The Niger River

Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
Trip End Nov 29, 2011

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Where I stayed
On a cargo boat

Flag of Mali  , Tombouctou,
Thursday, November 25, 2010

Our journey down the Niger River was on a cargo boat, perhaps 100ft long. The cargo was a mix of cement bags and food produce, on top of which perhaps 40 people made their homes for the next two days. The boat was constructed using a mixture of steel for the hull, wooden slats and arches for the roof frame, and plastic sheeting for the sides and roof cover.  Two converted diesel truck engines propelled the vessel along at a good speed of maybe 10 knots, while a typically African bespoke steering mechanism performed its job well, despite its rickety appearance.

Manoeuvering around the boat proved to be a constant and interesting test of balance and athleticism, for there was perhaps only 4-5 ft of headroom; great care had to be taken not to trample on a fellow passenger.  The central portion, where all the cooking was done, was the scene of much clamoring, most of which, by us westerners at least, was rather graceless.

The toilet was located towards the stern and was reached by first launching yourself over the cooking area, taking care not to tread in the food the colourfully-dressed women were preparing, climbing over the watermelons and chickens in storage, navigating the precariously balanced wooden plank over the engines, lowering yourself into the hull and, finally, ducking beneath a wooden spar at chest height which marked the entrance to the toilet.  The toilet itself would not be a welcome sight for anyone without full control of their downstairs movements.  It basically consisted of two holes broken into the wooden slats, through which a significant degree of careful aim had to be taken.  My control was sufficient to enjoy the obstacle course without the worry of an imminent accident.

Activities on the boat were dictated by the natural rhythms of the day.  The preparation of meals seemed to be a constant daytime activity.  The smell of cooking food mixed with diesel fumes provided a rich aroma to accompany the soundtrack of the women at work and the drone of the engines.  The food was basic, consisting of rice and, on occasions, a spicy sauce, and was served in a communal bowl.  There was no cutlery on board.

When darkness fell, the only lights on board were those emanating from the torches of the passengers.  People slept during the hours of darkness and were awoken by the morning sun.  Prayers were said, at the appropriate times, wherever people knelt, or, by some at least, on the roof.

The roof proved to be a favourite vantage point for watching the majestic landscape drift slowly by.  Much of the journey was spent sailing through the river's inland delta.  In a region of semi-desert, this river brings abundant life in the form of fresh-water swamps.  Crocs and hippos inhabit the landscape, alongside many other less grand species.  This river also sustains many communities of people, most of which, I assume, maintain contact with the wider world only by means of the river.  We stopped at perhaps three or four of these settlements to unload people and cargo; cement seemed to be the major commodity required.  Countless bags were unloaded during the course of the voyage, all of which were carried to shore on the heads of the local men and the boat’s crew.  An enduring image of Africa for me will be that of people carrying whatever needs carrying on their heads.  This is done with extraordinary grace and skill, by young (often very young) and old alike.

The scenery is the stuff of tourist brochures.  Above the reeds and waterlillies of the marsh rise sandbanks on which mud huts are built.  Miniature mud mosques accompany all settlements of significant size.  Women wash clothes in the shallows.  Children splash and play and wave at the passing boats.  Men punt their fishing boats along the river. At twilight, these images reach their artistic zenith, tempting outsiders like me to pinch themselves so as to confirm the reality of what is in front of them.

My favourite place for absorbing this feast for the senses was lying on the bags of cargo with my head only inches above the waterline (the boat sat very low in the water).  From here the gentle glide across the mirror-like surface of the water could be appreciated best.  I could have spent a week on that boat, quite happily.  As it was, we arrived at Korjoume, the port for Timbuktu, at about 8:30pm on Friday 26th November…
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Mum on

Looks like you've fallen in love with Africa, my son. Knew you would xx

jenniferaldred on

Can't wait to see the pictures xxxxxxxxx

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