The bearded stranger and I lean on the wooden rail which goes round the second-class deck of the steamship, the Tomboctou. For days we stare at the water and the banks of the River Niger, rarely less than half a kilometre wide, and up to 25 kilometres where it merges into a lake during the water season. The stranger is going all the way from Mopti to Gao as a tourist; I am going to visit my family there, and to try and get a government post. Behind us on the deck is a happy chaos of blankets marking out territory, cooking and talking, luggage and freight, torpor and activity. The journey to Gao, by way of Timbuktu, is four days. Well. Four days ‘en principe’ (in principle) as we say here in Mali: it is getting to the end of the season (this is the second-last of the ten scheduled journeys the Tomboctou should make in the season), the waters are low and any day we might get stuck on a sandbank. So maybe more than four days then. Last year the sister-ship to this one, the Sevare, got stuck and had to wait for pinasses (traditional wooden boats, built for transporting passengers) to take everyone to the banks to await further transport: a lot more than four days for them.
There was lots of life behind us, in the cabins and on the decks, but we spent much of our days focussing on the life, or lack of life, on the riverbanks as we passed.
The first stop is Aka. The whistle goes, the bank is lined with people, and pirogues, the traditional small wooden boat of the Niger, set out towards us laden with ladies and their goods for sale. Some ladies wade to the boat chest-deep, balancing on their heads trays of boiled eggs, dried fish, peanuts, brown balls of cheese, yellow dates the size of hazelnuts or other foodstuffs. Girls carefully float bowls of milk in front of them as they swim. Passengers throng the railings on all three decks and shouted negotiations start. There’s a standard price of 100 CFA, the most common coin, which are placed in the bowls and lowered down to the water after the goods have been taken. Live chickens are 500. All this trade can happen only while the boat loads up with wood fuel from waiting pirogues, and then we’re off again.
At Niyafunke we see none of the hippos the cabin-boy told us about, but hordes of pirogues head towards the boat competing to unload passengers. Tonka at 1am; Diri at 4am: the whistle wakes us up and teams of workers on the banks unload sacks of ammonium diphosphate, a fertiliser.
As we approach Timbuktu the river banks become busier. Trees are more frequent, and the termite mounds are often as tall as the trees. The villages are squat and square, and sit on small rises to avoid the water when the river floods. Motor-pumps chug away drawing water into fields, men hoe and millet sways in the breeze. I was brought up on a farm so I can smell that the rice is ripe. Temporary round huts of sticks and sacks and skins provide shelter for the farmers, as do crude wooden shelters for the fishermen on the sandbanks the boat is avoiding. These sandbanks are mostly deserted but on a few pirogues or pinasses are drawn up and men sit repairing nets.
At Timbuktu, which is actually twenty miles from the river, there is a great deal of loading and unloading. Metal walkways from the side of the boat are slammed onto the shore for passengers to disembark or embark. The usual selling commences and soon there is the smell of chickens sizzling on barbecues, eaten with bought-in bread, round and solid, and causing much hawking and spitting because it has been cooked in the sand. The stranger, called ‘chef’ by the young salesboy, is offered souvenir leather sandals embossed with ‘Timbuktu’. He declines.
After Timbuktu we see cultivated islands in the river. There are rags on sticks blowing in the wind to protect the crops from the river’s varied birdlife; ducks fly low across the water, and the cranes are flying west overhead in strict arrow formation.
Before we reach Bamba the dunes close in on the river, so close to the waters that they are being washed away, cut in half, and presumably creating the sandbanks in the river we continue to avoid. At Bamba I point out the coloured straw hats of those on the shore and one of our fellow-travellers explains how to distinguish the local tribes. The boys with their scalps half-shaved are Calabish; the Moors (Arabs) wear their turbans hanging down to their waist; Touareg all in blue and white, their faces covered; Peul girls with cuts in their earlobes and heavy ear-rings. Behind the people lined up on the shore we see a camel caravan at rest. The salt blocks (3 feet by 1.5 feet and 2 inches thick) it has brought in from deep in the desert are piled up around it. The caravan would continue into Timbuktu. In Bamba rice and tobacco are the local crops and this is what the pirogue salesfolk are offering to the passengers.
As we close on Gao, the right bank remains desert and dune while the left bank turns greener. The villages have gardens which slope down towards the water’s edge, allowing easy irrigation of the melon crops and vegetable patches. Our fellow-traveller, a Gao native, excitedly points out the Pink Dunes, a set of huge dunes on the riverbank just a few kilometres from Gao. At Gao, after just four days, we stop. The river flows on. Through Niger and Benin; through all of Nigeria to the sea. Its over 4,000 kilometres long. Many many days more.