1-Day 36, Niafunke-Hotel_1024x768SYNOPSIS:  How the end of the Niger River journey presented itself.  Niafunke, a small Sahelian town.  Sahara versus Saheli versus Savanna.

The sun is not even up when the calls come from the master:  “Baroda, Shmail!”  For them it’s time to shovel out the water that accumulated over night, to get the boats loose and moving.

For me it’s time to sit up, take down the mosquito net, wash up as much as possible with my REI wash clothes (a great invention for travel which I put to the test for the first time) and pretend that all is well even though this is the third night and the third full day ahead without a shower.  It’s the umptiest time my dress has been sweated through and dried out and there is not a bone in my body that does not ache to one degree or another.  Timbuktu is not yet on the horizon.  At this pace it will be most likely two more days, and two more nights…  What was I thinking?!

After we had crossed Lake Debo, the landscape began to change ever so slightly.  More and more sand was visible ashore and in a few places slight dunes began to accumulate.

Mali is made up of three distinct geographical zones of which I will only see two:  The Savanna in the South – humid and subtropical grassland which I will miss.  The Sahel in the middle which is the main part I have been traveling through since Bamako.  It’s a mix of sandy arid soil and hardy vegetation which turns quite lush when the rainy season comes.  And finally, the formidable Sahara in the North, a large desert made up of sand dunes, a few salt mines, and not much else.  It’s in the North that there is still trouble and I will miss much of the desert because of that.   Excursions into the desert are out of the question and visits to desert towns such as Goa not advisable.  Timbuktu is as close as I will get.  It is at the edge of the desert.

One more distinct zone is the Niger Delta which is so fertile and wet during the rainy season that rice is grown everywhere.  In fact, I am impressed with how self-sufficient Mali is in its food production.  Everything I have eaten is locally grown.   Mali has the previously-mentioned salt mines in the North; potatoes, couscous, vegetables and spices all grown along the rivers.   There seems to be nothing Mali does not have, even oil – which is part of the cause for the separatist movement of the Tuaregs in the North.

It was midday when we finally passed the infamous town of Niafunke.  That should have been the leisure stopping point l on the second day of our journey if I take the speed of any tourist pinasse as a gage.  In many ways it’s just another Sahelian village.  In other ways it is special as it was made famous the world over by one of Mali’s most outstanding musicians, Ali Farka Toure who named one of his albums after his home town.  He is a blues man and I have now heard some of his music on cellphones in various places.  I had already packed, sure we would stop in Niafunke, with the intention to leave ship.  But we did not stop.  Oh well.  Nobody had cargo to unload and so we continued.  I was ready to cut this boat trip short here and continue on by bus.  My guidebook mentioned this as a pleasant way to break up the pinasse ride into two parts.  I felt, it was a chance to do a bit of the journey the “camel” way, on the surface.  Enough fumes for me!  But it was not meant to be or was it?

Just about 10 minutes down the river from Niafunke we were circled by a police boat.  An argument ensued between the manager of the boat and the police and through my young friends I was gestured that the question was if we were allowed to continue or were asked to return to Niafunke for a check point.   My documents were summoned but passed muster.   We seemed to be allowed onwards, the police departed.   But something must have changed their minds as they caught up with us a second time, further downstream: we had to return after all!

What turned out to become more than an hour stop for the boat became my chance to depart.  I walked into town to find out about a hotel.  My guidebook mentioned a business venture by Farka which indeed was open and operational.   The jolly manager of the Encampement was happy and surprised to see me and immediately sent a porter with me to fetch my stuff.  And so after three days and three nights, I left the pinasse and waved my goodbyes to everyone. I handed a tip to the crew and was on my way to continue on land to Timbuktu.  Thanks, Ganesh.  I needed a change of pace and scenery.

It seems like I never scrubbed so much dirt off myself and my dress; after three washings it still turned the water brown…  Of course, there was no electricity in Niafunke until after 6 PM and the hotel showed all the signs so typical of the rest of Mali.  The sink was broken, the window screens ripped, the place looked deserted, but there was a refrigerator and it produced an ice cold coke!  What else do you want?  And lo and behold, there were more guests!  A crew of five rolled in with their 4WD:  A humanitarian mission team bringing relief to the North of Mali.

Unfortunately, they spoke only French.  The doctor in charge of the team spoke a little bit of English and so we talked for a while, mainly exchanging pictures of our family and travels.  He had some quite interesting footage of bringing relief to the Islamists in the North.  He had some photos of some of the notorious war lords and his team around the dinner table and I expressed my surprise.   “We are humanitarians”, he said.  “We bring help to whomever needs it”.

When shortly after midnight the electricity was cut off unexpectedly early, I still could look at a very successful day:  My computer was recharged and the blogs of the last three days had been written.  I had gotten a great meal of fried potatoes and an omelet.  I had one of my dresses mended at the market by a nice old tailor.  I had bought new mangoes.  I had made the acquaintance of this interesting mission crew and I had arranged for a phone call from the market from a big man named Hamidou (what else do you expect) to call the hotel when transportation rolled in at the “bus station”, really the main square of the town, tomorrow.  There is no bus schedule.  There are no buses going.  But there should be some vehicle at some point, which for a price will take me to Timbuktu.

Nobody said this was going to be easy. Timbuktu, I will be on my way shortly!

It’s hot here!  I mean it’s even hotter than Dogon Country or Bamaku.  When the electricity turned off, which in turn stopped the fan in my room, my body instantly started to drip.  This was the middle of the night when so far, I had gotten relief from the heat.  Not here.  Not inside a room, no matter how much cross ventilation there may be.   And there is no roof top here…  But that’s just the way it’s going to be for the next five days before I will be turning back again to Bamako via Mopti.  Let’s see what Timbuktu will bring!

I feel I got something accomplished today.  I made the right decision to disembark my pinasse.  I will continue on the road.  Another pinasse, is of course always an option, too, but I think I have had my share of fumes and noises for now.

Good night.