Consider yourself to be an adventurous traveller? A visit to the remote, semi-mythical African city of Timbuktu proves that real travel is all about the journey as well as the destination, as Greg Cook discovers.
Through the heart of Mali, a land-locked nation set inside the jutting rump of west Africa, there is a delta. It is an impossibly broad body of water tasselled with ribbon islands; it is the River Niger.
On its northern bank lies a town, beyond which the first dunes of the vast Sahara retract in waves to the horizon. To the west the full moon is still setting – an oily-yellow ball of fat falling into a cauldron of scrub and sand. To the east the sun stains the sky an almost inexplicable shade of crimson. As the dull flanks of mud-brick buildings begin to glow in the emerging light, the desert city of Timbuktu comes alive.
The once-fabled Timbuktu remains firmly set in the western imagination as somewhere just outside the map – and clinging as it does to the cartographically blank Sahara, the reality isn’t actually that different.
However, visiting Timbuktu in the 21st century no longer requires an explorer’s iron will and an entourage of native Tuareg tribesmen able to navigate the desert by reading the texture of the sand. But it still takes a bit of doing, which for most travellers is what continues to make the journey worthwhile.
For most western visitors, the journey to Timbuktu begins on the tarmac at Mali’s only international airport, situated a few kilometres south of the country’s capital Bamako.
To describe Bamako as a textbook example of a large city in a developing nation really doesn’t do justice to either its best or worst elements.
The capital is low-rise and polluted. The air consists of a cocktail of red west-African dust, fully-leaded exhaust and smouldering rubbish. Spend just one morning around its main roads and you feel like you’ve inhaled a box of pencils. But in a city flung across 40sq km and bisected by the Niger River, motor vehicles are a grim necessity.
However what the city offers as abundantly as pollution is bustle, colour, an amazing array of bars and clubs playing some of the best live music on the continent. Not to mention La Gare Routiere Songoniko, the bus terminal from which buses leave daily for the port town of Mopti on the first leg of the journey to Timbuktu.
It’s worth mentioning that nothing will happen according to anything written on a timetable. Buses leave only when full, which means their height has been doubled with a roof-load of white goods, motor bikes and feed sacks, and the aisles have been filled with livestock and yet more local travellers. The journey time for the 460km trip to Mopti is cheerfully advertised at eight hours but has been known to take two days.
Stay optimistic and prepared by splitting the difference.
Mopti, a raucous riverbank town spanning the southern bank of the Niger, is roughly halfway to Timbuktu, and from here are two options for onward travel.
The most expedient is overland by booking a seat in one of the numerous shared 4x4s. It is relatively easy going at first, until you arrive at Douentza, a small impoverished village, where the asphalt ends and a bone-shaking day’s journey along a dirt track ensues. It culminates in an unforgettable trip across the Niger where herdsmen regularly drive skidding cattle tumbling up the metal ramps of a small car-ferry and in between the tightly packed land-cruisers.
This mode of transport will land you on the Niger’s northern bank in Korioume, the village on the doorstep of Timbuktu and conveniently connected by 10km of tarmac road, within one long day (unless of course you miss the last ferry leaving at sunset).
But for the more romantic traveller, Mopti offers the chance to take the rest of the journey by boat, travelling for the next two or three days through the unique and beautiful Niger inland delta, spending nights on deck or camped around fires on the riverbank.
When the water is high enough, roughly between July and December, passage can be booked on one of the large steamer ferries regularly running this stretch of river. However, during the dry season, you’ll need to travel by pinasse or piroge, the smaller private boats that carry a mixture of goods and passengers.
Once on board, it’s easy to attune to the sedate, rolling rhythm of river travel. Watch local fishermen in the late afternoon sun fling their nets in silhouette across the silver water; maybe spot a hippo or two in the seasonal Lake Debo, and float past Naifunke, the village home of legendary world-blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure. This has to be the most evocative way to arrive at your destination.
The Timbuktu of today may have changed somewhat since its 15th-century heyday, when its fame as one of the most prosperous trading points in Africa gave rise to the legend of a city sprung from a land of gold. These days,the straggling markets and roadside stalls appear to sell an identically limited inventory of sour oranges and grubby sachets of mobile-phone top-up cards.
However Timbuktu still offers more to its visitors than the mere kudos of arriving. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the old town offers ancient mosques built in the region’s unique mud-brick style, a vernacular that looks at first glance like the work of some long-extinct species of giant ant.
Of its three mosques, the Djingareiber Mosque, built in 1325, is the oldest and is open to tourists, while the Sankori Mosque once housed the town’s university, one of the world’s greatest seats of learning during the middle ages.
These days there’s also a modest but reasonable array of hotels, hostels and restaurants throughout the town – the medium-priced Hotel Boctou with its bustling terrace restaurant being arguably one of the most popular.
But it’s not the mud-brick buildings or their inhabitants that make Timbuktu special. The magic comes from simple fact it really does exist and the thrill of being there – creating the sensation that, now you’re actually here, everywhere else is strangely far away.