The pirogue glides along Africa’s third-longest river. You pass low woodlands and move into the savannah. A flock of white-faced whistling ducks fly away when they’re startled by the small waves created by the oars. Baobab trees and termite mounds stand along the riverbank. Simple mudbrick houses have solar panels on their roofs. Warthogs grunt in the distance. Ahead, three African elephants are moving down the rocky hill and into the water. The pirogue stops, and everyone stares at the majestic animals.
You’re on the Niger River in southwestern Niger. The day began in Niamey, the West African nation’s busy capital. After a three-hour drive, you arrived at the river and boarded a pirogue headed for Manatee Island in W National Park, which straddles Niger, Burkina Faso, and Benin. L’Ile du Lamantin, an ecolodge, awaits your arrival. Once the elephants move on, of course.
When you finally arrive at the lodge, you’re handed a cup of chilled bissap tea. Ten huts are scattered along the shore and the hillside. Wooden steps lead to verandahs with river views. A composting toilet and handmade furniture are inside. Hiking trails wind around the island. And French-Nigerien dishes are served on the dining terrace. You feast on freshly caught fish, guinea hen, terrine de tchapata (a quiche-like dish), and ginger juice as the sun begins to set and shadows move across the lake.
The next morning, you wake up to a cat-like noise. You can’t see the noisemaker from your window or the verandah, and you’re hesitant to go down the steps. Later, at breakfast, you hear there were two Northwest African Cheetahs roaming around outside. Now, a herd of African buffalo are walking toward the water, and people returning from a sunrise hike are excitedly talking about their hippo sighting.
Your plan for the day? Float downstream on a pirogue to Karey Kopto. Pass a mud mosque and water wells along the way. Thursday is market day, when women carry huge baskets on top of their heads and gather in the center of the village. Visit a Bura archaeological site, where coffins and terra-cotta figurines from the first millennium have been found. See your own pod of hippos around Hippo Island. And keep an eye out for aardvarks, lions, and endangered painted hunting dogs. You never know what you’ll see farther down the river.