Although it used to be one of the region's most important cities and capital of the once mighty Songhai Empire, today's Gao, located 575 mi/925 km northeast of Bamako, attracts few tourists. The town was destroyed by Moroccan invaders in 1591 and, despite its prime location on the Niger River, has never recovered. You'll get a good idea of what's to come at the airport—a metal building surrounded by mushy tarmac and blast-furnace heat. Don't plan more than one night there, although if you're arriving overland from the desert or by boat from upriver, it'll look like heaven. Sights include the rather uninspiring Musee du Sahel (a museum featuring art, tools and household items), markets (leather work, desert sandals, knives and swords) and the tomb of Askia Muhammad (a 500-year-old adobe "pyramid" with a view of the river and town). Another highlight is an early-morning pirogue ride to the big red sand dune just outside of town.

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