TO the people who live along its shore, the Niger is a river of hope and sorrow. When spring rains are sufficient, it swells to inundate the paddies, millet fields, and rich breeding grounds for fish. But when there is a drought, as there was this year, its flow is lean, many riverside grainfields remain dry, fishing is greatly diminished, and acres of pasture die of thirst.
Rising from the lush tropical highlands of Guinea, the Niger, at 2,600 miles, is Africa's third-longest river.
For 260 miles it rides some 1,600 feet down a series of cascades. Then it plows slowly, deliberately, northeast into the Sahel and Sahara, a frayed belt of semi-arid land between desert and savanna. It skirts Mali's ancient desert emporium of Timbuktu, retreats south to weave through the mangrove swamps and deltas of lower Nigeria, and ultimately spills into the Gulf of Guinea.
Scotsman Mungo Park was the first European to explore a significant segment of the river. In 1796, trekking 800 miles inland from Gambia, he encountered the river mid-course in S'egou and confirmed that it flowed eastward.
On his second expedition, launched in 1804, he led an unwieldy troop of 40 Europeans, gathered up at the slave-holding garrison of Goree Island just off the coast from Dakar, Senegal. Most died of sickness before ever reaching the Niger.
After 1,500 miles, ambush and failure
By the time they built a boat and set sail from Sansanding, all that remained of Park's original retinue were a guide, three slaves, and four soldiers.
This tattered and vulnerable troupe sailed by villages without stopping to offer the expected gifts, and shooting at the slightest danger. With nearly 1,500 miles of the river behind them, Park's guide abandoned him. Not long after, natives from the island town of Bussa (near New Bussa in modern Nigeria) ambushed the explorer and he drowned trying to escape. He was 600 miles from the Niger's mouth.
A quarter of a century and several explorers later, two English brothers, Richard and John Lander, survived a harrowing journey and located the mouth of the Niger in the Gulf of Guinea.
Although traveling the Niger River is no longer a grueling, death-defying experience, it does require uncommon stamina and curiosity. Throughout most of the year, one can travel much of the river in hand-poled pirogues - leaky, wood-plank canoes with prows resembling the snouts of swordfish. For two or three months after the spring rains, deeper-draft passenger-cargo boats can maneuver the waterway between Koulikoro and Gao in Mali, a distance of about 700 miles.
Moving slowly, swaddled in the smell of sun, silt, and sweat, passengers view an ever-changing scene: tiny mud villages, tented nomadic camps, and ephemeral grass homes. Under the flattening weight of the sun, nomads water their herds, peasants harvest meager millet fields, and fishermen mend their nets.
Each of the stops during the Koulikoro-to-Gao journey has a distinct character. The pier at S'egou, Mali's third-largest city, hosts a market pulsating with colorful, friendly humanity. Women, dressed in brilliant, flowing gowns sit on mats beside piles of red, green, and yellow spices and vegetables. In Mali's scintillating sun, they and their wares are like a rainbow on fire.
Timbuktu, a symbol of remoteness
The town of Diafabar'e is without a pier. Hordes waving modest wares stand on a steep embankment. Some of the vendors wade into the water up to their shoulders to make a sale. They hold up colorful mats, gourds of milk, and chickens like bouquets.
Beyond Mopti, the land is increasingly frayed. Here and there at the river's edge lie broken or fuel-less water pumps - failed efforts to draw the water to nearby millet fields. Like an unused answer, the river flows on, passing struggling or abandoned villages and dune islands - tiny wind-swept deserts stranded in the water.
Timbuktu, the archetypical symbol of remoteness, rises from the desert like a worn and sprawling sand castle. Four centuries ago, it was a center of Islamic scholarship and the spectacular hub of the trans-Saharan caravan trade in gold, slaves, and salt. Today it is a lackluster city where little boys lie in wait for tourists hoping to earn money by telling of its remarkable past.
Others focus on the future. Just beyond Korioume, the port for Timbuktu, a broad field of rice blooms green. As the sun sets, several peasants continue to work the field, while others tinker with the gas-oil pump that, at least in this instance, has successfully drawn water to their crop.
Thigh-deep in the cool of the river
Nearby, a woman sits thigh-deep in the river's coolness, scrubbing her knees while a little child washes her broad back. Behind them, laundry sprawls on the sandy shore like wilted flowers.
As night falls, the river becomes a deep purple, with the sky a pile of azure, green, and gray hues diffusing into one another. The acacias on shore are transformed into spiny black specters, the sweltering heat eases its hold on the day, and the boat rides the Niger's back into the night.