All the way to Timbuktu (Day 906)

It has been a long journey, but I’ve finally done it:  I’ve travelled all the way to Timbuktu.  Ah, Timbuktu, that mythical name of a legendary city in a far off place, in back of beyond.  A name I had heard as a kid but never knew it actually existed.  It does.  Here in Mali.  On the edge of the Sahara Desert.

About a year and a half ago I was in the Galapagos Islands and I had an idea (dream?)  that my travels should take me all the way to Timbuktu.  I really wanted to get there, just for the hell of it.  And now I have.  This is what travel is all about.

The proof.  It’s in French.  “Welcome to Timbuktu.”

As it turns out, my story about Timbuktu is about getting there, which, now that I think about it, is the way it should be.  I booked passage on a pinasse (an overgrown canoe with a roof and motor) from the city of Mopti all the way down the Niger River to fabled Timbuktu.  When buying the ticket, I was told the journey would take 3 days…  As you will see, we were a tad late.

The pinasse was dangerously overloaded, sitting VERY low in the water.  It was stacked to the brim with construction materials, sacks of food and cement, and everything else under the sun.  Further, the pinasse had taken on too many passengers, so there was a mass of people like me who were crammed into the boat as well.  Overloaded, overcrowed, and slow — this is classic African transportation.

My transport.  This is where I ate, slept, and lived for 5 days on the Niger, all the way to Timbuktu.

The pinasse comes with a cook, who doubles as the guy responsible for bailing the boat (a bailer?), as water leaks in at an alarming rate.  Actually, it seems to me he does more bailing than cooking, so I should say we have a bailer that doubles as a cook.

On the pinasse there is absolutely nothing to do but sit around on the sacks of rice, swat flies (the speed of our boat is not enough to shake them), and hope it doesn’t sink (which apparently happens from time to time).

At one point I ask our bailer/cook how long it will take to get to Timbuktu.  He gives me an honest look and a classic reply:  “I don’t want to lie to you.  I have no idea.”  On the bright side, no matter how long it takes, we won’t starve, as we have a mountain of rice on board (which, btw, is threatening to sink us).

Right from the first day, I see why the length of the journey is so uncertain.  It is the dry season in Mali, so the water level of the Niger is low.  This, coupled with the fact that our pinasse is so overloaded, causes us to run aground on sand bars again and again…  and again.  Each time we get stuck pretty good and the guys who work the boat get out and try to push and pry us off the sand bars with sticks.

Here is a log of this epic journey:

Day 1

– I become all too familiar with the sensation of our pinasse grinding to a halt as it runs aground.

– The boat tries to continue through the night, but we keep getting stuck and give up on trying to find a route through the shallows in the dark.  We anchor.  I sleep on the sacks of rice, lulled to sleep by the bailer/cook emptying water out of the bottom of the boat.

Day 2

– We  continue, passing village after village of mud-constructed buildings.  The locals kids swim and the women wash clothes in the river.  They wave.  I wave back.  It’s pleasant.


– At midday we pull over and anchor.  What’s going on?  My money says the pre-historic motor has died.  Actually, the captain has received word that far behind us, upstream, it is raining, so the water levels should soon rise, easing our passage.  He doesn’t say how long we will wait.  I don’t ask.  I go for a nap on the roof.

– Afternoon:  we have continued, but I can’t say the rain has helped.  After searching for hours for a route through the shallows, the call comes from the captain:  everybody out!  The boat is sitting too low in the water.  We passengers and a lot of the cargo are crammed into another tiny canoe, thus halving the load of our boat .

– In the falling darkness, we get separated from our original boat.  Uh oh.  We struggle for hours.  Around 11pm we eventually give up and go ashore.  At this point I realize that the original boat has the food, water, and all our luggage, and we have no idea where it is.  We sleep on the bank of the river.  The plot thickens…

Day 3

– About 10am, just as I am convinced I will never see my luggage again, our pinasse shows up.  We plow on.

– After a few more episodes of getting stuck, I realize that if I want to get to Timbuktu this year, I better get out and help.  I push and pry that damn pinasse.  That’s when I had one of those moments of pure joy I get sometimes when I travel:

I am waist-deep in the Niger with a bunch of Africans trying to muscle our boat off a sand bar so we can get to Timbuktu.  Right then, it occurs to me:  I LOVE THIS SHIT.  When we get it unstuck, we cheer our success then climb onto the roof to dry off in the African sun.  There is no where else I would rather be.

– Btw, today is the day we are supposed to arrive in Timbuktu.  I have no idea where we are, but I’m petty sure it is nowhere near Timbuktu.

Fishermen on the Niger

Day 4

– We stop at a village and stupidly take on more cargo.  We can’t get down the river.  The passengers are forced to get out and walk 3km down the riverbank in the hot afternoon sun so the boat can get through.  The locals are pissed.  I think it is hilarious.  In fact, I’m happy, at least I’m moving; besides, walking seems way faster than that shitbox of a boat.  At this point, if I had enough food, I would consider just walking to Timbuktu, it would probably faster.

– Later that day, while we are stuck again, I go for a swim with the local kids.  The people laugh at they white guy in the Niger.   I start swimming away and yell back that I’m going to swim to Timbuktu, it will be faster.  They laugh some more.  That’s me, Mr. Funny Guy.

Quick look inside our pinasse.  It was more crowded than it looks here, trust me.

– Late at night, we pull into a village.  The captain says he will take this boat no further, the water is too low (no shit).  I’m transferred to another (smaller) canoe.

Day 5

– 4pm, I finally arrive in the promised land, 2 days late.  Timbuktu!  Will miracles never cease.

What is on the menu on a pinasse down the Niger?  For breakfast, rice.  For lunch?  Rice.  And for dinner… wait for it… *rice*.  Rice, 3 meals per day, five days in a row.  No cutlery here.  Dig in.

All in all, the journey to Timbuktu was an awesome experience and I’m very happy I did it.  It was memorably uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  (That is why they pay me the big bucks… wait a minute… I *paid* for this… ugh).

You might be wondering, what exactly is in Timbuktu?  Answer:  Not a hell of a lot.  It is a sandy town of mud-brick houses.  But, just beyond Timbuktu lies the greatest desert on the planet:  The Sahara.  The Sahara Desert rocks.

Some fellow travellers and I hired camels and did an overnight trip into the desert.  Riding camels and sleeping under the stars in the Sahara, what a life!

Abner (USA) atop his “ship of the desert”

Anyway, there you have it.  Timbuktu.  True story.

Before my Timbuktu adventures I did a 3-day escarpment trek in a part of Mali called “Dogon Country.”  It was a good one, but that story will have to wait for another time.  But, just because I liked it so much, here is a quick pic from that adventure:

Cliffs and baobab trees, this is Dogon country

My Dogon guide asked me to put lots of pictures of Mali on the internet so that people would know how beautiful it was.  I told him I would.  I’m a man of my word.

Until next time, this is your favourite World Traveller signing off from Mali.

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5 Responses to All the way to Timbuktu (Day 906)

  1. Lou says:

    OH MY GOSH, Shawn, reading this was just as good as hearing it the first time. Ab fab. Looking forward to reading more about your adventures!!!!! I will not tire from hearing your stories. ~ A Fellow Traveller

  2. Pingback: Summary and Best Of: Europe, the Middle East, and Africa | Shawn Was Here

  3. Craig R. says:

    I actually flew into Timbuktu from Bamako on Air Malienne good two hour flight.Getting out of there to go into Mopti drove to a nearby town to cross the Niger River left a 4:00 arriving 11 hours later with two stops.I went into a jeep made to hold 9 people instead there was 15.No air conditioning 100 degrees F outside everyone smelled like they hadn’t bathed for quite a while.Two flat tires on the way as well. Grueling yet worth it. Mali is a fascinating country.

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