Trip Start Sep 13, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, February 12, 2007

With Dogon country behind me, the next adventure was to take a pirogue (boat) trip along the Niger River to Timbuktu. A lot of people think Timbuktu is just a mythological city, but I can now assure you all that it does in fact exist.

Feeling better then I had for weeks I got a lift to Mopti, a small town on the Niger River which is the Mecca for hustlers from all over Mali. I'd plan to leave the next day after a nice sleep at the Catholic Mission but while having a coke I got offered a reasonable deal to leave on a boat at lunch time with all meals included. Was told the boat was leaving at 12 and with only ten minutes to spare I ran around getting supplies for what should have been a 3 day journey.

Managed to get aboard at 11.58 and then had to sit there till 4 pm in the afternoon when the captain decided to turn up and raise anchor. During which time I met Sao who was travelling north to ask his brother for money. He spoke French very well and always had a transistor radio against his right ear listening to the news.

The boat resembled a very large canoe with a hull of about 1.5 meters. In which were stacked hundreds of sack of rice and other cereals. It was on these that I made my home for the next 5 days. Sao told me that although on each sack it was written World Food Program and had arrived from Italy, a local politician will hand out the food with a nice big Vote for Me smile.

The boat had two large truck motors in the stern and the Capitan sat at the front navigating with a steering wheel while another stood around, keeping an eye out for sand banks. Three other young African boys helped load and unload the goods and took turns bailing water which constantly leaked through the wooden hull.

We got underway and the boat slowly drifted down stream. I knew after the first half an hour that I was going to enjoy this trip. All I had to do was lie back and watch the river bank float by. From time to time Sao would point out something interesting like a village or a hippo, otherwise I would do pretty much nothing.

In this part of the world we are now coming into the hot season. As a result the level of water in the Niger River lowers dramatically. This causes enormous problems for the pirogues that are constantly overloaded like the one I was sitting on. So it wasn't long before we hit the bottom and all the ship hands had to lever it free again with large poles. Then someone would jump into the river and walk around, mapping the depth at various points before deciding on how to get the boat back to deeper water. As a result the boat stops often and a two day trip turns into five.

Still I realised I was enjoying myself too much to really care how long it took. The night of the first day I got presented with dinner. This consisted of a large bowl of rice, with a cooked fish tail. I was pretty glad I had brought a kilo of bananas because morning, lunch and dinner was to consist of rice and a fish tail. Now I do like rice. It's great stuff, but by the end, I really could have done with a decent steak. What is however great about rice is that even after five days it all goes in, but absolutely nothing comes out. My bananas lasted 32 hours.

Each night we'd stop by the river bank and sleep. Sometimes at little villages or next to a herd of cows. We couldn't travel at night because of the danger of the wind picking up the waves which could easily swamp us. And then I was told the hippos would come and eat us all up.

The first time we were really stuck for a good five hours and we had to get another smaller pirogue so we could unload sacks to lighten our load. This was also what we had to do when we came to lake Débo which is like a little inland sea. Once the bigger boat had been lightened, we started to cross the lake. Being a large stretch of water the wind pushes up the waves. We had only been going 10 minutes when water started flooding through cracks into the smaller canoe and we needed 3 bailers working full time to keep the thing afloat. At the same time a guy was scrambling around poking bits of cloth into each of the leaks. While this was going on, the other passengers, who were all African where all quite concerned. I then realised that no one else aboard had ever seen the ocean so this enormous stretch of water scared the hell out of them.
We did get most of the leaks fixed so two of the bailers were made redundant and we safely made it across.

On the afternoon of the second day I was listening to music and watching the guys levering the boat of the fifth sand bank of the day, when a similar boat came up alongside. Sitting on sacks of rice looking out were Sarah and Wally. Friends I initially met in St Louis then spent more time with in the Casamace region of Senegal. We never thought we'd meet up again under these circumstances yet after a short conversation as they passed, they continued while my boat was stuck.

Then all of a sudden we had arrived and I had to wake up from this dreamy riverboat ride. Up ahead was the river town of Korioumé were I had to get a taxi the rest of the way to Timbuktu. I felt a lot of satisfaction when I'd arrived, as Timbuktu had always been a pretty important milestone in this trip. While driving into town we got caught up in a sand storm which cut visibility down, but which blew itself out over night.

I ended up staying only two nights here, and went visiting mosques and museums during the day and sat around talking over beers in the evening. It was also the occasion to spend up on decent food after my rice diet.

Then it was time to leave. I had originally planned to take another 5 days on a boat to get to Gao but renounced this idea because I had already overstayed the amount of time I had planned for Mali and was keen to check out the film festival in Burkina Faso. So instead I paid for a ride back south in a 4wd. The road was terribly bad, so we spent most of our time off it rather then have to negotiate all the holes on it.

I got back to Mopti planning to leave Mali the next day. Up till now I have never met an Australian on this trip and I found myself with three of them in the same hotel. Not only was that weird but three of the four of us were called John. Very strange, but not that interesting!

Anyway, left for Burkina Faso the next afternoon.
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jeanchristophes on

Re: Johns
Hey Rod
Um the film festival is not exactly in the desert. Ouagadougou is pretty dry but is considered Sahel. Still it was nice to see a bit of greenery after Mali. Yeah them Ozzies are getting around. Seems like a lot of Ozzie mining companies are moving into Africa to get the resources. Still kiwis aren't doing too bad have met 4 different kiwis since I've been here.

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