As you head further north in Mali the vegetation gets sparser and the trees smaller as the Sudan gives way to the Sahel. The main town in the region, Mopti, has been dubbed, rather optimistically in my opinion, the "Venice of Mali" by the national tourist authority. If, by that, they mean that it's built on a stinking swamp and is overcrowded then they're probably right, but if they're trying to allude to a romantic town, with stunning architecture, marvellous works of art and an illustrious history then they're well off the mark. It's interesting to note, however, how big a cachet the Venice brand has by the number of times it's used in descriptions of other towns - the decidedly unromantic cities of Nantes, Birmingham, Basra and Fort Lauderdale have respectively been dubbed the Venices of the West, England, East and America. At least Mopti is in good company!
No, Mopti's history is certainly no match for Venice, having been built, pretty much from scratch, 150 years ago by the French as a trading centre due to its strategic location near the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers. And it is in this respect that Mopti most closely resembles its older, Italian cousin. The heart of the town is the bustling port. There's as much jostling for position on the water amongst the pirogues and pinasses as there is on the quayside between the stallholders, hawkers, stevedores, pushing and pulling their variously laden carts, buyers, dazed tourists, general chaotic scooter traffic, and, on Sundays (as if all the above wasn't enough), regular convoys of marriage parties who happen to believe that the most congested part of town requires a few more cars continuously blaring their horns. This is where people from all over Mali and further afield come to sell their wares: slabs of salt from the middle of the Sahara; myriad varieties of dried, ugly fish from the delta (I was just thankful for once that I had a bunged up nose); cereals and textiles from Bamako and Segou; fruits and calabashes from the south; all sorts of exotic nuts and spices; as well as your usual assortment of cheap tat from China (the most surprising thing I found on sale was a huge pile of beenies and woolly hats). And it's not just goods that converge on Mopti but people too. In one short day I've talked to people from almost every one of Mali's major ethnic groups: Fulani, Bozo, Dogon, Bambara and Touareg. There are also people from all the countries of West Africa: I've met Burkinabés, Ivorians, Guineans, Nigerians and Senegalese, Togolese and Nigerois, as well as the ubiquitous French tourists who seem to have a soft spot for their ex-colonies and outnumber all the other toubabs by about 4 to 1. As one Ivorian lady told me: "le Mali c'est un pays d'acceuil."
Apart from getting a sensory overload at the port the only other reason to come to Mopti is to get out onto the river, either as a short excursion or as a means of travelling downstream. I will be doing the latter and have booked my passage on a cargo pinasse heading up to the fabled city of Timbuktu on Tuesday. I can't wait.