Slow boat to Timbuktu

10 08 2008

Taureg TimWell, I got to Timbuktu for my birthday. It wasn’t easy, which is sort of satisfying, and there isn’t a great deal there – which is also sort of satisfying. I’m not sure I would go back, but at least I can say I’ve been. And now I’m in my forties, when I’m told that my life will begin apparently.

Day 0 and day 1, to Ouagadougou
On the Friday night I got a lift to Bolga from Jonathon, an ISODEC colleague who’d been down for a couple of meetings in Tamale. Sitting in his truck was a good way to start and Saturday morning Sarah and I departed in a taxi for the Burkina Faso border at Paga. Bolga is less than an hour from the border and we reached it by 10am. This was my first land border crossing in Africa and almost immediately we were swamped by touts offering us transport and money changing, all crowding around us shouting their rates and waving bundles of cash. The formalities were relatively painless, the Burkina Faso visa purchased and forms filled in with irrelevant detail much like borders around the world. I made a foolish purchase of CFAs at an exorbitant rate that must have made a tout happy and we were bundled into the back of a decrepit Peugeot shared taxi for our ride to Ouga (pronounced Waga[ doo goo]), capital of Burkina Faso (BF from now on to save typing). My first impressions of BF were that it seems poorer than Ghana. Many more thatched mud huts, often painted with black and white geometric patterns in the south, and fewer cars on the road.

We reached Ouagadougou by early afternoon and eventually found our hotel after a farcical taxi ride with our French not being understood, and the driver seeming to be unable to read the address in the map or the book, instead choosing to take us to a series of random hotels. When we finally arrived in Hotel Les Palmiers it was to a lovely little green oasis in a dusty grey city. That evening I experienced the first culinary evidence of the French heritage, with a good meal accompanied by a bottle of wine.

Day 2 – Chilling in Ouga
As well as good food I also discovered a recent copy of the economist in the hotel’s magazine rack. Having decided to explore a bit anyway we stayed put on Sunday – venturing out to a craft market where we watched the batik process and bought a few bits and pieces and our next days tickets before retreating to the hotel’s pool, Sarah swimming and me devouring the Economist along with a few beers.

Day 3 – To the Mali border, Koro
Koro AccommodationMonday was spent largely on wooden benches in bone shaking buses. We left Ouga at 9am (ish), changed buses at Ouahigouya (wee-gee-ya) and crossed into Mali at Koro at around four in the afternoon. Throughout the day the scenery got browner, the vegetation sparser, as Savannah turned into Sahel. We even saw the occasional camel. The border post leaving Koro was, perhaps, the most remote feeling border post I’ve been to – a couple of huts next to a small mud hut village with very little vegetation to break the bleakness, with a blazing sun in a blue sky.

That night we stayed in L’Venture hotel in Koro, we slept in grass huts under the stars and I awoke with the beginnings of a cold, but the hotel itself is nice and worth staying in if you get trapped in Koro.

Day 4 and 5 – Mopti and the journey there
The next morning we crammed ourselves into a tro-tro (although they aren’t called that in Mali) and spent 5 hours being bounced around to the town of Mopti on the Niger River. Actually the ride was made spectacular by passing through Bandiagra escarpment – a stunning piece of scenery.

The town of Mopti is a bustling river port, and something of a surprise in northern Mali. We stayed in a simple hotel near the river, a little way out of town but next to an extremely nice hotel with a swimming pool and good restaurant. The town itself is frenetic, with boats loading and unloading, groups of tourists being plagued by “guides” and touts, strange looking shaman selling strange bones and charms, proud Tuaregs with their flowing robes and headscarves wrapped around striding through the throng as well as a bustling, colourful market. Nothing is cheap and the touts try to persuade you to buy everything from them before you leave for Timbuktu as it is so expensive there. This is a bit of a lie. You’re told to buy kola nuts and “tea Afrique” to give as gifts when you take photos. We had planned to leave the next day (Wednesday) but the boat was cancelled so we accepted that we’d be in Mopti until Thursday, giving Sarah the chance of a swim in our neighbour’s pool (during a spectacular dust storm) and me a chance to read by the pool and eat a nice ham sandwich. Unfortunately the ham sandwich caused my nice new filling to fall out again, leaving a big hole in my tooth. As well as this I was developing a nasty cold, coughing and sneezing away.

Days 6, 7, 8 and 9 chugging down the Niger
Our PinasseWe established ourselves on the boat Thursday lunchtime, and at about 4pm it set off. The boat was a “market pinasse”, basically the simplest boat you can imagine, just a 20m long hull with a small diesel engine at the back, a simple steering mechanism and a thatched roof. This was filled to the brim with sacks of rice and millet, various boxes of provisions, charcoal and a large irrigation pump. Between 20 and 30 passengers perched on and around the cargo, trying to find a space large enough to sleep. We weren’t the only white people onboard; a vegetarian German student vet called Alex was spending his summer break exploring West Africa. The centre of the boat was clear as a galley and sump, a crew member continually bailing and a cook making basic rice and sauce dishes on a cooking fire using water straight from the river.

On the second day the rudder broke. The crew poled us to the river bank, tied up and carried the steering mechanism to a local mud hut village while we sat on the bank and waited. That day the weather was grey and brooding, the sky the colour of old washing up water and so low that you felt you could have touched it. With a completely flat landscape with scattered villages and ox drawn ploughing going on it felt more like 16th century East Anglia than 21st century Africa. After a few hours the crew returned, the local blacksmith having fixed the rudder and we were on our way again.

Sleeping on the Pinasse got easier as we got used to it and worked out how to make ourselves comfortable, but sacks of rice have the same comfort level as ridges of concrete and I don’t think many people got much sleep on the first night. This didn’t matter too much as there isn’t a great deal to do onboard apart from read, doze and watch small clusters of simple houses go by on the river bank. Occasionally we stopped at a small town to load or unload cargo and passengers. While we waited hawkers came out on canoes selling bits of food.

The last night was a clear, moonless night in the desert and the night sky was heartbreakingly beautiful, perhaps the most brilliant I’ve ever seen.

The second day’s delay meant that we got an extra night on the boat, reaching Timbuktu Sunday afternoon. A bus ride into town and we found a nice hotel to stay in (Hotel Colombe) right on the edge of the desert. Mind you most of Timbuktu is on the edge of the desert – it really isn’t very big.

Day 10 – My birthday!
Camels and TuaregsSo I awoke in Timbuktu on the morning of my 40th birthday. At breakfast Sarah gave me a card signed by quite a few volunteers and a traditional Fulani hat. I spent the rest of the morning wandering around the town, which is fairly interesting with low, mud brick houses and ornate doors. A good lunch in the hotel was followed by a camel ride into the desert, climbing a sand dune, visiting a Taureg encampment and seeing the sunset. A memorable birthday.

Day 11 – back to Sevare
At 4.30am Tuesday morning we climbed into a crowded 4×4 for the overland trip back to the town of Sevare (just south of Mopti and a better travel hub). After a ferry ride we spent 10 hours hard travelling, getting into Sevare about 5pm. In Sevare we stayed in a great place called “Mac’s Refuge”. It’s quite a long way from the centre but Mac is an American who grew up in Mali and speaks the local languages. He joins his guests for meals and makes interesting company, the food is wonderful. One of the guests when we were there was an Italian botanist from Wakehurst place – part of Kew Gardens. She was there collecting “useful species” for Kew’s millennium seed bank. A fascinating job and it was interesting to chat about Sussex.

Day 12 – We part company and I go back to Ouagadougou
By Wednesday I decided that I’d had enough travelling and wanted a chance to recover before going back to work on Monday, but Sarah still wanted to explore Dogon Country (which is highly recommended) so I left after breakfast, catching a bus to Koro, crossing the border in another bus to Ouahigouya and finally one to Ouagadougou, reaching Ouga about 9pm. Staying at the same hotel I had a nice chat over a great dinner with an English couple driving in rally from London to Senegal in a small car (and I admired his tiny Asus eee computer, I really want one).

Day 13 – chilling in Ouga (again)
On Thursday I explore Ouga a bit more, bought one or two bits to take back to Tamale and got a bus ticket for the whole journey back to Tamale in the Gare Routier in the south of the town.

Day 14 – A bus ride back
Probably my most comfortable day’s travelling, a comfortable, air conditioned bus carried me from Ouagadougou to Tamale in about 7 hours, including the usual nonsense at borders. I was home in time to sort one or two bits out, have a meal in Swad and then meet up with peace-corp Kim followed by Fred for a few beers. It’s good to be back

Conclusion and observations
It was a tiring, hard travelling but brilliant trip that I’m delighted to have made. Burkina Faso and Mali are a lot poorer than Ghana (in the bottom 5 poorest in the world), but Mali especially is much better set up for tourism. The persistent touts and hawkers can be a bit tiring, but they usually respond to a firm but polite refusal. Mali is expensive and we were lucky that there are ATMs in both Mopti and Timbuktu or we would have rapidly run out of cash. On the whole the people are friendly and helpful. Some French is useful, but not everyone speaks French. Perhaps the most obvious differences with Ghana are the sheer number of men smoking (almost no-one smokes publicly in Ghana) and the general quality of the food. I wish I’d had a bit more time to explore more of Mali, and at a slightly more relaxed rate. I may well return.

(more photos on Flickr)

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5 responses

11 08 2008
Saira

Sounds like a lot of fun. Happy Belated! :)

4 10 2008
Lara

Hey, Tim.

My friend and I are doing research up in Navrongo and the Health Research Center (11 km south of Paga). We found your blog about your trip to Timbuktu, and we really want to try it!! We have some questions about travel logisitics, etc. so if you feel comfortable shooting me an email, I’d really appreciate it!

Thanks.

31 12 2008
Stefanie

Hi Tim,
Sounds like a great trip. How much did you spend? And how long did it take you? I’d love to do a similar trip.
Stefanie

1 01 2009
Tim Little

Stefanie,

Thanks, it waas a great trip. It took about two weeks, but it would have been better if I’d done it slower. I’m afraid I didn’t track how much I was spending but Mali was expensive for West Africa (cheaper than Europe or America though)

13 02 2012
The most bizarre and amazing thing I’ve ever seen « The Fat Worm

[…] since, including the terracotta soldiers in Xian and the Beijing’s Forbidden City as well as Timbuktu and Outer Mongolia (all “other stories”), but partly for the sheer unexpectedness of it 18 […]

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