Dawn over the Sahara. We've begun our descent toward the Niger River and my 10-year-old son David has just woken after an uncomfortably chilly and movie-less charter flight from Paris. Irritably, he rips the foil off his breakfast yogurt and depressurized pink goo splashes over his fleece. He recoils in rage and creates an embarrassing scene. A dozen middle-aged heads turn in disdain - khaki-clad French adventure-tourists off for a week of guided escapades. Have you seen the Englishman taking his little boy to the desert? Rather dangerous, no?
This turns out to be the worst moment of the whole trip - a journey by public transport through Mali and Burkina Faso, long-promised and finally fulfilled, for father and son.
I always suspected that, away from the torments of his big brother and younger sister, David would shine. And within minutes of stepping on to the rough Tarmac at Gao's airport (a shed and a runway) he is transformed: Africa is a tantrum-free zone for the junior Trillo.
He returns hundreds of hellos each day, shakes hands almost as many times, without complaint, with everyone from urchins to retired Tuareg guerillas, shares with me what seems like the same scrawny chicken every evening, and sleeps under the stars, or on a broken bed, or on my lap in the cab of a late-running, crowded bush taxi with Manding ballads blasting out of the cassette. No Simpsons, no Pringles, no computer games. And the whole time he never complains or loses it. Quite the opposite: David relishes every minute of the experience, hauling water from deep wells, scampering up rocks just for the joy of it, chasing lizards, collecting bottle tops, bargaining for little knives in the market in Timbuktu, counting shooting stars, and getting left behind for an hour when one of our two motorcycle-taxi drivers loses his way in the sandy back streets of Gao.
To be honest, I had wondered if it was perhaps a little risky flying out on such a jaunt with my child at the hot end of the dry season. Hygiene is poor; malaria is endemic; Mali is only a few years over its vicious Tuareg rebellion; and public transport has a dangerous reputation. And then there was the war in Iraq - the region is largely Muslim and I felt a little uneasy about our reception. But all fears, as so often in Africa, were unfounded.
We occasionally tagged along with other (invariably French) tourists for a few hours, but most of the time it was just David and me, and sometimes a guide, waiting for transport, deciding on a hotel for the night, or an auberge (usually a private compound with rooms and roof space), looking for a restaurant or visiting a market. We could nearly always buy bottled water; we also carried a five-litre bottle which we replenished with tap or well water, plopping in drops of iodine to purify it.
Each evening, as the sun went down and the bats came out, we helped each other with bucket showers over a hole in the ground, then smothered ourselves from head to foot in mosquito repellent before dressing again in our dust-saturated clothes for the usual dinner of chicken and rice by the light from a kerosene lamp.
Bus and bush-taxi drivers, far from being the dangerous maniacs I recall so clearly from previous visits, seem to have been on a driving awareness course and drove with elaborate care at soporifically slow speed along roads that were, on the whole, tarmacked and smooth. Never once did they stop to pay bribes at the pointless police and customs checkpoints that used to punctuate the highways like malevolent toll stations. With a measure of democracy and accountability finally gaining ground, the checkpoints seem to have simply vanished in a puff of reason.
Our itinerary, dictated by school holidays rather than lengthier research requirements (others have been updating these chapters), looked somewhat ambitious in light of my own advice at the front of The Rough Guide to West Africa - "the first recommendation is to give yourself time... haste tends to lead to disaster." But it went like clockwork, oiled, I am certain, by the charm effect of David, the "mini-me" white man, with his little backpack. Ripples of laughter and comment rolled through the compounds and street fronts wherever we walked. Women would stop pounding millet to shake David's hand and ask if he was available as a future husband. Old men, their mouths spitting kola nut, would stoop to welcome him. Children would come running and skid to a halt in front of us to greet the "toubabs" - one regular-sized and unexceptional, the other small and remarkable. It was children, in particular, who were enchanted to have a visitor their own size, and waited their turn to shake hands with David.
By day three we were in the modest town of Douentza after a magical afternoon bus ride through towering mesas and unlikely sandstone pinnacles. We slumped into seats at the only working restaurant, ordered plates of couscous, a Sprite and a cold beer, and cautiously shook hands with Daouda, who sat down at our table and said he was a policeman and needed to know about our identity and purpose. In English.
Daouda's unnerving chat-up line was the only joke he made during our time with him. But he was a good guide. By talking to him we found a four-wheel drive vehicle going to Timbuktu, 250km further north. And two days later, after an entirely hassle-free visit to the city (mosques, explorers' houses, internet café, again guided by a charming English-speaking guide) we returned to Douentza to fix up a trek through Dogon country.
We hiked from village to village, staying on rooftops each night, our bags transported separately by ox-cart, all organised by Daouda. We went to a village surrounded by emerald fields of garlic and onions, where crocodiles lurked in every ditch and came out to feed on goat meat. Another with houses perched crazily on outcrops of rock beneath a huge overhanging cliff, set with ancient, abandoned mud dwellings like a wasp's nest and irresistibly recalling the cliff dwellings of the southwest US. A village where David bought a catapult, which made him even more popular with similarly armed local boys. A village where a group of musicians played calabashes and sang and danced in the dark. Another village on market day, where lines of head-loaded women, ox-carts and mobylettes converged all morning, until the tree-shaded market place was kaleidoscopic with colour and thrumming with noise.
From the rocky Dogon country, with its sheer escarpment cliff stretching 200km across the plain, we veered north to the teeming river port of Mopti, to jostle with fishermen, salt traders and CD salesmen on the crowded shore. And then we cut south again for the long haul into Burkina Faso, a diversion to visit schools partly supported by David's junior school, and a flight home from the capital Ouagadougou - with a brief stop in Marrakech to pick up cheap aviation fuel. So we ended the trip with stunning aerial views over the Atlas Mountains and the glinting spring streams of Morocco.
And would I do it again? You bet.TRAVELLER'S GUIDE
The writer flew from Paris with the charter airline Point Afrique (www.point-afrique.com) which has good-value fares and arranges visas. However, the website is only in French. An alternative iswith Air France via Paris. Discount agents such as Trailfinders (020-7938 3939, www.trailfinders.com) have flights to the capital, Bamako, for around £720 from a range of UK airports. This applies for travel until the end of June.
The Foreign Office warns: "Because of the risk of banditry, avoid travel to the north of Timbuktu, the western border area with Mauritania and the eastern border with Niger."
For a visa form, call Mali's embassy in Brussels on 00 32 2 345 7432 and one will be faxed over.
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in 'Rough News'. Richard Trillo was road-testing the the Mali and Burkina Faso chapters (updated by Lone Mouritsen, Katrine Green and Adam Musgrave) of his 'Rough Guide to West Africa', written with Jim Hudgens, £19.99Reuse content