Slow boat to Timbuktu (Part 3)

As the chugging of our boat’s engine pushed us ever closer to Timbuktu, I found myself thinking that it would be nice just to keep floating down the river to see where it took us. Some day perhaps, but for the time-being we had to offload at Kabara, the nearest river port to Timbuktu. A couple of four wheel drive vehicles would be waiting to whisk us the 8km from the port into Timbuktu. For anyone familiar with the history and legend of Timbuktu, arriving in this ancient desert city has to be one of the most thrilling moments ever.

Sail boat on the Niger River near Tonka, Mali, Africa

Sail boat on the Niger River near Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

We still had some distance to go before we reached Kabara, but it was obvious from the landscape that we were entering a different geographic region of the country. Everything was getting sandier, and we even slept on a sand dune on a island in the middle of the river one night. This is the region where the Niger River cuts across the bottom of the Sahara Desert, and where the nomadic Tuareg and Berber tribes of Mali form the dominant culture. A culture that has more in common with North Africa than sub-Saharan Africa, and cause of much unrest in post-colonial Mali.

We had one last stop to make before we finally arrived at Timbuktu. Our boat pulled into the packed and chaotic port of Tonka, on the left bank of the Niger River. There was a frenzy of activity, noise and colour, so-much-so, it was difficult to know where to look first. There were also more river boats here than we’d seen since Mopti, a sure sign this is a major trading port.

I was thinking about the scenes and the people from that day recently; I read in Le Monde about the tragedy that befell Tonka when it was overrun by Islamic fundamentalists, and placed under Sharia Law, in 2012.

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

When the fundamentalists took control of Tonka, they outlawed everyday things: music, smoking, certain types of clothes, certain types of haircut, not wearing a veil and dozens of other things Malian’s took for granted. Le Monde told the story of a hairdresser who was arrested, imprisoned and subjected to vicious beatings and public flogging just for cutting hair in a style the Islamists labelled the ‘Satan cut’. People were daily terrorised for the smallest infractions of Sharia Law, and young boys and girls were kidnapped and recruited to the Islamist ranks.

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

Mali’s population is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Sunni’s in Mali are known for their mystical Sufi traditions, which allow individuals to define their own spiritual experience, including through music and poetry. In practice, Malian Islam is tolerant and open-minded. The story of the hairdresser from Tonka, instantly sums up the fear and terror which must have existed when the fundamentalists controlled the region. Now they have been driven out by French military intervention, things will hopefully return to normal, although it may take a long time.

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

Leaving Tonka behind, we boarded our boat again and set off on the last leg of our journey to Timbuktu…not even I was expecting to be welcomed to one of Africa’s most ancient cities by those peddler’s of sugary drinks, Coca Cola. They are shameless in their co-opting of other people’s cultures just to sell fizzy drinks!

Welcome to Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Welcome to Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Slow boat to Timbuktu (Part 2)

There is something soporific about a long river journey. On our boat up the Niger River, the hypnotic sound of the engine, the lapping of the water and the slowly revealed scenery along the river banks, were only occasionally interrupted by a stop for lunch or to visit a riverside village. It was good to get off the boat, stretch our legs and wander around some of the wonderful communities along the river. Everywhere we went, people were friendly and welcoming.

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

A girl sells fish in a village by the Niger River, Mali, Africa

A girl sells fish in a village by the Niger River, Mali, Africa

A girl passes by the village mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

A girl passes by the village mosque, Niger River, Mali, Africa

A girl sells fish in a village by the Niger River, Mali, Africa

A girl sells fish in a village by the Niger River, Mali, Africa

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Our journey was punctuated by stops to buy fish and other foodstuffs for lunch and dinner, but when we reached Niafunké we were in for a surprise. Niafunké, a small town approximately 200km from Timbuktu, was the hometown of legendary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, before his death in 2006. One of his albums is named after the town and he recored several albums here. He farmed nearby and even became the mayor of Niafunké. We spent a couple of hours stocking up at the bustling riverside market, wandered along the town’s dusty streets and, best of all, visited Ali Farka Touré’s family home.

Niafunké from the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Niafunké from the Niger River, Mali, Africa

Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Woman and child in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Woman and child in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Men play 'tiddas', a game with sticks and stones, Niafunké, Mali, Africa

Men play ‘tiddas’, a game with sticks and stones, Niafunké, Mali, Africa

Man in the street, Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Man in the street, Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

It transpired that our guide, Ali, was a family friend. We were ushered into the house to meet family members, and to admire all the memorabilia of one of Mali’s truly great musicians – a man who, more than any other, brought Malian music to the attention of the world. Ali Farka Touré is, quite rightly, revered in this part of the world. His music reflects the people and landscapes of this region, and as you pass through it you can see why it provided inspiration for his music.

The market in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

The market in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

The market in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

The market in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

The market in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

The market in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Woman and child in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

Woman and child in Niafunké, Niger River, Mali, Africa

We were headed to Essakane and the Festival au Désert, so a stop in Ali Farka Touré’s hometown was essential preparation for the musical wonders that awaited in the Sahara Desert. We still had a lot of river to travel before we reached Timbuktu, and our onward journey into the desert. We left dusty Niafunké and, as the sun started to set, went in search of a suitable place to camp for the night.

In 2012, when Islamic fundamentalists fled from Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, they took control of this vast region of Mali and subjected it to Sharia law. An unlooked for consequence of Western policy to remove Gaddafi from power.

For about a year they held total sway over the lives of Mali’s much more tolerant Sunni Muslims, with their long standing Sufi traditions which permit spiritual expression through music and poetry – one reason why Ali Farka Touré’s music is so important in this region. The Islamists took control of Niafunké and, along with many other things, banned the playing of music. An utter tragedy for the people of this region which will take years to rectify.

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

People from a village gather on the Niger River, Mali, Africa

A man paddles his canoe, Niger River, Mali, Africa

A man paddles his canoe, Niger River, Mali, Africa

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

Mopti, a walking tour

Mopti is a town filled with noise and colour. Whether you’re walking its chaotic streets, shopping in its bustling markets, or listening to live music in a bar, there is life everywhere. In a hot and dry country, especially during the dry season, much of that life is lived outdoors. Streets become kitchens and playgrounds, people gather to chat and eat, and tourists pass largely unnoticed along the dusty streets between mud houses.

Woman and baby, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Woman and baby, Mopti, Mali, Africa

A young girl in Mopti, Mali, Africa

A young girl in Mopti, Mali, Africa

Clothes in the market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Clothes in the market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Hair salon, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Hair salon, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Fruit seller, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Fruit seller, Mopti, Mali, Africa

A woman cooks rice in the street, Mopti, Mali, Africa

A woman cooks rice in the street, Mopti, Mali, Africa

One of the great joys of travel in Africa is a visit to local markets – I’ll never forget the giant market in Addis Ababa, a place where it is possible to get lost for days on end. Sometimes Africa seems like a giant marketplace, buying, selling and negotiating always appear to be happening wherever you look. Mopti, as a major Malian port on the 4180 km long Niger River, is a regional hub for importing and exporting goods. A visit to the markets here was a must.

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Woman carries a bowl on her head, central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Woman carries a bowl on her head, central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Dried chillies, central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Dried chillies, central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

A woman checks her change, central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

A woman checks her change, central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Meanwhile, back on the river, life goes on much as it has for millennia…

Boats and people, Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Boats and people, Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

People on the bank of the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

People on the bank of the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Boats cross to islands in the middle of the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Boats cross to islands in the middle of the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

A woman dries clothes on a rooftop, Mopti, Mali, Africa

A woman dries clothes on a rooftop, Mopti, Mali, Africa

After all the excitement, it was back to the Hotel for a good night’s sleep in preparation for an early start the next day…we would be taking a boat four-days up the Niger River en route to the mysterious and mythical desert city of Timbuktu.

Mopti, bustling port town at the confluence of the Bani and Niger Rivers

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.

Boat with the Malian flag, Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Boat with the Malian flag, Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Fishing on the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Fishing on the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

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.

People on the bank of the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

People on the bank of the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Boats on the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Boats on the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

People on the bank of the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

People on the bank of the Niger River, Mopti, Mali, Africa

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.

Fish for sale, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Fish for sale, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Salt from the Sahara Desert, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Salt from the Sahara Desert, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Young boys play table football, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Young boys play table football, Mopti, Mali, Africa

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.

The Mosque, Mopti, Mali, Africa

The Mosque, Mopti, Mali, Africa

The mosque in Mopti, Mali, Africa

The mosque in Mopti, Mali, Africa

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.

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Women clean fish, central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Women clean fish, central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

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.

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

Central market, Mopti, Mali, Africa

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.