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.
The River Niger is the lifeblood of Mali. Its source is in Guinea, to the west of southern Mali, and the Niger enters Mali in the southwest, flows east past Bamako and Mopti, and then curves northeast to touch the southern edge of the Sahara at Korioumé (the nearest port to Timbuktu, some 15km south of the legendary town); it then curves back to the southeast past Gao and over the border into Niger, before flowing due south through Nigeria and to the sea. This huge loop makes the Niger a great way to get around Mali (especially as the roads to the Sahara are awful), and the portion between Mopti and Korioumé is a classic journey. I just had to try it.
It's no luxury cruise, though. Your choice is between the crowded public ferry that heads downstream once a week, or the various pinasses that ply the same route every few days, carrying passengers, cargo and anything else that turns in a profit. We chose a public pinasse because it looked more interesting than the ferry, and that's exactly how it turned out.
Pinasses are long, motorised wooden canoes that curve up at the ends and tend to boast a couple of open-sided decks, a roof, and precious little else. On a typical pinasse the bottom deck lives in the belly of the boat, raised above the bilges by horizontal struts; this is where you can find the cargo, usually sacks of rice and barrels of petrol, with passengers on the cheapest fares huddled amongst the freight. The deck above is split into a covered area towards the front of the boat, for the most expensive accommodation, and an open area towards the back, for everything else.
It's basic stuff; the only seats are a couple of rickety park benches in the covered top deck, the toilet is a hole over the river at the back of the boat, and you sleep where you sit, on the corrugated iron deck (for the top deck) or on rice sacks (for the lower deck). Loud music blares out of the obligatory speakers day and night (yes, all night), if the breeze stops or the pinasse slows down then black engine smoke pours through the boat, people are crowded together so closely that you end up sleeping with your face in someone else's feet, and the journey lasts for days. But once you get used to it, it's a fantastic way to float through Mali, clocking up those kilometres while kicking back and watching the desert landscape roll by.
The River Niger is wide, brown, slow moving and serene. It carves its way through the flattest landscape you're ever likely to see, and beyond the low banks, barren scrubland stretches all the way to the horizon. The river might be carrying a huge amount of water, but this is a seriously dry landscape, and beyond the green strip of fertility that the river supports, the land is brown, featureless and hostile. To watch it drift past from the, er, comfort of a corrugated iron deck is a constant exercise in amazement; I found it hard to believe that people manage to scrape together a living out here, and more than once I found myself thanking my lucky stars that I don't live here. It's a harsh place.
But lots of people do live here, as the large number of stops demonstrates. The pinasse stops constantly, dropping people off and delivering rice, butter, petrol and other necessities to the tiny villages perched on the river banks. The arrival of a pinasse is a big event round these parts, and when the captain starts to slow down and turns into the current, ready to drop the anchor, the whole village starts yelping and screaming its way down to the river to greet the new arrival. Just like on the train to Bamako, women arrive carrying goodies on their heads – drinks, peanuts, bananas and all sorts of other sustenance for the cooped-up passengers – and they wade into the water, sometimes waist-deep, to sell their wares. Meanwhile small canoes wade out to ferry passengers on and off the boat, each of them yelling out for business while kids splash round naked over by the shore. It's a hell of a sight, and the further down the river you get, the more excited the villages seem to get. The arrival of a pinasse is like the circus coming to town, and it's just as entertaining.
Perchance to Sleep
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.
Sleeping on corrugated iron is another challenge altogether, and throughout the trip I was incredibly grateful that I'd decided to buy four squares of foam mattress just as we left Mopti. If I arranged them in a row, then I ended up with something that approximated a bed, and I could only feel every other corrugation; Brook had a tough old time getting to sleep on the hard, ridged deck, and Sean, the only other tourist on our pinasse, looked pretty damn rough after the first night too.
It also gets cold and surprisingly damp on the River Niger at night. The sun sinks at around 6pm, and as soon as it dips below the horizon the scorching heat of the day collapses into the cool of a delightfully fresh evening, and it's a wonderful time to be on the river. A couple of hours later, though, the humidity level shoots up and a mist appears, and the temperature drops right down; after the searing intensity of the day it's a shock to the system, but it's even worse when you're sleeping on corrugated iron. I always travel with a sleeping bag, even in hot continents like Africa, and it's times like these that make it all worthwhile; I slept fitfully in my sleeping bag on my foam mattress, and woke after our first night feeling reasonably human. Brook and Sean, shivering under their cotton sheets with only a thin reed mat between them and the metal, didn't look quite as rested, but that's pinasse travelling for you.
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.
Tonka is a desolate town if ever I saw one. Its streets are wide, they're full of drifting sand, and unusually for Africa they form a regular grid, like Milton Keynes; the buildings, meanwhile, are nondescript one-storey concrete blocks that have bolted metal doors, a colour like dirty sand, and no redeeming features whatsoever. As soon as the river drops out of sight you can imagine there being no water for miles around; it's dry, dusty, and utterly, utterly harsh. I couldn't believe it; Tonka is as close to hell as I ever want to get.
But the people are friendly, as is so often the case in the harsher parts of the world, and they enthusiastically greeted me and my bush hat with, 'Bonjour American cowboy!' It took all of five minutes to explore Tonka's compact town centre and another ten minutes to explore the irrigated millet fields outside town, fed by the river as it pours through a set of sluice gates and into the surrounding farms. It was peaceful, it was desolate, it was in the middle of nowhere and it was starting to get a little boring. We celebrated by sitting on the boat, doing absolutely nothing.
That night we didn't have the advantage of a breeze blowing through the pinasse, and the mosquitoes decided to join us for a bite to eat. I hung up my mosquito net and slept pretty well, but poor Sean and Brook ended up being bitten to hell as they squirmed on their corrugated beds.
Weirdly, though, they couldn't get enough of it; they adored the slow, serene sailing down the river, they loved being cramped on a deck of corrugated iron, they found the incessant Malian pop music amusing – even at 2am – and they smiled as the mosquitoes hummed around their ears. I practically had a proper bed and the mosquitoes couldn't get to me, but I just wasn't that thrilled by the experience... and we still had another day to go.
On the other hand, while we were sitting admiring the sunset on our night in Tonka, the public ferry chugged into view and docked on Tonka's concrete quay. If I'd thought our pinasse looked a bit cramped, the ferry looked like it wasn't much fun either, with booming music shaking the water round its bows, people crowding the three decks, and a loud, throbbing engine rattling the rivets. I figured that whichever way you get to Timbuktu, it's hard. Then again, that's the point of trying to get to remote places; they're remote.
Pinasse Number Two
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.'
But as it pulled alongside, I heard something that made me sit up straight. Out of the jabbering of the locals selling food and whatnots to the passengers, I heard an Australian voice shout out my name, and there, sandwiched on the top deck, was Chris, whom I'd left for dead on the main highway in the Gambia. I couldn't have been happier; his cynicism matched mine perfectly, and I felt sure he'd be feeling pretty resigned about this boat trip too. I was right; he was hurting from the effects of the corrugated iron, and suddenly I had a partner in crime.
Saturday was more of the same. We floated along the river, its unchanging scenery unfolding in front of us as we stopped off at villages along the way and watched them watch us. Music blared out from the ship's speakers, some of it excellent, some of it abhorrent. We ate rice from the kitchen – a table and some pots on the open part of the top deck – and we sat on the roof for short bursts, baking in the hot sun and marvelling at the harshness of the cloudless desert sky. We talked about our various travels since splitting up a few weeks earlier, concentrating on the nightmares because it's more fun like that, and managed to occupy ourselves quite satisfactorily until we pulled into Korioumé at 11pm on Saturday night. At last, we'd finally arrived somewhere.
But we still weren't at Timbuktu, and faced with a 15km journey into town and the uninspiring thought of trying to find a hotel in the dark, we asked the captain if we could sleep on board until the morning. He said that would be fine, and so started the worst night of all, with the mosquitoes attacking constantly and from all directions, leaping on any exposed skin and biting through sarongs, sheets and clothes. At least, this is what the others told me; I was smugly snug under my mosquito net, thankful that I was able to get any sleep at all while my fellow toubabs tossed and turned, smothered in itchy bites.
And so the next day we got up, hopped into a bush taxi, and arrived in Timbuktu just in time for breakfast. We'd left Mopti on Thursday afternoon and arrived in Timbuktu on Sunday morning, after three nights of fitful sleep, two days of sailing, and one day sighing with relief that I wasn't born in Tonka. Even corrugated iron beds are preferable to the Milton Keynes of the desert.