As far as I was concerned, a nice relaxing 3 days lounging in a pinasse on the Niger River was going to be a bit of chill-out time—catch up with ‘the diary’, write a few postcards, read, and watch the world go by. Conserve my energy for Timbuctou and the Festival au Desert. I think most of us felt like that as we slid away from Mopti towards the delta region. We pointed out every boat, every fishing trap, and every village. We saw the most amazing variety and number of unfamiliar and beautiful birds. We took our first tentative steps along the narrow wooden ledge (strake) running the length of the boat so we could use the precariously positioned toilet cubicle at the stern. We ran aground. Nearly everyone we passed on the riverbank waved to us. We waved back and we waved back and we waved back. Then we drew up a rota system and took it in turns to wave in pairs. After the novelty of the first few hours things quietened down. Diaries were retrieved, novels opened, cameras cleaned, nails filed, and eyelids closed. We stopped at a village to buy wood for a fire, ‘parked’ up on a beautiful white sandy beach, and watched another one of those African sunsets. The warm evening hummed with insects punctuated by the occasional small splash from the river—a fisherman or a bird. Suitably uplifted and looking forward to dinner round the campfire, we dragged our tents up the slope and into a clearing in the dunes. What we didn’t know, but were about to find out, was that this is cram cram country! The tranquillity of the evening was about to be shattered by yells, shouts, and multi-national profanities that could all roughly be translated as, ‘What the dickens is that chaps?’ Well, it is cram cram, a grass with the most horrible barbed seeds that stick to anything and everything. They are only minute barbs but they’re like tiny cactus thorns once they’re stuck in you. Hard to find, hard to remove, and hurt like hell. They get into every fold of your clothes, down your sleeping bag, stuck in your mosquito net, and in your hair. Wet your hands before you pick them off clothing and blankets—it’s slightly, but not much, easier. It was no comfort really to learn that if you have an upset stomach and you drink water that has had cram cram boiled in it then you will feel just right as rain. It doesn’t help the suppurating sores left by the barbs of the wretched stuff however. Anyway, we had a great dinner and all spent a companionable evening round the fire picking cram cram off each other. We’d been warned we would be getting up early the next morning but I hadn’t realised it would still be dark, and absolutely freezing. More profanity and more cram cram. It wasn’t until mid-morning, that people felt warm enough to come out from their blankets. Then it was out with the books and diaries while the sun babes roasted on the roof. It was hard to believe it had been so cold earlier. Our lunch was prepared and cooked on board by our wonderful cook, Batoma, who managed to produce the most amazing meals for over 20 of us on a charcoal stove in a tiny space at the back of the boat. There was beer and coke in the cool boxes, teas and coffees when needed, snacks and, when the radio worked, a bit of background music to put us in the mood. The waving rota system was working well and things were cruising along just fine. Or so I thought. There were a few little ‘incidents’ during the afternoon, nothing nasty, just some people saying or doing something slightly out of character.We’d only known each other for a week, so I thought maybe I was just imagining things. It was actually somebody else who said it first, ‘Cabin fever’, and he was right. He had been referring to his partner who hadn’t sat still the whole afternoon. She jogs, she’s fit, she’s a fitness junkie, and she was starting to go through withdrawal. It wasn’t only her either, others were starting to feel a bit trapped on the boat and not just for reasons of fitness. There was very little opportunity to be alone. A couple of minutes before bed, maybe, but not too far because its pitch black and there’s the cram cram to think about. Now I like a bit of solitude myself and although I don’t need a daily fix, I could certainly sympathise with them. Then there were a few who just wanted to be ‘doing things’ and I too have days a bit like that. So, by the late afternoon of the second day we were roughly divided down the middle. Those who thought 24 hours had been just right thank you very much and can we get off now? And those who thought, I wish they would get off then I could really stretch out here.Me? I was fine. I actually found it quite hard to read because I kept being drawn to the view instead. Upstream from Mopti the Niger is very wide with the odd cluster of islands every so often. Downstream it splits into two main channels with numerous smaller branches spread out across a vast area known as the inland delta. In the centre of this network of streams and rivers is Lake Débo, roughly 30km in diameter. Extremely shallow and crossed with the help of channel markers, this lake draws thousands of migratory birds every winter. Quite a few of us had bemoaned the fact that nobody had a bird book—some of the birds were stunning but we could only identify a handful at best.Lake Débo is best crossed as early as possible in the day because a wind blows up later that can make it even more hazardous for shallow draught boats to cross. Once across, the landscape starts to have more of a desert look to it. The Bozo village huts are overshadowed by tall palm trees and the odd sand dune appears. There were some fairly large stands of what looked like eucalyptus trees at intervals along the banks of the river. These are part of an aid project to provide firewood and to help prevent erosion. The regimentation of the planting looked slightly out of place in such a wild landscape but the evidence of why such a scheme is needed is everywhere you look. The native trees are scarce having been chopped for firewood and the desert is creeping further south every year.We stopped off at Niafounké, the village home of the great Malian musician Ali Farka Touré and a place of pilgrimage for a number of people on the boat. It was the Muslim festival of Tabaski and I’d like to think that this was the reason why the decibel level of the music coming from the radio station was considerably higher than any recommended safety standards. It was loud. I mean very loud. So loud that after a quick look round the obviously affluent village with its mud brick houses and clean level streets, it was back down to the river for a quieter wander around the waterfront and to admire the patterns painted on the pointy end of the boats. There were two of us and as we headed back to the river we heard voices shouting. Two guys were on the other side of a wall standing in a cloud of smoke waving and gesturing for us to go over. It was not for the faint-hearted because once we started forward we realised that we were making our way through what looked like body parts. Well, it was horns, skin, hooves, and miscellaneous stuff really. Obvious why when we looked over the wall there was the most amazing barbecue made out of an old iron bedstead complete with a couple of beautifully roasted sheep looking and smelling marvellous. We had the usual exchange of pleasantries accompanied by a frenzied football commentary coming from a small TV set in the house doorway. After taking photographs and admiring the barbecue, pieces of cooked meat were cut from the sheep and presented to us. It was beautiful, tender, succulent and tasty. The ‘veggies’ on board were disgusted and the heavy duty carnivores were drooling and threatening to eat the ‘veggies’ if they didn’t get something other than bloody fish again.
For me though, I think the real highlight was at the end. It was sunset when we eventually docked and I have never seen anything like the thousands of birds, like swarms of bees, arcing swooping and twisting around that huge sky. They were like clouds. It was quite incredible to see.