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Day 48: On the Niger

Mopti, Mali 
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Waiting to board our Niger river transport, the Pagou Manpagu.
Michael Palin - SaharaMopti is a changed place this morning as we head down to the waterfront in search of our transport to Timbuktu. The river is busy again. Slender pirogues, so weighed down with people that the boats themselves are hardly visible, are punted to and from the network of fuzzy green islands that lie revealed between the Bani and the Niger. The riverbank heaves with activity. A group of women in scarves and long saris are bent over vegetable beds hastily planted to take advantage of the newly exposed mud, and nearer the port itself rows of earthenware pots wait to be loaded. Beside them, to my surprise, for I thought such things never existed outside of Bible stories, are tablets of salt. They're slim, rectangular blocks, like large paving stones, bound with lengths of cloth, their grey crystalline surfaces glittering in the sunlight.

Salt was once so valuable to the people who lived south of the Sahara that it was traded weight for weight with gold. The forty or fifty tablets stacked here show that the Sahara's chief export is still in demand. I try to lift one and it's not easy. I'm told they weigh 40 kilograms each.

In the midst of all this organised confusion is the brightly coloured hull of our pinasse, but getting to it is not so easy. The market is in full swing and every salesman in Mopti seems determined to give us a send-off. Sunglasses, batteries, water, hats, fruit and fish are pressed on us from one side, and bics, cadeaux, bonbons are demanded on the other. A gauntlet of commerce. Death by a thousand offers. I suppose I should be used to it by now, but, today, the combination of heat, smell, weight of my bags and the scramble through the sewerish sediments is truly nightmarish.

Throwing my bags ahead of me, I reach for the helping hand of a crew member, who pulls me away from the nightmare and onto the deck of the Pagou Manpagu.

It takes me only a moment to realise that the Pagou Manpagu has no deck. One moment I'm poised on the side of the hull and the next I'm down in the bilges with everyone else. Squeeze myself into a corner beside one of the bridge supports and take stock. Makeshift bamboo-strip floorboards run along the line of the keel and already most of the space is occupied, mainly by women and children. Fires are being lit and food prepared. There is a shout from a boat alongside and I look up just in time to see a goat suspended in mid-air. It disappears heavenwards to be followed by another three, wriggling and squirming as they're hauled past me onto the roof.
Mopti, Mali 
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Tablets of salt, brought by camel out of the desert to Timbuktu, await onward shipment at Mopti.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 48
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Mopti
  • Book page no: 148

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