I had heard that leaving Timbuktu can be a time-consuming challenge. So when I was in Kourioume, still 10km prior to arriving, I was searching out ways to leave. The day was Wednesday. We could leave on Friday. By public pinasse. A pinasse is like a large, motorized pirogue. A pirogue is a small wooden boat the fishermen use (and we used to paddle down the Niger River in Guinea).

Dusty streets of Timbuktu
Dusty streets of Timbuktu

The Traveller

The day after arrival we wandered through the sandy streets to the northern edge of town. Here there are no streets. Extra sand though. And a hotel called ‘Sahara Passion’. On arrival, we sat on a mat inside the cool mud walls and drank tea (yes, that sickly sweet bitter tea) and talked with Shindouk and his Canadian wife. Shindouk is a traveller. All his life, since the age of 13, he has worked with the camel caravans crossing the desert, the Saharan sands; through Mauritania, Algeria and Niger. The desert of Mali he calls his backyard. A desert traveller he may be, but nothing will entice him back onto a plane after his one and only flight to Canada.

I think now I can understand that. The desert is space. Space gives you freedom – freedom to explore wild lands. Freedom also to delve into the depths of your mind – for the desert is also about discovery. How can someone who has no concept of boundaries (to Shindouk the country names he has visited are meaningless – it is all one and the same desert he has travelled) be confined to a seat in a small metal tube for hours. It’s cruelty. Like caging a wild bird.

Shindouk is a fountain of knowledge when discussing travel in the region. He knows anyone worth knowing. A good person to discuss our options for leaving Timbuktu. According to a man in Kourioume, the port on the river, we could take a pinasse on Friday. According to the Mali tourist office, it is too far into the dry season and the river is too low to travel by pinasse at all. Shindouk informs us that it is possible, but it could take from four days to four weeks to reach Gao downstream.

The Plan

We decide to attempt to get half-way. Pinasses travel the route, arriving in each village on their market day. We are going to market hop our way to Gourma-Rharous. There, we will try to find a 4×4 to take us south along a piste back to the main road. Shindouk informs us that there is a pinasse leaving on Saturday. Thursday is market day in Gourma. Market hopping, we should be in Gourma on Thursday.

In Timbuktu we were fortunate to be invited to stay at the family home of the amiable man who drove us in the 4×4. He’s a chauffeur. We called him ‘le chauffeur’. He grew up in Gourma-Rharous – it’s where his family live. He gives us a name, but we don’t expect to need it.

The Departure

Saturday arrives. We wait by the road to hitch to Kourioume on the river. Eventually, a 4×4 stops. Papa and his two friends say they will take us. In Kourioume they enquire about the pinasse. No pinasse was leaving Kourioume that day. We should try at Hombi-Bonga they say. Where? There’s no village by that name on my map. There is a village called Kabara just 7km downstream though. Yes, Kabara – that is Hombi-Bonga. Of course. Papa drives us there and again asks about transport downstream. Success.

We can go by public pinasse to Mandiakoy. Mandiakoy is half-way to Gourma-Rharous, which is half-way to Gao. The cost will be 2,000CFA each. The cost became 5,000CFA each when the pinasse owner saw we were white. We all agreed on 4,000CFA each and that racism was rife in Mali. He was not ashamed and we were not surprised.

The Pinasse

We sat on the sand, surrounded by locals. It was the end of market day in Kabara and stalls were slowly (for everything is done slowly under the hot desert sun) being cleared up. Eventually it was time to leave. We boarded along a long, slippery plank of wood with water and bread for the journey. Despite it being market day in Kabara, there was only bread to be bought for our on-board dinner and breakfast and however many more meals would be needed on our pinasse ride of indeterminable length.

The Pinasse Interior
The Pinasse Interior

Like our leaking pirogue from the Niger River paddle in Guinea, this pinasse also had a layer of filthy water settled in the bottom of the boat. Branches laid across the boat act as a raised, uneven platform. On top of these branches a mat was placed. This mat was our space for the journey. We were ahead of the women in the centre who gossiped and laughed and cooked over a large stove which sent eye-stinging wood-smoke through the pinasse insides. One underweight old man had the thankless task of periodically emptying excess water with a jerry can. I say thankless because he was never thanked for his efforts. I was very grateful for without him I would have awoken in the night lying in a rising pool of water, which is what happened to my bag. We were in front of the group of older men, Tuareg, who sat quietly wrapped in blue, sheathed swords lying nearby. One of these old men had a filthy habit of clearing his nostrils down the inner side of the pinasse. Occasionally this effluent would get carried by the wind. Occasionally I would feel small droplets fall on my arm. We were behind the younger men and the driver. They were regular passengers and had a good system of sacks and boxes on which to dryly rest.

Tuareg traveller
Tuareg traveller

The pinasse chugged down the smooth river, away from the setting sun. Once dark, except for the stars, the engine was cut. Silence. Now was the time to sleep. Sleep as well as you can wedged between two branches just an inch above the leak-water.

Morning came, the sun rose, bodies rose, people prayed, the engine started. Further down the Niger we travelled. We stopped to collect passengers in small villages. Rice sacks piled high by the river meant we were to stop there. At each stop, the women on board left the boat with their bags, laid out goods on the sandy bank and so began the bartering and trading. A mobile market.

Mobile Market
Mobile Market

We passed fertile green pastures with cattle grazing and horses resting. The river is a lifeline through this otherwise barren region.

Mandiakoy

Eventually the driver called to us, ‘Mandiakoy’. We looked over the side to a sandy bank. There was no village here. There were no boats here either. Unsure, not wanting to be stranded with no means of escape, we looked at the driver quizzically. He assured us this was the stop for Mandiakoy – the village was 2km away. We were in luck – Dr Sidi (a student medic) was going to his home in Mandiakoy. We followed Dr Sidi. Followed him north, against the wind, away from the river, away from our way out of this desolate place.

Mandiakoy was to be the end of our journey by river. The following day was market day in Mandiakoy. There would be transport leaving for Gourma-Rharous at the end of market day. We could travel by 4×4 with a friend of Dr Sidi.

We were in Mandiakoy for little more than 24hours. One hour ws enough to explore all of Mandiakoy – it’s two sandy streets, it’s under-stocked shop, the market that is like all other markets in Mali and the small river (an offshoot of the Big River) which must be crossed by all coming to market. I spent some time watching the people arriving – turbanned Tuareg, boys beating donkeys, light-skinned nomadic families of Berber origin.

Remaining time is spent in the compound of Dr Sidi. Sitting inside, shading. Sitting in the shade, reading. Occasionally talking. It’s too hot to do much more.

And then the frenzy began. We may have been sat all morning, waiting. But now that we are sat eating rice for lunch it is time to leave. For an unknown reason we must leave immediately. There is barely time to eat, collect our bags, say thank you and goodbye before being herded into the back of the 4×4. Once bundled in the 4×4 we sit waiting again. Eventually we leave town.

Gourma-Rharous

Driving over sand, alongside the river is much faster than travelling by boat. We reach Gourma-Rharous the same day. Days after leaving Timbuktu, Gourma-Rharous appears the height of modernity. There is electricity. There are street lights. There are shops. Lots of them.

The driver of the 4×4 stops in a side street and calls a man over. This is where we get off. This is the man we are visiting, we are told. We do as we are told and go with the man. He is a friend of the chaffeur in Timbuktu, who has informed him that ‘Deux Blanches’ would be arriving in Gourma by 4×4 from Mandiakoy and that since we were his friends, he was to help us. Mobile technology carries news faster than the wind, faster than camels and faster than we could travel.

The chauffeur’s friend has been tasked with feeding us, accommodating us and finding us onward transport to Gossi. He needs to go to Bamako and so will be joining us on whatever transport he can find. His need to go means we find a vehicle leaving that same night.

Under cover of darkness a group of people is assembled. All people wanting to get to the main road. A 4×4 has been cruising the streets of Gourma for a while. I know this because I was sat on a bench waiting and the 4×4 s distinguishable by it’s one working headlight. This 4×4 stops and we get in the back. We don’t get the option to pay extra and sit in the cabin. Instead, I crouch in the back, bolts in my back and bags under my feet.

It’s a full moon and it is dimly lighting up the desert through which we are travelling. I am unable to appreciate it though. The wind is strong and the dust plentiful. I put on a long top to keep warm, wrap my kaftan inelegantly round my head and put on my sunglasses in a vain attempt to keep dust from my eyes. Even then my eyes are too sore and I keep them closed until we reach Gossi.

Gossi – The Main Road

We arrive in Gossi in the middle of the night. We have made it back to the main road. We have made it out of Timbuktu. But now there is nowhere to go because it is the middle of the night.

We put the tent up behind a shack, among piles of rubbish, and sleep soundly until daybreak.