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Travelling to Timbuctoo
House & Garden


In the Moroccan desert town of Zagora one of the chief sites is a battered signpost that reads, "Tombouctou 51 Jours", meaning that Timbuctoo is a fifty-one day ride away by camel. Here and at dozens of other North African oases I have followed the road to its end and dreamily contemplated the way south across the Sahara desert to Timbuctoo.

When I was given the chance to join a New Year trip to Mali, I jumped at it, even though it prosaically required just five hours with Air France and a local connecting flight rather than a fifty day ride. Fortunately the journey became more varied. The local airline that covers the flight from the capital of Mali to Timbuctoo packed up two weeks before my arrival. 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. So instead of being seated amongst aid workers on the weekly flight, I faced a two-day drive across Mali. The second day my Tuareg driver navigated through the arid steppe land without use of road, compass or map, let alone a satellite guidance system. Instead he 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 became obsessed with Mali. Here the women are such women: heroically handsome with strong broad shoulders, wrapped up in acres of coloured cloth so tailored to always reveal one bare shoulder. They work away under the shade of great baobab trees, milling millet with great staves that pound into solid wooden mortars. No wonder the men just lay around in the shade watching. Elsewhere naked children played amongst other knots of women washing clothes at ponds and well-heads. Later we passed lean Moors riding a donkey-train laden with tombstones of desert salt, a lone Tuareg out hunting on his camel, 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 breath of God had brought the prehistoric rock art of the Sahara back to life.

The way to Timbuctoo lay across the flood plain of the Niger river. A local fisherman waded out through the mud banks, leading our vehicle on a tortuous route through waist high waters to a green islet. An hour later, as dusk settled, a diminutive grey ferry, too old to have seen service at Dunkirk, came chugging across to pick us up. Men as lean as storks stood on each corner, leaning on bamboo poles to assist the groaning engine. They punted our way through reed banks to enter the main stream of the Niger. The moon rose to light the waters, and having finished their prayers the boatmen offered me a cup of strong brewed tea.

We arrived in pitch darkness and like a child at Christmas I rose excitedly before dawn impatient to start exploring the sand roads of Timbuctoo. The smell of fresh bread baking in open air ovens wafted through the soundless streets, crossed by dark-veiled Arab and Tuareg women. I peered at the great rivetted doors of the city's stone houses, decorated with jewel bursts of steel set against crimson leather padding, and beyond into brick-paved courtyard floors. Down one alley I was shown the houses used by the first explorers, poor mad, sex-starved Gordon Laing, the gentle French sailor, Rene Cailliť and that of the great Teutonic scholar-traveller, Heinrich Barth. In the scale of the city's memory it was as if they had left just yesterday, rather than back in 1826. In the gloom of the 14th-century great mosque I was shown the 'closed door' where a charismatic preacher, grown rich from magic, had been transformed into a black goat at the call to prayer. From the roof the old guardian pointed out the road north where camel caravans still control the way to the legendary misery of the salt mines of Taoudeni. Gesturing further to the right he pointed out the way to Zagora and Morocco. "A 51 day ride", I suggested. 'If God Wills it', he agreed with a smile.

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