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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.