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Day 41: Bamako to Djenné

Michael Palin - SaharaWith this single observation, Mungo Park saw off 2000 years of error. It was one of the great geographical discoveries. Encouraged, Park set himself the greater task of tracing the course of the entire river. He was brave, but also obtuse and severely inept at man management, and ten years later he died in a hail of spears and arrows as his boat raced through a gorge at Jebba, in what is now Nigeria. He never succeeded in following the river to the sea.

Looking out now across a broad, placid, unexpectedly blue stream, with kingfishers hovering and sweeping down into the reed-beds, it's hard to believe that this river could have been the cause of so much pain and grief before the riddle of its course was finally solved, forty years after Mungo Park stood here. We now know it to be the third longest river in Africa, flowing for 2600 miles from the mountain rainforests of Guinea, making a long slow horseshoe bend through the Sahara, then turning south to reach the sea in a wide marshy delta near Port Harcourt in Nigeria.

Ségou is one of a string of towns sustained by the Niger, and despite having busy streets and one or two company headquarters, its mood seems to reflect the pace of the river, calm and pleasantly unruffled. Lorries rumble ponderously up from the riverbank, laden with freshly made mud bricks that have been hardening in the sun. Out on the stream, fishermen in pirogues as slender as driftwood pole themselves in and out of a lazy current, so sluggish that, to be honest, I wouldn't be able to tell which way it was flowing. A sandy road has become a temporary football pitch and misdirected passes bounce off cars without anybody seeming to care very much.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 41
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Ségou
  • Book page no: 126

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