Given the distance involved, getting from Gao to Mopti turned out to be relatively easy. It took me a total of seven travelling days to get from Mopti to Gao via Timbuktu, slowly floating along the River Niger in crowded pinasses and luxurious ferries, but thankfully it only took one day to return. Brook and I hopped on the bus in the morning, leaving only one hour late, and by seven o'clock this evening I was back in Mopti, fending off the touts like I'd never left. Sure, the bus kept stopping en route to pick up passengers (after the obligatory arguments over the price and where exactly the seven bundles of hay were going to fit), and at sundown we pulled over into the desert so the Muslim contingent – the whole bus minus the toubabs, that is – could pray to the east, but compared to some of the bus journeys I've taken in West Africa, today's was practically efficient.
The journey was interesting, too. Just outside Gao the bus pulled onto the ferry across the Niger and we piled out, sharing the ferry with a herd of cows, a couple of donkeys, a handful of goats and a tremendous smell, chugging slowly across the river, flat and tranquil in the shimmering heat. Back on the bus we plunged back into the desert, a desolate landscape of flat, barren plains, punctuated by wandering goats and cows who entertained themselves by playing chicken with the bus. Halfway through the trip the landscape changed into the same harsh environment I'd seen from the Kayes-Bamako train, with huge escarpments rising vertically out of the desert, flat-topped and murky in the dusty atmosphere. Here we stopped for a few minutes in the village of Hombori, where the 1155m-high rock formation of Hombori Tondo is the highest point in Mali; I just stood there marvelling at the fact that people manage to live out here in the Malian Sahel.
As bus journeys go, it was almost pleasurable, and even the connection to Mopti was trouble-free. I'd been told that the bus was going direct to Mopti, but of course it wasn't; instead it stopped at Sévaré, a junction town some 12km from Mopti, so I sadly waved goodbye to Brook and jumped down into the darkness. Wondering how – or if – I was going to get to Mopti at this time of night, I started walking in the general direction of the gare routière, keeping an eye open for hotels in case all the taxis had given up for the night. As if answering my prayers a local man pulled up on a motorcycle, asked me where I was going, and insisted that it was far too far for me to walk, and that me and my backpack should hop on the back of his bike. He was right – it was a long way – and he dropped me off right next to a bush taxi for Mopti, asking for nothing in return except a polite merci. Touched by his kindness, I was even more surprised when the bush taxi driver let my luggage travel for free, and it wasn't long before I was back in the mission in Mopti, where I'd spent the day before our river trip feeling far worse than I do now.
If only all transit days were that easy. Irritatingly, they're not.