Most boat journeys on the Niger River are only possible from August to December when water levels are high.
Three large passenger boats, operated by the Compagnie Malienne de Navigation (Comanav), ply the Niger River between Koulikoro (50km west of Bamako) and Gao, from August to November/December. In theory, one boat heads downstream from Koulikoro at 10pm Tuesday, arrives in Mopti at 3pm Thursday, in Timbuktu at 7am Saturday, and Gao at midnight Sunday. Another boat heads upstream from Gao at 8pm every Monday, reaching Timbuktu at 6pm on Wednesday, Mopti at 4pm Friday, and Koulikoro at midnight Sunday. In practice, the journey can take twice as long.
The ‘luxe’ cabins have a bathroom and air-con; 1st-class cabins have two bunk beds, toilet and washbasin; and 2nd-class cabins are four-berth with a washbasin and shared toilets. Third class is an eight-berth cabin and in 4th class you get to fight for a space on deck and don’t get meals.
Booze, food and water are all available, but take extra supplies as you may get stranded.
The better private bus companies are Bani (220 6081), Binke (220 5683), Bittar (220 1205) and Somatra (220 9932), all of which run regular services between the main towns south of the Niger River.
North of the Niger River the roads can be terrible, and 4WDs, fortified truck-buses and standard trucks are used for public transport.
Second-class travel is cramped, chaotic and makes the journey seem eternal. For longer trips, 1st class is recommended, and taking a couchette is likewise worthwhile for overnight journeys.
There are now two domestic carriers:
Both airlines fly from Bamako to Mopti, Timbuktu and Kayes. CAM also operates a weekly flight to/from Gao that goes via Mopti and Timbuktu. Return fares are only a fraction under double one-way prices.