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Blog / Timbuktu

Getting to Know Africa: The Niger River

Running for an astounding 2,600 miles through a massive delta, The Niger River is the principal river of West Africa. The river source is in the Guinea Highlands in southeastern Guinea and the river discharges into the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean. The Niger is the third longest river in Africa. Only the Nile and the Congo rivers are longer.

The first westerner known to have travelled to the central portion of the Niger River was Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer. Sent out to Africa by the "Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa", Mungo Park carried out his first trip alone. Subsequently, he returned to Africa with a group of 40 people. Believe it or not, all 40 of his group lost their lives on that adventurous (and no doubt risk-fraught) trip! Born in 1771 at Foulshiels, Scotland, Mungo passed away in 1806 at Bussa Rapids (Kainji Reservoir, Nigeria).

 The name "Niger" possibly derives from a Berber phrase "ger-n-ger" which means "river of rivers". Although the Niger has many different names, their meanings are all quite similar - great river - big river- great water. Medieval Europeans did not realize the extent of the river, showing the central region of the river (named "Niger") and the lower reaches (named "Quorra") as two distinctly different rivers. Only in the 18th century, after the exploration undertaken by Mungo Park, was it realized that the Niger ran from the Guinea Highlands to the Atlantic Ocean and the name was applied to the entire course of the river.


Both African countries Niger and Nigeria take their names from The Niger River. The Niger takes a decidedly unusual route, following a "boomerang" shape. While the source is in the Guinea Highlands - only 150 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the river runs away from the sea, through the Sahara Desert - turns right near Timbuktu and then heads south before finally reaching the Atlantic Ocean at the Gulf of Guinea. As the Niger's headwaters lie in rock, the river is quite clear. Although the Niger does flood each year (like the Nile), the river has very little sediment (unlike the Nile).

Seasonal floods make the Niger River Delta rich in fish and conducive to agriculture. Exploring and mapping the river was a major undertaking, needless to say. The length of the river and varying depths mean that many different methods of travel had to be employed, from rafts to other craft suited to deeper reaches. To give you a good idea of what daunting a task it is to travel the river, we suggest reading The Cruelest Journey, by adventurer Kira Salak. Kira travelled by canoe along 600 miles of the Niger - from Old Segou (Mali) to Timbuktu. Kira was inspired by the intrepid Scottish explorer, Mungo Park. From tropical storms to angry hippos, through the heat of the Sahara, she traveled alone, sleeping each night in remote mud hut villages. Arriving finally in Timbuktu, Kira did something phenomenally good. She purchased the freedom of two Bella slaves girls!  


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Read Kira's blog about her trip and the lengths she went to to liberate the Bella girls. The book is available from the National Geographic Store and we've also seen it on Amazon. Watch this video to see how Kira prepared for her arduous journey!

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