Pity you came the quick way - Meeting up at Timbuctoo
House & Garden
I was slumped on a reed mat that overlooked lush marsh pasture surrounded by dozens of herdsmen. I was being offered what looked like a selection of donkey droppings while my driver, Ousmane, was looking out over the flooded landscape dotted with cattle and naked children. It was not at all what I had imagined. Finally after years and years of failed schemes and half-baked plans, I was within an hour of Timbuktoo.
In North Africa I have endlessly stared south at the road's end, enviously looking at the tracks that head south across the Sahara desert to Timbuctoo. In the Moroccan town of Zagora one of the chief tourist attractions is a battered signpost that simply states "Tombouctou" 51 days away (by camel). When well-travelled friends had warned me that "its just a dusty town with an airstrip. It's the worlds most celebrated dissapointment, simply not worth the journey for a T-shirt and a passport stamp". I would smile back at them, thinking murderous thoughts against those who trespass on a dream.
The local airline that usually covers the flight from Bamakao, the capital, to Timbuctoo, had packed up two weeks before. About this there were two stories (one was that the Russian ex-fighter pilots who operated this local service had not been paid for months, the other was that they had finally been paid and were now very drunk). Instead of being packed together with tourists and aid workers on the weekly flight, I had been whisked off on a two day drive. In the last eight hours I had not seen a road, let alone another car. My driver had navigated through the arid steppe land without compass or map let alone one of those hateful satellite guidance systems. Instead he had used cigarettes, cups of tea and some of my Nurofen, stopping to ask local farmers and herdsman, about the route, the state of the lakes and the river Niger. In the process I had seen heroically handsome women pound millet in wooden mortars under the shade of great Baobab trees, while their naked children played at the well-head, lean Moors riding a donkey train laden with tombstones of desert salt, a lone Tuareg out hunting on his camel -complete with son and an ancient carbine- while in the distance we could see Peul herdsmen driving great herds of proud horned cattle through the bush. For me it was as if the prehistoric rock art of the Sahara had been brushed back into life by the breath of God. I had spent less than 24 hours in Mali but I was already obsessed with the place.
A local fisherman was persuaded to wade out through the mud banks, leading our vehicle on a tortuous route through the waist high waters to a green islet. An hour later, as dusk settled, a diminutive grey ferry to old to have seen service at Dunkirk, came chugging across the river to pick us up. Lean men stood one each corner, leaning on bamboo poles, which supported the workings of the groaning engine. Later we nudged our way through reed banks to enter the main stream of the Niger. The moon rose to lit the waters and having finnished their prayers the boatmen offered me a cup of strong brewed tea. I now felt strong enough to try a bite into my furry donkey dropping which turned out to be highly edible, made from honey, hot-pepper and ground nuts.
I was to meet up with my two travelling companions in an open air restaurant on edge of Timbuctuu. A fire lit from thorn twigs lit up the tables as I searched for the silhouettes of two rakishly thin, elegantly dressed English women - or at least that's how they were dressed when I had met them in London. Somewhere amongst the darkened dunes outside was the site of the 'flame of peace', where the tribesman of the north had burnt their weapons to make a pact with the government. It sounded like the sort of thing that should have occurred in1699 though the barman assured me that it had happened in 1996. Then from out of the shadows a pair of veiled figures approached me, clinking with newly aquired jewelry. "Ah, there you are Barnaby! Have you had a drink? You would have loved the river journey. Such beautiful black boats. We slept on the banks of the Niger under nets and had omelettes cooked for us all day. Pity you had to come the quick way."
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by Barnaby Rogerson