Slow Boating All The Way To Timbuktu

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Africa » Mali
November 9th 2009
Published: June 23rd 2017
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Having learned the lesson of our last false start, once we were back in Mopti we tracked down our boat crew to confirm that they would be leaving the next day with as much certainty as one can muster in Africa The ‘crew' was a grand total of two people, the captain (although he quickly relinquished that title and I was hereafter known as ‘mon capitaine'- I suspect that this was more related to the impossible task for West Africans in pronouncing my name, but it may have been tied to the tradition of the captain going down with his ship- this was no Esken yacht; the motor was in multiple different pieces, and a furious bailing of water was taking place). Neither of our shipmates spook English and only the captain spoke French, but given my improving West African French, we were able to determine that we were going for certain and there may be a number of others joining us but none had made any financial commitments. While I was checking out the seaworthiness of our erstwhile pinasse (is floatability a word?), DH was going over the onboard ensuite… and resolving not to eat or drink for the three day journey.

The next morning, after yet another breakfast of bread and coffee, Tibra was strapped on for a full pack hike to the harbour area and, for the first time, was on full display as DH went with shorts. Titanium knee braces are obviously not a common site in West Africa and we were asked many times what the problem was- DH quickly became the West African version of the Six Million Dollar/CFAs Woman.

As promised, our intrepid crew was ready and waiting, and had grown to three (presumably the extra deckhand was needed to address the constant bailing of water?). There was even an extra outboard sitting in the front, although given the state of disrepair, I suspect it was more for spare parts than anything else. None of the other travellers showed up, so we had the boat all to ourselves- not sure how that worked financially but we weren't asked for any additional money. The pinasse could probably accommodate 10-12 Westerners in reasonable comfort (and roughly 200 West Africans apparently)so we felt very spoiled with this development.

With all of the dockside pleasantries out of the way (we had attracted quite the crowd by now offering up suggestions and guidance- most of which we couldn't understand) we pushed off and were on the final leg to Timbuktu via the Niger River. With the roof of the pinasse providing shade and the cooling breeze of the river, floating down the Niger was a wonderful change from the oppressive heat of Dogon Country. The first day is the most ambitious as we need to get to the other side of Lac Deob before we stop for the night. As a result we only stop at a couple of villages, one at a small Bozo fishing village that had no fish to sell much to the disgust of our Captain- the fishing reputation of the Bozo people was rescued by our next stop and after much poking and probing of various fish options, the captain settled on one sun-baked, fly-coated specimen which was to serve as our dinner. DH suddenly became a vegetarian- who knew??

Just before our last stop of the day, we paid a visit to a Songhie village crowded onto one of the many Niger River islands (many of these island villages hadn't yet been reoccupied as the river level was still quite high following the recent rainy season) and as we wandered through the village with a Pied Piper-like parade of village kids strongly in tow, it became apparent that the older women were embroiled in the Songhie version of World War III. The insults were flying (I assume) but as we were to find out later, a truce was soon to be declared, and a very loud party would soon follow.

We jumped back in the boat and, crossed a small channel, and set up our camp for our first night on the river bank. ‘Camp' consisted of a pop-up tent (upmarket accommodation given the just-finished Dogon trek) and two pads of foam that had long since given up trying to re-expand after bearing the weight of the many travellers that came before us. Luckily we'd hung on to our blanket we had bargained hard for in the market prior to Dogon (a $6 blanket from an aspiring Walmart type in Mopti) as it cooled considerably during the night. A group of nomads had set up a camp just down the bank from us so, before eating, we wandered through the various goat, donkey, and cow herds, to say hello and were greeted with unbridled warmth and enthusiasm- I snapped a couple of photos and the entire group squeezed around my 3” camera screen, screaming and laughing as they found themselves in the picture. The people of any country can make or break a trip for you and this was a definite high point for us- these were people who seemed to have such a tough existence, but were much quicker with the smiles and laughter than most of us who have it much easier.

We stumbled back to camp in the dark and found a fire waiting for us- although the crew continued to cook the meals over the fire they had set up in the back of the boat (am I the only who thinks that there is something not quite right about setting a fire for cooking on the planks of a wooden boat). Since we didn't need it for warmth, I think the fire was just intended to provide clear guidance for the many insects that were searching the banks of the river for tourists.

We weren't quite in the middle of nowhere (that was our destination) but the solitude and beauty of a star-filled sky gave us a wonderful sense of isolation…. until the marriage ceremony on the Sonhei island started up (apparently the feuding relatives had smoothed over their disagreements and were ready to welcome an additional wife into the fold). It was unexpected, and loud, but its not everyday you fall asleep on the cement-like river bank of the Niger listening to the sounds of an African marriage celebration which was interrupted only by an incensed buzzing of an unsquishable, large sounding, insect that we had accidentally placed the tent on top of.

Day 2 was a more leisurely version of Day 1 if that were possible. It should have been a time of reflection, planning, and daydreaming but we were constantly on guard for furiously waving hands as we passed homes, villages, and other boats. These hands were normally, but not always, attached to small bodies and you got the sense that they would continue to wave until satisfied with a return wave, or until the arm fell off. DH, in particular, made it a mission, as an unpaid member of the Canadian ambassador corps, to return each and every wave- this meant constant vigilance as these waves could sprout from behind a blind of reeds or grass with no head or body attached (that we could see). The village visits were similar exercises in enthusiasm- without fail there was a welcoming committee as we beached the pinasse, a group that would follow us throughout the village (there was some sort of unseen changing of the guard as we never finished with the same group we started with) with one child clutching each and every one of our fingers, and we'd end with a send-off worthy of nobility. We did get asked for presents, candies, and Bic pen's (why can West Africans say Bic but not Vic?) but it was done shyly and was easily discouraged- again this begging is an issue created by thoughtless tourists who came before us.

The adults were just as friendly and, although our trip is far from complete, you really get a sense of warm hospitality in Mali which is something of a pleasant surprise given the accounts I had read from other travellers.

Day 3 was a little more of the same with the anticipation of Timbuktu on the horizon. I'm not sure we can claim any badge of honour for having survived the trials and tribulations of an arduous journey to Timbuktu- the pinasse trip was thoroughly enjoyable, the starry nights were magical, and the boat didn't sink- what more can you ask for. There are now faster ways to get there, but to do it right, I can't see how you would beat the slow boat to Timbuktu.

Additional photos below
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12th February 2012

That's how it should be : )
12th February 2012

Do they cook near the 'hole' ?

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