February, 2006 we spent 11 fascinating days in
West Africa. In February 2007, we returned to Mali in order to take a
classic African river voyage, 3 days and 2 nights on the Niger beginning in
Mopti and ending in Timbuktu. Our trip was once again organized by Saga Tours
and we insisted on having Sory as our guide and Lassine as our driver as we
had become very attached to both of them last year.
We were joined by our great travel companions Sharon and Ray.
Mopti is a bustling port town of 100,000 about 7 hours driving time north of the capital city of Bamako. Each of the major ethnic groups in Mali -- Bozo (fisherman), Songhai (farmers), Fulani (cattle herders), Bambara (farmers), and Tuaregs (nomadic camel herders) are well-represented in Mopti.
Saga Tours had arranged for us to hire a pinasse with a crew of three. Our motorized version was about 40 feet long and 7 feet wide. Benches on each side were covered with cushions. Meals were taken at a small table in the middle of the boat. Mats and cushions were spread across the top of the boat. A ladder made it easy to climb up top and enjoy the view. Reaching the bathroom was a bit more of a challenge. We had to walk along a small ledge on the side of the boat to the extreme rear behind the engine, holding onto the rather rickety top frame (for balance). The facilities consisted of a wooden bench with a large opening into the water.
We stopped 3 or 4 times each day to visit villages. These were all interesting and quite different from one another, each adding new elements to the voyage.
Meals, which were very good, always consisted of fish or chicken, rice or couscous, with a sauce. Dessert was simple -- oranges and bananas. Meals were cooked on board with 2 small charcoal grills. Ingredients were purchased along the way from fishermen and at villages.
we reached our stopping point each night, the crew set up dome tents for us.
All we had to do was crawl in, go to sleep and walk back to the boat in the
morning. Our crew slept on the boat. We had
a full moon each night and we could have made do without flashlights if necessary.
The Niger, one of Africa's great waterways, is wider and deeper during the rainy season, which extends from June through September. Even so, the river was consistently about a half-mile wide the entire downstream distance between Mopti and Timbuktu. There was considerable river traffic comprised mostly of fishing boats, some cargo-carrying pinasses, along with some pinasse passenger ferries.
We boarded our pinasse and left Mopti port at 9:30 am. The temperature was in the mid- 80's, humidity a very low 20%. We made our first stop just after 11 am at a village comprised of Fulani, Bambara and Bozo, where our guide Sory had never stopped before. Some of the children touched our skin and said "tubabu" which in the Bambara language means "white person." We were met by a villager who offered us an opportunity to meet with a holy man, who had been to Mecca, and receive a blessing for our travels. We jumped at this opportunity and were escorted into a dwelling where
the holy man was sitting cross-legged, wearing a pink silk garment. After receiving his blessing, we resumed our voyage, eager to make our next stop.
Our first lunch on board was chicken and rice in a sauce and fruit.
stopped again mid-afternoon at a Fulani/Bozo fishing village. The simple huts
comprising the village extended along the shore for perhaps a mile. Behind
every hut was a patch of small silvery
fish left in the sun to dry. By the time we reached the far end of the village to reboard our pinasse, it was very hot in the direct sun (104°).
At one point, we approached a small fishing boat so that our captain could buy capitaine for our dinner, the delicious large whitefish plentiful in the Niger.
Before sunset, we pulled up to shore near a village to buy a bundle of wood for a campfire.
We stopped for the night at 7 pm just short of Lake Debo. It is best to make the 2 hour lake crossing early in the morning before the water gets rough. We went to sleep to the screeching of kingfishers, sounding as if they were dive bombing our tent.
As the captain requested, we got up at 5 am and were on our way in complete darkness by 5:30. It was cool enough on the boat at 69° to put on a light sweater. Breakfast consisted of coffee, bread
that had been purchased in Mopti, cheese, and duck eggs (purchased the previous day in one of the villages). The sky was full of dust this morning, muting the sun.
At 8am we stopped at a Bella Village. The Bellas are nomadic descendents of
peoples captured by the Tuaregs and forced into slavery. This was another
very very poor village. Everyone loved having their picture taken here, especially
when they could see the images on the camera's LCD screen.
At 11:30 we were well beyond Lake Debo but the river remained rough and quite a lot of water sprayed into the boat, which kept us busy trying to keep dry. At 86°, there was no danger of getting chilled. The terrain was beginning to look more desert-like, with vegetation becoming more sparse and small dunes appearing along the shores. And the temperature seemed to be rising. We appeared to be heading straight toward a massive dust storm.
noon, it was up to 93°. Lunch was fresh capitaine, French fries, sauce
and fruit. (We had made it clear to the captain that we would be happy to
have capitaine every meal.)
Just before 3pm, we stopped at Niafunke, the home of noted Malian musician Ali Farka Touré. The sandy streets, high temperature (now up to 95° in the shade but considerably higher in the sun) and minimal vegetation fit our image of a town being engulfed by the desert. Niafunke conveyed a sense of its inevitable disappearance. While this village was still some distance from the Saharan dunes,
the desert is steadily encroaching upon the entire region north of Mopti as savannah is progressively transformed into desert.
we continued downstream, the heavy dust in the atmosphere seemed to attenuate
the intensity of the afternoon sun, giving us a little break (at least our
skin if not our lungs). At 5:30 we made our
first of 3 or 4 sightings of hippos.
evening approached we enjoyed another beautiful full moon. We stopped for
the night and set up our tents on an appealing sandy beach. Behind our campsite
were two very large dunes which, like the beach, looked pure white in the
We were again up at 5am and on our way just after 5:30. Breakfast was served just after daylight came at 7:00 -- coffee, more duck eggs, cheese and increasingly stale bread from Mopti. A few minutes later we stopped at a Bella village to buy fish and, in the process, again delighted a large
group of children, who had materialized as soon as we pulled up to the shore, by taking their pictures and letting them see themselves them on the screen.
later morning the settlements we passed were becoming increasingly desert-like
with fewer trees and more sand. In addition, we started to see Tuareg nomadic
encampments with camel skin tents.
We stopped at 1 pm for perhaps our most interesting Niger River excursion at a small village where a weekly market was in process. What made this market scene exotic-looking was its complete local authenticity and its desert setting. We were now close enough to the Sahara so that the terrain was mostly sand and dunes and there were camels. Mali's markets are always colorful because of the array of produce and other goods for sale and especially because of the striking apparel worn by both men and women. Women wear dresses and headdresses made from the traditional brightly-colored West African fabrics. Many men also wear shirts, pants, or long robes with colorful designs. This market was particularly interesting because so many of the men wore the distinctive desert garb of the Tuaregs, i.e., the indigo blue robes and dramatic headdresses covering most of their face except the eyes, adding a distinctive desert aura to this setting. In this village, most of the people were not at
all enthusiastic about having their pictures taken (to say the least) so we had to be rather surreptitious about it. In such instances, our powerful optical zoom lenses prove very handy.
After we reboarded our boat, we had only a short distance to go to reach Korioume, the nearest port to Timbuktu. Korioume is a rather sleepy port. Here one can see large 110 pound sacks of lentils stacked at the dock, each with a prominent USA stamp. It was here that we said goodbye to our crew and reconnected with Lassine who had driven from Mopti and was waiting for us.
The entrance into Timbuktu was quite unimpressive as we proceeded down the sandy streets past bedraggled shops and piles of debris to the Hendrina Kahn Hotel. We took immediate advantage of
the relatively modern facilities at the Hendrina Kahn to wash the dust and sand out of our clothes and off of us.
At 4:30, we met our local Tuareg guide, Halis, who briefed us on our schedule for the next day. We then ventured out to have our first look around this fabled city. On the way back to the hotel we stopped for our first internet on the trip but it was so painfully slow that we didn't stay long.
News of world events would just have to wait until we got to Paris.
Tuaregs had hoped to have their own country when Mali was established in 1961.
That was not to be and resentment among the Tuaregs eventually boiled over
in a 1991 rebellion. At one edge of town
is a monument commemorating the (uneasy) peace that was ultimately arranged between the Tuaregs and the Mali government. As if in testimony to the plight of the Tuaregs, who are finding it
increasingly difficult to sustain their nomadic existence in the desert north of Timbuktu, Tuareg settlements have been established with government support in several areas within the confines of Timbuktu, including one near the peace monument. These nomadic dwellings in and around Timbuktu seemed out of place and were sad to see.
Early the next morning, we continued our exploration of Timbuktu. The commercial center is quite rudimentary and dilapidated. As the terminus of the camel caravans carrying precious bars of salt
from Taoudenni and other goods from as far away as Morocco and the Mediterranean, it stood for centuries as one of the epicenters of Islamic culture and a center of learning with scores of universities . Some prominent traces of that history still remain. Perhaps most importantly, some 20,000 manuscripts have survived and many are now being restored with the aid of grants from a number of American and European Foundations.
of the most appealing features of Timbuktu architecture is the attractively
carved wooden doors and windows embellished with silver.
Today was Judi's birthday and we had a rather upscale lunch at Timbuktu's newest hotel and restaurant, La Maison, with Sharon and Ray. Larry thought that enjoying such gourmet food in
Timbuktu was cheating and opted for Malian beer and local peanuts purchased at a roadside market. When placed directly in the sun, Larry's thermometer hit 120°! After lunch, we returned to our hotel to get organized for our overnight excursion in the desert. En route, we made the near
obligatory stop at the cultural ministry to have "Tombouctou" ceremoniously stamped in our passports.
The encampment was a short drive of less than 30 minutes from Timbuktu, partly on a sandy track and partly across roadless terrain. We were met by our host, who happens to grace the cover of
the 2006 Bradt Guide to Mali. Following camel rides for those interested, we were treated to Tuareg sword dances performed by men, accompanied by drums, singing and chanting by women. It was a
pretty exotic display. One of the highlights of the entire trip was seeing the lights of Timbuktu from our desert location.
Dinner, served by candlelight under the stars and another full moon, was an excellent combination of beef and vegetables.
Judi had brought along two of the light sticks that are sometimes used by campers. Before retiring for the night, in the presence of Halis and Lassine, she demonstrated how one activates the light by breaking the stick. Halis is a pretty sophisticated fellow but he was truly astounded. He asked how to turn it off, then walked away shaking his head muttering "unbelievable." Judi presented the light stick to Lassine as a "cadeaux" (present). A few days earlier at one of our Niger River campsites, Judi had delighted Sory and our boat crew with a similar demonstration.
Breakfast the next morning was simple - coffee and bread. Lassine had gone into town for the night and, with perfect timing, returned with hot desert bread, which was delicious even with a few sand grains baked into it. We had become used to sand in our food and in our mouths while simply walking along over the past few days. It seems to be a permanent part of desert life.
Day in Timbuktu
Upon our return to Timbuktu, we spent a little time at the not-so-grand Grand Marché, which was nonetheless interesting, with all kinds of products completely foreign to us. Larry purchased a bag of salt crystals from Taoudenni. At the nearby craft market, Judi bought 2 camel skin purses and some Tuareg jewelry.
In the late afternoon, we drove out to the desert one more time. The dunes were beautiful and the sunset was terrific. On our way back to Timbuktu, we got stuck in the sandy track. Lassine recruited a couple of passersby to help dig us out.
It was quite cool at 6:40 am as we departed Timbuktu. When we reached Korioume, we were lucky to be the last vehicle to squeeze on a ferry about to cross the Niger for the 45 minute ride to the other side to pick up our road back to Mopti. The unpaved road was very rough for the first several hours and then improved a bit for the next two hours to Douentza where the pavement began.
We arrived in Mopti at 2:30 pm, completing our great journey to the legendary
city of Tombouctou.