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Sahara

Day 48: On the Niger

Mopti, Mali 
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Cheer up! Presenter unhappy at lack of creature comforts on the long river journey ahead.
Michael Palin - SaharaA few last arrivals jump aboard as the heat, trapped by the riverbank above us, grows from intense to suffocating. Then, with a long, sucking sigh, the hand-hauled anchor pulls free of the mud and we move slowly out into the stream. My feet slip momentarily and I look down to see that I've dislodged a floorboard and sent a line of cockroaches scuttling for cover. With flies fussing at my face, cockroaches retreating back to the dark recesses beneath my feet and a small circle of children staring curiously, I realise I've stepped out of a nightmare and into some Dantesque punishment.

And what's worse, I know it's going to look so damn picturesque on camera.

The babble of Mopti slips away on our port side and we make our way gingerly through the maze of small islands, not much more than sandbanks really, which lie at the confluence of the Niger and the Bani. Some are barren, others are covered with a thin frizz of green grass, on which ewes and lambs, goats and cattle graze.

Navigation is tricky. The pilot stands astride the bows like an Old Testament prophet, his pole rising and falling as he shouts soundings up to the helmsman, cross-legged at the wheel on the bridge above me.

Once out onto the main stream of the Niger, we run into a brisk, refreshing headwind, and, with navigation a little easier, the crew busy themselves with other problems, chief of which is stemming a number of leaks that appear to have sprung in the gnarled cedar timbers of the hull.

Young boys are despatched to scour the hold for pieces of old rag, which are then prodded into the leaks with sticks and nails. With the wind whipping up sizeable waves, it looks like a losing battle, but the crew seems unfazed, assuring me that now we're out on the open water the timbers will soon expand and close the gaps.

Later. I've made myself a nest in the bows, found some boxes on which to perch and watch the world go by. Above my head I hear the squeak of the greasy chain cable, which snakes its way, quite unprotected, along the length of the ship, between wheel and rudder. I've thought of travelling up on top, but though the upper deck is marginally cleaner, it's more exposed and, anyway, it's busy. The covered area is occupied by the crew, who lounge around and drink tea, and the rest of it is occupied by goats.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 48
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: River Niger
  • Book page no: 149

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