Leaving the port town of Mopti
Niger River
It is 10am Sunday and I find myself in church; in this case a small boat heading North up the Niger; Timbuktu our destination. It is a small congregation, just Joyce, Larry, and myself. The minister is Douda and our helmsman is Mohamed; brothers charged with our safety and as guides to the treasures in this strange and wonderful land. The church metaphor came easily as we were only onboard a few moments when it became apparent that the boat was not only a method of transportation to a new geographical place, but one for an inward journey as well.

Our boat is approximately 40 feet long, double ended, skiff-like, and wooden hulled with long, pointy prows. It is covered with a straw mat barrel vault supported by branches twisted into hoops at three feet on center. The freeboard is low (only 18 inches or so) and the sideboards are painted in the colors of the Mali Flag and just wide enough to walk aft for that most basic of human relief (yes, that’s exactly what I mean;-)

The accommodations are sparse but very comfortable. Benches span crosswise at three or four feet on center and are somewhat cushioned. There are five benches, the last two spread further apart than the others with a small table between. The interior of the hull is lined with straw mats and the head room under the vault is about four feet.

Astern of the last bench is the area for Douda and Mohamed, where meals are made and tea brewed. The engine well is beyond this work area, leaving just enough room in the stern for the head. We are powered along down stream smartly by a Yamaha 25hp outboard.

[ We’ve been on the river about 2 hours now and have made surprisingly good progress. I’m, not sure what the current is running, but we seem to be going awfully fast for the relaxed RPM of the outboard ]

The landscape is river delta; flat, green and full of life. We have passed many villages and fishing camps. At the confluence of the Bani and the Niger Rivers, we passed through a flotilla of fishing skiffs, each with an oarsman and a man with a cast net. As close as I can figure, the nets are about 18 feet in diameter and most are thrown perfectly.

To my Florida friends and family … you would be at home today!

[ OK, that shot of sweet African tea tasted strangely of fish! Ahhhh….. Looking back to the stern and the busy movement of Douda, I see that he is preparing fish for lunch.  “Perchy” looking things. ]

The food here in the North of Mali is a little different than in the South near Bamako. Undoubtedly it is because of the river ecosystem, but also because of the eclectic mix of the tribes in this region: Bozo (fishermen); Songhai (fishermen); Soninke (poets); Mandinka (music); Tuareg (nomad); Fulani (nomad/merchants); Bela (nomad); Bambara (commerce); and, Marka (commerce).

Last night (at Peace Corps Baba’s house in Sevare) we had an incredible dish of Perch-like fish (whole) in onions and carrots with the most amazing spices. It was served with fried plantains and potatoes. I’ll blog about the food in the Southern region later, but try to keep you up to date with the food in this region as we eat it;-)

Lunch today was indeed a perchy-looking fish, caught fresh, skillet fried and served whole with a rice and vegetable sauce and oranges and bananas for desert.

[ It’s 1pm and we are relaxing ever more by the hour. What a wonderful way to travel.  Reading, writing, reflecting, talking and just observing. … And designing.  I am busy sketching various ideas for the Ko-Falen center and hope to have something ready for Wague in the next two weeks. Looks like I’ll also be helping Peace Corps Baba with the design of his African art museum in Sevare’. What a fun way to spend the month of February ]

Niger River
Yesterday evening saw us complete our passage across a wide portion of the river, wide enough to be a lake, with the banks barely visible from the center. Delta-like in its quality, it reminded me of a cross between Lake Tsala Apopka in North Central Florida and the Everglades.

The sunset was spectacular and the moonrise in the opposite sky was quite sublime. We passed many villages once we reached the opposite shore; all in various stages of their nightly routines. Campfires and cooking, skiffs being moored (or readied for night fishing), dinner being taken, children playing; all seemed so natural, yet so exotic.

There were still a large number of boats on the water as darkness settled in.  Some were small family skiffs returning with the day’s catch. Some were heading out for night dishing, or already anchored in their favorite place with drift nets laid.  At the magic time between sunset and dusk, the boats were either silhouetted against the golden orange West African sky or blending in with the dark green river grass along the banks.

Rounding one of the uncountable bends in this other bank of grass, we were passed by two giant versions of our little boat. They were probably 100 feet in length, shaped and covered like ours and lit from stem to stern. Their accommodation decks were huge, with plenty of head room. Our beam was probably 6 feet at our widest; theirs probably 25 feet. The first boat was loaded with supplies; oil drums, crates, and other dry goods.  The second boat was set up to carry people. To my Western mind, it was the ultimate river party boat.

We reached our campsite at the beginning just as night became total. Our resting place was nothing more than the mud bank at the start again of the narrow river waterway. We were 100 feet up onto the dry sand, there were no mosquitoes, and it was quite comfortable.

We shared our anchorage with a number of local fishing skiffs. They were having dinner, laughing, and basically just hanging out until starting to fish again. We were in bed by 9pm, the din of laughter dying away only when I drifted off to sleep.

BTW … our dinner was fabulous.  Fish again (what, you expected hamburgers?) fried, split and served on a pile of couscous and an exquisite pepper sauce (legumes, onion, African hot pepper, and aubergine (African eggplant). Wow.  We all ate till we were ready to burst.

This morning dawned clear and cool, with a sunrise every bit as spectacular as last night’s sunset. We were up at 6:30am, on the boat by 7am, and heading once again for the ancient city of Timbuktu on a water-way that has remained basically unchanged since man first started traveling its waters.

[ It has been a lazy day and we have had smooth passage since we set off this morning. We pulled up to the bank at one point and I was surprised at how hot it was just yards off the water’s edge. Whereas on the water I am in 2 layers of clothes and somewhat cool, on land, only 100 or so feet off the bank, it is hot, arid and 20 degrees or more warmer. Timbuktu will be a real shock when we land tomorrow ]

Niger River
It is a beautiful morning! Sunshine and clear (as all the mornings have been) with a bit of wind. Sleeping on the beach last night was magical and very, very comfortable.

There was a family of Fulani that watched us set up our tents last night. They were dressed as typical in this area; colorful and bejeweled, and striking an amazing contrast to the dusty and colorless landscape. Unfortunately, we are starting to hear “Cadeaux” (gift) from the local children quite a bit. It the first time we’ve really heard this in Mali (the Niger Riverhas been a transportation route for centuries though, perhaps the asking for gifts is indicative of its rich trading history as much as it is a sign of tough economic times?)

7am saw us back on the boat, eating breakfast and relaxing once again (tough life eh?).

The river here, only ½ day fromTimbuktu, is wider (nearly a mile across) and the banks have turned from delta and rice paddies to small hills and flat rangeland.  The air is still clear and fresh, a far cry from the dusty life on land.

We pass a number of boats, a couple of them carrying large numbers of volunteers to work the music festival that is happening this weekend in Timbuktu. Alas, they in turn pass us again as we circle back towards a fishing boat to purchase our lunch.  Douda, our captain, is from the village in this area and seems to know all the fishermen that we pass.  From one of them, he purchases a nice, fat “El Capitan”, a meaty white fish with wonderful flavor.  The fish cost us 2 mil (2000 CFA … about 4 dollars) and was worth every penny. Can you guess that this fish dinner too was fabulous? Lightly pan fried with couscous, cabbage and pepper. Fabulous maybe because of the fish, maybe the sauce, or maybe just because of the exotic location and the three-day ease into which we’ve all slipped.

Two hours from Timbuktu and the excitement is palpable. The landscape seems to have settled into banks of sand dunes with intermittent and lonely trees. Villages continue to dot both banks. The building are more rectilinear in shape and seem to be more substantially built than the villages to the south. The doors are brightly colored and the door surround is often painted a complementary color. It is still a pleasant temperature here on the boat, but we can see heat waves blasting off the land.

We arrived at an outlying village at 3pm and off-loaded the boat.  The 2 skiffs ahead of us had already been unloaded and their passengers awaiting their rides to town. Most of these folks were volunteers and young. Their country of origins were diverse, with representatives from France, Spain, Russia, Canada, Australia, and the US…Portland,OR to be exact. What a small world. Our friend Ibrahim picked us up within the hour and we drove the 8 miles into town.  Next blog; Timbuktu.