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Adventure: Mali

African Queen

A seven-day sail down the Niger River, to the Sahara and Timbuktu

September 27, 1998|JEFF CUSTER | Custer, a former Peace Corps volunteer, now lives in San Francisco

ON THE NIGER RIVER — Just how long does it take to get from here to Timbuktu? Three hours by plane, or five days by riverboat is what Marcella and I were told, here being Bamako, Mali. "Maybe one week by boat if there are difficulties," said the Malian travel agent.

Difficulties? He refused to elaborate, but other survivors told us their own nautical horror stories. "I was sure I was going to die from an acute attack of malaria," recounted friend Tim. "For three days I sat on a porous reed mat next to an overflowing toilet, hounded by bleating sheep and squawking chickens. Death seemed preferable to continuing the voyage." A Frenchman rambled on about drinking brackish river water while marooned on a sandbar. A local Peace Corps volunteer whispered scenes of engine failure, wading through leech-infested pools, and cruise souvenirs of bacterial infections and intestinal parasites.

Despite these daunting travel tales, we obsessed over having Timbuktu, or "Tombouctou" as they say in Mali, stamped into our passports. Ultimately what lured us to the harbor instead of the airport was the incomprehensible image of sailing to the Sahara, since Timbuktu literally sits a few miles from the edge of the desert.

And so we found ourselves on board the 37-year-old river boat Gen. A. Soumare for a seven-day voyage. Starting in the factory town of Koulikoro, the Soumare was to follow the Niger River until the desert crossroads town of Gao, about 850 miles downstream. Scheduled stops ranged from tiny, off-the-map villages to the ancient cities of Mopti, Dire and Timbuktu.

"C'est vraiment luxe, non?" said the chief steward as he flung open the rusting steel door to our "deluxe" cabin on the Soumare. Marcella quickly scanned the buckled linoleum floor for cockroaches and rats, flipping lumpy mattresses for signs of bed bugs and fleas. I snapped on electrical switches, bringing to life an emphysemic air conditioner and sputtering refrigerator big enough for one bottle of beer. "Checks out in here," I yelled, twisting corroded spigots in the bathroom. "OK in here too," she replied, then said to the bewildered steward, "Yes, this room is definitely deluxe." Mali is a desperately poor West African country--half grassland and half desert--covering 500,000 square miles. And despite the Soumare's broken chairs, torn curtains and insect-encrusted windows, we appreciated the relative extravagance offered.


Once installed, we made last-minute purchases from dockside merchants who peered over mountains of enamel dishware while polishing tea trays made from Nescafe cans. Smiling cigarette boys weaved through with Marlboros, roasted peanuts and homemade ginger and eucalyptus candies. Temporary food stalls served steaming plates of rice topped with spicy peanut sauce or flaky chunks of fried fish. "You need to eat here," called one vendor. "There's no food on the ship," she laughed. Spooked by her joshing, I lined my pockets with extra packets of stale cookies.

Porters performed a strenuous loading ballet, tossing 40-pound bags of cement and U.S.-aid cornmeal down a chorus line leading to the boat's belly. The kitchen crew stowed bamboo hampers of potatoes and yams, and filled the lifeboats with plump watermelons. Bloody sheep carcasses were dumped onto the galley floor, live goats and chickens shooed into a temporary pen, destined to make culinary appearances later in the week.

The purple twilight faded as the last passengers scrambled to claim empty deck space, designating territory with prayer mats and woolen blankets. Suddenly embarrassed at my relatively plush digs, I realized this was not a pleasure cruise for Malians. This was a working commercial boat, many of its passengers spending the next two weeks slogging out a living by selling and trading at ports.


A blast of the boat whistle caused a ripple of farewell handshakes and embraces through the crowd. The engines heaved into motion and the ship glided into the inky night water.

That first night set the pattern of a disruptive nocturnal existence. Once under the mosquito net, we were lulled into a deep sleep by the drone of the engines--a sleep regularly interrupted by the bump and grind of ship hull meeting mooring. Twenty-four hours a day the Soumare was a revolving door for passengers and cargo.

"Come look, Marcella," I said on the first morning, hearing the playful sound of people splashing. "The crew is out having a swim." I then realized that the boat was motionless in the middle of the river, stuck on a sandbar. For three hours the crew pried at the ship's frame with bamboo poles, finally freeing the Soumare from its watery trap.

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