In the Twenties, the train journey between Dakar in Senegal and the Malian capital was one of the greatest and most luxurious in Africa. But what is it like now? Rhiannon Batten finds out

When the Senegalese border guard jumped into the carriage wearing dark glasses, a beret and an artificial grin it was unbelievably hot and I'd just been violently sick. I was lying on my back pressing a cold bottle of Fanta to my forehead to try to keep my brain from melting, and I didn't know which of us looked more ridiculous. In the end it must have been me because he backed out as quickly as he'd climbed in.

When the Senegalese border guard jumped into the carriage wearing dark glasses, a beret and an artificial grin it was unbelievably hot and I'd just been violently sick. I was lying on my back pressing a cold bottle of Fanta to my forehead to try to keep my brain from melting, and I didn't know which of us looked more ridiculous. In the end it must have been me because he backed out as quickly as he'd climbed in.

There were no excuses for being unprepared for the train journey from Dakar to Bamako. A few days before we'd left Britain, the epic Senegal-Mali route had appeared in a re-run of Michael Palin's Sahara series, the most memorable part of which had been Palin's grin wilting as the train limped raggedly towards Bamako station. The journey may be regarded as one of the last great train routes in Africa, but his verdict was unforgiving: "Bamako station, 5.40am. The Heart of Darkness".

Had Palin been travelling 50 years earlier he might not have felt so gloomy. Hacked from some of Africa's most desolate terrain, the Dakar-Bamako line that opened in 1923 linked the biggest cities in French-occupied West Africa with the Atlantic and the vast Niger river. By the 1950s, the route was so successful that three passenger trains a week ran in both directions. According to RJ Henderson Church's rather unimaginatively titled 1957 book West Africa, "in 1949 the express...covered the 769 miles in 29 hours and was rarely late".

In 2004 this sentence reads like a bad joke. Though scheduled as a 35-hour trip, the journey regularly takes more than three days and the service is down to a single train a week, if it turns up at all. Once, its carriages graced the London-Milan boat-train route. Now they're left to fall apart in the sub-Saharan dust while the track crumbles beneath them. Increasingly, passengers are turning to the cheaper, faster and only marginally more crowded bush taxis. It's feels as though the Dakar-Bamako train is nearing the end of the line.

Not that you would have any idea of the state of the railway from standing outside Dakar's station. A blip of wedding-cake frivolity in the middle of a uniformly grey dockyard, today its cobwebbed bays, dainty brickwork and neat colonial clock tower form a structural postcard that speaks more of the Côte d'Azur than the far western tip of Africa.

We had plenty of time to admire the architecture. When we arrived at the station at the time etched on our tickets, it was locked. A chalk board by the gates announced " depart demain, 19h". The reason for the delay was Tabaski, an annual celebration of the sparing of Abraham's son, where each family who can afford one slaughters a goat. The train operators had postponed the service to mark the occasion. They had known in advance, but had decided to sell tickets anyway, lest the bush taxi operators picked up the business. As the afternoon faded, a growing crowd settled on the pavement outside the station to wait.

The following day, long after the promised departure time, the guards finally announced that we could board the train. We were off - or, at least, we would be as soon as all the passengers, along with their sacks of salt, carpets, TVs, suitcases, stoves and babies could be squeezed on to the platform through a minute turnstile just to the side of the large, and still locked, iron gates.

Tired from the waiting, we were looking forward to finally spreading out in the couchette we had splurged nearly £50 on. Memories of the starched white sheets provided on long-distance trains in Chile and the clean efficiency of a carriage in Vietnam came to mind as we trudged down the platform. Palin's overcast end-of-journey expression had been forgotten - until we climbed aboard.

There, fading pictures on the walls taunted us with images of the luxury these compartments had once boasted. Today the decoration consists of cascades of dirt running down the walls, over the windows and across the floors - though they were still cleaner than the train's toilets, which looked frighteningly like the one Ewan McGregor disappeared down in Trainspotting.

As the engine creaked into action, attention turned to the last-minute scramble for bananas, peanuts and bissap juice. Soon the excitement of being in motion gave way to quiet, and darkness. Thirty kilometres or so beyond Dakar's bright lights, swimming-pools and classy French-run cafés, we discovered a far more accurate picture of West African life. Looking into the gloom, mud huts had replaced beachside apartments, dust had taken the place of tarmac and endless scrubland had switched places with leafy boulevards.

The view was the same the next morning, and would be for the next thousand or so kilometres. If anything was to bring home how little the colonists had put into their territories, it was this contrast. The Europeans built a basic infrastructure to exploit the lucrative resources they were after, but their investment dwindled beyond the boundaries of the capital. The pattern does not seem to have changed much since independence.

Judging by the miniscule number of foreigners we met on our journey, even tourism isn't thriving in this neglected corner of the continent. In our three days on the train we met a backpacker from Guadeloupe, a Japanese man who'd hitched down from Mauritania on a lorry and a young American visiting West Africa to stock up on drums for his business back in California. For everyone else it was just a long commute to or from work.

That tourism isn't more developed here isn't a complete surprise; West Africa's national parks have gradually been stripped of the wildlife that draws in the crowds further east and south (a game keeper in Burkina Faso told us that rich European hunters still come out to take pot shots at what little is left here). This, and political instability, has meant the elegant auberges that could compete with the lodges of East and Southern Africa stand empty, their still-colourful gardens the only signs of life. And, though French backpackers arrive on no-frills flights from Paris and Marseille, their numbers are still too small to fill the region's guesthouses and hostels.

For those who do visit, there is plenty to see. The electric blue Abyssinian rollers and red-billed firefinches that streak the sky at dawn defy anyone not to hanker after a pair of binoculars. Then there's the music. Heard at every station and on radios in between, it's deservedly famous. So, too, is the Niger, a mythical river the 18th-century British explorer Mungo Park described as "glittering in the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster". Either the Thames was broader in those days or the Niger has expanded since. Either way, there are places where the water is so wide that you struggle to see land.

From the train you don't get much of a sense of this, though. The experience is at its best early in the morning, when it is still cool and the jagged clumps of desert villages stand like sculptures in the scrub. But pulling up at a station in the baking heat of the day, the monotony of being summoned to hand your passport over yet again to the chain-smoking official holding court in the restaurant car would threaten anyone's sanity. As does three days spent watching baobabs roll past on the horizon.

But, finally, just when you're beginning to question whether the journey will ever end, the train staggers towards Bamako. As the lights in the distance glow stronger and the smell of street stalls starts to hit the carriages, you realise that this is it, the end of the journey. Except, of course, that it isn't. On our trip the train broke down 10km from the city and it was another two hours, long after dark, when the engine finally dragged us into the gloomy frenzy of Bamako station.

In the event, the end of the line is rather more glamorous than Palin's description. Bamako's station may not be at its best before dawn but the building's once-graceful features can still just be made out beyond the grime and the abandoned platforms. The Heart of Darkness? Only if you've made it this far without facing the train's toilets.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights to Dakar from the UK, but with an agent such as Trailfinders (020-7628 7628; www.trailfinders.com), scheduled flights via Lisbon or Paris start at around £400. Or fly charter to The Gambia and travel from there: return fares from various UK airports to Banjul start at £300 return (02380 730888; www.gambiaflights.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

Dakar is generally much better for accommodation than Bamako, with good deals on Expedia for corporate chain hotels such as the Teranga (00 221 8892200), where doubles start at £75.43. Independent hotels such as the Croix du Sud (00 153 823 2947) have doubles from £25. In Bamako the Mande hotel (00 223 221995) has rooms from £40.

RED TAPE

UK citizens need visas to visit Mali: these can be obtained by sending passports to European Malian embassies (Paris: 00 33 148 078 585; Brussels: 00 32 234 57432) which can take a couple of weeks. A quicker alternative may be to visit the Malian embassy in Dakar at 46 Boulevard de la Republique (00 221 220473), which should take a couple of days. Visas cost around £9. Tourist information is available in Dakar in a free listings magazine called Le Dakarois, which is readily available in large hotels and travel agencies.

Bamako tourist information is available from the Office Malien du Tourisme et de l'Hotellerie (OMATHO) near the southern end of Rue Mohammed V. There is also a listings magazine called Djembe available at tour agents - or visit www.africaguide.com.

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