Mali: Eating out in Timbuktu


Getting anything to eat anywhere in Mali had already proved difficult enough, and that was before we got to Timbuktu.

Timbuktu, of course is not meant to be normal/easy – that’s the whole point of it. Nowadays it is famous as much for being a disappointment as it once was for its gold-laden, glorious past and other mysteries. So we were prepared for disappointment but went there anyway: You can’t go to Mali and not be able to say you have been to Timbuktu.

Still, everyone associates it with mystery, with some sort of mystical journey. When I got back and people asked me why I’d gone there – “was I looking for my soul, my self ?” – I had to say No. Just some thing to eat.

In the capital, Bamako, the highlight had been the croissant. And the, er, onions. But even in one of the city’s best restaurants, our dinner started with ‘Vietnamese vegetable spring rolls’ that were in fact stuffed full of camel-meat and apparently wrapped in prophylactics from the Victorian age. (Except not as tasty.)

Mostly, we would eat rice. Not risotto or paella, or even rice with chicken or fish, but rice. Rice served with…rice. More rice. Other rice. Admittedly, it was pretty good rice, good enough in Djenne to attract Jurassic-sized salamanders raiding our plates. In Mopti, as a variation on rice, there was couscous, which was like eating a bowl of wallpaper paste.

From Mopti, we had set out on a 4-day trek out to the breath-taking Dogon Country, rightly considered one of the most unmissable places in West Africa, but so primitive and isolated that any food at all seemed like a blessing. Millet mush (like cassava-flavoured baby food) seemed to be pretty much de rigeur. The villagers brought us bowls of thin, yellow konjo – the ‘millet beer’ they drink to wash down their, er, millet food.

For dinner though, our guide, L’Homme de Dourou, would procure a scrawny chicken to go with the spaghetti we had brought. The chicken obviously knew his time was up when the children started taking in him, legging it round the village being chased by half the village. The chief of the village would then finish him off – by which time my appetite had usually gone.

Still, given that Mali is among the poorest countries in the world, we would tell ourselves, it could have been worse. As we soon discovered when we got to Timbuktu.

OUR GUIDE-BOOK claimed that Timbuktu was founded in the 11th century when a group of Tuareg nomads left their camels with a woman whose a name meant “mother with a large belly” – which, in retrospect, seems unlikely, especially as the evidence for the alternative translation, “the Places of Dunes”, is absolutely bloody everywhere. (In your clothes, in your hair, in your tea.)
The Sahara sands have crept in, and taken over the once-mythical now forlorn-looking town, mingling in with the dust of its demise.

We had not eaten the previous day – a ten-hour trip in a low, long, pirogue up the Niger, Heart of Darkness-style. The sight of the market women at the end of the boat cooking over fierce fires was almost as disconcerting as seeing the crew bailing out the water from the middle of the boat.

So we were grateful for breakfast in Timbuktu’s finest (and only ) Patisserie – croissant (albeit rather stale) and moka , hefty yellow cream cakes, that were brick-like in both size and shape. And taste.

We held off going for dinner for as long as we could but at 7pm eventually set off in the dark for the highly recommended Poulet D’Oro, which looked closed, until a man appeared and led us to a table in the ‘garden’, much like any other garden in Timbuktu, a walled-off area of sand and dust.

For half an hour, we sat there shivering in the dark, as the desert’s chill descended, deciding from a long list of dishes until a waiter appeared and told us which were no longer available (all of them except soup or spaghetti). Struggling to control the panic, I checked whether the soup and spaghetti were OK.
“YES ! YES ! My friend. Is no problem !” he cried, the celebration in his voice mirroring our own.

Each time, we repeated our order, he confirmed it was no problem. And still didn’t go anywhere. After about half an hour and several goes at this, it dawned on me, with a sense of impending doom, that we were ordering tomorrow’s dinner; that they would not prepare any food in case no-one turned up.

We spent most of the next day counting the hours to dinner. (There is any case nothing much else to do.)

After the Poulet D’Oro, we had gone back to the Patisserie (now firmly established at the outstanding place to eat in Timbuktu) where the owner persuaded us to return to sample the town speciality, which he lavishly described as a huge meat pie with piccante sauce and vegetables. Replacing the meat with vegetables, he said, was no problem.

Walking in, the entire staff hailed our arrival with the news “it’s coming, it’s coming. We already prepare everything for you”, as if such extraordinary circumstances as having two customers merited a mighty feast had beeen declared. As our plates arrived (to admiring smiles, much clasping of hands and applause), they certainly looked like two fine, impressive pies, with a healthy lake of sauce and roast potatoes on the side.

Cutting into them though, the knife deflated not only our hopes, but the height of the proud pie (now exposed as an enormous, mostly hollow, ball of bread), reducing it to a sorry heap of suet, too thick to soak up the ‘piccante’ sauce which had in any case begun to congeal. Chewing slowly, I realised the unusual grainy texture of the bread was in fact… sand. At least the potatoes were what they seemed to be – they just hadn’t been cooked.

I gave most of it to the children who followed us all day, imploring us to have our (seriously sandy) shoes shined – a boom or bust industry if ever there was one.

THE ONLY THING left to do in Timbuktu anymore is leave. But with transport as it is, leaving is almost as difficult as getting there.

You can ride out with the nomads into the desert and sleep under the stars for a night. The tribesman in charge assured us everything would be laid on, becoming offended and then fairly agitated when I suggested buying bananas or biscuits to take with us.

“Tuareg, him have everything him need at the camp”, he glowered.

Of course, looking back, believing that there was somehow more food and more choice nine miles out into the desert than in the town was a mistake, even if the town is the most famous back of beyond town in the world. (The outskirts are still the outskirts of the back of beyond. The desert is still the middle of nowhere.)

It was only after a couple of hours floundering on our (genetically disgruntled) camels that we discovered that our Tuareg guide for our two days in the desert, Mohammed, did not speak a word of English or French.

It was only at the end of a day of fairly monotonous travelling across what turned out to be grey rather than sweeping golden sands and being baked by the Sahara sun, that we realised that the city’s skyline had returned, and, rather than travelling deeper and into the Sahara towards another Tuareg camp, we had gone in a circle back to the first one.

It got worse when we settled down to eat dinner in time before being plunged into darkness by sunset (i.e. at about 4.30pm).

The man at the tourist agency which had taken my $ 40, reassuring me all their guides spoke English “as glorious as I am speaking her”, had brushed aside my concern about what we were going to be eating for two days, promising “Tuareg, him have everything” and actually taking the packets of pasta and biscuits I was about to buy out of my hand.

Despite being ravenously hungry, and nursing a simmering hatred of the obdurate creature I had spent all day trying to control, I still couldn’t bring myself to tuck into what turned out to the only food he had: rice and camel-meat.

The rice came with camel-meat, which I couldn’t bring myself to eat, despite my antipathy to the camel I had ridden out on. (It’s true what they say, all camels have the hump. All camels are bastards).

I had smuggled out some ancient, almost mouldy, chocolate but made the mistake of offering it to the Tuareg, who promptly got on his camel and rode off into the night looking for his children.

We left Timbuktu two days later, getting up at 5am to be sure of making the 7am flight (very fucking sure – missing it would have meant another two days there). The other guests going to the airport were, it later transpired, doctors from UNESCO. Which explained the ambulance that came to pick them up.

Granted, it seemed a bit excessive, but with the fatigue, the thirst and the mal-nutrition, at the same time, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to get in and certainly the most appropriate way to leave Timbuktu.