Gao is the former capital of the once great Songhai empire that ruled this part of West Africa several hundred years ago. Today, it’s not all that much to look at, a typical Sahara/Sahel town with wide sandy streets, flat-topped mud buildings and the innevitable piles of filth.
I get the overnight bus from Mopti to Gao, arriving at about six in the morning. Emerging tired and bleary, I’m immediately set upon by the innevitable tout who takes advantage of my state and whisks me off to some dismal looking campement south of the town.
Actually, it turns out to be a gem of a place – cheap, relaxed with friendly staff and other guests, though from first glance it looks a total flea-pit.
I meet up with a young Tamashek speaking local, who introduces himself as Small Guy. I never find out his real name, but he’s a handy fellow and helps me arrange my onward trip to Niger.
The thing I immediately notice about Gao is actually apparent from its absence: here, the children aren’t yelling ‘toubab’ at me every step I take as they do in other parts of Mali. And they aren’t demanding ‘cadeaux’ – the presents that kids in Mali’s touristy areas seem to expect from whites.
‘Here, some of the children are actually scared of white people,’ explains Small Guy. ‘In Timbuktu and Mopti, children’s parents encourage them to go up to white people and demand presents. But here, some adults tell children that white people eat Africans. That’s why they aren’t coming up to you.’
It’s a refreshing chang, and makes me want to stay in Gao for longer. Sadly, I’ve only got one full day here, but in the afternoon there’s time for us to take a pirogue out on the Niger to a nearby site – the Dune Rose – which, as the cunning linguists will know, literally means the pink sand-dune.
Pulling out of Gao in the little pirogue, the dune is immediately obvious, a huge towering eddifice on the opposite side of the river, slightly upstream. We must be a good couple of kilometres from it, but even at this distance its scale is evident.
The river at Gao is wide and divided into a number of channels by swathes of thick aquatic vegetation. My pirogue driver sticks to these areas, as the plants act as a buffer against the strong river current making the going much easier.
After about an hour we approach the foot of the dune. It looks more orange than pink, but the sun is beginning to set bringing out the first tinges of ‘rose’ for which the dune is famous.
‘The dune is sacred,’ Small Guy informs me. ‘Local believe it is home to ancient spirits and every year they come here to make sacrifices to the spirits.’
I can well understand why superstitious locals might believe the dune has magical properties. Its size, for a start, seems to defy all natural laws, soaring at a precipitous angle straight up from the water’s edge, to at least 150 feet high.
We jump out of the boat and start climbing the mound. The sand is fine and deep, and the going tough. Each footstep I take disappears up to the ankle, and it’s a stuggle to get to the top.
When we do though, it’s definitely worth it. The sun is now well and truly on its way down – ‘sleeping’ as Small Guy says – turning the west facing side of the dune a deep coral pink.
Along the ridge of the dune, the wind from the east has blown the sand into a sharp crease that looks like it has been sculpted by an artist with a knife. The windward side of the dune is also now in deep shadow, a sharp contrast to the pyrotechnics going on on the other face.
And the wind, the wind…With nothing to stop it for hundreds of miles as it sweeps over the Sahara, it comes driving over the dune with frightening power. With nothing to protect us, sat perched on top trying to enjoy the view, we’re totally at its mercy – and that of the sand it blasts in our face, filling our eyes, ears and mouths and stinging exposed skin.
Sitting – or rather huddling – on top of the dune, I realise that this is the first point along the Niger’s whole huge length that I’ve managed to get anything like a view overlooking the river and its surroundings. The land through which it flows is so flat and featureless, that not at any point have I surveyed it from on high.
It’s a magnificent sight. Huge and majestic, the Niger threads a glittering path through the dull browns and beiges of the Sahel stretching into the distance on either side.
Viewed in this way, within its landscape, it’s easy to see why the Niger is such an important in this part of the world. Quite literally, it is the only source of life in this harshest of environments. The people who do manage to scratch out an existence here only do because of this geographical freak. How different things might have been had it flowed south and not north from its source 1500 miles away in Guinea.
Ten minutes is all we can handle on top of the dune. The wind defeats us and we tumble and roll our way back down to the safety of the river.