporate monoliths circa 1983, complete with authentically retro furnishings.

So when I came across Le Kambary as I was flicking through Taschen's coffee-table tome Great Escapes Africa, I nearly dropped my cappuccino in shock. Two months on I pulled up outside the real thing. Rising up from the desert, in the dusty back of Mali's beyond, you're not sure at first whether the image in front of you is just another case of sun-induced delirium.

Here, amid the kind of over-baked, dehydrated landscape that suggests rain hasn't touched the earth for thousands of years, sit a series of cool, perfectly rounded stone domes, their graphic outline teasingly edged by a haphazard smattering of something that looks preposterously leafy.

Part Star Wars, part pizza oven, these natty huts are the hotel's bedrooms. The fantastical brainchild of a Swiss cameraman and an Italian architect, Le Kambary, which opened in 1999, boasts architecture with a clear, ethically-minded brief. As far as possible, it was constructed using only local labour, materials and furnishings, and most of the staff who now make sure it ticks along are also from the area.

Designed to keep their inhabitants naturally cool during the sweltering Saharan daytime, the domes all have double walls. Inside, the cool, clean white walls are pierced only by a ring of porthole windows. Those of an optimistic persuasion can open them to in search of a breeze, while more pessimistic visitors are free to block out the sun with swish leather plugs.

As for the rest of the decor, it could be described as eco African chic. While the best rooms come with luxuries like air-conditioning and satellite TV, you won't find gimmicky mini-bars or Philippe Starck hairdryers appearing here anytime soon. The hotel's great selling point is its stylish simplicity.

In all the rooms, the vast mosquito nets and naturally dyed textiles that are draped over platform beds provide a touch of romance, while the Malian furniture (a small desk and chair and a single wardrobe) is ample enough to provide comfort without clutter. There's no skimping in the hotel's bathrooms either. Each bedroom has its own ensuite tucked away in a smaller adjoining dome. Ours came complete with a flushing toilet (a huge extravagance after three days spent bobbing down the Niger on a reed boat), a series of funky sinks cleverly recycled from sturdy, flower-embossed enamel bowls, and hot water that tumbled from a simple shower.

Even more impressive are the gardens. Running between the domes - and out to a small, inky pool at the back - are a series of cute stepping-stone pathways bordered by blooming flowerbeds and fruit trees. Planted soon after work first started on the hotel back in 1997, the fragile shrubbery has slowly started to blossom. Now many of the trees are well over 2m tall and the cascades of hot pink bougainvillea are thriving. After days without seeing anything greener than the petits pois you find on every restaurant menu in West Africa, being surrounded by leaves again came as a welcome relief. A true desert oasis, much of Le Kambary's appeal is down to its location. That it exists in West Africa at all is impressive. But that it crops up on the outskirts of Bandiagara, two bumpy and squashed-in hours' drive from the Timbuktu jump-off town of Mopti (itself a long day's bus ride from the capital, Bamako) is a very welcome surprise. We strolled into the hotel wearing a coating of caramel-coloured dust, yet the bar was full of neatly groomed French tourists and glamorous thirty-something backpackers. They sipped cocktails and swapped sightseeing tips while reclining on indigo cushions and flicking through the restaurant's surprisingly large menu (presumably trying to fathom, like us, what precisely "moussaka - in season" really is).

But it isn't just the hotel's sense of style that draws people in. This is the closest comfort gets to Mali's Dogon country. A far bigger draw these days than desolate Timbuktu away to the north, the Bandiagara escarpment is only about 20km south but a million miles away from Le Kambary. A brusque return to reality for anyone setting out from the hotel, the escarpment's 150km long sandstone cliffs are home to a series of ancient adobe villages and 350,000 Dogon people - but not to running water or electricity.

Famed for their traditional culture, animist beliefs and agricultural know-how (the Dogon are some of the best onion-growers in West Africa), the Dogon have been rich fodder for visiting academics ever since the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule first wrote about them in the 1940s. Such rich fodder, in fact, that an often-told local joke goes: "How many people are there in a Dogon family? Five - two parents, two children and one French anthropologist."

It's easy to understand why the academics want to visit. When the Dogon moved into the area around 500 years ago, one of the trademark quirks they developed was to use the caves their predecessors had once lived in, part way up the cliff face, as burial grounds. Another was their sense of craftsmanship - they still manage to produce intricately carved wooden doors, elaborate masks and symbolic sculptures from this remote and inhospitable corner of the world. And the social scientists also come to admire the Dogon's neat banco granaries.

Competing fiercely with Le Kambary to win the "weirdest skyline in Mali" award, the smooth mud silhouettes of these conically shaped storage chambers are each topped with an unruly crown of thatch. Grouped together they look more like a gaggle of mischievous witches than anything as mundane as larders. To the Dogon women they also have a deeper significance. Seeing them as a representation of the world, they keep their most treasured possessions tucked in the centre of whatever peanuts or beans they happen to be storing.

While you can visit a Dogon village or two in a day, most people spend longer hiking through the escarpment and staying overnight in one of several basic guesthouses scattered through the villages. None of them will make it into the pages of a coffee-table hotel guide. But sleeping out on a chilly roof in one of these spectacular villages, trying to decide where the earth stops and the baked-mud buildings begin, is one of the most novel experiences money can buy.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Ethiopian Airlines (020-8987 7000; www.flyethiopian.com) flies from Heathrow to Addis Ababa, where you can change planes for Bamako; return fares start at around £560 through discount agents. Air France (0845 359 1000; www.airfrance.co.uk) flies to Bamako from various airports via Paris; fares start at around £760. From the capital, take a bus to Mopti (around £10, 10 hours) and then a shared baché (open-backed van) for the final 60km (around £1.50, two hours). It's quicker and more comfortable to hire a 4x4 and driver. Expect to pay at least £50 per day, or double for an airport transfer from Bamako. Imaginative Traveller (0800 316 2717; www.imaginative-traveller.com) offers 14-day trips to the Bandiagara region from £1,055 with flights, rooms, transport and some meals.

STAYING THERE

Le Kambary (00 223 2442 388; www.kambary.com) has doubles from CFA20,000 (£21).

FURTHER INFORMATION

UK travellers need a visa to visit Mali. There is no embassy in the UK, but you can get one through those in Paris (00 33 1 45 48 58 43) or Brussels (00 32 2345 7432). This week the Foreign Office warned against travel "to the north of Timbuktu, the western border area with Mauritania and the eastern border with Niger, due to banditry".

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