The Road to Timbuktu

by Tim Dawe

imgp0649The Bani River meets the Niger, Africa’s third largest river, directly below me on this balcony at Bar Bozo restaurant. A few metres from here is the muddy embankment where river traders in wooden canoes still offload 50kg slabs of salt hewn from under Saharan sands exactly as they have for centuries.

After two days bumping along impossible roads we catch up with the Bani after our last meeting in Djenné. I am in Mopti, an important market town at this river crossroad and the launching pad for my final Malian adventure – my discovery of the fabled city of Timbuktu.

Our hardy little band of first world tourists, melded together by third world conditions, is eager to finish our lunch. It’s time to hit the road, Mali’s superhighway. But first we meet our pinasse.

A pinasse is a canoe-shaped wooden boat, usually motorised. Some are multi-decked transporters with hundreds of passengers accommodated in hammocks. At about 20m, triple the length of a fisherman’s traditional pirogue (dug-out), our pinasse touristique seats 16 of us – or possibly 40 locals and their livestock. It comes with a curved rattan roof, blue and white gunwales, an outboard motor, and in front of that, a small, bilge-level space that serves as our galley. Also it has a big blue box on the back but more on that later.

With our luggage stowed on the bow next to two 44-gallon fuel drums, we gingerly step aboard. One person on the 25cm-wide gunwale causes slight rocking; two and we’re rolling. Pew-style seating is wooden, hard and structural. The beam pew, where I take up residence, is about two metres. We’re very low in the water and apart from the straw mat on top we are open to the elements. Standing is impossible unless bowing at right angles. This is our transport and our home…for the next three days.

A pull of the outboard cord, movement, a sharp right turn and we’re in a busy street. There’s quietness aboard yet palpable excitement. How often do you step into a glorified canoe and head for Timbuktu? The images of the next few hours are seared into my brain: children play, wave, and chase us along the bank; a Bozo fisherman, far from dreaming spires, punts the sandy shores; women wash clothes; a large transporter under enormous sail – a patchwork of grain sacks stitched together; a tiny village boasting a magnificent mud mosque, and activity everywhere. There’s a surprising amount of greenery – leafy trees and palms – down to the bank but casting towards the flat horizon, it’s dry and brown with mud buildings indistinguishable from the dust.

We slide into a semi-stupor with the mesmerising engine noise and afternoon heat;  just going with the flow. The banks are empty of both people and places now and tree-less villages are far inland. A call of nature. I discover the big blue box – yes, the one emblazoned with WC in large letters. As expected it is rudimentary, dark and has a direct relationship with the river. A starboard lurch and suddenly the door flings open sticking fast on the narrow walkway. It’s a strangely magical sight: slicing through the watery sub-Saharan landscape neatly framed in black. I realise that the view from my pew is too large to take in. It’s this view that captivates and surprises me whenever something comes into frame. This thunderbox becomes my special hideaway to refocus.

Our skipper is responsible to find a suitable landing for our overnight camp. He’s either late or undecided because it’s already dusk on our arrival. We rush to get our tents up while we can see. By the time the trestle table is erected for dinner it’s dark as pitch. Then three hurricane lamps illuminate our table, followed instantaneously by a blanket of mosquitoes. Despite my fly net I have insects in my mouth and nose. Eating is hopeless. I flee to my tent on the baking sand, have a quick wash, and fall asleep watching the stars through the meshed roof.

Mornings on the river begin with a glorious 5:30 sunrise, on board by 6am, and a modest breakfast pulled out of a hole in the boat close to the fuel line. It’s our first full day, and we settle into a routine of who sits where, who says what to whom and so on. Yaya Keita, our gentle giant of a guide, maintains a commanding view front and centre from pew one. When he shifts his weight those in steerage are moved.

We stop at a tiny village for no other purpose than to stretch our legs (or it could be where the cook’s cousin lives). I discover the boat’s “deck”. With a toehold on the gunwale I can grip the thigh-high roof to enjoy an upright panorama – and the breeze our 10kt speed generates.

Our skipper takes a quick left-hand turn into a creek and shortly we are floating on Lake Débo. It’s the largest lake in Mali making up the vast floodplain of the inner Niger Delta. And it is extraordinary. In less than an hour we’re transported from a dry, barren landscape to a water world of islands and islets, some dense with three-metre high reeds. I’ve not seen so many different birds, and so many. For the first time on this voyage I feel vulnerable. Until now the banks of the river have been “just over there”. Now it’s a waterscape to the far horizon. Looking into the clear water and seeing plants with surface leaves, it dawns that this lake is shallow; indeed it’s a lake only after the wet.

We stop at Aka on the far edge of this inland sea. Out of the growing, jostling crowd steps the village chief, his hand outstretched, not in greeting but in begging. It’s slightly unsettling but needs to be absorbed. Yaya has a few words and we don’t stay long.

Another day and we’re becoming old hands at cruising, Mali-style. We dock at the regional town of Diré, population 20,000. We arrive in time to intrude on a large group of men in a lather at their ritual bathing. Women’s ritual bathing is earlier in the morning extending to ritual clothes washing. Situated at the river’s edge, Diré has a pleasant feel. It’s treed and shady with good-looking donkeys on the beach, cheeky youngsters making noisy fun (and at us) and important men in full Touareg dress. I walk through the town on well-formed sandy roads. At one crossroad, devoid of any life or vehicle, I’m amused to halt in front of a stop sign.

Our last breakfast is tinged with excitement; by midday we will be in Timbuktu! There’s more traffic on the road now. But not just because of the proximity to Timbuktu. It’s Monday and market day at Danga. We’re joined on either side by punted pirogues chock-full of villagers and their sheep, goats and chickens. And on the banks, going our way, are heavily laden donkeys. Danga is a riot of colour and activity with sub groups in special trading areas. Like any weekly market folk meet, yarn and gossip. A treadle sewing machine goes at full tilt to complete that special outfit. It’s a wonderful vibrant experience, and contrast, to see commerce and community coming together with such energy and enthusiasm.

I’m the last to clamber aboard, buoyed by Danga and the prospect our destination is less than three hours away. We eat an early. modest lunch in preparation. At last, after three days on the river we arrive at…Kabara!

The shifting sands of the Sahara have “moved” Timbuktu from the river’s edge. It’s 20km (and counting) down that bitumen road – one that couldn’t compare with Mali’s life-giving (and life-affirming) road: the Niger River.

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