It was a strange and exciting feeling to have arrived in Timbuktu but not to be able to see it in the darkness. Its fascinating history has its
origins in the desert encampments of nomads, dating from before the 11th century. Local folklore tells of an old woman named Bouctou who was asked to guard the wells of some wandering Tuareg nomads. Tin-Bouctou means
"the place of Bouctou's wells."
Gaining great fame and fortune as a city in direct proportion to the growth of the trans-Saharan trade, when local businessmen extracted heavy tolls from passing camel caravans
carrying salt and gold. As many as 12,000 camels would pass through the city every year, but its golden age began to decline following a Moroccan invasion in the late 1500s .. decimating the Songhai Empire and leading to the
city becoming more famous for its fabled past than for its actuality.
Despite its reputation for fantastic wealth, many had tried .. but no European had managed to reach Timbuktu until the nineteenth century. Gordon Laing, an intrepid Scots explorer, was the first to reach the city
on August 26th 1826 but he didn't live to tell his story, killed on the orders of his host and supposed friend, soon after commencing his return journey. Frenchman René Caillié has the honour of being the first European to
survive the journey in 1828, returning to France to tell his tale.
Rather than finding golden palaces and markets overflowing with treasure, Caillié found a desolate town on the edge of the desert, without a trace of
visible wealth. "I had a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuctoo," he wrote. "The city presented, at first site, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing
was to be seen in all directions, but immense quicksands of yellowish white colour .. the most profound silence prevailed." Nothing had changed much since 1828 !
Having read a report of Bob Geldof saying "Is this it ?" on his arrival there in the 1980's whilst on a fact-finding mission as part of his Live Aid appeal .. I was prepared in advance and not surprised by the little of substance that we did find. But it is Timbuktu, I just had to see it for myself, get the poser Timbuktu stamp in my passport ( freely given ) and check out the bead scene.
We enjoyed the hospitality of some charming people, found some interesting ancient beads and stone items and learnt a lot about
Timbuktu's history, so for us it was worth the journey. But if we had been visiting purely as tourists, I would have to agree with both Sir Bob and Réné Caillié's opinions.
Petit Cissé led us through a maze of tiny and dimly lit alleyways to his room, which was on the top floor of
a typical two-story adobe mud house. "Here you are," he said, "this is for you to use for as long as you want to stay." Now this wasn't a guest room, this was his home .. a small room containing everything he
possessed. Two mattresses on the floor surrounded by his clothes, shoes, tapes and tape player, collections of photographs, carvings ... all his worldly goods.
Simply taking a change of clothes with him into his friend's room next door, where he would sleep ..
he left us to unpack, have a wash from the water in a stone jar outside and change our dusty clothing. Off
we all went to a local restaurant, frequented by the young entrepreneurs of the area .. for a large plate of spaghetti and meat in some interesting surroundings. Not the cleanest of places, with a gas mask needed
to visit the toilets that were in one corner of the open kitchen ! But the food was tasty and the company pleasant as we joined many people watching the hundreds of horsemen at a large Tuareg gathering in
Bankass on the TV. No ill effects from the somewhat unhygienic conditions were apparent afterwards as we settled down to a good night's sleep in the warmth of Cisse's room, safely behind the open,
mosquito-netted, door and window.
Just consider this for a moment, dear reader: Would you simply walk out of your home and leave everything you possess to a couple of almost complete strangers from foreign countries, that you had
first met a few hours ago in a taxi ? No, I thought not .. not unless you are like so many of the West Africans I have been lucky enough to meet. Always ready to offer hospitality and seemingly having faith
in their innate ability to quickly weigh up a stranger and to know who and when to trust.
The only time I woke that night was for an interesting but perilous middle of the night trip by torch light, down steps that had worn to be almost perpendicular, to find a rather basic toilet. Many large
cockroaches with 2 inch long feelers, were eagerly looking up at me from the hole in the concrete over which I was hovering. I tried to take my mind of them .. and what would be underneath me, by counting
their brothers and sisters and the mice who were scampering up and down the walls !
We were woken up, literally at cockcrow, by a very noisy but intelligent cockerel .. intelligent because he
must have understood English and soon shut up when I threatened to cook him for our evening meal ! Now we could look out over the town for our first view of it in daylight. At first sight it was mainly old
adobe buildings no higher than two stories, with a few modern concrete brick structures between them. However, when we walked to a small café in the centre of the town for our breakfast,
I was surprised to see that at least half of the buildings were either newly built or were in the process of
having their traditional brown mud walls replaced by modern white concrete blocks.
Concrete is obviously longer lasting and much easier to maintain for the local population, but the sight of so much modernity shattered my preconceived ideas of finding an ancient town with only traditional ancient
buildings. Only the outskirts of the town were virtually untouched by the rush to modernise.
Although new doors and windows, made using traditional designs were being fitted, they looked very
cheap, tacky and roughly put together, nowhere near as attractive as those we had seen throughout Djenné. Sadly, from a scenic point of view, many areas were just scruffy building sites.
After breakfast, Cissé proposed that he would show us the delights and attractions of Timbuktu and introduce us to any bead dealers who were in town. Unfortunately his Uncle had travelled, so sadly we
would not meet him this time, but knowing the higher than normal probability of chance meetings in West Africa, I am sure it will not be long before our paths will cross again.