In 2006, after finishing with my contract in Niger, rather than fly straight back to Australia, I took a slight detour. By slight, I mean one-month. By detour, I mean a 7,500km overland hitch from central West Africa to Spain. It was a lot of fun.
The journey had many stages, and many memories. I set off with a vague set of milestones I wanted to acheive, but no real itinerary. In the end I meandered through Niger, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Western Sahara and Morocco before catching the ferry to southern Spain where I caught a flight to London and began my journey home. I kept a diary, and at some stage I’m planning to try and write up my experiences. But you’ve seen how much space I take up describing even a relatively small event in my life, so this is going to take a while…
A highlight of the trip was my journey from the legendary Tomboctou (Timbuktu). Tomboctou is a place both real and mythic. Mythic, in that it represents to the traveller that which is furthest away- the most isolated, forsaken and mysterious that can be attained. Indeed, Tomboctou’s nickname still today is “The Mysterious”, and a startling number of people I speak to, when I tell them about my visit there, ask me, “So is Timbuktu a real place then?”
Leaving Tomboctou, then, I travelled to the riverine port of Mopti. Mopti’s about four hundred and fifty k’s south and west of Tomboctou, and there’s nothing that can really be called a direct route to Mopti. Partly because there’s no such thing as a direct route to Tomboctou. The nearest sealed access road to Tomboctou is three hours south, in the dry season (and without a tyre blowout, as I had already discovered). Though, would you believe Tomboctou has an international airstrip…?
I wasn’t really that interested in going by road, however. The Niger River, in its tortuous circuit, loops northwards deep into the Sahara Desert and at one time kissed the southern edge of Tomboctou itself; the old port area is still visible as a slight depression in the sand on the edge of the old town. Today it’s about thirty km south and there is a grubby, bustling little port called Kourioume. From there the boats run.
The boats in question are called Pinasses. They are large cargo canoes, up to 3m wide and about 20m long, roughly the dimensions of a large bus. Owners load these beasts of burden with cargo- I’d estimate an easy 50 tonnes on a fully-laden boat, which will sit sunk to within a couple of inches of the gunwhales- and passengers- another fifty or so, crammed beneath thatched roofing, or perched atop in the blazing Saharan sun.
For four days, I chose the latter.
And it was one of the best journeys of my life. For four days, I did little, except sit atop the thatching, wrapped in my turban, reading a novel (Triumph of the Sun, by Wilbur Smith, if you must know), writing in my diary, praying, thinking, decompressing, and watching the Malian desert slip slowly by, village by village, canoe by canoe.
There was more to it than that, of course. And I’ll try and share it some time. But in the meantime all I’ll say is that I arrived at Mopti tired, hungry, thirsty, and one of the dirtiest I’ve ever been. But very, very happy.
1. Smooth Waters: A pirogue (small canoe) navigates the gentle current of the Niger River in Mali, just shy of sunset.
2. Public Transport: (Above) An SNTV desert bus between Niamey (Niger) and Gao (Mali) on one of our many ‘technical’ stops on that 24-hour journey. (Below) Pinasses drawn up on the riverbank at the tiny port town of Tonka, square in the middle of Nowhere, Mali. (Note: You can see my backpack on the roof of the one with all the colourful drums in the hold ).
3. Call to Prayer: The UNESCO World Heritage Djingarei-Bar Mosque in Tomboctou. The ‘spikes’ coming out of the minaret are part of its packed-mud framework, typical of the ‘Sudanese’ style.
4. Market Day: Crowds of colorfully-clad buyers and sellers throng on Tonka’s foreshore, where pinasses provide the lifeblood of supplies and commerce up and down the Niger river.
5. Pinasse: A cargo-canoe manouevres out of Tonka’s little harbour.
6. Barque: Just another fragile little vessel on the waters of the Niger.