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Sahara

Day 48: On the Niger

The River Niger, Mali 
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Arms and legs on the River Niger. The arms belong to Kristin, my Norwegian fellow passenger, who educated me about African women. The legs belong to the crew.
Michael Palin - SaharaIn the confusion of departure I've failed to register quite where we are. As often happens in the world's iconic places (viz. North and South Poles) the romantic loses out to the practical. Survival comes before reflection. Here I am on the Niger, a river whose exploration cost so many lives and whose exact course was not known to any European 150 years ago, and all I can worry about is a cockroach or two. I stare out across the choppy grey waters and try to think important thoughts.

To be honest, the scenery doesn't help. The river is about a quarter of a mile wide at this point and flows through an arid, sandy landscape, broken by occasional stands of mango and eucalyptus, planted I assume as windbreaks. There is a surprisingly abundant bird life along the riverbank - egrets and herons, waders, kingfishers, even an eagle - but the scattered villages of the Bozo fishermen are dispiriting skylines of low mud huts and flat, straw-thatch roofs.

The one delightful surprise comes as we round one of the few bends in the river. I spy something over on the southern shore which I first take to be a mirage. Indistinct in the dusty haze and rising out of nowhere is the pinnacled outline of a building of shimmering beauty, as if King's College Chapel at Cambridge had been transported from the banks of the Cam to the banks of the Niger. It's a mosque to rival that of Djenné, with a pale gold minaret, four-tiered like a pagoda, rising above a cluster of orange-tipped towers. Amongst these drab villages it is sensationally incongruous, as well as light, majestic and timeless.

It passes out of sight behind a grove of trees and we see nothing like it again.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 48
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: River Niger
  • Book page no: 150

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