There is no name for this route through the West African bush between Kedougou, Senegal and the town of Mali in Guinea. There are no guesthouses, not even any campsites, certainly not any restaurants, stores, or cars. “Off the beaten track” is an overused term, but it most definitely applies here.
For three days you’ll navigate constantly branching footpaths, stopping for tea and mangoes (so many mangoes!), camping in tiny villages of woven grass huts, and scrambling up and down steep rocky trails.
You’ll eat rice with your hand from a communal pot, wash with a bucket under the stars, purify drinking water from wells and streams, and get your passport stamped at the most remote border post you’ve ever seen.
At the end of it all you’ll be in the highlands of Guinea, a fascinating and challenging travel destination, and this trek will be just the beginning of your West Africa hiking adventures.
Sound like fun? It was. I did this trek during five months of travel in both east and west Africa and it remains one of the most far-out-there experiences of my trip.
Read on for the story and a brief guide to this amazing experience.
Start: Dindefelo village, near Kedougou, Senegal
End: Mali (the town, not the country), in northern Guinea. Sometimes referred to as Maliville, to avoid confusion with the nearby country of the same name.
You could also do this route in the opposite direction, though personally I think moving from Senegal to Guinea is nice because Senegal is a bit more developed for tourism.
Time: 2-3 days. My trip took 2.5, finishing by midday on the third, but we spent a LOT of time having tea in villages along the way. My guide did everything he could – including naps and long tea breaks – to keep us from hiking in the peak of midday heat. If you wanted to rush a bit more I think 2 days is just fine.
Language: I’m putting this right up front to avoid unpleasant surprises… You will need to speak some basic French. It can be quite basic – I taught myself over a period of a couple months – but without it you will really be lost. You might also want a small printed dictionary since Google Translate isn’t commonly used there – I used my Pocket French Dictionary heavily.
What It’s Like to Travel in Senegal and Guinea
Senegal and Guinea lie in West Africa, a fascinating, colorful, challenging, and rewarding place to travel. While safer than most people expect, it’s not the kind of place you want to just show up in without doing your homework.
You’ll need vaccinations, malaria precautions, and a certain amount of confidence, adaptability and street smarts. That said, you don’t need to be some kind of superhuman travel machine – I survived just fine traveling solo there without much prior experience traveling in Africa.
Senegal and Guinea are usually safe to visit, but occasionally experience political unrest in specific regions. Some of their neighbors, like the country of Mali, currently warrant caution due to terrorism. It’s always a good idea to check the current situation before heading over.
Tourism infrastructure is almost nonexistent in Guinea and much of Senegal, and the local standards of living are unfortunately rather poor. Expect to “rough it” with bucket showers, bush taxis and basic meals. At the same time, expect friendly and curious locals who are always willing to help you out when you need it (and you will).
Do you need a guide to walk from Kedougou to Maliville?
In 99.9% of cases, yes. I love independent travel and prefer to go it alone whenever possible, such as on the Congo Nile Trail in Rwanda. But this route is different. If you’re like me and need to be convinced that a guide is necessary, this section is for you.
First of all, a guide will know the way. It’s not like there are trail signs out in the middle of the Guinean bush, and there aren’t even people around to ask for directions most of the time. There’s a dirt road which is easier to follow, but it’s longer and less scenic. It was totally worthwhile having a guide to lead me through the maze of small footpaths instead.
A guide will also be key for communication, especially if you don’t speak French well. Chances are your guide only speaks French, but at least he’s being paid to try and decipher your linguistic shenanigans. Even if you do speak French well, many locals speak Pular instead, and having a guide who can communicate with them will definitely help.
Guides have a network of useful contacts. They know families who will cook you meals, places you can camp and get water, and probably whoever you need to meet at the end of your trek. Life in Africa, I’ve come to learn, revolves around personal networks. It’s really no different for a visiting traveler. The more people you get to know, the smoother your journey will be.
Finally, there’s the safety factor. This route is really out there. No cell phone reception, no reliable transport, not many people around. I was traveling solo and barely spoke French let alone the local language. In an area where malaria can kill you within 24 hours (only if you’re really unlucky though), where locals perceived me as unfathomably rich and where a woman traveling solo is a confusing rarity, I wanted a guide to mitigate risk of really unlikely but potentially nasty scenarios.
So, unless you’re in the top 0.1% of confident independent travelers, experienced in remote travel in Africa, good at getting what you need in challenging situations and willing to take on a bit of risk… hire a guide.
Finding A Guide
It’s possible to simply show up in Kedougou and find a guide, but it could take an extra couple days and it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting.
If your French isn’t stellar and/or you want to be extra careful about finding a trusted recommendation, I recommend you arrange a guide in advance.
I recommend contacting Alpha (+221 77 652 64 50 – French only). We communicated on WhatsApp in advance – super helpful if your French needs a little help from Google Translate – and he set me up with a guide named Idrissa Diallo (+221 78 326 34 11 – also French only). They were both great and I recommend them.
Alpha also manages a lovely campement (guesthouse) outside Kedougou and will be happy to bring you there for a night or two before you start your trek. There are some lovely waterfalls and swimming holes nearby. The property also houses a sewing center that trains girls and women so they can make money to support their families.
If you can’t reach Alpha or Idrissa, try contacting Fouta Trekking. They don’t guide this route (at the time I asked at least) but may be able to refer you to another trusted guide. They also guide great hikes around Maliville and Labé if you want more once you get to Guinea.
Cost: Definitely negotiable. I ended up paying 60,000 CFA (about $100 USD) for three days, including camping. Once or twice I also paid a small additional amount for a meal in a village. Your guide will expect a tip at the end.
You can probably pay less if you wait to find a guide until you arrive, but in this case I was willing to pay a bit extra for trust and peace of mind.
Porters: It’s a one-way hike so you’ll need to bring all your luggage with you. I’m stubborn and take pride in packing light, so I lugged my entire backpack – equipped for 5 months in Africa – over the whole route. If you’d like help carrying your things, that can be arranged through your guide.
What To Pack
Since you (or a porter) will be carrying all your stuff, it’s obviously important to pack light. My guide carried only a tiny day pack and therefore was very speedy! I was a bit more weighed down, as I was on a several month trip, but fortunately my trusty Osprey Porter 46 coped well with the challenge.
See my full West Africa packing list for more detail.
Essentials: water purification, first aid kit, sunscreen, money belt or pocket underwear, headlamp, mosquito repellent (this is my favorite), possibly a power bank (you weren’t expecting electricity were you?), etc. This isn’t a complete packing list, but the items on this list of my favorite adventure travel gear are perfect for this kind of trip.
Clothing: Ideally just a couple sets of lightweight, stink-resistant clothes. I love merino wool shirts (men’s version here) for their magic stink-resistant properties, but they do get a little soggy in the humid heat. Merino wool undies and sports bras are travel essentials for me. For cultural appropriateness, both women and men should wear knee-length or longer shorts; full-length loose fitting pants would be even better.
Camping: I had lightweight camping gear with me – a solo tent (love my Big Sky Soul tent – also useful as a mosquito net) and inflatable sleeping pad. Instead of a sleeping bag, I was able to get away with a silk liner and occasionally an emergency bivy in the hot climate.
If I had not brought a tent I’m sure there would have been an option to sleep inside a family’s hut. Still, I appreciated having my own space, mosquito protection, and the option to not invade a family’s space if it didn’t feel right.
You don’t need any cooking gear, as your meals will be cooked by locals over a fire.
Food and Water
Your guide will arrange meals with families along the way, and you’ll probably have to pay a few dollars extra here or there to cover the cost. They’ll likely be the usual rice with sauce, not always the most appetizing but very authentic and occasionally delicious.
Don’t be surprised if the meal is served in a communal pot that you share with others. Also don’t be surprised if everyone eats with their hand (use your right hand, the left is considered rude).
Best Time To Go
You can do this hike year round, though the weather varies a lot. I was there in March, when it was hot and dry and the seasonal harmattan wind veiled the vistas in an atmospheric dusty haze.
I’ve heard the scenery is better – greener, more alive – during the wetter season from June through September. Of course you need to be prepared to get wet and muddy, and transportation will be even more of a challenge. Personally I didn’t mind the dry weather, and although the dusty haze spoiled a lot of my pictures it actually looked pretty cool in person.
Do keep in mind, if you’re there in the dry season especially, the weather is stinkin’ HOT.
Kedougou: The Start
Kedougou has some basic tourist infrastructure, though most of it is outside the town proper, near the more scenic villages like Dindefelo where small campements house tourists in basic thatched huts. If you want to enjoy the waterfalls and hiking that the area is known for, you’ll either need to know where you want to go (so you can hire transportation) and speak French, or get help from a local contact (guide or campement owner).
To reach Kedougou from elsewhere in Senegal, plan at least a full day, probably two if taking public transportation.
Coming from Dakar, you should be able to take two separate shared taxis, connecting in Tambacounda and possibly spending a night there (try to avoid traveling after dark as traffic accidents are all too common).
Coming from Ziguinchor in the Casamance region, I made it in two days using three separate shared taxis, spending an overnight in Kolda and then connecting in Tambacounda on the second day.
Journal and Route Overview
As mentioned above, you could do this route in less time than I did. Personally I think the extra night spent camping in a village was totally worthwhile. Here’s how it broke down for me across three days, as told through excerpts from my travel journal.
From my journal:
The day started with a bumpy moto ride to the village of Dindefello, zipping along narrow dirt tracks in the morning light and trying not to let the weight of my pack pull me off the seat. From there the trek started with a rough climb up a steep rocky trail. It’s sizzling hot here, at least 100 degrees, and I’m carrying everything I have. But after a single steep climb we stayed on top of a mercifully flat plateau the rest of the day. “C’est bon?” my guide asked over and over. “Oui, c’est bon.”
The scenery was bizarre: parched, scrubby, and studded with mushroom-shaped termite hills. The only sound was the crunch of dirt under foot and the constant buzzing and chirping of insects. In my perpetually overheated state it was the sound of hot, still air.
We walked for hours without seeing anyone. When we did pass villages they seemed accidental, just collections of thatched huts that somehow sprung up near no discernible feature on the flat land. The trail branched constantly but my guide always knew the way.
After a few hours we arrived at a border village. Almost everything, from the roofs to the fences to the furniture, was made from intricately woven natural materials. In a thatched hut with reggae music pumping from a portable speaker, a man in a red t-shirt and Hawaiian shorts spent 15 minutes copying who knows what from my passport into a worn notebook. We ate mangoes fresh from the tree while we waited.
After the “formalities” we spent two hours – two hours! – having Senegalese tea at the hut of a man who (I think) is head of the local police and a friend of my guide. Making tea is an elaborate process with lots of dramatic pouring between small cups from surprising heights. It takes maybe 30 minutes of boiling, pouring, socializing and sometimes napping to prepare a small shotglass of tea that is consumed in about 10 seconds. After the fourth round they served a plate of rice and green sauce for my guide and me to share.
[Practical Note: You can change a small amount of CFAs to Guinean Francs at the border village, but I wouldn’t recommend changing very much unless they offer you a better rate than they offered me.]
A couple more hours of hiking brought us this small village, a truly special place with a peaceful feeling, as if everything here happens in slow motion and sharp focus. We’re staying at the home of my guide’s friend. We found him at a murky watering hole where a few fully clothed locals were swimming up to their chins, dragging nets along the bottom and picking out fish from the leaves. We watched a soccer game, the boys wearing clean bright jerseys and shoes despite the remoteness of this tiny village. An old woman asked for some of my sunscreen and smeared it humorously around her forehead, not understanding what it was.
We sat outside the one room house until the stars came out. There’s no electricity, but our host hooked a single lightbulb up to his motorbike battery while playing Rihanna songs from his mobile phone. Dinner was a huge bowl of rice and sauce that four of us shared, eating directly from the bowl placed on the ground outside under the stars.
“Pas de toilette” (there is no toilet) my guide explained, as I expected. I took a bucket of water out to the wooden fence and bathed under cover of darkness, then took the rainfly off my tent so I can see the stars. There are cows wandering around and I wonder if they know I’m in here. Of all the things I worried might go wrong in Africa, getting trampled by a cow in my sleep was not originally high on the list. Personally I think “La vache va mange ma tente” (the cow is going to eat my tent) is a highly amusing French sentence, but my guide simply replies “non.”
From my journal:
Today was hard and almost disappointingly easy at the same time. Hard because it’s ridiculously hot and my pack is heavy and the trail was steep and rocky. Easy because we spent 4 hours resting in the middle of the day, drinking round after round of sweet Attaya tea with locals to avoid the midday sun.
Today we did three rounds of tea and ate mangoes before digging into rice and sauce from a shared bowl. One tiny boy ran away screaming when he saw me, to everyone’s amusement. The other children just watched with mild curiosity. After lunch, because still “il fait chaud” (it’s hot!), we went into the little round hut for a nap. They offered to roll out a straw mat on the concrete floor for me, where I curled up and dozed off to the melody of Pular conversion and chickens pecking at the empty lunch bowl.
Around 4pm we hit the trail again for a monster climb up to an even higher plateau. The trail was steep and rocky, legitimately challenging. We made it to the top and enjoyed an expansive view back over northern Guinea and southern Senegal.
Up here we are staying at a beautiful home in a beautiful village. Though this family lives in a hut in the middle of the Guinean bush in a place not reachable by car, and I’m sure their lives are not easy, they seem to be doing well for themselves. Their thatched hut and fence are lovingly constructed with artistic touches. Their tea glasses are new and clean. They have woven chairs in the yard that were clearly made by an expert, and multiple pairs of shoes sitting around.
When we arrived at their house we were welcomed with a pile of oranges and mangoes freshly picked from the trees. I had at least four of each and could almost feel my body soaking up the nutrients. Their rice and sauce, which even the dog eats for dinner, was the best I’ve tasted yet.
The family is still hanging out drinking tea, listening to the radio in French and poking at mobile phones. I can’t understand their conversation in Pular but it sounds nice. I wish I could communicate more with them, but it’s still nice to just relax and enjoy the atmosphere. I’ve set up my tent outside their hut; now it’s time to crawl in and rest up for the last day to Maliville.
Day 3 (half day):
From my journal:
Finished! The last few hours of the hike were wickedly uphill, sometimes so steep I had to use my hands. My guide wanted to help by carrying my pack, but I wanted to carry it myself, so I let the fuel of having something to prove propel me through a few thousand weighted single leg squats as we climbed the uneven rock steps. Good to know I haven’t lost all my fitness since leaving home (and definitely haven’t lost any stubbornness).
Mali is the first town I’ve seen in Guinea, and I like it a lot. Chill, friendly, yet still buzzing with just enough activity.
Finishing in Maliville
The small town of Mali seems bustling after a few days on the trail. Here you can change money into Guinean Francs for reasonable rates (ask around at a few shops), find accommodation, and get transportation to the larger Guinean town of Labe and beyond.
If you need help arranging something, ask or look for the Bureau du Tourisme and the helpful self-appointed tourism manager.
When I arrived in Mali, I wasn’t done with hiking in the Guinean highlands. I met up with my next trekking guide, Bouba from Fouta Trekking, and set off on an 8 day trip through more amazing scenery and friendly villages. But that’s a topic for another post!
So there you go, enough information about this exciting hike from Kedougou to Maliville to hopefully pique your curiosity. If you happen to find yourself in West Africa or are putting together a trip in the area, dont’ miss it!
There’s not a lot of information out there on hiking from Kedougou to Mali, and that’s part of what makes it exciting. Here are just a couple other resources to help you plan:
- Fouta Trekking: recommended guide company for travel in Guinea
- A Lonely Planet Thorn Tree thread with some good details on this route, though it’s from a while ago.
While You’re In West Africa…
Sierra Leone is right next door to Guinea and is another fascinating place to visit, especially if you speak better English than French:
You might also want to check out the full West Africa travel resources page for more ideas and guides.
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