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Jasmine travelling up the Niger

What do you see on a boat ride along the Niger River? Find out here!

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Life Along the Niger River

Whenever it was time to visit my family in Rancho Cucamonga, a city about an hour away from my home in Compton, my grandmother would jokingly chastise her son for moving all the way out to "Timbuktu." It always took so much preparation for our journey, which could easily take two hours in traffic. We would leave early in the morning, with a cooler stocked full of cold drinks, maybe a book, and some good music to pass the time. This was my idea of a trip to Timbuktu - until now! Instead of two hours Kevin and I have spent two weeks on an awesome adventure to the real Timbuktu.

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Three pinasses and a long way to go!
Three pinasses and a long way to go!
We started in Bamako, totally unsuspecting of the challenge before us. Kevin, Abeja and I planned to take a bus to Mopti and go from there. Abeja stayed with a nice family there while Kevin and I made our way to Timbuktu. It's the stormy season here in Mali so all of the roads to Timbuktu were virtually impassable. Not to worry, it takes more than a lot of mud and rain to stand in the way of the Odyssey World Trek! We decided to go by way of the Niger instead.

The boat ride alone was an adventure but there was another world outside the boat, another culture and way of life that we couldn't wait to explore. There are larger commercial boats that travel back and forth along the Niger but since we were traveling by pinasse we were able to stop and visit small villages, meet other people traveling by pinasse, and slow down to see the animals of the Niger. I most enjoyed interacting with all of the kids along the way, their smiles and greetings were just the welcome we needed.

The first distinct characteristic of the river culture along the Niger was how much the villages depend on the river itself. It was commonplace to pass people bathing in the river at any given time. Women assembled in small groups at the banks to wash clothes and dishes, and to bathe their children. Teenage girls would fill small buckets with water to take back to their homes for cooking and making tea. The other younger children played and wrestled with the small goats and lambs they were trying to clean. Everyone was busy with their activities but they always stopped to greet us whenever our boat docked or passed by.

Small mud huts with bamboo thatched roofs called adobes, lined the top of the banks. They would make mud from the dirt and bake it at high temperatures to make mud bricks and pack them together to form the walls of each adobe. Although most adobes can withstand even the harshest weather conditions, the storms during the past few weeks were more then some could stand. In most villages we found at least a few adobes literally melted into piles of mud.

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Fresh fish everyday on the pinasse.
Fresh fish everyday on the pinasse.
I wondered how the people made money to support themselves. That's when I found out that the pinasse was more than our way to Timbuktu. It's the main source of transportation for the villagers. Like a shuttle, small pinnaces transport goods and people from one village to the next. Some pinnaces are larger and motorized to haul timber and heavy cargo back and forth to the markets in Mopti. We met some women in a small village named Tonka, who wove mats out of straw and transported them to markets. Fishermen had sailboats full of nets to catch fish to sell and to eat.

Daytime on the boat was great! The weather was beautiful, the sun shined bright, and the hippos occasionally peeked their heads above water to pose for us. You had to be quick as they were very shy and reluctant to let the boat get too close before they disappeared back to their homes beneath the surface. Children playing and splashing around would run along the shores after us waving, jumping and shouting "Ça,va! Ça va! Ça va!" (French for "How's it going?"). When we docked at the villages, children were always the first to greet us. Some stayed back and looked on inquisitively. Most were used to visitors and would even rush the boat asking for gifts, "Cadeau, cadeau, cadeau!" We didn't have much to offer, some fruit, or a pen, and surprisingly enough, we found that the most popular gift to give them was our empty water bottles. The lucky ones to receive these petits cadeaux would run off surrounded by the others and float them in the water. Cool!

After a trip that was surely unforgettable, we finally made it to Timbuktu. Once ashore we still had a small way to go before we actually got to the city but it felt good enough just to have made it this far. Throughout history people actually lost their lives making the trek to Timbuktu, especially when crossing by the desert routes. But why? What's so important about Timbuktu? Are the streets paved with gold? Is there a hidden treasure? We had to see it for ourselves, so stay with us as we uncover the wonderful mysteries of this legendary place called Timbuktu!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - The Earliest Rock Climbers
Kevin - Stuck on a Boat to Timbuktu
Abeja - Djenne: City of Mud
Kavitha - Think Globally, Act Globally
Team - The Memory of Mankind
Team - Who Will Mop Up Their Mess? Shell and Chevron Wreak Havoc in Nigeria

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