Sitting on the terrace of the Grand Hotel in Niamey, I order five gorgeous, grilled meat skewers in broken French, "Cinq brochettes, s 'il vous plait!" To get on in West Africa, French is essential since neither English nor German are commonly spoken. Everyone who wants to chat with the locals should learn some French in advance. I turn up a cool Niger beer, the perfect complement to this local specialty, and enjoy the sunset over the Niger River.
After roaming the Libyan and Algerian Sahara without encountering any real problems, I've reached Niamey, Niger's capital. Here I'm happy to indulge in some modern comforts, relaxing for a few days, and also taking advantage of the mechanical assistance available to give my bike, a KTM Adventure, some well-earned "rest" and servicing. Renate, my wife, has flown in to join me in Niamey and brought along a new rear tire, a Pirelli MT 21. The old one definitely needed replacement after 10,000 kilometres of wear and tear.
We explore the Niger on a good asphalt road running north to Ayorou, a typical village in the Sahel zone that usually offers little more to view than dusty roads and a deserted market place. On Sunday mornings, however, the scenery changes drastically. It's Market Day then, and trucks from all directions head for Ayorou. The small port landing brims with canoes that have travelled the river from northern Mali and Nigeria. To us, it's a scene of mass confusion, and before diving into the situation we hire a local boy to guide us. I am most impressed by the women of the Bella (former slaves of the Tuareg). They live in small villages surrounding Ayorou and transport huge loads of wood to sell. The Tuareg tribesmen earn their money trading livestock, primarily cattle and camels. By late afternoon, buyers and vendors depart and silence descends again on Ayorou.
North of the village the track starts that leads us from the Niger in the direction of Mali. The rainy season is over and the road is in a relatively good state. But in a few spots over rivers it's easy to imagine how difficult the conditions can be in the rain.
We pass the border to Mali without difficulty - the officers are extremely polite and friendly. In our case, none of the horror stories other travellers tell about corrupt customs officials prove true.
Close to Hombori, mountains appear like a Fata Morgana. These are the tallest mountains in Mali and our countrymen first learned of the area when Heinrich Barth, the famous German explorer of Africa, made his way here in the middle of the 19th century and wrote extensively about this wonderful landscape.
In Mopti, a large port on the Niger, our way leads us directly to the booking office for ship's passage. We are in luck. A boat called Timbuktu is due to leave for Timbuktu in a few days and then continue on to Gao.
We buy two first-class tickets and ship our 200kg bike. The days leading up to our departure pass very quickly, although the first day is a bit stressful. Each time we leave the hotel, young boys who offer their services as guides surround us. And it takes a long while to disengage from them, but they finally understand we don't need them and leave us in peace. Sitting for hours in the port of Mopti, I observe the numerous canoes arriving and departing with their loads. All kinds of goods are being transported. A most important commodity is the trade in smoked and dried Niger fish. But the most fascinating vessels are the pinassen, the big canoes bringing in salt plates for later transport south on trucks.