Day 14: 19th Feb 2010

Fast rapids – Boat unload – Stuck! – Decision to quit in Kouroussa

It was a successful start to the day, with calm open water which Joliba II glided over with considerable ease.

Boosted by our progress and steady rhythmic paddling, when we heard the distinctive white water ahead and then saw the rapids; fast water flowing in channels between the large, smooth rocks, we didn’t stop to check out what lay in store for us downstream. On our approach Lars had called back ‘Should we stop and check it out?’, to which I dismissively called back ‘Nah, F*@k it, let’s just go for it!’. So we did.

We sped between the rocks, dodged one here, one there, made a sharp turn, then another. A couple of times I thought we would hit a rock hard, but either the water was strong enough to carry us over unscathed or we took evasive action just in the nick of time. After some hair-raising action, the water slowed enough that we could direct the boat into calmer waters and pull over to the bank. I needed to catch my breath before we continued downstream.

This time we decided to take a look at the route. I’m glad we did. We weren’t going to be paddling the next rapid. Instead we began to walk it down with the ropes. But once again the current was too strong; the boat picked up speed and became impaled on a rock. The boat tilted and water rushed inboard, flowed down the hull of the boat and exited the front end which at this point was significantly lower than the back end.

Once again we found ourselves emptying the boat of our belongings as the water continued to flow through unabated. Boat empty, we were able to tilt it back enough to stop the flow and Lars set to work flushing out the remaining water with the scoop. With a forceful shove, we shifted the boat from the rock and it glided down the remaining rapid until we were able to drag it to safety where we could set about re-packing the boat in it’s entirety.

Lars emptying the boat
Lars emptying the boat

We dealt with this set-back surprisingly efficiently, losing perhaps only an hour of paddling. So safely down the rapids we took a short break and ate some more unappetizing biscuits.

Setting off again, we silently hoped for an equally successful afternoon. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

Barely round another bend and the river divided into more channels. We picked one and persevered but weren’t far gone before we were pushing the boat over shallow rocks. Only this time the boat got stuck. We couldn’t shift it forward or backward. We struggled for over an hour, using all our strength until finally, inch by inch, we managed to dislodge the boat and move it forward.

View from the rocks surveying the 'wrong' route
View from the rocks surveying the 'wrong' route

Just as we freed the boat, a local walked on over to us and proceeded to explain that we’d taken the wrong route. Now I know it might be impossible to get lost paddling down the Niger River, but it is definitely possible to go the wrong way. We went the wrong way many times. Now if only the local had come and told us this an hour earlier.

Finally back onto the wide main river, we paddled on tiredly some more – we were keeping track of our progress using my GPS and knew we still had a way to go if we were to get to Kouroussa before our food ran out.

Having discovered some of our pasta was mouldy, water having seeped into the packaging during the fourth day semi-submerge, we were already rationing our dinner. Five meals worth we were stretching to last six. I didn’t want to have to split it further because it was going to take longer than 16 days to reach Kouroussa – yesterday’s estimated arrival. Apart from powdered cereals and dry biscuits, our evening meal was the only meal we ate each day. I was starting to feel hungry a lot of the time.

In need of a rest
In need of a rest

Late afternoon we pulled up onto the river bank and camped for the night. Over dinner I checked the GPS and it seemed likely that tomorrow, day 15 would be our last full day and would could arrive in Kouroussa late morning of the 16th. This was a relief to know. I also started to get quite excited at the prospect of a hotel room, not being attacked by sand-flies and no having to get up in the morning and paddle and push.

We both agreed we would end the boat trip in Kouroussa, rather than continuing to Bamako. This first 350km section was turning out to take 16 days – significantly longer than the hoped-for 10-14 days initial estimate – and was considerably tougher that either of us imagined. We would have been cutting it fine to reach the Mali border before our visas ran out anyway, but at our actual pace, this would be a certainty if we continued to paddle. Besides, we both felt the previous two-weeks alone had been full enough of adventure and the 400km route from Kouroussa to Bamako would be all the hard paddling and pushing without the fun of any rapids or abundant wildlife.

In any case, I didn’t think my body could cope with much more paddling unless I took several days to rest and recover and bearing the visa situation in mind, there just wasn’t time for that.

Oh, and then there was poor Joliba II to think of. For the last few days, the boat had been gradually taking in more and more water throughout the day and we were spending more and more time removing the water with the plastic kettle, while silently hoping that she would stay in one piece long enough to reach Kouroussa. Would she get us to Bamako anyway? It was looking increasingly unlikely!

Day 15: 20th Feb 2010

Too much sand – 1.. 2.. 3.. Heave – Estimated arrival – River crossing sighted – Sell boat – To Kouroussa!

We began the day enthusiastically. The end was finally in sight (figuratively speaking for now). Just one more big day…

Unfortunately, the river had other plans for us. Shallow water again. But this time there were no rocks, just sand. The whole frustrating morning we spent more time out of the boat than in it. Standing in ankle keep water while we mustered up the strength to inch the boat forward into a deeper channel. With repeated 1, 2, 3, heave… and now breathe manoeuvres, we gradually pushed the boat over the sands until we could get in the boat long enough to paddle a few strokes.

Too much sand
Too much sand

We were now stopping regularly. Getting exhausted soon after a break and getting hungrier too.

After lunch however, we finally came to a longish, deep section of river and we burst forward energetically. And then in the distance we spotted something unusual….

It looked man-made. It looked like a truck. Surely not. Apart from the chimpanzee sanctuary we hadn’t seen a single other building or vehicle in two weeks. We can’t already be at the river crossing?

We paddled harder and gradually got close enough to make out lots of people, pirogues on the river, dirt roads leading down to the river on each bank and even a stationary vehicle ferry.

Amazing. We’ve made it. The road on the left will take us into Kouroussa!

We paddle over to the bank and confirm with the locals that we really are at the road to Kouroussa.

It’s true. I am so happy!

But now what?! Everything then happens all rather suddenly….

We will need to unload to boat, reassemble the bikes and pack everything onto them so we can cycle the 12km into Kouroussa. But what should we do with the boat? Try and sell it of course.

So I walk over to the fishermen mending their nets and enquire as to whether anyone wants to buy our boat. They do. We sell it for small change – enough for a few beers in town – and once we’ve unpacked, leave it in the charge of a small boy who is going to paddle it to the other side.

Before we know it, we’re riding into Kouroussa, to a hotel and cracking open a celebratory beer!

We made it!!
We made it!!

I go to sleep that night in the comfort of a bed in the knowledge that I don’t have to paddle anywhere tomorrow. It’s a good feeling!

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the whole two weeks paddle down the Niger river, but by the time I reached Kouroussa my body and mind just weren’t capable of paddling another day.

Days 16 – Day 23: On to Bamako… by bike

After a much needed, and if I can say so myself deserved, rest day in Kouroussa we set off on the bikes for Bamako in Mali.

Unfortunately, by the end of the first day I was exhausted again and the next day I felt ill with a bloated stomach. When we stopped to camp, I had only enough energy to put up my tent and fall fast sleep, leaving Lars to cook dinner.

The third day I struggled the 25km into the next town, Siguiri, where we agreed to check into a hotel so I could rest for the remainder of the day.

The final days from Siguiri into Bamako, although on paved roads were gruelling for me. Ill and cycling in the intense heat of the sahel against the harmattan wind blowing constantly in our faces was most unpleasant. I had to spend long periods of the day, lying in the shade, trying to muster up enough energy and well-being to continue.

But we did finally make it to Bamako. We made it 23 days after leaving Faranah in the boat with only one full day of rest.

And now my body has had a chance to recover from the previous weeks’ exertions, I am feeling much better and am looking forward to hitting the road again… which is what I’m doing later today. It’s time to explore Mali.

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