Timbuktu Pages 1 -2-3-4
Mali Currency

One of the
River Niger

The Ferry Crossing to Timbuktu

it was
to be
  ferry !

The standard method of attracting the attention of the crew of a ferry when it is dark, is to flash torches, car headlights and make as much noise as possible. The last option was discounted as the ferry was well out of earshot. Our driver flashed his headlights. I flashed my powerful mini torch, which has a range of over a kilometre with its bright blue light .. all to no effect whatsoever.

Then Petit Cisse had a brain wave. If anyone had a phone, we could telephone his friend in Timbuktu, he could then give us the number of the Ferry Terminal, we could wake them up and get some action. Much to my surprise, and with congratulations to the remarkable UK Vodafone roaming service, I turned my mobile and it actually picked up a signal. We were saved .. well almost !

Five wrong numbers later, Cisse eventually contacted his friend .. no problem, ring him back in five minutes and he would be able to give us Ferry Terminal's number. We did and he gave us a number. Six attempts later, with no one answering the phone .. we rang Timbuktu again. Could he check if it was the correct number and ring them himself please ? Half an hour later and with absolutely no sign of anything happening on the far bank, we rang him again. He had just found another number, and would try that for us. Another 20 minutes passed .. so we rang him back again .. there had been no answer from the Ferry Terminal. Cisse suggested he jumped on his motorcycle and rode the 12 kilometres from Timbuktu to contact them personally. Er, yes he could, if he could borrow some money from someone to put enough fuel in his tank ! An hour later with no signs of any improvement in the situation, we gave up. A month later a rather large phone bill arrived in the UK !!

After sharing out the last of my biscuits ( I always carry a packet costing just CFA 200, in case of emergencies ) having jokingly offered to sell them for CFA 2,000 each to the driver and the rest of the passengers .. it transpired that no one else had any food and the water supplies would not exactly be overflowing if Alaghi and I shared ours. Some had not eaten at all since early morning and it was a long time since Alaghi and I had had a snack in Douenza. We were all very tired, hungry and thirsty.

Our driver drove us back over the bumps along the riverbank, towards a very small encampment of Sorko fishermen ( a branch of the Songhai tribe ), which he had seen on previous occasions. This comprised of three small round grass huts and a fisherman with his family, who were quite surprised with this sudden influx of visitors arriving out of the darkness. Welcoming us all warmly, they encouraged us to sit by their fire .. the evening air was by then damp and cool .. apologising profusely that they couldn't feed us with any fish, as the fishing had been cancelled for that day due to the same strong winds that delayed our arrival. We may have to sleep in the car, but we wouldn't starve.
A reminder here .. dear reader .. that any fish caught by these nomadic people, which was surplus to their own requirements, would be quickly sold or traded for basic necessities, before the sun rose on the following day. There are no fridges or freezers in the desert, to keep your food from spoiling.

However they could provide us with
attaya ( Chinese green tea ) and sugar to drink, and some peanuts to eat, which would have been very welcome. A classic example of typical African hospitality .. those who have the least are often the most generous. But just as the water was being put onto the fire to boil, lights and activity could be seen across the river and with a gentle chugging noise, the ferry emerged from the gloom, heading for the landing place. Thanking them all with handshakes and smiles all round, we quickly jumped into the truck, going back to where the ferry would arrive.

When it did arrive, despite offering our grateful thanks to Cisse's friend, the Captain and the crew, an almighty argument erupted as the captain explained his estimation of the price to our driver. Alaghi and I walked to the far end of the boat and tried to guess how long it would take to sort the problem out. We estimated half an hour. It did last for a good twenty minutes as tempers flared, voices were raised and everyone except us, had their say. Africans love a good argument and whether directly involved or not, will always contribute their own opinions, adding to the hubbub and confusion of everyone talking at the same time .. with precious few actually listening !

Petit Cisse explained later that the normal fare for a bush taxi was CFA 5,000, but as there was only our vehicle and we had called them out well past their normal working hours, our driver would have to pay the CFA 20,000 that a full ferry would normally have made. Understandably, with the majority of his profit likely to disappear into the hands of the ferry captain, he was somewhat agitated and refused to pay. The captain ordered his ferry engines to be switched off and a furious row began.

I never did find out how much our driver did pay in the end .. but seeking someone to blame, both sides turned on Petit Cisse's messenger friend, who had joined the ferry to say hello to us .. saying that it was his fault for calling the ferry out in the first place and he would have to pay the extra fare. Protesting abject poverty and the fact that he was only doing Petit Cisse a favour by acting on his instructions .. the spotlight turned on Petit Cisse ! He stoutly resisted, despite the veiled threat of probable imprisonment if he defaulted on a debt that wasn't even his ! All this added to the mle and I think I was very lucky not to be their next target for providing the telephonic facilities !!

Finally, an agreement was reached, the ferry's engines were restarted and we headed across the river, a ten minute trip, to the far side. Our far-from-happy driver took us to the centre of Timbuktu where we all gratefully piled out of his taxi at around 11.00 pm. At long last we had arrived.