Niger River Cruise Part I, Mali, November 9,2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Niger River is Africa's second longest after the Nile, flowing about 2,500 miles from its headwaters not far from the Atlantic in the Guinean highlands in a broad arc towards the northeast, southeast, and then southwards through Mali, Niger, and Nigeria.  To travel by river the 200 or so miles from Mopti to Timbuktu is considered one of Africa's great travel experiences. 
Our boat was one of the type known as a pinasse, the rather narrow medium-sized river going boats larger than the small fishermens' pirogues but smaller than the river ferries.  Even with motor power the journey would take the better part of three days.  Once I got on I felt like I had gone out of the frying pan and into the fire since the fully loaded pinasse was even more crowded and cramped than our truck Daphne.  Our Malian guide Grandpere arranged for the boat, crew, and cook, while in Mopti we loaded onto the pinasse almost everything we'd need for the next three days - food, beer, soft drinks, tents, beer, sleeping bags, small bags, more beer, a major logistics project
I couldn't help but feel a little worried about the craft since it seemed to be one young crew member's fulltime job to bale water out of the bottom of the pinasse.  The boat's roof cover provided a place for several to sit in the sun on top while trying not to roll off as the boat swayed to the right or left when large dudes like myself moved from one side of the boat to the other.  The proximity to the water, fast movement, and shade from the roof also made it pleasantly cool on the boat despite the sunshine and hot temperatures. 
In central Mali the Niger River forms a large inland delta which creates broad marshes and channels during the high water season in the months after the heavy summer rains but then mostly dries out at the dry season progresses.  In this respect the area is like the more famous Okavango Delta in Botswana but differs in the sense that the river does reemerge from the other side of the delta.  During the high water season at the time of our visit, these extensive wetlands on the edge of the Sahara create a perfect environment for a fantastic array of birdlife and even for a few crocodiles and hippos. 
The villages all along the river are populated by members of several tribes, most prominent of which are the Bozo people, a tribe which in this part of Africa's division of labor traditionally holds the role of river fishermen.  The region along its banks, though, is also home to many Songhai, descendents of a prominent historical empire in the area, and the nomadic cattle-herding Fulani tribe.  Along the river it seems every plain mud brick village has a small but fantastically exotic Soudanian style mosque of mud brick and wooden beams at its center, structures that look like they were inspired by the giant termite mounds that abound in the Sahel region. 
Towards sunset we crossed Lake Debo, which the rivers' many channels through the marshes all emptied into, and set up camp in the sand dunes on its far shore.  The cook group with vegetarians was in charge of dinner that night, so even though we had a cook on the boat to do most of the work the cook group was still responsible for buying the ingredients in Mopti.  So it was another night of veggie slop over rice with potatoes serving as the main vegetable in the slop.  Starch over starch again - that's just so wrong!  I tried to fill up on beer but still found my stomach grumbling as I lay awake in my tent a few hours after my starch overdose.

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