The Niger is one of the great rivers of Africa, stretching over 2,500 miles (4,000 km) in a great arc that extends northward from Guinea to Mali before turning back toward the south and making its way through Niger and Nigeria to empty into the Gulf of Guinea. Mali sits at the northern apex of the curve, where the river splits into a vast inland delta before reforming itself to return southward. The Niger is of vital importance in Mali, providing irrigation for agriculture and serving as a major transportation artery. For visitors to the country, the Niger offers a magnificent and leisurely means of travel and touring. During the high water months (between August and November), large river boats ply the river, traversing more than half of the country over a period of six or seven days. Smaller and slower vessels also offer river passage, including pirogues, Mali's small traditional canoes, and pinasses, slightly larger and motorized boats.
By the sixteenth century, these cities had become legendary in the European imagination, representing all of the exotic wealth of Africa.
All of this changed, however, when the Portuguese reached the Gulf of Guinea by ship, bypassing and rendering obsolete the trans-Saharan trade routes. Timbuktu and Djenne faded and fell into a decline from which they have never recovered. Today they are meccas for curious travellers, as far off the beaten track as can be imagined. Timbuktu, though the more renowned of the two, retains little of its ancient structure, although it is still a rewarding destination. Djenne on the other hand seems to have been frozen in time, a grand mud-brick monument to an empire that disintegrated five centuries ago.
The Dogon and the Bandiagara Escarpment
The Dogon people are believed to have been the original inhabitants of the Niger river valley. They have been the subject of a multitude of anthropological studies, and their artwork is prized by collectors all over the world. For thousands of years, the Dogon inhabited villages cut into the cliff faces of the 80 mile (200 km) long Bandiagara escarpment. Although most of the 200,000 Dogon have relocated from their protective cliff dwellings to the plains below, the ancient villages still dot the cliffs and the newer villages are fascinating destinations in their own right. The best and most popular way to tour the Dogon villages is to trek along the escarpment, usually in the company of a guide.
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