Sailing the River Niger: Journey to Timbuktu, Mali

The River Niger is Mali's lifeblood, linking remote desert villages and providing a livelihood for thousands. Our intrepid reporter jumped aboard the last ferry of the season and made the epic journey to Timbuktu

Suzanne Porter | Issue 92 | December/January 2008

"Surrender yourself to the rhythm of Africa," whispered Mohamed, my wise Tuareg friend. "Don't try to fight it with your European notions of time. You will only have problems."

Normally, I'd consider this sound advice when travelling in Africa, but this time I couldn't help feeling Mohamed's wisdom had let me down.

"What do you mean it's left already? When? Yesterday?"

As I replaced the phone, I couldn't contain my disappointment. I had literally missed the boat.

The setting was Bamako, the capital of Mali in East Africa, and I was trying to book tickets on the local mode of transport - the 'big' boat. It was a journey I'd dreamed of for years, floating up the River Niger from the market town of Mopti to the mystical city of Timbuktu, 400km to the north. The news wouldn't have been too serious if there was another vessel leaving the next day. But this was the last to sail for seven months.

Caught short

The big boats are run by the Compagnie Malienne de Navigation, or COMANAV. They have been servicing the river since 1964 and play a vital role in Malian society by providing the only form of access to some villages. Their departures are ruled by the seasons, starting in July after the annual rains have swelled the river and continuing until the water is too low to allow boats to pass. In recent years, the season has been getting shorter and shorter; the lack of rain allows sand to fill the channel and the current is too weak to force it aside. Previously the boats ran until late February or even early March. Today was 21 December, and the last boat had already sailed.

One alternative was to travel by pinasse, a motorised canoe. But these have none of the luxuries of the big boat: they are overcrowded and uncomfortable, and the only way to relieve yourself is to hang over the side - it really wasn't an option.

Hoping to find a solution, I called the COMANAV office. The last boat was continuing north to Gao, where it would turn around and, on Christmas Day, make its final journey back to Timbuktu, before retiring until the following year. If I hurried I could catch it on its return.

The ever-resourceful Mohamed organised transport in a 4WD with a couple of his relatives: together we would travel the 1,200km north. The new plan meant sacrificing several of the boat trip's highlights - including the village of Niafunké, home of the late, great Malian Blues guitarist, Ali Farka Touré - but this was the direction the African rhythm was taking us, and who were we to argue?

Leaving the bustle of the city behind us, we hit the open road. We made good progress, only slowing at market towns where throngs of children and women selling goods from baskets on their heads swamped the car. Inching our way forward, we struggled through.

The kilometres rolled by and soon we entered the wonderfully named town of Bla. With 95% of Mali practising Islam, I was surprised to see rotund pigs ambling around. I learned that this was one of few regions where traditional religion allows the eating of pork - and even dog. Hungry or not, my Muslim travelling companions refused to stop for food, unsure of what they might be served.

After hours of nothingness, night fell and the hypnotic effect of the scenery flashing by soon had everyone asleep.

I awoke to the sound of one Tuareg chastising another. "Idiot! How have we ended up on the road to Burkina Faso?" With just two roads to choose from, it was difficult to get lost - but we'd succeeded. The delay meant we had no choice but to sleep at the crossroads at Djenné. On a gritty triangle next to a police checkpoint, we rolled out our mats, climbed into sleeping bags and spent a night under the stars.

At first light we took advantage of our proximity and traversed the River Bani on the tiny car ferry to visit Djenné's Mosque, the largest mud-brick building in the world. The first mosque - the Grande Mosquée - was built here in the 13th century though the current structure dates from 1907. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, it has to be 're-mudded' every spring.

We approached the architectural masterpiece, stunning in the softness of the early morning light. Silently, I wandered around the exterior, nobody bothering me apart from the mosque's watchman, who miraculously appeared from nowhere every time I got too close. Since 1996, when a fashion photoshoot for French Vogue magazine inside the mosque angered local leaders, non-Muslims have been barred from entering.

Donkey dodging

Back on the road, the green of Mali's fertile south gave way to the dusty scrub of the north. The roadside villages became more dispersed, our only obstacles potholes and animals. Swerving to miss them, Mohamed kept one hand on the horn. Donkeys stared back knowingly and firmly stood their ground, while sheep and goats scrambled to clear the road. For the goats, escaping Mohamed's tyres offered only a temporary reprieve: at our next stop, Douentza, the rich aroma of roasted kid rose from clay ovens by the side of the road. We ate in the car from a torn bit of brown sacking, sharing the roughly chopped pieces, succulent and sprinkled with spices.

Finally we passed the imposing Hombori mountains and their famous rock formation, the Main de Fatma (Fatma's Hand) rising craggily out of the landscape. Here, we headed into the desert. Almost 36 hours after leaving Bamako, we'd finally reached our destination - the Sahelian city of Gao, caught between the banks of the River Niger and the vast desert sands.

The next day was Christmas Day, but there wasn't a sleigh-bell jingle or Father Christmas in sight. Instead of the usual festivities, I wandered around Gao followed by joyful children, explored the bustling market and at the port watched colourful wooden pinasses preparing to depart, while I reserved my ticket for Timbuktu.

Suddenly excitement erupted. The big boat was coming.

A hulk of metal turned the corner of the river and shuddered into sight. Her name was Tombouctou, built in 1978 in Germany. A sturdy monster, solid and reliable, she was half Caribbean-style cruise ship, half African Queen. Her cabins were spread over three decks, with a restaurant and bar on the top floor. Music blasted from two enormous speakers.Everyone was in high spirits as they prepared for the voyage.

"Tonight we're going to party," announced a lively girl called Miriam, "because it's the last boat!"

Miriam spent the season travelling up and down the river with her mother and sister, selling bananas and other goods to villagers along the way. In return she received a half-price ticket in a 12-berth cabin on the bottom deck. The family bought fresh ingredients from boys pulling up in dugout canoes, and cooked on a small charcoal stove in the middle of the cabin. On the menu tonight was fried fish with bananas.

Outside commotion ensued. Three strong men were struggling to push the last unwilling sheep on board.

The animals were being transported home for the annual Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha (also known as Tabaski), during which adherents slaughter a sheep or other livestock in recognition of the prophet Abraham’s dedication to God and his willingness to sacrifice his only son. It is a time spent celebrating with the family, and with just a few days to go, everyone was eager to get home.

Ready for the off

At eight o'clock the anchor was hoisted. We were off.

The chaos was far from over, though, as non-passengers leapt ashore and those travelling struggled to get back on board. The boat slowly turned from shore and cut smoothly through the still water. Goodbyes gradually faded into the distance and we drifted into a night sky bursting with stars.

The next morning I woke to the sound of the anchor being dropped. It was 5am and the first rays of African sun were starting to show. We were making a scheduled stop at Bourem, an isolated desert town flanked by sand dunes.

I spotted a bleary-eyed Miriam hopping ashore with her baskets of goods, hoping to make some sales.

Within minutes the boat was a hive of activity. The shore was awash with voices and colours. People clambered on board like pirates, vaulting over the barriers and passing down goods and livestock in exchange for large wardrobes and other essential items. Dozens of deals were struck in a few minutes, and suddenly we were underway again.

The early morning sun gently warmed my side of the boat as I sat and watched the African scenery slip by. Tiny villages clung to the cliffsides; giant sand dunes reached down to the water's edge. Bright green islands of rice punctuated the open river, while among the reeds on the banks people fished from pirogues and horses munched on the long grass.

Deciding to make a tour of the ship, I bumped into the captain, Zakaria Dau, who excitably dragged me to the bow to show me the ewe he'd bought that morning. She was hard to make out among all the evidently amorous rams. Madu Kané, the sheep keeper, was doing his best to keep them apart; it was important that the animals showed no external blemishes before their sacrifice. Madu took great pride in explaining the different qualities of sheep before taking me to the deck to meet his brother, Fodé, who had a shop on board. He sold everything from cigarettes and toothbrushes to corned beef and watches. I sat for a while and chatted.

"A woman of 30 is already too old!" Fodé teased me. "She would only fetch CFA10,000 (£10). But as I know you'll take me to Europe, we can work something out!"

A group swiftly gathered, all wanting to share their stories and views on life, love and politics. There was Abdallah the traditional healer travelling with medicine from Niger to Timbuktu; Aboubacarine, the teacher returning from a training course in Gao; and Alhousseini, the sweet potato trader who told me he thought Tony Blair was a great leader, and he supported his fight against terrorism. The debate was set to rage until more important matters intervened: Moussa Troare, the boat's sanitaire, rang the bell for lunch.

The final stretch

Today it was tigadege, a piece of gristly meat swimming in peanut sauce. With the abundance of fish in the river, I was surprised there wasn't a plat du jour, and I sought out the boat's cook, Fatimata (otherwise known as Madame Banane) to ask why. I found her in the kitchen, a loose chicken squawking and flapping around her legs. She told me that many of the local fishermen also grow rice, and right now it was harvest season, so there was no time for fishing.

My last afternoon aboard was spent with the captain and on hippo watch. They had spotted a pod that morning, and I craned my neck for tell-tale humps while lazily watching the world pass by. Villages drifted past and architecture gradually evolved, square mud huts becoming round.

The only sound was the gentle hum of the engine and the occasional splash of a rubber bucket as women collected water over the side. The beauty of travelling on the big boat is that there is really nothing to do. The richness of the experience is spending time with the locals, sharing their stories and exchanging views. On that afternoon, there weren't even any hippos to interrupt my reverie.

In the evening we entered a long channel for the final stretch to Timbuktu. Night had fallen as the boat slowly manoeuvred itself into dock. The shadows came to life as turbaned, be-robed tribesmen came forward to greet relatives and help get the wardrobes on shore.

The moon was bright and the stars were shining. The African rhythm had delivered us safely. I bid farewell to my newfound friends, my only regret that I was not continuing with them to Mopti. But I had my own journey to continue, and I took my first step into mystical Timbuktu.

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