Mali: to Timbuktu and back


All over Mali, people warn you you’re going to be disappointed, but setting off, as the boat to Timbuktu drifts out of Mopti, it’s hard to keep your imagination or the sense of expectation in check.

The faded romance of the trip to the great, ancient, city – three days and two nights, gliding up the Niger in a second-class cabin for four – is insurmountable. Even the boat feeds the dream of making one of the great journeys, evoking classic Conrad or The African Queen, a low, fat, three-tiered steamboat seemingly sagging under the weight of the barrels of petrol, boxes of guns, sacks of millet and raffia on board.

For hours before its departure, the chaos among the crowd milling on the riverbank mounts to fever pitch panic, as they pile the boat high with everything from bicycles to bananas. Finally, with the decks blaring with mad music and last-minute arrivals clinging to the sides, the boat meanders slowly off down-river into the African night, as if it had been set adrift.

Later on though, deny it as you might, anyone going to Timbuktu will have to admit that what everyone had said was true: Setting off is going to be the highlight.

10AM, and with the sun blazing, stepping out of the Hotel for the first time, the atmosphere in Timbuktu is that of a dusty African frontier town, except that it seems deserted and indolent. Later you realise Timbuktu is actually a frontier town on the border with nowhere, just the wilderness of the desert.

Among the five poorest countries in the world, Mali is twice the size of France, but the map shows more than half of it is the Sahara, in the shape of a huge triangular slab which looks to have been plonked down on top of the rest of it. At the base of this, you find Timbuktu, the first port-of-call for the Tuareg nomads
(“the blue men”) who can travel for as many as 15 days to sell salt from the Taoudenni oasis 750 km away and buy supplies of rice and tea.

Even in today’s age of global travel, Timbuktu’s place in the language as a symbol for the back of beyond is still well earned.

The boats from Mopti can be delayed for days if the river is low, and as one guide we met can testify, even expensive Four wheel-drive jeeps can break down. (He had to walk 63 kilometres for help.)

The plane (an aged Russian-built classic, with round windows like portholes, rattling propellers and no tread on its tyres) only takes an hour from Mopti, but leaves you stranded in Timbuktu for three days, unless you go back with it the day after you get there.
Having travelled to Timbuktu in the first place, this seems rather churlish and certainly not very adventurous – no better than those whistle-stop tours of Europe Japanese tourists go on.

But having committed yourself to staying a few days, you suddenly realise leaving Timbuktu is just as hard as getting there.

Walking into the town, the first thing that hits you is the fear that you have somehow come to the wrong place. The post-cards that you are relying on to provide the proof that you made it to Timbuktu are emblazoned with the name, “Tombouktou”. Only the adjunct, “La Mysterieuse” confirms it.

In fact, Timbuktu’s image as the legendary city of mythical mystery and magical riches has been so badly marketed/well protected that many people don’t even know it really exists, let alone know that it’s in Mali.

“If I told you why it was mysterious,” Mali’s Minister of Culture once said, “it would not be mysterious”, preserving an enigma that has survived since the time of the crusades and which grew into reports of unimaginable wealth from the gold trade, culminating in the 1830s when several European explorers raced to ‘discover’ it. These days, it’s only the ‘enigma’ that’s keeping it going.

Even today, the visitor’s first task – a visa from the police with your name ceremonially entered into an enormous ledger – reiterates Timbuktu is another world. (The stamp proudly occupies a full page of the passport.)

The jail – about the size of a large cupboard – adds to the frontier town effect. The hangdog face of a solitary prisoner, disconsolately peering through the bars, and a giant height measurer suggest you really have gone in time, to some sort of Western. Outside, you half expect to see tumbleweed rolling down the street.

Not only do any hopes that the Place de L’Independence (an ungainly, utterly unattractive, open square containing the police station) is an atypical example of what’s in store prove to be dashed, it turns out to be the most prestigious in Timbuktu.

Few places can be as monotone as Timbuktu. The streets are spartan, made up of drab, dust-coloured, desert sand merging into the crumbling dust of the undistinguished, uneven, grey houses and unfinished walls of grey breeze-blocks.

Occasional ramshackle raffia huts serve as (much-needed) motorbike repair shops or tailors. Piles of sand are scattered around, mini-mounds of it propped up against the walls, like mad, abandoned, attacks of tidiness.

Around the outskirts, goats graze and children joylessly play in the dusty piles of bricks and rubbish. (How so many tattered blue plastic bags got here is another mystery.)

The streets of Timbuktu are, ominously quiet. There is no traffic in Timbuktu, save for the occasional solitary motorbike (its rider hidden by the hood of his anorak or parka and his face covered by a scarf, like a bandit) swerving precariously past you on even the widest street. In the heat, trudging around by foot, sloping around in the sand, starts the sap the spirit.

Why there are no buses, no taxis or even the horse and cart you find in alot of towns in Mali, is plain: there is no need. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do beyond the eternal quest for food and drink. But even the local speciality (a large ball of bread)
has a strange texture that after a few bites you realise is like sand.

The more persistent junior tourist guides drag you to the homes of the great explorers, Rene Caillie, Gordon Laing, and Heinrich Barth, but they are in various states of ruin, and the Grand Marche which is mostly for the locals to buy household goods.

The Tuaregs’ market closed two years ago, a result of an ongoing fight against the government which has even resulted in the roads to Timbuktu being blocked or considered too dangerous to pass – as if they were trying to do any visiting tourists a favour. (They have been fighting fought for their share of it since 1100AD.)

In their long black head-dresses and bright indigo robes, like brilliant blue shrouds shimmering in the grey, the Tuareg stop you in the street, producing camelskin purses and pillowcases, hashish pipes and amulets, from inside the folds of their gowns with the dextrous/deft flourishes of magicians. They will step out of the shadows brandishing distinctive, elaborately carved knives, swords or even lances to sell. Renowned as fierce fighters, the Tuareg are one set of vendors you really do not want to upset with a derisory offer, even when they suggest trading a $10 necklace for your $ 500 camera.

The constant negotiations apart, the tour of Timbuktu doesn’t take long. The three medieval mosques are strange but typical of Mali. There are only two, rather bland, artisan shops and the museum was, despondently, closed. We spent the evenings drinking warm Castel beer, watching the locals trying to persuade the Chief of Police to let them watch French UEFA Cup games on the satellite rather than the endless government conference speeches he insisted on – rare reminders of the world outside.

At least the backstreets, out towards the temporary Tuareg encampments (where the tents are like military-looking space pods), reverberate with music: Malian drumming or Tupac Shakur (the Bob Marley of hip hop).

The guitar music, favoured by the Tuareg is deranged, seemingly endless, speed-crazed guitar solos; like Wild Willy Barrett’s one-amp versions of Hendrix. After a while you stop noticing it. It becomes an aptly mental soundtrack as you walk round. (In his essay in 1970, Bruce Chatwin pointed out that Timbuktu had also come to symbolise someone who had gone out of their mind – “gone indefinitely”.)

The children, their bare distended bodies white with dust, walk along beside you, holding you by your fingers.

“You like Timbook ?” they smile, defiantly daring you to confirm their doubts. “Timbook, c’est bien, non ?” they say, beaming with pride, as if they know the rest of Mali has disowned it.

They are the only ones left who seem to care. The lethargy permeating the people in the restaurants and hotel is such, it seems the grey monotony of the sands has finally worn them down.

As long ago as 1828, the explorer Rene Caillie described how he was “amazed by the lack of energy, by the inertia that hung over the city.”

As the sands have crept in, the people have left, and now only 11, 000 remain, half as many as 4 or 5 years ago. The creeping dread of depression is so tangible it is disquieting.

Sadly, when any tourists do arrive, the locals’ response is to take what they can get while they can. Cigarette vendors vary the price of their cigarettes from day to day, demanding you (somehow) find the right money. (The city suffers from such a shortage of small change that each transaction can take ages.)

“What do you think of Mopti ?” the children ask next suspiciously – a trick question if ever there was one. Their paranoia about the likeable, lively town that finished Timbuktu off, is well-founded.

Their offer to shine your shoes for you and can’t understand when you refuse. But having your shoes shined is simultaneously the most necessary and the most futile thing in Timbuktu. Even the table football pitch is unplayably covered with sand.

The Tuareg are the fiercest-looking people in Timbuktu but also the friendliest, always inviting you out to the houses they use as Tuareg community houses.

You sit out in the garden with them, as with great ceremony the head of the group serves the, bitterly strong, tea, ritually re-pouring it until it has a froth worthy of cappuccino, as if it was a sunny afternoon in Surbiton. Walled off from their neighbours, the ‘garden’ is full of the same grey sand as any other though. You wonder if you have a saying in Timbuktu that the sand is yellower on the other side.

Many Tuareg officially do not exist, with no papers or passports and a defiant resistance to any form of Government restriction or ‘interference’ such as taxation. (Agreement on this inspires much tea pouring.)

“Tuareg, him do what him want,” they say, the anger flashing in the narrow gap between the head-dress and veil where their eyes must be.

They spend most of their lives instead travelling from Mali and Mauritania to Niger, Algeria, and Libya, roaming from one desert to another.

After a few days there, it’s hard to say they’re wrong. The only thing to do in Timbuktu is leave . The tourist’s best option is to get out, for one night at least, setting off by camel to sleep under the stars in a nomad camp. But Lawrence of Arabia it ain’t: our evening meal consisted (our only meal) consisted of rice with, er… rice and even at the Gate of the Sahara, the dunes seemed rather grey.

If the open space and quiet give you time to reflect – reflect upon the mysteries of Timbuktu – you spend most of the time wondering what the hell it is you are doing there.

Rising up over over the city, a spectacular desert sunset is one of the few things Timbuktu has to offer, not least because it signifies another day in Timbuktu has ended.

Setting off for home, the sense of sadness is never about leaving but about what you are leaving behind, the helpless decline of greatness, of history, and the city’s sorry future. But you can never really be disappointed because at least you can say you have been there and seen it.

And so you have your badge of honour: you have been to Timbuktu and back.