2-19 September 06 - Eastern Mali to Niger to Timbuktu
Eastern Mali to Niger to Timbuktu - 2-19 September 06
After waving a sad goodbye to Sharikay's tiny propeller plane as it lifted off from Mopti's dusty airstrip, I turned around and headed back to our campground for the night. The hectic scramble for flight arrangements over the last two days left no time for reflection on my position. There were two weeks ahead of me to consider, but I was still too preoccupied with the plight of Sharikay's family's to make plans. I decided to sleep on it. Although the campground was normally full of Peace Corps Volunteers coming from or going to some remote part of Mali, there were no other guests upon my return at all. Saying goodnight to the Dogon tribesman who guarded the grounds underlined my new-found solitude.
The next morning, I chatted with the proprietor, an amiable American missionary who'd spent his whole life in Mali. Before me now lay three choices - cool my heels in Mali, test Côte d'Ivoire's new ceasefire or make the long run into the Air Desert in Niger. Sharikay and I had already been in Mali for a few weeks and had finished most of our plans except Timbuktu. Visiting Côte d'Ivoire would mean entering via the rebel held North and passing through the line of control to the cosmopolitan government held cities of the South. Although the rebels were supposedly running the North in a very professional fashion, I was unable to find any recent information about the security situation in the area between the two armies. The risk of taking the truck there was unknown.
So I settled on Niger, a land that had always occupied my imagination.
Heading Northeast from Mopti, the route runs through a beautiful mountain range called the Honboris. Giant red rock walls stab defiantly into the bright blue sky. The area has some of the best technical rock climbing in Africa, but without equipment, I settled on a little hiking. In one town I met a Songha• tribesman named Oumar who spoke some French and said he could show me a route up and around the Main de Fatima (Hand of Fatima) rock formation. So the next morning we set off to explore the area, including a strenuous climb around the rock. In return for his services, I presented Oumar with a teakettle that we brought from England that was on our "don't need anymore" list. Oumar was very pleased.
Heading West toward Gao, a mighty rainstorm poured down from the sky, which had turned a strange green color. Because of the heavy rain and because the road to the Nigerien border was supposed to be quite bad, I decided to camp in Gao for a two nights, seeing the Tomb of the Askia (a stunning mud mosque built in 1495) and hanging out with some local Peace Corp Volunteers.
On the second day, I came across a big truck (18 wheeler) stuck in the sand. There were three other trucks around, helping him, but he couldn't get out. When they pulled him, both trucks would strain for a while until they snapped their giant steel cable. (What force!)
When I stopped, they jokingly asked me for help, hoping I'd pull them out. No way, I wouldn't do that to my transmission! However, I did lend them my shovel. This slowed things down considerably. Instead of 20 men digging with their hands, there was now 1 man digging with a shovel, and 19 men standing around watching him. Typical!
They dug for a little while and tried again, getting stuck in deeper. The problem was that they weren't clearing enough sand away from the wheels. I pointed this out to them. They just laughed and tried again. Same result, and they broke another thick steel cable. Next time, they dug, but before they pulled again, I spent 10 minutes digging some more. (Now 1 man digging and 20 watching.) This seemed to shame them into digging some more themselves, which they did. Another 10 minutes later, they tried again, and success - the truck was free! My 20 new best friends invited me to join them at the local brothel, but I had to move on - must stick to the schedule, after all!
The next day, off I went toward the border. A new road is being built there, so the first half hour was pretty easy. After this, however, the road worsened and travel slowed considerably. Toward the end of the day, close to the border, the road became very bad (lots of water from the rains a few days earlier), but I managed to get through. The Malian side of the border was uneventful. The officials on the Niger side have a reputation for being drunk and demanding bribes to avoid making you dump all your fuel (having a spare fuel tank like ours is considered fuel smuggling since prices are so much higher in Niger). However, when I arrived, they were sober and very friendly so I decided to camp at the border post that night, dining on some (rather tough) goat brochettes that a cook was selling to the border officials.
The next day, I drove to the capital, Niamey, a large and modern city. The museum there has an interesting display on the uses of Uranium (the mainstay of the economy) and also has the remains of the fabled Arbre d'Tenere. This loneliest tree in the world, this was the last of the once great Acacia forest that became the Sahara desert. There was not another tree within 400km and it stood until 1973, when it a Libyan truck driver crashed into it (!).
From Niamey, I drove East for two days through the desert. This year, many of us have seen terrible pictures from Niger. However, the "Soudure" (hunger period) is now over. The rains came late this year, but they did arrive, and the fields are green with millet once more. The people are happy, but their existence is very close to the margin. In some stretches, the area is completely desolate except for the occasional Songha• hut.
Agadez, at the edge of the A•r mountains, is a town with a rich history, having been at the crossroads of the great trading caravans that stretched from Timbuktu to Tripoli. Though it seems a dusty desert town today, the footsteps of the nineteenth century explorers echo quietly around the Grand Mosque and Sultan's Palace.
With time running short, I turned back West, retracing my steps through to the town of Tahoua. A traditional form of wrestling is very popular in this part of Niger, but because it was out of season, I was able to camp in the small municipal stadium. In season, villagers from small desert communities will travel great distances in the hope that one of their boys will be the hero to get his name listed on the board of champions this year.
Back in Niamey, heavy rains came again. Good for the people, but not so good for the roads. However, I knew the piste back to Gao, so I decided not to wait for the route to dry. The water was higher, but the trip was uneventful, and I had a lovely bush camp on a hill one night overlooking the Niger.
From Gao, I had been planning to take the difficult 2-3 day piste to Timbuktu. I had done a lot of research on the piste route when I delayed for the rain my first time through. There has historically been some risk from Tuareg rebels who like to hijack Land Cruisers, but they had been quiet for the last few years. The problem, however, was time. If it took me the whole three days and I had a breakdown of one day, I would miss my rendezvous with Sharikay in Timbuktu. So in the end, I decided to take the longer, though easier and faster, route via Douentza. This turned out to be ok thoug, because there were several flare ups with the Tuaregs in the few weeks after we left Timbuktu due to skirmishes with Islamic Salafist rebels from across the border in Algeria.
Now with some extra time in Douentza, I decided to do a bit of hiking around the Honbori Mountains. I didn't really have a place to go through, so I just drove until I saw an interesting ridgeback formation. There was a little village of mud huts nearby, so I drove to it. All the men were in the fields, but I found some old women whose French was worse than my Sangha. In the end, I explained in sign language that I wanted to climb the mountain and sleep there if I could leave my car by the village well. They didn't understand why, but they agreed, so I stuck off through the millet fields.
The hike itself was quite rocky and steep, but it wasn't extraordinarily difficult and the views from the rock were sublime. Going back (with a few missed heartbeats on the way down), I came back to the village. By then, everyone was waiting for me, pointing and chattering. (The children couldn't stop laughing!) I was taken to see the chief. Through someone who could interpret into French, he asked me who I was and why wanted to go to the mountain. I bowed, introduced myself and gave a speech about our trip, the countries we had visited and the tribes we had met. I described how beautiful the landscape was and that in my country people like to visit nature because they have to spend so much time in the cities. By this point, he was grinning a wide toothless grin. With a flourish, I whipped off my hat, bowed again and shook his hand to palm him a small gift. Everyone was excited, and the villagers accompanied me back to my truck. Setting off, I waved goodbye to my new found friends, hoping the rains next year will be kinder to them than this year's.
Back to Douentza and then up another, piste to Timbuktu. The drive itself took less than five hours, as the rains were now almost finished - just a little bit of mud and water and one slightly deep water crossing. However, at the end, right before reaching "TB2", the road comes to the Niger River, and the ancient ferry that takes vehicles across.
Although it's a 4-car ferry, the workers insisted on loading 6 4x4's, so the Land Cruiser was hanging precariously off the edge. So heavily weighed down, the ferry got stuck in the sand. Normally, this wouldn't have been much of problem, but the engine wasn't working (probably hadn't for years), so it was now propelled by being strapped to a rowboat with an outboard motor. The tiny motor wasn't nearly strong enough to free the ferry, so they had to work for two hours by diving underwater and scrapping sand away by hand. All the while, I had my foot on the break (in addition to the parking break) in hopes that the truck wouldn't tumble into the river. Ah, the joys of African transport!
In Timbuktu, we were reunited, Sharikay arriving a day later after an exhausting return trip. But TB2 is an interesting city, with a rich history as an Islamic center of learning. Dusty streets and lots of camels. Not a bad place to buy a 100 pound slab of salt, either!