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AFRICA > Mali > Niger River

The Slow Boat to Timbuktu

Claire Harris

Article & Pictures © 2010 Claire Harris

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The wind rushes in and the head of a hippopotamus breaks the surface of the water beside us. The sun beats down relentlessly and along the banks, the women look up from where they are washing clothes outside their straw huts and the little boys wave, all dressed in identical Barrack Obama T-shirts.


The Swiss may have the watches but in Mali they've got the time. As I was to discover.

“Three days,” Mohamed promises us as we hand over our money. “You know, it’s the dry season and the trip take longer this time of year,” he adds apologetically. “But you will be in Timbuktu in three days, inchallah.” God willing.

He pockets our cash in some secret compartment of his robe and goes on, his hands moving in ever more expansive gestures, “You have everything, don’t worry! Nice bed, good food. The captain is my uncle, we take care of you, my friends.”

Boat being loaded on Niger River - click to enlargeAs it turns out, God has no desire for us to be in Timbuktu any time soon and the captain has no nephews. Our friend Mohamed mysteriously disappears as we watch our wooden cargo boat being loaded with thousands of kilos of cement and millet grain, the men plunging shoulder-deep into the water with bags on their heads. The pinasse is like a giant rowboat with a V-shaped hull and the timber beams holding up the roof are lashed together with rope. Our ragged mattresses are laid on top of the cement bags stacked into the hull. One does not walk the length of the boat but clamber over beams, bags and small children. The families travelling with us did not get the luxury of a mattress and they are curled up together.

“Don’t look down the sides,” my fellow traveller says. We are four: two Canadians, a Moroccan and me, the Australian. “Whatever you do, you do not wanna see what is underneath us,” Matt warns. Which naturally makes us rush to peel back the sides of our makeshift cement-bag bed and peer into the damp darkness of the hull beneath. The wall of the boat is literally moving; it is squirming with cockroaches. The floor is filling up with water and a small boy is employed constantly to bail it out with a single bucket.

First things first, I want to know where the toilet is. Down the back, they motion, and I stand on the side of the pinasse gripping onto the roof with my hands and edging sideways step by step along its full length, and promptly get hit on the shin by the bucket of the Water Bailer. “Sorry!” he cries and the rail I am holding onto disappears under cargo strapped to the roof.

At the back of the boat, a group of seven men, a teenage boy and a woman are standing around a hole that is now below water level. I indicate that I want to use the hole but have some trouble encouraging them to actually leave. The woman remains behind to supervise as does the boy. I point at him and she throws a blanket over his head.

The boat is moving and I almost fall overboard on the crawl back from the loo. It is smooth sailing past the women scrubbing their clothes on the banks, the fisherman on long boats casting their nets into the water, the naked children splashing and diving. An hour later we run aground.

We stay aground for hours, just a few kilometres from our starting point. The men stand in the waist-deep water and strain uselessly against the side of the boat, trying to dislodge it with poles or with their bare hands. It doesn’t budge. Finally someone has the bright idea of enlisting the aid of another boat and for hours they unload the cement bags until we are bobbing on the water again and can be pushed free. The level of our bed drops down further into the hull and closer to the cockroaches.

As soon as the pinasse is floating, the men re-load every single bag of cement. Our bed rises to the top of the hull. The boat scrapes along the river floor and is grounded again.

Produce being offered on the River Niger - click to enlargeDay two begins with several hours of pushing the boat from where it hasn’t moved since the night before. Unload the bags, bed drops. Reload the bags, bed rises. Once in motion we pull into the next village and add more cargo and more people. Our bed starts creeping in on all sides, and now sits right above the edge of the boat. The wind rushes in and the head of a hippopotamus breaks the surface of the water beside us. The sun beats down relentlessly and along the banks, the women look up from where they are washing clothes outside their straw huts and the little boys wave, all dressed in identical Barrack Obama T-shirts. The girls wade out to the boats carrying bowls on their heads laden with biscuits and mangos and we lean over the sides to negotiate prices as they pass the fruit up to us.

The engine cuts out in the middle of a vast lake. The captain, a thin man in a flowing robe and turban, spends a long time walking around in the water with his hands on his head, looking distressed. “The battery is dead,” someone explains. “We are waiting for a boat to pass to help us re-charge.”

No boat passes. Night falls. We go on waiting. In one corner, a woman is cooking rice and the smell of fish wafts over the group of mothers clutching screaming babies to their breasts. We eat rice and fish three times a day until we stop eating at all because even the smell makes us feel sick.

Day three and a boy is dispatched on a bicycle to ride to the nearest village and fetch us a new battery. “Don’t worry, we will be in Timbuktu tomorrow inchallah,” the captain says but I have my doubts because he is still walking around in the water and his hands haven’t moved from his head and by 4pm we haven’t shifted an inch.

Battery replaced, and we promptly run aground and spend day four marooned on a sand bank. Cement bags off, cement bags on. Bed goes down, bed goes up. In the middle of the night, the Bailing Boy is thrown on top of us by one of the Boat Dislodgers. The boy is taunting the man, who is twice his size, and with each comment the man rushes at him to slap him around the face. The women shriek and grasp their babies tighter and the other men hold him down, kicking.

Day five and we are finally in deeper water expecting to make a little more progress. But the captain orders all the millet bags offloaded, emptied and the contents spread on the ground. We spend three riveting hours watching the grain until Captain decides it is time for the bags to be repacked and then he calls a tea-break. Our bed goes up and has been reduced to one square metre per couple as another group of passengers arrive in a pirogue and clamber on. Ironically, dozens of car batteries have been procured from somewhere to go somewhere else and we sleep on top of those too.

We hit the ground. The new arrivals hail down a passing fishing boat and leave. “Ce bateau est foutu,” they say. “Timbuktu tomorrow, inchallah,” the captain insists.

Day six. Wake up. Breakfast. Break. Nap. Tea. Break. Nap. Post-nap break. Pre-tea break. Post-pre-tea-break nap. Tea. Lunch. Post-lunch break which turns into a nap. Tea. The battery gives out a second time. A herd of camels lazily crosses from one side of the river to the other. “Any chance we will be in Timbuktu soon?” I ask. “We are in a bit of a hurry.” The Malians look at each other and laugh.

Midnight and we are rudely jostled from sleep. “Get up, get up! You need to get off the boat!”

“Is it Timbuktu?” We ask hopefully.

“No, this boat doesn’t go to Timbuktu. We stop here,” the captain says as though it were perfectly logical to go on saying ‘Timbuktu tomorrow’ for six whole days when it wasn’t even your destination in the first place.

We are bundled into another boat identical to ours except it is chock-a-block from aft to stern with passengers crammed on top of each other. “I don’t think we will fit...” We are surrounded by noises of encouragement as they literally push four of us and four backpacks into a single cubbyhole in which a small child could not comfortably stretch out. Fortunately I rather enjoy sleeping in the foetus position.

“Timbuktu tomorrow, inchallah,” the new captain cheerfully reassures us.

And this time it really is God’s will. So on day seven, we rest. In a bed.

In Timbuktu!

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