Arriving in Mopti was a huge relief. Covering the 460km between Bamako and Mopti had taken nearly fourteen hours, fourteen very uncomfortable hours. Five people, and all our luggage, were squashed into a Citroen that had seen better days, much better days. En route we’d stopped to repair a flat tire, twice; had lunch at a terrible ‘restaurant’ in a nondescript roadside village; and been detained at two police roadblocks until our driver ‘persuaded’ the authorities to allow us to continue unhindered.
Stiff and tired, we arrived just in time to have some food and a beer before crashing onto a bed at the Hotel Doux Reves. This would be the last time I’d sleep in a bed for two weeks; the next time I saw a bed would be in this same hotel, before heading east from Mopti to trek through the truly amazing Dogon region.
The following morning I headed out to do a bit of exploring. Mopti is a fast-moving and hectic market town built on the banks of the River Bani, where it meets the Niger River. The port area is a bustling trading centre and much of the town seems to be given over to markets, selling everything from locally produced vegetables to imports of Chinese-made electrical goods. A walk along the river front was a wonderful way to introduce myself to the town and to get a feeling for it’s people and pace of life.
There was constant activity. People were making things, playing games, unloading goods from boats and selling a mind boggling variety of items. Cheap Chinese-made motorbikes jostled for space with dilapidated buses, which in turn jostled with donkeys and camels. People thronged the river banks, buying and selling, washing and drying; fishermen cast their nets as boats plied their trade up and down. At one point I saw slabs of salt, brought from salt mines deep in the Sahara Desert. Even today, camel-trains carry the salt out of the desert.
It was wonderful, exhilarating and people were friendly and welcoming. After spending some time by the river, I turned inland and headed towards the one truly outstanding bit of architecture: Mopti’s Misire Mosquée, which dominates the town. Although the current mosque dates from 1933, it stands on a sight of an earlier mosque. Non-Muslims aren’t permitted to enter the mosque, but a few hundred West African Francs, a regional currency pegged to the Euro, bought me a view from the rooftop of a nearby family home. It also bought me a cup of tea and a halting conversation with the father of the family.
Taking directions from the father, I headed back into the streets in search of Mopti’s renowned markets. I needed some snack food for the four-day boat journey up the Niger River. With the exception of a few basics which we’d be able to buy en route, Mopti was the last place to stock up before we reached Timbuktu. The markets were everything you might expect an African market to be: the clamour of people buying, selling and bartering was intense; the wonderful colours of the food and clothing illuminated the stalls; occasionally the smells were powerful enough to make you feel faint.
Some biscuits, flatbread, dried chillies, fruit and chocolate bars later I was off to get fitted for my Tagelmust, the traditional headdress worn by Tuareg men. They are brilliant things, keeping the sun off during the day and keeping your head warm during freezing desert nights. They also keep the sand and dust out of your mouth and nose. I decided against a traditional indigo Tagelmust, mainly because the indigo dye comes off onto your face making you look like a reject from Avatar. The fitting of my Tagelmust attracted a medium sized crowd of people barely able to suppress their laughter. In the end, it proved relatively simple to tie properly.
After all that excitement, it was back to the hotel for a bite to eat before venturing out to find a bar or cafe playing live music.