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Travels in Timbuktu

Posted on 19th November 2007. No Comment

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The Holy Grail of Timbuktu
Timbuktu is in Mali. I thought I would clarify that because, until recently, I didn’t know where it was. Famed for its ends-of-the-earth appeal, the fabled city in the desert has drawn Europeans for the past 500 years. Most came to uncomfortable ends along the way, but in 1826, a Scot named Gordon Laing became the first European to reach Timbuktu. We can only assume that having crossed the punishing Sahara desert, he must have been rather disappointed. When Laing got there in 1826 the city was a shadow of its former self. Leo Africanus, an adventurous Spanish Moor, had reported that Timbuktu had a ‘great store of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men, that were bountifully maintained at the King’s expense’. Laing will have found none of this upon his arrival. By the 19th century, European ships had begun to circumvent the bulge of Africa, choking the Saharan trade routes, and in turn bringing to an end Timbuktu’s prosperity. Unfortunately, we will never know exactly how Laing felt, as he was murdered by over-friendly locals on his return journey. Perhaps he would have been grateful for the recently constructed airport.

 

The ‘Tuareg man’
The Timbuktu of today is little changed from the town that Laing found. It is still in decline, and to call it impoverished would not be unfair. Yet still it draws tourists, probably for similar reasons Laing went there. The name is just irresistible. Despite negative reports, as I arrived in Timbuktu’s port, Korioume, I couldn’t help feeling that this was the end of the road. The only onward transport from Timbuktu is by camel. The next outpost is the salt mines in the desert, a mere 15 days journey north by camel, and after that there is little apart from sand until the Mediterranean.

As my friend and I got off the boat which had been our home for the last three days, we were instantly swamped with offers to take us into the town, for a ‘good price’. Having enquired as to what the ‘good price’ was, and haggled for a somewhat better ‘good price’, we headed into Timbuktu. A steaming new tarmac road heads into the town, but stops suddenly just before you get there, almost as if they had under-ordered on tarmac. Our pick-up-truck-cum-taxi dropped a few people off and just as we were driving off, a man in full Tuareg dress jumped in the front seat. The Tuaregs are the desert nomads who run Timbuktu. He leant out the window and looked back at us ‘I am the Tuareg man. I know good hotel with good price. It’s my brother’s. I take you there’. Unfortunately for our new found friend we had already decided where we were staying, but he was persistent and hung around our hostel in promise of showing us around the town.

Into the streets
After the soaring midday heat had subsided, we gave the ‘Tuareg man’ the slip and went for a wander around the town. The place has a feel that it has been in decline for centuries. A few buildings here and there hint at former greatness, but these are usually hidden away behind newly constructed breezeblock, unappealing to the eye, but understandably built for sheer practicality. When it’s dry, the streets are deep in sand blown in from the surrounding desert. But when it rains (and when it rains in Timbuktu, its rains hard) the streets briefly turn to rivers of desert rain, and then into quagmires, two feet deep in mud. Overworked donkeys trudge up and down the streets, and people sit in doorways, gazing aimlessly into the haze. Every now and then a scooter would scurry by, with the rider seemingly concentrating on keeping the bike on its wheels in the deep sand rather than looking for oncoming traffic. Apart from the donkeys and scooters, the only other traffic in the streets were occasional shiny new 4×4’s. A couple belonged to the UN, but my favourite one was magnanimously branded with ‘US AID: A GIFT FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE’. It puzzled me that it was written in English, given that the commonly spoken language in Timbuktu is the little known Koyra Chiini.

‘I have good price!’
All in all, it would be hard to call Timbuktu an attractive town. But perhaps the lure of Timbuktu isn’t in the town itself, but as a gateway to the Sahara. The town’s major export, second only to salt, has to be camel treks. In the streets lurk more self-proclaimed ‘Tuareg men’. They are dressed in brightly coloured robes and headscarves and patrol the streets looking for potential customers. I lost count of the number of sales pitches we received, but they usually went something like this. ‘I am the Tuareg man. I have good price on the camels’. If this didn’t wash, they would try their luck with tourist ornaments which they would produce from under their robes and carefully lay them out in the dust. “I want to show you something. Only look. No buy.” If you took them for their word and only looked, and didn’t buy, then in a last ditch attempt, you would usually be offered a hotel at the usual ‘good price’.

But after all, these guys are only trying to make a living, and they do have something of worth to sell. After some negotiations with one particular gentleman, my friend and I landed ourselves a sunset camel trip for two, all inclusive with a night under the desert sky, and a traditional Tuareg meal thrown in for good measure. It was a surreal experience to be sitting on a camel riding into the desert, even if it was just for a night. There are plenty of places all over the world where tourists can pay for camel trips, but riding a camel in Timbuktu seems like one of those things that you find in books entitled ‘Top 100 things to do before you die’. It’s a town that is synonymous with the inaccessible and the exotic, and even if you can buy coca cola in Timbuktu, and even if the town itself isn’t much to rave about, its still Timbuktu, and the name makes up for a lot.

A few days later the desire to move on kicked in and we headed for the flight ticket office marked in the Lonely Planet. Unable to find it, we went into a hardware store and enquired where we it was. The man behind the counter smiled and produced a ledger with a picture of a plane on it. There can’t be too many places left in the world where you can book a flight whilst buying a new sink. Never mind the architecture, Timbuktu is still worth it.

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  • me said:

    an excellent article, you seem to have a very good turn of phrase. we both really enjoyed reading it. must put it on our list of places to go. thanks

  • Sid said:

    Cracking piece Peter, wonderfully observational and very readable.

  • Louise said:

    Very good article. What are the domes on the near side of the town? Tents?

  • Peter said:

    Yes, they are tents of sorts. I think they are were the
    nomadic people live when they come into Timbuktu, then
    just fold them up once they leave