When new arrivals or potential visitors to West Africa ask questions in they are often frustrated by the vagueness of the answers which all tend to start with “Well, it depends...” After they have been here a while they understand that the vagueness is not cheekiness but the reality of the situation. It really does depend. That said here are some general answers to some of the typical questions from first time visitors.

When it the best time to visit?

Any time is possible to visit. November - February is basically the tourist season. It is when the climate is the coolest which makes it preferable for most westerners who are not adapted to the heat. However that also means that there will be a lot more tourists which may facilitate finding people to share the trip with or make it feel more “touristy” than you want it. July-Sept is the rainy season which can make it tougher to travel in areas that don’t have good roads but it also gets beautifully green. April-June is the hottest time of the year though most of that time is not very humid so is manageable if you take care to stay hydrated.

What clothes should I bring?
Light weight breathable cloth that cover you. This is for your protection from sun and heat related problems (sun burn, heat rash, chaffing, jock itch, etc.) as well cultural considerations. Underwear should be natural materials like cotton or made of high tech wicking material. A sturdy bra for those rough bush taxi rides is a good idea for the ladies. A hat or scarf to keep the sun off your head. You can pack shorts for lounging in private but public wear should be calf or ankle length. Skirts and dresses spacious enough to sit cross-legged in. Shirts should cover the shoulders and mid-rif. Some sandals or flip flops that you can easily slip on and off are a good idea too.

Is the water safe to drink?
Tap water in most cities in Mali is treated with chlorine so it is probably reasonable clean and safe to drink especially for people who have strong systems or have spent a while in the area adapting. Certainly if you further subject it to filtering or purification tablets ect. Any narrow bore closed system pumps or “forage” are also probably quite safe. Wide diameter open well are subject to greater risk of contamination, however treatment or filtering should make it safe to drink. The river and any lakes, ponds or seasonally flooded areas are extreme risks and should be avoided as sources of drinking water if at all possible. If forced to drink if be sure to boil for at least 15 min or filter or treat chemically if possible let the collected water stand overnight to allow cysts and certain parasites to settle to the bottom then take the clear water off the top and treat that. Only with extreme thirst and risk of dehydration and heat related collapse should you drink it without thorough treatment.

Is the Festival in the Desert worthwhile?
Yes. For most people it is a great experience, especially if you have never been to West Africa before. People on a tight budget find the cost, especially of the entry fee, a bit high. And some people feel that there are too many tourists or touts and fake Tuaregs trying to sell you something but the vast majority of the people who come are actually locals there to enjoy local music and events.

Do I need a visa?
Most people do but it is now pretty easy to get one at the border or the airport. see the Visa page for more information.

Can I use my credit card?
You can use Visa cards in most of the big cities, there should be at least one cash withdrawal machine. Other kinds are doubtful. Be sure to inform your bank of you plans to travel and in what countries/ cities you may use your card otherwise you may find it blocked. See the page on money for more details

Will my electronic devices work there?
Mali runs on 220 V and the style of plug with two round holes like that used in France, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and many other European Countries. If your plug comes from a country with a different plug configuration you will need a plug adaptor. Most devices like battery chargers, mobile phones and laptops have a voltage transformer in them that converts input of up to 240 V down to the very small amount needed to power the device but some items will require a voltage convertor as well as a plug adapter. examine the items you intend to bring before you travel. More information on electricity in Timbuktu see the blog on Utilities