From Here to Timbuktu – Part 2: Reaching the End of the Earth

Carrying on the next day from our visit to Djenné and Mopti, we continued in a north-easterly direction on the main road until we reached a track on the far side of the town Kona.

Here, we abandoned the relative comfort of pot-holed tarmac and continued our pursuit by gravel road.  There was as amazing escarpment close to Kona, but otherwise the entire trip was flat, flat, flat. Pancake flat, or flood-plain flat, depending on whether or not you were hungry.  I was very snackish – and made myself more so by thinking of pancakes… Possibly, I was a little bit delirious by this time.

Useful landmark for finding the turn-off to Timbuktu!

Our own personal crewman/guide was driving and went barrelling along at an almighty pace.  Several long hours later, and somewhat ruffled and weary, we arrived shaken but not completely stirred at the ferry crossing that would take us from Niafonke to Dire.  Or at least I think so, but my recollection of the direction we sailed off in looks the complete opposite to the map.  Delirious indeed.

Firstly, load up the cattle... they didn't like this idea at all

Beyond the ferry trip, which we shared with cattle, cars, trucks and pedestrians alike, we docked at the port on the other side of the Niger.  There were still another ~20km to go before we could actually claim to have reached the end of the earth.  We were beginning to think the world was round, after all.

Passing by great canals and rice paddies all of which were bone dry, we learned from the locals that the River Niger had shifted course by as much as 10km in the last 10 years alone.  (Reading up on Timbuktu on Wikipedia tells me a slightly different story!)

Before we had even checked into the hotel, we were approached by a local Tuareg “guide”, offering us the unavoidable camel-treks into the Sahara Desert.  We didn’t resist – the guy spoke perfect English, which for us was more than we could have hoped for.  Our French was, and still is, appalling!  We had just enough time to drop our bags, grab a fresh bottle of ice-cold water and headed out to pick up some camels, as you do.

We were given strips of material to wrap around our heads, Tuareg-style.  They weren’t quite the traditional colours – but we did treat ourselves to some more arts and crafts here too, including the “proper” blue Tuareg turban/scarves.

Excellent camouflage now that I look at this image - sand-coloured camels and sky-blue robes and tagelmust (turban). Oh yeah, that's us in there too...

After lumbering along on solid-wood “saddles” for some time, we were finally out in the open Sahara Desert.  The sun was sinking and there was some bargaining to be done, not to mention some tea-drinking that just HAD to happen.  You can’t get far in these parts, without partaking in a glass or two of hot, sweet, sickly, minty green tea.

The Sahara Desert

We left the desert with trinkets galore; a few traditional knives too. (I will be following up this post with one based on all the arts and crafts we accumulated during this trip).  We also got ourselves an appointment with our new friend and guide Isa, for the following day to make a tour of Timbuktu itself.

Saharan Sunset

I now realise that I was too consumed with being a consumer that I never took a photograph of this shopping event.  At the time, all I wanted to find was a spot of the desert that contained no people.  I had no inkling, back in 2008, that I would ever become a blogger in 2011 and attempt to write this up!  It’s a bit of a shame that I have no photographic record of this experience, but I do, at least, have the memory!

Timbuktu is an odd little place.  Nothing about it seems to convey its legendary status of wealth, beauty and learning.  Perhaps that is why it is so mysterious…

Welcome to Timbuktu City of 333 Saints

Although it has UNESCO World Heritage Status it has inspired the following quote from Bob Geldof, champion of all things charitable for Africa:

“Is that it?”

It’s kind of what I thought, too.

Timbuktu Street Map

Although many of the buildings are still built using the commonly practiced mud-cladding that is seen elsewhere in Mali, Timbuktu also boasts a unique style of architecture.  Many buildings are clad with limestone tiles and have some very Arabic-inspired, artistic iron-work designs on both doors and window shutters.

Shuttered Windows

Winding through the streets, we passed by the Djinguereber Mosque and the Sankoré Mosque, which doubled as a university for scholars of law and theology.

Djinguereber Mosque

In Timbuktu’s golden era during the 15th-16th centuries, this university catered for up to 25,000 scholars.

Sankoré Mosque

We also stopped in at the Institut des Hautes etudes de Recherche Islamique, which houses an amazing collection of historical literature dating back several centuries.

Museum building

Families used to chronicle their histories in the form of a tarikh (Arabic for history/historiography), which was then passed down from generation to generation.  The object of this institute is to collect as many of these highly informative family journals and preserve them before they are lost forever to the ravages of damp, dust and termites.

Tarikhs on display

A visit to the Monument of Peace was our penultimate stop on this trip around Timbuktu.  Sadly, it appeared to be more like “Monument of Pieces” as many of the tiles used to decorate the structure have long since fallen off.

Flamme de la Paix - Monument of Peace

This monument was erected in March, 1996 to commemorate a truce between the Malian Government and the Tuareg who virtually held the town under siege up until that point.  Over 3000 weapons from both Tuareg and government forces were burned in a ceremonial pyre.  Some of these burnt arms were incorporated into the monument itself.

Remnants from the ceremonial pyre

The last thing that we felt that we had to do, but were not obliged to do, was get ourselves a “Timbuktu Stamp” franked into our passports!  It is no longer a tourist tax as such, but you do have to cough up CFA2000 ($3-$4) for the privilege.  You can’t go all the way to Timbuktu and NOT get some sort of badge of honour for the journey made!

Just because...

Next Post: From Here to Timbuktu: Arts and Crafts of the Bozo & Tuareg Peoples


9 thoughts on “From Here to Timbuktu – Part 2: Reaching the End of the Earth

  1. If I should pick only one country to visit in West Africa, that would definitely be Mali. I have read stories about Timbuktu for a few years and every time I do so, my passion to visit Mali just grows even stronger. However, I’m a little bit concerned about the tension between the Tuareg and the government which, if I’m not mistaken, got a little worse a few years back. I hope now the situation is much better. Oh and by the way, I like to play ‘name the capital’ with my friends and ask them what is the capital of Mali, because it has my name in it 🙂

    1. Hi Bama, yes – I can understand your hesitation over travelling to Timbuktu at present. We went in 2006, and I think we did well to go when we did. We have often remarked to ourselves that we probably wouldn’t chance our luck with a trip there nowadays. Perhaps not so much because of the Tuareg v Govt situation, but because there are factions of extremism operating in the desert north of Timbuktu, without naming names…
      We drove there and back, which I wouldn’t recommend…. There are flights from Bamako to Timbuktu – but I don’t know how reliable they are in terms of sticking to a schedule.
      I do hope that you get to visit someday and realise your dream 🙂

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