Mopti - 'Venice of Mali' in a war zone

A donkey cart loaded with hay on the road heading to Sevare, 25 january 2013
Image caption At first glance Sevare doesn't live up to its 'strategically important' reputation

After two nights in the one-horse town of San - one tarred road, one half-decent hotel, no supermarket, lots of dust - I felt I deserved some good luck.

I had only intended to stop in San for one night on our intended route to Mopti. But the one night stop wasn't to be.

After confidently setting off the next morning, the BBC crew was stopped half way to Mopti at a military roadblock.

Overnight, the soldiers had received orders to stop all journalists.

I smiled, I pleaded, I name-dropped senior military officers I half-knew. I waited.

I did the smiling, pleading and name dropping again.

But I ended up back in one-horse San.

Then, next morning, my luck arrived: A group of African friends, including one I had first met some 30 years ago (just writing that makes me feel old!) were driving through San on their way to Mopti.

So we made a small convoy.

One of the many things most Africans are good at - far better in my experience than Europeans - is talking. Especially to soldiers, and especially at roadblocks.

To cut a long story short, my friends helped the BBC team reach Mopti.

And, in case you're wondering - no, no money changed hands.

Sevare choppers

As we approached Mopti, the war came closer.

Image caption Sevare's military airbase sits on the eastern front in Mali's war

We saw more and more soldiers. Most of them seemed to be going to the front on motorbikes. Perhaps it's the Malian way.

Or, if they were going about other business, they certainly hadn't taken off their uniforms or secured their guns at their barracks. Perhaps that's the Malian way too.

We drove through the town of Sevare, a place I'd only seen on maps before and which I had described in my BBC reports as "strategically important".

At first, I thought guiltily that I had been exaggerating in those reports: Severe looked like any other African town; markets, metalworkers on the roadside, mobile phone shops everywhere.

Then the sound of a military helicopter shattered the normality.

It flew overhead and crossed the road in front of me flying so low it almost skimmed the treetops. It landed to my right.

Then another chopper took off. This one I recognized as a French army Puma. Then another military helicopter was in the sky - I'm not sure what make - then another.

I was outside Sevare military airbase and I had reached the eastern front in Mali's war.

But the memory I will retain has nothing to do with military conflict.

What luck

Image caption In Mopti the mighty River Niger flows lazily through the desert

We drove another 10km (six miles) into the ancient city of Mopti itself. I took in the old walls of the city and a striking, spiky-roofed, mud-built mosque.

A few busy streets followed; we turned a corner.

Then, there it was - a revelation I shall never forget. The mighty River Niger flowed lazily through the desert.

A magnificent row of tall Neem trees - originally from Malaysia and surely the best legacy colonialism ever bestowed - provided deep shade on the shoreline.

Fishing boats were at work. The sun was setting. It was an incredibly beautiful, natural scene.

People approached, genuinely friendly, to say hello. I couldn't believe my luck.

I was seeing what, in better days, the tourist guidebooks call the Venice of Mali.

I'll come back to Mopti, after the war, if I ever get a chance.

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