As the ferry pulled in to Gao, the last port on the Niger that's served by regular transport, I felt a familiar sinking feeling. After a delightfully laid-back and hassle-free three days on the ferry, it was time to plunge back into the chaos of urban West Africa. I didn't really want to bother with it; I was thoroughly enjoying lounging on the deck, watching the world go by from a comfortably safe distance.
It didn't help that I hadn't heard anything particularly positive about Gao. I met one couple in Timbuktu who thought it a pretty boring place that had precious little to offer except lots of annoying touts, and the guidebook seemed to back this up, saying that apart from a mud mosque, there wasn't a great deal to see. How wrong they both were; I loved Gao, more so because I wasn't expecting to.
Gao used to be a fairly popular travellers' haunt before Algeria slid into civil war; the classic trans-Saharan route through Algeria and into Mali is now only an option for those on a suicide mission, but back in the good old days of peace in northern Africa, Gao was the oasis at the end of the long haul through the desert. As oases go, it must have been a real sight for people crossing the Sahara, because the River Niger is at its most beautiful here. The huge pink dunes we passed on the ferry are visible on the horizon, and the river is wide, flat, calm and dotted with green vegetation, a lovely contrast with the light brown desert and the clear, blue sky.
But it's Gao itself that holds the biggest surprises, as it's African to the core. There might be a few overenthusiastic touts who latch onto anyone white, offering to guide you to restaurants, hotels, shops and buses, but once you set yourself to 'ignore' mode and make it clear that you don't want to buy anything, they soon drift off to let you enjoy things. Sure, there may not be any real tourist sights, but that's half the charm; Gao is a real African town, and that's why it's great.
The Tomb of Askia
However, like plants to light, tourists are drawn to tourist attractions, even if they don't sound like much on paper, and answering the genetic call of the toubab I set out to track down the Tomb of Askia, Gao's one claim to fame. Situated out on the northern outskirts of town, this tomb of a 16th-century ruler is a classic Sahel-style building in the shape of a pyramid, made from dark grey mud and sporting the porcupine spikes that make Sahel mosques so distinctive.
Excitingly (if you like this sort of thing) the wooden spikes on the Tomb of Askia are particularly big and bristling, giving it the air of a Sahel mosque with a few extra days' growth, and most of the spikes are frayed and gnarled, adding a flavour of split ends to the mix. I liked the effect; it makes the tomb look different to other, neater examples of Mali mud mosques, and as an added bonus I found I could climb to the top, crouching to fit through a mud tunnel halfway up to find unspectacular but inoffensive views over the town. Somehow the Tomb of Askia manages to look unkempt, like a man waking up on a sofa after a night on the vodka, and I figure that any place where the main tourist attraction looks hung over is all right with me.
If the Tomb of Askia is the after-effect of a night on the tiles, the backstreets of Gao are Alka Seltzer and strong coffee. There aren't many pretensions to tourism in central Gao and it's all the better for it, as the riverside market is authentically busy, swamped with interesting things to see, and is easy to walk around without constant attacks from people selling Tuareg pipes, woven carpets or treks to Dogon Country. All you get is the odd strange look and kids shouting, «Ça va, toubab?» while holding out their hands for a quick palm slap. It's delightful.
There's plenty to see, too, as the sandy paths criss-cross their way through the bizarre sights of Gao's market. Salt sellers peep out from behind piles of salt slabs, looking more like purveyors of fine marble than ancient sea salt; huge stacks of dried grass are brought into the hay market by donkey, the sad little beasts practically invisible under the huge bundles strapped to their backs; entire stalls are devoted to the humble flip-flop, the preferred footwear of the modern West African, and a quick flick through the options reveals none other than a pair of McDonald's flip-flops, no doubt created without the permission, let alone the knowledge, of the trademark owner; women bake small round pancakes in large skillets containing holes for the batter, making 20 at a time over small glowing fires; half-made pirogues and pinasses lie by the water's edge, surrounded by piles of wood, ready to be hammered into place; and through all this chaos wander goats, goats and more goats, chewing on god-knows-what in the piles of rubbish that haven't yet made it into the stagnantly green sewers running through town.
Away from the market lie the backstreets, providing a fantastic microcosm of African life that's both beautiful and starkly harsh. Dotted along the river banks, sandwiched between square mud houses and the green-brown pond of the Niger, are dozens of squat tents, each of them with a little porch area that's home to a cooking fire and the odd grass mat. On the surface it looks idyllic – the huts provide good shelter, and the porch area is always clean and freshly brushed, a marked contrast with the rubbish-strewn street – but this is prime mosquito territory, and the people living here are obviously incredibly poor, scraping together a living from whatever they can find. It's a harrowing feeling wandering past these beautifully simple huts, your money belt stuffed with enough cash to buy an entire village of huts like this; it makes you feel guilty, but at the same time immensely thankful for what you've got.
In Gao, I had a lot. Not only was the town fascinating, but the campement we tracked down on the outskirts of town was great; not only were all the buildings made of mud, but so were the beds, providing a rigid but comfortable place to sleep once our hosts had added a mattress and pillow. To cap it all, in town we discovered a restaurant that did incredibly cheap and incredibly good green salads, the first greenery I've seen in weeks, possibly months; hell, the place even kept pet rabbits, so the lettuce must have been good. I could feel the vitamins flowing into my skin cells, it was that healthy; it was just one of many surprises in Gao, the fact that I liked the place being the least of them.