Slow boat to Timbuktu (Part 1)

The vast, majestic Niger River is one of Africa’s great waterways, with such an unusual course that baffled European explorers spent centuries trying to work it out. It runs for 4180km, but starts only 240km from the Atlantic Ocean in the highlands of Guinea, close to the border with Sierra Leone. Counterintuitively, the river flows east, away from the ocean, through Mali and along the edge of the Sahara Desert; it then arcs south, plunging through Niger, along the border of Benin, and south-east through Nigeria. Finally, creating an enormous delta basin, it empties millions of cubic metres of water into the Atlantic Ocean.

Villagers on the banks of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Villagers on the banks of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Children from a village on the banks of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Children from a village on the banks of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Taking a boat along this river, even the relatively short distance between Mopti and Timbuktu, is a pure delight – although its not for the faint of heart. There is virtually no tourist infrastructure throughout the entire journey; at night, you pitch your tent on the river bank, and watch densely packed galaxies illuminate a sky free from light pollution. Things are pretty basic, there is no running water and no toilet facilities anywhere; in exchange for roughing it for a few days, you are treated to an adventure through a remote and beautiful part of West Africa.

Women on the bank of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Women on the bank of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village and mosque seen from the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village and mosque seen from the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Boat on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Boat on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

The route from Mopti to Timbuktu takes you across the extraordinary Inner Niger Delta, an area of interlinked rivers, lakes and marshes the size of Belgium. In the rainy season, when the whole river floods, this journey is impossible; in the driest part of the dry season, only small boats can make the journey.

Our four-day trip took us past isolated communities, mainly small villages which rely on the river for food, water and transport. Most of these communities aren’t connected by road, and the arrival of a boat with several tourists is a rarity, providing both entertainment and commercial opportunities. In these villages we were warmly welcomed, often by the village elders, and given a guided tour of the village and even shown inside the village mosque.

Village Elders greet us, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village Elders greet us, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village street, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village street, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village seen from the roof of the mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village seen from the roof of the mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village seen from the roof of the mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Village seen from the roof of the mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

While these communities look picturesque, and people are genuinely friendly, grinding poverty and lack of access to health services and education are the norm. In one village we helped treat a young child with burns on his arm, but could do little more than clean it, apply antiseptic and bandage it. In another village a woman with a large tumour came to see us. There was nothing we could do, but, talking to the village elders, we donated money so she could go to the nearest hospital to receive treatment. In reality, this was pitifully little in the face of such extremes, and every community along the river faces similar challenges.

Small dwellings and people, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Small dwellings and people, Niger River, Mali, Africa

A boat on the Inner Niger Delta, Niger River, Mali, Africa

A boat on the Inner Niger Delta, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Fishing community, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Fishing community, Niger River, Mali, Africa

A boat on the Inner Niger Delta, Niger River, Mali, Africa

A boat on the Inner Niger Delta, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Small dwellings and people, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Small dwellings and people, Niger River, Mali, Africa

A boat on the Inner Niger Delta, Niger River, Mali, Africa

A boat on the Inner Niger Delta, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Travelling down the river you frequently see other boats, either fishing or carrying people and cargo. Occasionally, you pass men and women walking along the river bank, indicating a small community nearby. The only noise is the slow chug-chug of the engine, making this a tranquil and relaxing trip, especially with a good book.

Small community on the bank of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Small community on the bank of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Man walks on the bank of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Man walks on the bank of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Progressing steadily down stream, we spent our nights on the river bank far from any settlements. After eating – mainly fish – we’d sit around chatting and admiring some of the finest views of the night sky I’ve ever seen. Luckily, our guide, Ali from Timbuktu, had stashed a couple of crates of beer in the boat, and even though it was warm, it made the nights around the campfire more fun. Once the sun set and the camp fire died down, it was time for bed in our lovely tents.

Sunset over the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Sunset over the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Camping on the banks of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Camping on the banks of the Niger River, Mali, Africa

15 thoughts on “Slow boat to Timbuktu (Part 1)

  1. I look at the colourful clothing worn by the people of this poverty stricken country, and am reminded of the similar brightly coloured clothing worn by the people of South America. Yet in the financially affluent (effluent?) West, a great percentage of women, particularly those in the cities, wear black, black and black. Hmmm…..
    An Australian did a trip that may interest you Paul 🙂
    http://www.abc.net.au/classic/content/2013/09/16/3848540.htm

    • Good grief, that’s a journey. My backside is aching just thinking of all those miles in the saddle! I have great admiration for people who put themselves in situations like that, such an incredible undertaking, but I always think they must be slightly unhinged. Its a truism that people wear bright clothes in environments like the dusty hinterland of Mali, its beautiful but can sometimes blind people to the poverty (of both wealth and opportunity) that exists.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s