In Timbuktu

There's only reason to go to Timbuktu, a traveller once told me.  They have a post office there and it works.  You can send all your friends a card with a “Tombouctou” postmark.

Timbuktu is every bit as remote as you would hope.  It's a long way to go just to be able to prove that you've been there.  There’s an airport just outside town, but anyone who travels by plane to a place renowned for its inaccessibility should have their passport confiscated.  The more romantic way is by boat, three days drifting down the river Niger.

Timbuktu is an odd place to find a town.  It's not quite on the Niger and not quite in the Sahara.  If you ask people why it's there, they will tell you that it's because of the well, which makes some sense because that's what the town is supposedly named after.  But why would anyone build a well and then a town when the Niger is only six miles away?  And that's not the only baffling thing about the place.  The local tourist authority, such as it is, has adopted "Timbuktu the Mysterious" as its slogan.  My guide book quoted a government minister, asked for an explanation, as saying "if I told you why it is mysterious it wouldn't be a mystery anymore".  Cheers mate!  My own guide, Aliis, explained that it referred to the town's 333 saints, which didn't do much to clear things up.  It seemed that the only way to find out would be to strap on my sandals and have a look around.

Sandals are definitely the footwear of choice.  Even the main street was a sandpit.  There may well have been tarmac there once but it didn't really seem to matter to anyone: the local boy racers could corner more spectacularly this way.  The sand sweeps in from the Sahara and there's plenty still there, waiting its turn.  My hotel's entrance was raised a good few feet above sand level.  It would be years before the Sahara was going to encroach into its reception.

A posse of "petit guides" loiters permanently outside the hotel, teenage lads on a mission to improve their language skills and bring a little hard cash home to the family, but not necessarily in that order.  They appear from nowhere as soon as you step outside, at any time of the day or night.  If you say no, they follow you into town and give you a full commentary anyway.  Some of the boys had even persuaded previous visitors to equip them with personalised business cards.  They were something of an irritation but you had to employ one if you wanted to shake off all the others.  My group had a grown-up guide, Aliis, but Abdulaye was my chosen beneficiary for independent strolls around town.  He made it clear that I would not be needing any other little friends while I was in Timbuktu.

Apart from all the sand, there isn't much that immediately catches the eye.  The main attraction is the central mosque, the only one (of three) open to visitors.  Like provincial Mali's other mosques, Timbuktu's are built with mud.  The structures date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but their exteriors have to be renovated after each year's rains.  The minarets are pyramids from which wooden stakes protrude at right angles.  The stakes are there to hold the mud together, but they also come in handy as scaffolding for the annual refurbishments.  Inside it was refreshingly cool but ranks of electric fans hinted at the intensity of the summer heat.

Timbuktu's houses are mostly shabby mud brick dwellings.  Anyone with any wealth has long since deserted (pun intended) the town.  In this part of Mali if you're not (like Aliis) a Tuareg you are either a Bella or a Bozo.  Given that choice you might opt for the former, but the Bella are a long-suffering people.  Traditionally they have always been the underclass, slaves to just about everyone who has ever settled in Mali.  If the homes I had already seen looked poor, the Bella communities were truly humbling.  Abdulaye's family was from the Bella people.  They lived on the outskirts of town, in a ghetto of shacks constructed from leaves and branches.  Turn left just after you pass the open sewer that doubles as the town's tip.  Even the better off families only had canvas shelters.  After seeing these communities, I couldn't bring myself to be irritated by the petit guides anymore.  I'd seen what they were trying to extricate themselves from.

Back in the centre of town there were a couple of pitiful markets.  They still sold the salt and gum Arabic that put Timbuktu on the fifteenth century map but today most of the merchandise is grubby clothing and plastic junk.  Nearby was an animal market.  Thanks to the scarcity of local grazing opportunities, it couldn't offer anything that you'd relish having for dinner.  Next to the animal market was a gigantic dilapidated well, perhaps Timbuktu's eponymous one.  Abdulaye claimed that it filled up in the wet season but for now it was as bone dry as everything else in town.

On street corners, women in headscarves baked bread in beehive-shaped brick ovens.  Disconcertingly, they have found that an inexhaustible local commodity is ideal for stopping the bread from sticking to the baking tray.  If you like your sandwiches with real sand, Timbuktu is the place for you.

And that was it.  Those were the sights.  A mosque, three markets and some ovens.  This place had once been legendary, a city of fabulous riches and high culture.  Now it had absolutely nothing left to show for it.  It was as though it had developed for itself a reputation for mystery in a desperate bid to draw in the tourists before the Sahara swallowed it whole.  I was clearly going to have to immerse myself in Timbuktu's history if I was going to get anything other than kudos out of this visit.

Scattered around town are the houses of the European explorers who "discovered" Timbuktu.  The explorers' stories are far more interesting than their homes.

In the early nineteenth century, stories reached Europe of a fabled trading post on the southern edge of the Sahara.  "Timbuctoo" was said to be a city of terrific wealth, built on the profits of trade in gold and salt.  The prospering city had drawn academics too.  It’s easy to understand how fabulous stories of Timbuktu's wealth and culture had developed.  To European explorers the city's name was a draw enough in itself.  That such a place existed in darkest Africa must have seemed hardly imaginable to the colonial powers.  It did, in fact, exist but only in the distant past.  Timbuktu’s fame had taken a very long time to reach Europe.  Its wealth had started to accumulate in the 12th century and it became a city of great riches and learning over the following centuries.  But it was looted by Morocco in 1591 and it was all downhill from there.

Alexander Gordon Laing was the first European to make it to Timbuktu, in 1826.  That would have been a formidable achievement.  Local peoples were hugely sceptical, usually with good reason, about the intentions of white men and he would have been mistrusted every step of the way.  Mungo Park had famously died in the attempt.  But the world never got to hear Laing's tale because he didn't make it home either.  His luck ran out soon after leaving Timbuktu, where he died of injuries sustained in beatings.

The man who took the glory that could have been Laing's was a Frenchman called René Caillié.  Denied any assistance by his government despite huge French interest in Timbuktu, he set off on his own, working in Senegal for nine months and perfecting his disguise as a Muslim before starting his journey inland.  Driven only by a childhood dream of visiting this mythical city, he spent a year of his young life travelling inland from the West African coast and repeatedly risked death through bandits, river pirates and disease.  When he heard en route of the killing of a man who could only have been Laing, his journey was transformed.  Before, this had been a personal voyage.  Now Caillié was an explorer, and in the running for a prize of 10,000 Francs from the French Geographical Society.

Timbuktu had kept its secret well.  By the time stories of Timbuktu reached Europe, the city's glory had long since faded.  Caillié, arriving in 1828, found it long gone.  He stayed only two weeks.  If you extrapolate that deterioration a further two hundred years, you have a rough idea of Timbuktu's present predicament.

The most elegant people of Timbuktu are the Tuaregs.  Their flowing robes and headscarves protect their faces from sun and sandstorms and cut them a photogenic figure.  Aliis, was happy to pose in the foreground of my photographs, though I did have to ask him to cover up his digital watch. 

Traditionally, the Tuaregs controlled the North African slave trade.  These days it's the tourist trade that they have cornered.  The most conspicuous Tuaregs hang around the hotels and restaurants brandishing cutlasses and jewellery.

The Saharan salt trade that helped to bring Timbuktu its fabulous wealth still goes on, but on a much smaller scale.  If you were crazy enough to walk 15 days north, you would still be well inside Mali's share of the Sahara.  Tuareg camel caravans make this trip to the salt mines every couple of weeks, though the scorching daylight hours mean that the journey is one of 15 nights rather than 15 days.  The salt is extracted in slabs the size of gravestones.  Even a camel can only carry four.  At the end of the journey - and I hope you won't mind when I admit that I didn't go there myself - is Taoudenni, one of the world's most remote settlements.  The miners are paid a pittance, in salt, for backbreaking work.  Short of walking 15 nights south, there is only one place to trade their earnings and that is at the mine itself.  Most of their income is spent on food and water.  Caillié travelled this way home, hitchhiking northward on salt traders' camel caravans.  If the route to Timbuktu had been hard, it was as nothing compared to the journey home.  There may have been fewer bandits but thirst nearly killed him and disease continued to dog him.

A hired Toyota Landcruiser and guide can give you a more comfortable taste of desert life.  We drove for a couple of hours into the desert.  After a short distance the track petered out and we relied on the driver's nomadic sense of direction in a landscape entirely free of landmarks.  I had been offered a visit to a "traditional" Tuareg camp but had rumbled that that would be a tourist set-up.  Mint tea, camel rides and a convenient jewellery stall - no thank you!

When I arrived at my alternative desert destination, I could tell that this one was for real.  This place wasn't picturesque enough to be a tourist trap.  A couple of brick buildings, built on sand out of necessity, marked the location of a concrete well.  The only people around were a handful of women and children preparing for a nomadic wedding.  The reason for this desert spot being all but deserted should have been obvious.  Real nomads don't have settlements.  They stop by to water themselves and their animals but they don't stick around.  It was this small staging post, rather than the miles and miles of sand, that said most to me about the life of a Saharan nomad.

Back in Timbuktu, a football match broke out shortly before dusk on a patch of sand near my hotel.  It was like beach football hundreds of miles from the sea.  The players had to dribble around donkeys and the Tuareg linesmen were impeded, in vision as well as mobility, by their robes.  The resulting sand cloud took all night to settle back over the town.  Timbuktu gets a bit more swallowed by the Sahara with every passing day.

The traveller had been partly right.  I didn't come back from Timbuktu with any spectacular photographs to show around.  But I did develop a feel for the history of the place and a huge admiration for those early explorers, not to mention the people who still manage to carve out an existence there. 

And it was true that they had a post office and the postcards did indeed make it home, although they took nearly two months.  None of my friends actually saw a camel caravan delivering them, but I have my suspicions.

©  Nick White 2012