Timbuktu Pages 1 -2-3-4
Mali Currency

On the road to Timbuktu

One would naively think that getting a bush taxi from Mopti to Timbuktu, both major towns in Mali, would be a fairly simple process .. not so ! As Banya had spent most of the day sleeping at Sanga, after dropping us off at Mac's Refuge that evening, he had plenty of energy to chase round to try to find us some transport. As he explained to us by phone .. only 4 wheel drive vehicles would attempt the journey and there were a few chances of finding a couple of spare seats, but nothing was certain .. could he collect us early in the morning so we could to try our luck in Mopti.

For us, early in the morning is always defined to be after the 7.00 am serving of breakfast when staying at Mac's Refuge .. an event certainly not to be missed. Tea, coffee, fruit juice, yoghurt, mixed fruit, muesli, American-style pancakes, locally produced honey, various home made jams and preserves and his famous eggy bread. After a two year very amusing battle of wits concerning the origin of the naming of this eggy bread, I finally had to admit .. after exhaustive research and surprisingly to me, that it is not an Americanism and does indeed originate from the UK. However John has yet to be convinced that the name is only used by the under fives !!

Perhaps on our next visit, he might see the light .. although knowing him, I very much doubt it !!

All the primary delicacies listed above are served in large help-yourself carved wooden bowls and it really is eat as much as you want .. there is always more than enough for every guest. I enjoy my breakfasts wherever I am, at Mac's more so because they give me the energy to last all day without feeling hungry .. merely drinking a lot more than I would do in European climates and snacking on the odd piece of fruit or a
Tapalapa ( Fula bread ) egg sandwich, which are always available. I work my way through a helping of each of Mac's various tasty offerings, usually only managing one of the pancakes, which are 3 times as thick as UK ones. Alaghi, however, always leaves from a stay at Mac's looking 5 months pregnant .. happily munching his way through double, treble and .. especially in the case of the pancakes .. quadruple helpings of everything on offer. A wonder to behold !!

We arrived in Mopti at the Agence Mali Voyage ( Location Voiture 4x4 et Pinasse Moteur ) office .. to be met by the smiling Lebanese boss, who told us that if we would like to wait until his 4x4 filled its three remaining empty seats .. we might be away soon. Soon can be a never-ending time in Africa .. so asking to be provisionally included, we drove down the road to the Mopti - Timbuktu garage to check their vehicle's availability. More reminiscent of a scrap yard than anything else, Banya just shook his head on seeing the assembled battered wrecks .. and didn't even bother to ask !

Returning to our Lebanese friend and remembering some horrific desert trips we had suffered in the past, we asked to see our intended transport and insisted that the engine be started. Finding it had a functioning exhaust system with only the one hole at the end and everything else looking as though it wasn't on its last legs .. I paid the CFA 15,000 each for our tickets and we settled down to wait.

After an hour, it seemed like nothing was going to move in a hurry, so we asked if anyone could predict how long it might take before we were leaving. Given around an hour at least, we decided to walk into Mopti, buy some blue material to use as turbans, in case it got dusty .. have a coffee or two and generally use up the time in watching the pinnaces on the River Niger being loaded with cargo.

When we returned to our transport, a young lad had joined the party and we only had to wait for one more seat to be filled. As is usual, this young lad wanted to know all about a Toubab and his friend .. asking where we were coming from, where we were going to and why. On swapping names, he was silent for a moment and then enquired if I was the David who had bought a lot of beads from his Uncle at the Mande Hotel in Bamako, about a year previously. Travelling in West Africa is full of such coincidences, but they never cease to amaze me. Yes, I was the same David who had bought some really excellent Medieval and Venetian beads from his Uncle, who actually came from Timbuktu and who Alaghi and I had been intending to try and find, when we arrived there.

Not only was this complete stranger the nephew of the guy I had bought beads from in Bamako, he already knew a lot about me, details of the beads I had bought and the prices I had paid and was a bead dealer / runner himself, knowing many of my dealer friends from Mauritania down to Mali.
He was also a good friend of .. and bead supplier to .. Eric Hannsen and his wife, who had treated Alaghi and I to a splendid barbecue when we had arrived in Bamako in 2004. Announcing himself as Petit Cissé, he would be pleased to show us around Timbuktu, provide us with accommodation and introduce us to all the bead dealers in town he could find. What incredible luck he should have chosen to travel on that day, at that hour and on that very transport. As I said before, truly amazing !

By midday, we were ready to go .. with the roof rack fully laden and a full compliment of passengers, or so I thought. Half a kilometre up the road we pulled off the tarmac road onto the desert sand and headed for a small group of compounds. Whereupon everyone got out, bags and baggages were pulled down from the roof rack, added to and re-stacked .. two new people squeezed in the back and we set off again. Only 4 km as far as Sévaré, where the same was repeated twice, at two different compounds, before we all returned to the centre of Sévaré to have a coffee and something to eat ! Nobody seemed to be in a hurry, so neither were we. Alaghi, despite his enormous breakfast, tucked into some tough-looking meat and onions, whilst I found some ice-cold yoghurt in a local garage shop.

At long last, we finally set off .. with mostly all of the passengers who had boarded in Mopti, having changed for other people and a roof rack positively groaning under the weight of a myriad of objects.

We made very good time on the road as far as Douenza, on a good and well maintained tarmac surface. Here we stopped for the faithful to pray and to have some drinks, before turning off the good road onto a track through the desert sands, at the same time as a strong headwind got up and the sand started swirling up into the air. Everything turned a misty yellow colour and with visibility no more than a few hundred metres, our transport started to struggle against the force of the wind.

Villages emerged out of the gloom as we trundled past on a track that became progressively more ribbed the further we went. A level plain turned into gently undulating hills on either side of the route and what I thought were dark black clouds in the far distance to the right, turned out to be a range of mountains, some with sheer sides .. although we could not see them clearly until our return journey.

Too hot to have the windows closed, we were all swathed in cloth turbans to filter out the fine swirling sand .. and with a certain Toubab leaning out of the window snapping away with his camera at everything that moved .. we must have made an amusing sight as we jarred our way along !!
Whilst lucky to be able to take any at all, most of the photographs taken on this leg of the journey resemble antique sepia-type photos from the early 1900s, due to the effects of the sandstorm.

It is a misnomer that the desert is an empty, boring place with little happening .. well, it is especially untrue in this area. A surprising number of donkey and camel caravans carrying salt blocks and various other goods were to be seen. Two Tuareg men, many kilometres away from any signs of habitation, striding across the sand at a remarkably quick pace, with their metre long swords hanging at their sides, made a stirring sight. Unfortunately they were too far away to get a worthwhile photograph, but that particular scene will be forever imprinted on my memory.

An ever-changing landscape, ranging from bare rocks and sand to almost lush vegetation and scrub, with cattle, sheep and goats contentedly grazing .. tiny square-shaped houses in the few villages that were almost completely hidden amongst the dunes, the occasional police checkpoint which gave us no problems and children waving at us whenever they saw us .. never a dull moment.

 Hour after hour we ploughed along .. the driver had the accelerator pedal flat on the floor, but we slowed to a crawl on some of the inclines.

Eventually, as the evening approached, thankfully the wind dropped and the skies cleared. Cresting a rise we stopped at a grass hut on the side of the road, so that the driver could buy some bags of charcoal from the dozen or so young entrepreneurs who all crowded around us as we wearily fell out of the truck and stretched our legs. Whilst the driver and the boys tried to find a secure way of adding the sacks of charcoal to the already over full roof rack .. I had my usual walk round looking for photographic opportunities. Lo and behold in the distance, I could see a young boy riding his camel. To see a camel in the wild is still somewhat of a novelty to me and I pointed them out to Alaghi.

"Cowee, coweeee, coweeeeeeeee !!!" He yelled. "No, it's a camel," I said. "Just wait," he replied with a laugh. On hearing this cry of "Come, come, come" .. in the Tuareg language, the boy headed over towards us on his fairly grubby, very evil-smelling and raucous-sounding mount.

I have known Alaghi for well over ten years. A quiet, polite and faithful friend, never one to push himself forward or boast .. unless challenged to a "Who can speak the most languages" duel .. what he did next surprised the life out of me. "I can ride that," he said. "Really?" I replied. "Oh yes, no problem at all, I learnt to ride them in my village in Niger when I was a young boy." And that is exactly what he did. After a quick word to the boy, he transformed himself into a Lawrence of Arabia look-alike and jumped aboard the fearsome looking beast. With the requisite commands and some gentle kicks, the pair of them rose majestically into the air, posed for photographs and did a lap of honour .. looking like they had been made for each other, to resounding applause from all present.
To use an English colloquialism; I was gob-smacked and I am sure Alaghi grew 2 inches with pride !!

Saying goodbye to the boys, we set off down the road, for all of a kilometre, before there was a loud bang and the contents of one of the bags of charcoal flew off the roof rack and exploded on the ground behind us. More re-packing,
a lot of swearing from our driver, who despite his annoyance at losing a whole bagful, was a very friendly and helpful guy .. and we set off again.

Darkness had fallen long before we neared Timbuktu .. when the driver said we were almost there, I was eagerly looking for the lights of the town, innocently not realising that there was a slight obstacle to cross before we could arrive .. the River Niger !

From what had been a somewhat tooth-jarring road surface, we suddenly started descending a slope, bucking and bouncing over ridges and into deep gullies .. ending up skidding to a halt at the edge of a large stretch of water, glimmering in the moonlight but completely devoid of any signs of human habitation, lights or people. This, as I was soon to find out, was the place where the ferry should pick us up and take us across to the other side, which was still 12 kilometres from Timbuktu itself. But as the wind had been so strong, it was now 9 o'clock and we were some two hours later than usual.
As there were no lights at all on the opposite bank .. some half a kilometre away .. the ferry people were probably fast asleep and our driver was not too sure what do to next.  Neither were we !