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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Mali: Mopti to Timbuktu

Sunset over the River Niger at Tonka
Sunset over the River Niger at Tonka

Despite the hassle of buying anything in Mopti, Brook and I managed to book ourselves on the public pinasse to Timbuktu, leaving on the afternoon of Thursday, 14 November. It was scheduled to be a long journey; Timbuktu is famous as a remote place, and there's a good reason for that. It's a long, long way from anywhere.

A pinasse on the River Niger
Pinasses like this ply their way up and down the wide River Niger, weighed down by cargo and people
Trees along the banks of the River Niger
Mali is very green along the banks of the River Niger, which is more than can be said for the rest of the country
Children standing in the River Niger
Whenever a pinasse stops at a riverside village everyone comes out to watch, especially the children

Perchance to Sleep

A fisherman's pirogue motoring along the River Niger
Fishermen returning home as the sun sets over the River Niger at Tonka

All this floating takes it out of you, though. The river is serene and placid and the flat landscape rolls by, unchanging and hostile, but all the time the sun beats down, roasting the air that flows through the open sides of the boat, and there's precious little room for stretching your legs. I was jammed into a corner of the deck, sandwiched between the edge of the boat and a chain-smoking man who ploughed through his packet of Liberté cigarettes like there was no tomorrow (which, for him, there probably won't be, because Liberté are strong, filterless, and don't bother with things like health warnings or tar levels; it's obvious enough from the smell that they're going to kill you pretty quickly). He constantly brewed sweet, green tea on a little charcoal stove, coughed heartily, and smiled at me pleasantly while we tried to engage in small talk. As neighbours go I couldn't complain, except when the wind turned to give me a lungful of Liberté.

The top deck of the pinasse to Timbuktu
This is the top deck of the pinasse where I slept on corrugated iron


A beached fishing trawler on the banks of the River Niger
The banks of the River Niger are studded with villages and, apparently, beached fishing trawlers

The first night was just the beginning. Halfway through our second day we stopped at a desert town called Tonka, and the captain informed us that this was the end of the line for our pinasse and that there would be another one along in the morning to take us to Timbuktu. Meanwhile we had a day and a night to kill on our now stationary pinasse, moored in the middle of nowhere, two-thirds of the way to Timbuktu. We decided to explore Tonka; there wasn't much else to do.

The River Niger near Tonka
Tranquil water on the outskirts of Tonka
Locals rushing down to the banks of the River Niger
Locals rushing down to the river to greet the arrival of our pinasse

Pinasse Number Two

A fisherman in a boat on the River Niger near Tonka
A fisherman pulling in his nets on the River Niger near Tonka

Saturday morning awoke to a beautiful sunrise and the arrival of our second pinasse. I sat up and watched it drift into view, a mass of bodies and cargo, belching out clouds of black smoke. It looked like our first pinasse, only with more people. 'Whoopee,' I thought, 'another day crammed into a corrugated chicken coup.'

Children on the banks of the River Niger
Children of the River Niger
Dunes on the banks of the River Niger
When the Sahara Desert meets the River Niger it's a beautiful sight