SAHARA SLOWBOAT: Steaming To Timbuktu


Niger01 mTimbuktu, the legend still calls! - the fabulous Saharan city where once the riches of West Africa were traded for the luxuries of the Mediterranean: gold for textiles, ivory for weapons, slaves for horses. At its height in the 14th-16th centuries, Timbuktu was rich, populous and learned, a major city of the Mali and Songhai empires, a centre of Islamic study. Caravans crossed a thousand miles of desert to reach it.


African traders sailed the River Niger, West Africa’s main highway, to meet the caravans at Timbuktu. Up to 100,000 people lived there at its zenith. Then it was conquered by the Moroccans and fell into steep decline, the culture ruptured, the trade slipping away to the Atlantic sea routes opened up by Europeans. But as the real Timbuktu slid into poverty and obscurity, the mythic ‘Timbuctoo’ soared.


Upon long outdated reports of Timbuktu’s opulence and wisdom, Europeans built a fantasy of an ideal golden city, which countless adventurers destroyed themselves trying to reach. Now you could even fly there, but that was cheating. I wanted to go the explorers’ way - if not the hard way, which today is by truck on dirt tracks, at least the slow way, by boat.

 Niger19 mA steel hulk lay indolently at the quayside, the second largest structure in Mopti after the Grand Mosque. Three decks high, flat-topped, its layer cake silhouette stood out against the dusk and flickered with low wattage lights. The name Kankan Moussa marked the stern – good news, the pride of the River Niger fleet. But only one boat a week makes the long slow voyage to Timbuktu: would we get on?


I had met my companion Gouro on the bus to Mopti. A commerce official from Bamako, he wore denim and resembled the bearded Marvin Gaye, with African dignity rather than American cool. He was on humdrum business to a provincial capital; I was on a romantic adventure to the legendary city of the desert.


Timbuktu lies today in the land-locked republic of Mali, West Africa’s largest country. Mopti is a teeming river port and a major stop for the Niger steamer that plies its trade from the capital, Bamako, to the eastern city of Gao, providing a lifeline to many remote settlements along the way. Timbuktu is one of them, and when the Niger reaches it, it begins to turn away to the south, as if knowing that it would die in the desert if it continued northward, like so many explorers.

  Niger03 mIn the gloom, we picked our way to the ticket office, where two officials toiled under a bare light bulb with a mountain of paper and one of Mali’s few computers. We emerged with two passages in a 12-bunk cabin. They cost us 17,759 CFA francs, about US$25, for a scheduled 48 hours on board with three meals a day. We boarded and bunked in a steel box of a cabin, the boat slunk away into the night. I soon slept, lulled by the low groan of the diesel turbine deep in the hull.

Dawn revealed an extraordinary waterscape: we were easing our way along a winding channel of placid grey water through an immensity of green reeds, like one vast rice field extending to the horizon in all directions. So it went for several hours: we chugged purposefully onward at about eight knots, weaving through the enormous marshlands, occasionally sighting a rocky outcrop on which our gaze fixed as the only reference point, sometimes amazed to descry a village of mudbrick houses on a bare sandstone island, where people eked a living out of this watery wilderness.


“They are Bozo,” said Gouro, “the same people as me. We are a fishing people, we are the best fishermen in Mali, we know how to live from the river.” And his own fishing skills? “Ha! Well, me, you know, I’m a city boy from Bamako, but sometimes I used to go down to the river and fish when I was a kid.” No, the new bourgeois Bozo does not fish for his living.

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I was starting to distinguish the many peoples of Mali. Physically, the Fulani stand out, generally taller, with narrow faces, almost aquiline noses and mid-brown skin. Their fine features make them seem aristocrats, even though they are largely pastoralists, unique in having settled all across the Sahel from Senegal to Chad.

Nobody can mistake the Tuareg, the “blue men” of the desert. Stepping out of Beau Geste, they wear billowing indigo robes, carry curved daggers and wrap their turban ends around their lower faces, giving a powerful air of romance, mystery and threat. Nomad sovereigns of the Sahara, weapon-smiths and camel breeders by tradition, in Mali today they are businessmen too.

We find places in the lounge for breakfast. It’s a long time coming. An inquiry to the busy waiter brings a sharp look, then an aggressive “Bonjour!” After more such exchanges, I realise that every Malian you address must first be greeted, whoever they are. Eventually, French bread and instant coffee arrives, meticulously served.

Out on deck, a young Fulani in a smart grey suit tells me he’s going to Timbuktu too, on business for a French construction company. “We are extending the airport runway. I’m staying at my boss’s house. He’s French, you can stay there too.” I am chary at this offer, so change the subject: why are we chugging along with a huge flat steel barge strapped to our port side, like a floating sidecar? “That contains 300 tonnes of tar for the new runway. We’re going slow because of that.”


Niger17-m1There were about a dozen Caucasians on board. Two thirty-something Frenchwomen sat in the narrow gangway outside their cabin, on chairs which had lost their backs and were leaking foam-rubber. “Oh, we don’t care about Timbuktu, we’re going all the way to Gao,” dismissed Chantal, a chemist. This came across as bold and original, but somewhat philistine. Gao was also an ancient city, the medieval capital of the Empire of Songhai, but it hardly had the same cachet as Timbuktu.

And then I began to cough and weaken. Movement became tiring, the dreamscape turned into featureless monotony. I retired to my bunk and fell into listlessness. Whatever it was, I needed some medicine. “There’s a nurse downstairs”, I was told, so I shuffled along the gangway, down the steps and into the chaos of the open-sided hold -- steerage class. Whole families were camped out on the steel floor with their produce and livestock, a riot of multi-coloured robes, alfalfa and chickens, with the cry of Salif Keita, Mali’s favourite son, vaulting from ghetto blasters. In a little windowless room, a sympathetic though ill-equipped man asked me my symptoms, then gave me a half-dozen white tablets in a paper twist.

I began my cure, steadily consuming my precious 5 litres of purified water bought in Mopti. After a few hours of delirium, I rose like Lazarus and staggered upstairs to consort with the first class elite. Chantal, well-stocked with medicines, tut-tutted me for taking the nurse’s antibiotics when she had a much more suitable one to offer. “Never mind, it’ll probably work,” she said, not very reassuringly. 

Occasionally I took a halting deck tour. Aft, a couple of families sprawled colourfully over the steel floor between the lifeboats, one of which was prettily filled with a cargo of tree saplings. A goat was tethered on the lower foredeck, but not far enough from a rolled-up reed mat which it was merrily consuming.


I hit upon the second class bar, a cubbyhole. Affixed to the wall was a notice: “Film show in the Lounge tonight at 20 hours: Titanic. Entrance 1000 CFA. All are welcome.” This became the grand joke of the voyage amongst the foreigners. On airlines, the great no-no for inflight movies is plane crashes. Clearly the Compagnie Malienne de Navigation had no such qualms.

Niger24 mWe had emerged from the reed world into an immense lake. Grey choppy water spread to the horizon in all directions, the sky was a grey sheet, it could have been the North Sea if it weren’t for the heat. It was Lake Debo, where the Niger spreads to immense size during and after the rains. This flatland area of central Mali is known as the Inland Delta on account of the number of streams which the Niger breaks up into, later joining up again. From August to November, there is more water than dry land.


It was eerie – and monotonous. I collapsed on my bunk. I even missed Titanic, which apparently went down a treat. But I consoled myself with the knowledge that my troubles were as nothing compared to those of the 19th century searchers for Timbuktu. Gordon Laing, traversing the Sahara from Libya, had been attacked, shot in the side, and slashed about head and body 18 times with sabres. A doughty Scot, he carried on. Rene Caillie had fallen to scurvy on the Niger route and lay at death’s door in a village hut for several months with his palate and teeth rotting. They both made it to Timbuktu, however; others disappeared without trace.


Niger25 mJoy it was, therefore, when the next morning we pulled into a vibrant river port and I revived. Pirogues - long canoes – punted out to meet us. On the sloping concrete bank, a kaleidoscope of people murmurred and buzzed, eyes fixed on us, the great lifeline. Merchants, marketwomen, herdsmen, passengers, washerwomen, mischievous boys, porters, all had their reasons. The gangplank was winched down and no sooner did it hit the concrete than did determined flows of people try to both embark and disembark by the same metre-wide means.


Photographers’ dreamland! I barged my way onto land loaded with Canon and shot. Cloaked herdsmen chivvied white goats, turbanned mammies extolled their aubergines and plantains, sweating porters heaved huge sacks of aniseed onto their backs, distinguished men in pristine robes went about important business, passengers toted enormous hold-alls, donkey carts pushed through the melee, little boys scampered under everyone’s feet.

Eventually loading and unloading ceased, and washerwomen took over the concrete bank, the prime place in town for scrubbing and drying. Naked urchins frolicked in the muddy dockside water and shimmied up the steamer’s ropes. The town was Dire, one of the few and far-between market centres along the middle Niger. Regrettably, I had missed the previous one in the night, Niafunke, home of Ali Farka Toure, haunting electric guitarist, hypnotic exponent of Malian blues.

After a couple of hours, the Kankan Moussa left Dire to its own devices, and steered out into midstream once more. At the bow, a ladder led invitingly upwards. Climbing it, I found myself on the bridge. A leg protruded from the front window, swathed in a coloured robe. I ventured to the open door, expecting “Defense d’entrer”. Not at all. I was graciously welcomed inside where I found that the leg belonged to the captain, a black-turbanned man with commanding eyes. Two other navigators were introduced as the lieutenant and the sergeant.


 Captain Mahamane Traore said they were all Songhai, of the people who ruled Mali as an empire in the late middle ages. “We work seven months of to and fro without stop, from Koulikoro [near Bamako] to Gao and back, then five months of no work,” he informed me. “But I have my family with me on board,” he said, pointing to a small crowded cabin behind. The others evidently didn’t. 

Back down below, it was Gouro’s turn to fall ill, with recurrent malaria. He bore the aches stoically, as if they were par for the course, which in Mali they are. Niger13 mNight fell. The next thing I knew, he was shaking me and urging: “We’re there. Get up!” In moonlight, I staggered onto a concrete slipway and into a Land Rover, which rattled across a landscape of scrub and sand, depositing us at the Hotel Bouctou. “Welcome, we’re full up”, said the night porter.


But the Bouctou suddenly emptied in the middle of the night as a package tour decamped. We had the pick of the caravansary, from whose flat roof the early sunlight revealed a low mudbrick city huddling over a rise in the desert, which spread forever all around. Rounded black tents dotted the outskirts. Tuaregs and their Bella servants lived in these, herding sheep and goats.


Timbuktu is a labyrinth of dusty alleys through which float gorgeously dressed people, in flowing robes, in multi-coloured prints, with embroidered headcaps or extravagant turbans. Minarets like giant termite nests poke above the crusty mudbrick sprawl of Djinguereber Mosque, a medieval creation.


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Timbuktu still trades, as a local market town. The Petit Marche is a straggle of thatch and wattle stalls offering grain, vegetables, spices and fly-blown meat. The Grand Marche stretches to plastic basins, toys, batteries; its covered hall offers cloth and goats, tools and animal feed.

On the north edge of town, the Sahara begins and doesn’t stop for a thousand arid scorching miles. Caravans still arrive, but only with rock salt. Once, it was traded weight for weight with gold. Now it sells for a song. The only gold now is tourism.






© 2005 Keith Mundy






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