Timbuktu's attractions are somewhat limited .. basically, there are two small Museums and a few plaques on the outsides of some very inconspicuous-looking modern buildings, which proudly commemorate the arrivals,
departures and / or deaths of notable explorers who have discovered and publicised the city's existence. A large school
built on foundations that date back nine centuries to when it was once the Sankore University .. one of the first universities in West Africa, which had 180 Koranic schools serving 25,000 students from throughout
the Islamic world.
When the city was attacked by Moroccan invaders in 1591, some of the ancient manuscripts from the University were saved and are stored in the nearby Sankore Mosque. The Djngarey Ber Mosque .. the main place of Islamic
worship .. is open to non-Muslim visitors to explore and there is an unusual monument commemorating
recent military heroes. Apart from the above, there is not a great deal more. But we made the most of it .. criss-crossing the town, taking photographs of the points of interest and listening to Petit Cisse's
remarkable knowledge ( he is also an official local tourist guide ) of their history.
A fascinating article from the Washington Post by Alan Huffman, explaining in detail the local and international efforts presently being made to preserve the thousands of manuscripts, successfully hidden
from invading foreigners, can be read by clicking HERE
For me, the most interesting part of Cisse's commentary was his explanation of the traditional design of
Tuareg doors. If the house behind the door contains a married couple, the door's upper design will have two conical domes joined by a circle, depicting the marriage. .. the larger dome at the top representing the
husband. If there is no joining circle or either of the symbols are not present .. the marriage has been dissolved or a partner has died. How many children they have can be seen by counting the number of
smaller conical domes in the bottom-most row running across the the door.
If there is a gap ( or gaps ) in this row, it shows that sadly one or more of the children will have died.
Most, if not all of the traditional doors have long since disappeared .. probably in containers shipped to the so-called developed world for resale .. and I cannot vouch for
how exact this information is, or how accurately the new doors I was seeing had been designed for their specific households, but it was fascinating to look at all the different variations and to try to interpret them.
On our travels, Petit Cisse kept asking his friends and colleagues whether various bead dealers were at home. We met those that were .. finding some interesting Medieval beads, a few strands of ancient Nila and two very rare Stone Pendants ..
temperatures sometimes well over 50 degrees C, few locals actively go hunting for treasures, mainly relying on wandering nomadic herdsmen who, when lucky enough to
find anything, can supplement their meagre incomes by trading with the local antique dealers. Not many tourists who visit Timbuktu recognise or appreciate the historical or
market value of the few genuine items that are found, so most are quickly taken to Mopti or Bamako, to be sold on to the larger dealers in the collectors' markets.
all of which had supposedly been found in the surrounding desert sands. Very occasionally, usually following rains or strong winds, pottery jars ( similar to the traditionally designed one pictured below right
) were uncovered, which .. if the finder was fortunate .. would contain some spectacular finds.
Evidently, finding anything at all is far from a precise science. In the gruelling desert conditions with
Near the Peace Memorial, we bumped into some local characters who had heard we were on a bead hunt. Looking and sounding just a little too sharp and professing to be THE
local experts, having dealt in many $600 Morfia
beads, aroused our suspicions that they were not the experts that they claimed to be, especially as they had no beads to show us.
A verbal battle of wits between one guy and Alaghi ensued, all of which was in Hausa and virtually incomprehensible to me. Judging by their body language and Alaghi's later explanation of the hour-long
conversation, at the guy's insistence mostly away from anyone else's ears behind the monument, I am fairly certain that they were trying to find out if we knew what we were talking about and if this Toubab
could be coerced into paying a lot too much for any Morfia they could find in the future. Alaghi remained unconvinced, noting that there was too much bragging and not enough substance to their words, but I
swapped names and contact details and will tell them next time I am arriving in the area .. just to see .. because you never know for sure if an opportunity should be missed ;-))
On our way back to Cisse's house we passed encampments of Nomads who had left the harsh conditions in the desert to make camp in their traditional huts, between the
established houses. The local animal market and the only artist I saw during our stay, a young lady plaiting palm leaf strands to be made into baskets.
After two days of walking around, we had thoroughly exhausted Timbuktu's few charms. Returning to the market square early in the morning to look for some
transport back to Sévaré .. we found two things .. the first transport of the day was already full .. not surprising .. and that here, in the middle of a parched and dried-up
desert .. it was actually raining .. most surprising and more like the UK !!
Thus began a day of waiting around until well into the afternoon, before it was decided that no more
taxis would be leaving for Sévaré as there weren't enough passengers, whilst Petit Cisse was doing his best in scouring the city to find any form of transport at
all. To use up some time, I tried to access my e-mails from the local Internet Café, but after CFA 2000 and the 3/4 of an hour it took just to download the
titles .. I gave up. Whilst waiting for me .. Alaghi and Cisse had struck up a conversation with a local taxi driver, who offered us the exclusive rights to
his taxi and a ride to Sévaré for the bargain price of US $250 ! Not in THAT much of a hurry and the price
was probably more than he had paid for his car .. we politely declined and resigned ourselves to spending another night in Timbuktu and trying again the next day.
Just as we were settling down to sleep around midnight, a friend of Cisse's arrived with the news that there was a possibility of a lift early in the morning. Nothing was absolutely certain, but we would have to
meet him at 4.00 am to find out. 4.00 am ? Urrrgh, what an unearthly hour, but we had to try.
At 4.00 am Cisse's friend arrived and led us to a rendezvous point where we were met by a brand new Toyota 4-wheel drive and its driver. Not knowing any details or even if the transport would be there, this
was a very pleasant surprise. Belonging to the CARE
organisation, sparkling white with only 3,300 km on the clock .. air conditioning and electric everything .. this would indeed be executive travel !
We headed for a local hotel and had to wait for a very sleepy Japanese traveller trying to find anyone to pay his hotel account to, at that hour in the morning. A pleasant guy, who despite having few words of
English and even fewer words of French .. seemed to be managing to travel across West Africa, equipped with a laptop computer and a camera with an enormous lens. A tram driver in Tokyo, we had met him in
Cisse's friend's house on the previous day and he had proudly shown us pictures of his home, wife, children and tram on his laptop. Neither of us knew then we would be travelling together.
Whilst we were waiting for him, I took some photos of an incredible German desert-travel truck which was parked outside .. tiptoeing around as it looked like
the owners were probably asleep inside. With lots of emergency equipment locked onto racks and carried in boxes on the outside, it looked totally secure and
superbly well equipped for any eventuality .. even for the rain which again had started falling !!
We headed out of the city to drive the 12 km to the Kabara ferry terminal .. arriving just before their 6.00
am start time .. to find a queue of cars and pickup trucks already there. None of the terminal's cafés were open at that hour for a coffee or an early breakfast, so we were lucky to get on to the first sailing of one
of the two ferries that were in action.
Joining another three Care vehicles and some Christian missionaries .
. many of whom seem to be concentrated in Mali, because in some West African countries their presence is not tolerated .. in fairly heavy rain, we crossed the River Niger to the far bank,
as dawn was breaking. Conditions were far from ideal for photography, but my pictures give a general impression of views that would be much better on a sunny
day .. perhaps next time, we might arrive and leave in better light conditions, to be able to fully appreciate the scenery.
Travelling at speeds of up to 120 kph in the middle of the corrugated track surface was surprisingly
comfortable, but not too reassuring when approaching blind crests of hilly sections without slowing ! On the way we paused to pick up a large piece of truck exhaust, which the driver found in the middle of the
road .. lashing it onto a roof rack and returning it to its owners, who had stopped for more urgent repairs some 20 km further on. Probably due to the weather, we didn't see as many signs of life as on our
outward journey, the occasional camel, getting a slightly clearer view of the mountains, obscured this time by rain clouds instead of sand storms and an explanation from our driver as to the meaning of the
occasional signs on the roadside .. which evidently point the way to wells and water.
We made it to Douenza for breakfast, without any problems and in half the time it had taken on our outward journey. I thought I was keen enough to
record the scenes for posterity .. but I was outclassed by our Japanese friend who was photographing everything in sight, even the omelette and chips we all had for breakfast !
A nice touch, as Alaghi and I returned from visiting the far from hygienic toilet facilities, was the offer of a bottle of water and some tissues from his permanently gloved hands ..
accompanied by an earnest "You wash hands now ?" Standards had to be observed .. wherever ! I sincerely hope that our Oriental friend .. a shining beacon of technology and neatness amongst an ancient
civilisation with little of either .. returned safely to his friends and family in Tokyo. He will no doubt be entertaining them all for many years to come, with thousands of African photos on his laptop.
Did we enjoy our visit to Timbuktu ? Yes, very much so, mainly because of the friends we were lucky enough to make especially thanks to Petit Cissé's excellent hospitality and informative guiding skills.
For more information on Timbuktu .. this article from the Washington Post by Alan Huffman and the book
which it is taken from, are well worth reading.
Would I recommend travelling to Timbuktu purely as a tourist ? Sorry Timbuktu .. but no, not really.
We arrived in a sunny Sévaré at Mac's Refuge in time for a midday snack. I went for a swim in Mac's mini swimming pool, Alaghi went to sleep for a few hours and .. after a very welcome evening meal ..
we set about planning our onward journey, back across the Bandiagara Escarpment to Burkina Faso.