So after travelling thru 5 countries I was finally going to reach the summit of my journey to get to Timbucktoo. I know it sounds like a religious pilgrimage or the climb to the top of some major mountain peak!!!! I know it’s not at all like that cus it’s just a small trading outpost in the middle of Mali on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert in Africa. But to me it’s always been equivalent to some mystical adventurous place from days gone by sort of like the French Foreign Legion. Sort of a place where Hollywood movies were written about where the pinnacle of the story line is complete all the obstacles to reach this goal. Yeah pretty lame I know but we all have places we want to see one day. Well Timbucktoo was the climax of my travelling goals!
The trip to Timbucktoo was pretty much an all day trip so we decided to leave at 7:30 am to hopefully miss a part of the day’s heat if that is possible. The first 2 hrs of the trip was pretty much on a paved (or something that looked similar as all Mali roads started out pave but have sort of detoriated to a narrow strip of paved path which cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, donkey carts, people and animals jockey to use a piece of it).
Then once we turned off the paved road we hit a dirt path that appeared to be some type of road. So we drove on this road for a number of hours in sort of silence as we watched the endless stream of nothing but scrubs and sand. Then we arrived at some type of check point in the windy barren nowhere. I pitied the poor dude who’s job it was to stand there and check the few vehicles that passed there in a day. The funny thing is while we’re waiting this a hawker comes out of nowhere selling bottle water and soft drinks. It was like an oasis in the desert (shit it was a modern day oasis). So of course we had to stock up with water cus hell who knows when we’ll come across an oasis again. Of course like all places in Mali and Africa no one has change for the smallest currency let alone a bigger bill! It never seizes to amaze me why if a person continually takes a bunch of say for example $1 bills that when someone has a $5 pr $10 bill the person selling suddenly doesn’t have any change. It’s not like the guy had gone to an ATM and deposited all his small bills out here in the middle of the desert! Yes I know we may have been the only customers he’s seen today but this is a constant problem that occurs to every traveler I’ve met in these countries. Hell it’s got to the point that I treasure the sort of $1 bills and coins more than the larger $5 and $10 bills (actually in Mali and West Africa union countries they use the CFX or safa I think it’s called and the small bills are 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10000 bills with about 400 CFX = $1 or 650 CFX = 1Euro). A 1 ½ L bottle of water in Bamako costs about 400 CFX and out in the desert up to 1000 CFX with a soft drink 400 CFX. So we scrounged in our pockets and managed to get the correct change. Hell if I had to I would have given the dude a tip cus water out here is more precious than money!
So after leaving that outpost the road suddenly turned into a wash board. So it was hard for any of us to sleep or not have symptoms like the DT’s (shakes)! We had changed around the seats cus with 5 of us one of us had to sit in the auxiliary seats in the back which had little head room. So I got the passenger seat on the paved road (bad planning on my part ha ha) and the middle seat in the back the rest of the trip. The 2 Italian guys were tall and needed a bit of leg room. Plus being Italian they had no qualms about saying that they would like the front seat as the one guy stated! But the worst seat was the back seat which Bruno got the entire trip as we offered to swap but he stayed in it the martyr he was ha ha. But I felt bad for him so I did sit back there for a bit of the trip after we crossed the river but that was near Timbucktoo.
I think the Mali driver (who spoke no English) enjoyed driving off road! Cus anytime there was a chance he’d leave the so called road (if the path was hard packed) and drive on the sand! Shit he loved serving thru the bushes and sliding over the bumps and dunes! Shit I’m sure he thought he was driving in the now defunct Paris to Dakar Rally (the famous race which was driven from Paris across the Spain to Morocco and then thru the deserts of Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal to Dakar in Senegal. But this rally had to be stopped due to terrorism activity in Mauritania). Well this dude must have been a frustrated ex driver cus I don’t think he took his foot off the gas pedal when he hit a dune or swerved around a hill or bush! It would have been enjoyable for us too except everytime we hit a bump we all got tossed around and hit the ceiling. We told him to slow down for the bumps but he didn’t seem to understand what we were saying even tho he knew French. So after 5 hrs of this fast desert rally we all survived (except poor Buno who had a swollen head by this time) somehow and made it to the Niger River. So we had arrived during the day so luckily the ferry was still running.
It was amazing how wide the Niger was at this point (about 200 meters or so wide) cus it was still the dry season. But of course the river wasn’t very deep but luckily deep enough so the ferry could cross with our vehicle. As usual the ferry crossing had the usual number of locals trying to peddle their goods. But our eyes were all on the bottles of water and soft drinks! It seemed that the river shores was home to a number of people cus they could water their animals and basically get water for their needs.
So after crossing the river it was only about a 20 min drive into Timbucktoo! I didn’t have any mental picture of what my mystical town of Timbucktoo would look like in my mind! Cus of course it looked like most other towns in Mali. Dusty, hot, flies, dirty with sand blowing into everything. But it appeared a bit bigger than I had imagined as thought it would be just a small outpost in the desert.
The 2 Italians had plans to stay at this one hotel they knew about. I had been given the name of a place on the outskirts of town which was supposed to be nice. It was run by a Mali guy and his Canadian wife so of course I wanted to stay there. The fuckin Mali people are such fucking liars when it comes to making money or getting business. So we drove the 2 Italians to the hotel they wanted to stay and they went inside to check it out. Well I asked about this hotel called Sahara Passion Hotel that I wanted to go to. So the guy points to this hotel down the street and says ere it is. So I walked over to check it out and there wasn’t a soul around and the dorm I wanted to stay in had no bed or mattress or fuck all in it. So I asked where is the Guy and his Canadian wife running the place? Well this fuckin liar tells me oh it’s slow season so they are travelling. So being an idiot I accepted that reply. The 2 Swiss guys wanted to stay in this Auberge and sleep in a tent. But I wanted a fan to keep the mosquitos off cus I got this phobia about being bitten alive by mosquitos. So we all stayed in different hotels as I stayed in the hotel the guy said was the Sahara Passion as they brought mattress which they threw on the floor over a mat. Oh well it was only for a night so I could manage as it fit my budget of 4000 CFX a night.
So after showering I walked the 1 or 2 kms to the Bruno and Adrian’s hotel. They had decided to hire a cheap guide to show us the town. I’m not usually a person who likes using a guide but thought shit we split it 3 ways (hey don’t get me wrong as I’m not that much of a scrooge) and we were only going to be there a day.
So we got the 3000 CFX tour and found out there was an English army guy fresh from the India who had found his way to Timbucktoo. I can’t remember what he did but whatever he did he remained there until his death. So he became an overnight sensation and his home has a plaque honoring him as one of the important men of the town. There was also a French guy who was also famous for what he did for Timbucktoo and was also honored with a plaque on his house.We were also shown the Mosque which is one of the most famous ones in Africa along with the one in D’Jenni. The guide also showed us the Museum of TImbucktoo but none of us wanted to pay the entry fee to check it out. He showed us this Koran school which kind of explained a lot about the kids we see around Mali carrying pails. It seems that a lot of mothers send their young boys to these Koran schools. I’m not sure if it’s cus they can’t afford to feed them as they have too many kids or if they want them to have a higher Muslim religious education. But the boys (no girls attended these for some reason so not sure if they just stayed at home with their Moms) went to these Koran schools at day break. They were given no food or money from their Mothers or the Koran teacher. So they were told to go out and collect whatever money and food for themselves they could beg for on the streets. Someone mentioned that if these kids returned with no money for the school the Koran teacher would beat them but I can’t say if this is actually true. But I do know that it was a shitty existence for this boys who all seemed to be about 12 and younger. I’d see these boys carrying pails everywhere in Mali. They were actually orphans as they were dirty, torn clothes and most bare foot. They hung around bus stations, shops and generally walked the streets trying to get whatever handouts they could scrounge. I must say that these kids didn’t seem like bad kids like the orphan kids I’ve read about in say Rio in Brazil who form gangs and steal things from people or shops. In fact it surprises me that Mali is so safe given the number of beggars and poor people. I’ve never heard of anyone being robbed on the streets. However someone told me a few years back people in Bamako were stealing from other Mali people. So the people took the law in their own hands and when they caught someone they laid a real bad beating on them and it seemed to reduce the problem.
We experienced a funny incident about these street kids on the way back from Timbucktoo. We stopped at this restaurant on the paved road back to Mopti for gas and a bite to eat. Well Bruno and Adrian had rice and beef but I try not to eat red meat very often in the past couple years. I also saw how they hang the beef outside in the sun all day as the flies attack it. But shit that wasn’t the reason but I just like chicken better. So I thought I’d get rice with chicken so ordered chicken. So the guy brings me out a ½ a chicken and bread and not what I expected. Well the chicken must have been a 50 year old bird cus it was as tough as shoe leather. Shit man I was scared I was going to break my teeth chewing it. Anyway I wasn’t all that hungry all the hungry but noticed all these Koran school boys hanging around with their pails. So I placed the plate of food on this wall and signaled for any boys to come and eat it. Shit I felt like a zoo keeper at a lions cage! Cus no sooner than I left the plate on this wall than I heard a mad scrabble and noise. It was like “Who let the Dogs Out?” Cus a couple of the kids just attacked the plate in a rush for the chicken and knocked the meat onto the ground but on our side of the wall! One boy actually got a piece of the chicken so it was Christmas in April!!! It caused such a commotion that the whole restaurant jumped up to check out what happened. It was the wildest scene I was a part of in Mali. All I can say is I’m sure glad I’m either not that Religious or that hungry! Shit 10 mins later when we were about to leave that kid was still chewing on that chicken and was getting into the bone. The guys were saying that someone of these boys never get to eat meat. But man maybe I’m just a soft spoiled guy from Canada but I hate to tell him but dude what u were eating was not Meat either but some oooooooooold rooster!!
The most interesting and enjoyable thing I found in TImbucktoo was talking to the Nomad guys who rode the Caravans in the desert! Don’t ask me how they know how to speak English! But think it’s from speaking to travelers like myself visiting Timbucktoo! We met one guy in the evening and he invited us to his relative’s home for tea. They have this ritual where they pour the tea from the pot to cup, back to the pot and back to the cup about 4 or 5 times. This is done in Morocco and most West African Countries. It’s suppose to add flavor to the tea I think. I’m not a big tea drinker especially with an equal number of spoons of tea and the same number of spoons of sugar! But what the heck “When in Rome”!! What I found in Mali is like in all of Africa. They gather pieces of wood (they’ve been told to only gather wood off the ground but some cut it from life trees) and burn the wood down to sort of an ash but don’t ask me when they know when to put out the fire! They then use or sell these ash remains as coal for cooking. Well use these little round cook stoves (sort of hibachi’s or barbeques) and burn these coals to cook or make tea. It’s surprising how long and hot these coals can get as they can cook or boil tea for well over an hour on a hand ful of coals by just stirring the embers! You see these barbeques used all over Africa as they usually cook outdoors on the street. Hell Africans live their lives on the streets as they cook, wash and bath on the streets!
Anyway where was I? Oh yeah we got invited to this nomad’s family for tea and he explained about the the burlap sack tent homes they lived in which were very cool in the hot weather! He told us the people didn’t like to have their pictures taken cus they think we are selling them to make money. Shit man if u saw my photography skills u’d soon change your mind!
We kind of walked around the town in the evening looking at the market and to find a place to eat. We finally decided on a street vendor selling rice and some veggies. Well they gave us so much rice that we couldn’t finish it so we gave it to street kids hanging around. I’ve eaten most of my meals from the street in Mali cus I can’t find any restaurants to eat. So if u come to Mali and are squimish about eating from street vendors than u better to either go on diet or starve! I’ve never had any problems with Bamako Belly or Timbucktoo Tummy from eating off the streets , touch wood!
Can’t say we were too impressed with the products in the Market as the meat hanging out for sale had probably been out all day plus I’d be surprised if the flies hadn’t either eaten or walked all over it after walking all over all the garbage! But hey I guess the human stomach can get used to a lot of germs with all the acid we have in it! I know back home a lot of people carry hand sanitizers to protect themselves after that panic last year over what was it the Swine or Bird flu or whatever. I was travelling in South America and remember all the airport staff with mouth protectors. Well my friend if u travel in Africa and wanted to keep yourself protected wth hand sanitizer well u’d have to carry 5 or 6 kilos of the shit. Cus Dude there are a lot of chances of contacting germs! But hey I think in some ways it’s better to let your body build up some immunity to these germs on it’s own.
Well my dorm room in what I was told was the Sahara Passion Hotel but wasn’t was a crappy mat on the floor. But I can sleep anywhere so I got enough sleep that I was up a lot earlier than the time we were to meet to return to Mopti. So I got a chance to walk around the side of the hotel and watch people walk thru part of desert. It also gave me a chance to talk to this young guy who could speak English tell me about the Nomadic life style of the people riding caravans in the desert. I found learning about these people’s life style the most interesting thing about my visit to Timbucktoo.
I can’t remember all he told me as we talked for a couple hours. He told me he was leaving on the caravan that evening to his village in the desert about 500 km north of Timbucktoo but he wasn’t sure if it was in northern Mali as borders didn’t really matter to them. They ride the camels (actually they are dromadires ? as they have 1 hump while camels have 2 humps and are found in the Arabian peninsula, not what he told me but what I’ve learned here but I will refer to them as camels cus it’s easier) about 15 to 20 hrs a day for about 20 days to get to their village. So the trip is not a walk in the park (or desert I guess) as the camels aren’t an easy ride but hey they’re used to them. He told me the camels can 10 days without water in the hot weather and 30 days without water in the cooler weather. So guess that’s why they are called ships of the desert or beast of burden! He saihed to buy a camel at a market it would cost about $1000 so they are valuable and a man’s worth can be judged by the number of camels they own. But occasionally they kill the camels cus their tents are made of camel skin. He said that they may kill a camel on special occasions like weddings!
I asked him why do they come to Timbucktoo, to trade? They bring salt from this place in the north of the desert. I guess in the old days salt from the desert was as valuable as gold! So the various caravans would travel from their villages and meet in Timbucktoo to trade their goods. They’d bring salt and pick up supplies like rice, millet, tea, sugar, etc to take back to their village. He told me that there are a lot of different villages scattered all over the desert. They came in a caravan of maybe 20 camels with about 6 guys in the group. They would also bring things like necklaces, rings and other ornaments they make when they are in their desert in the long hot summer days. Then they’d sell the goods they make when they came to Timbucktoo to buy other supplies for their immediate family. I don’t know how many times they came to Timbucktoo in a year but believe it depended on when they needed supplies. The women never came to Timbucktoo but just stayed in the village. So u chicks who complain they never go or on a date anywhere well consider yourself lucky u weren’t born a nomad in the desert of Mali, ha ha! He told me that most villages were made up of 1 or 2 close families. Then once a year the people of various villages would get together and boys would pick a girl from other villages for their wife. But it wasn’t actually frowned upon to marry your cousin but not your sister. The women made the long flowing robes the men wear on a camel and use dye from the trees to color them. They also cooked and looked after the kids. The men would of course tend the caravans, camels and look for water if their current water supply ran dry. If they are ever short of water and the men go looking for some, the women would simply lie and sleep all day to conserve energy with little or no water. So u tell me who has the better job the men searching for water in the hot desert or the women lying in bed sleeping all day!
He told me he loved the desert and only came to Timbucktoo cus he had to pick up supplies. But he uses a little bit of modern technology as he has an email address so we swapped them. Of course he said he can’t always reply back to quick cus the range of the Wifi doesn’t go as far as his village, but hey can try iphone, ha ha! No he does use his email when he comes to Timbucktoo that’s slower than shit too!
So yeah learning about the nomads who live in the desert and travel by caravans to Timbucktoo was probably the most interesting thing about Timbucktoo to me!
But so did I think Timbucktoo was all that I thought it would be or cut out to be. Well not really cus I kind of figured that it wouldn’t be a place of great revelation. But hey like I always say it’s not the destination when I travel somewhere but the journey to get there! Boy it was an interesting trip over the past month or more getting to Timbucktoo! So yeah it was worth it to come, see the sights, meet a lot of people, use various types of transportation, the problems, the heat, food, hassles, etc as it adds up to the experiences of visiting Timbucktoo! The only thing I would change if I did it again is I’d do in the cooler months like Dec or Jan! But would I come again, well I highly doubt it cus bin dar dun dat but there are a 1000 other places I want to see and visit! But probably none that most people have heard but have no idea why or where it is, right?