Mali: Sahel Journey
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 13 - Timbuktu / Tombouctou

  Timbuku (Tombouctou) rooftops

Timbuktu is probably more emotion than substance for most visitors, but because of its rich history it still evokes some deep emotion.

Part of the mystique of Timbuktu is how hard it is for Europeans to get there.  It was once the most important trade center in West Africa, with camel caravans coming and going to all point of the compass so not everyone had trouble getting there.  By the time Europeans were first trying to visit Timbuktu it was a closed city that allowed Moslems only.  Infidels that reached there the city executed, which was the fate of several explorers.  A few survived to take up residence in Timbuktu, which is memorialize by plagues around town, "Calle slept here," etc.

Now-a-days you are welcomed if you get there but it is still not so easy to reach.  Driving, even with  four wheel drive, is only possible in the dry season.  Even then you have to properly equip yourself and the are periodic problems with highway bandits.  You can get there by boat.  The big ones take several days from Mopti and don't expect them to keep a schedule.  Small boats can take a week or more.  Air service to Timbuktu is provided by Air Mali.  The locals call it Air Maybe.  It may be the worst scheduled airline in the world.  Don't worry about an on-time record, their record for fly on the scheduled DAY is less than 50%.

Once you get on the plane and up in the air, the view is fascinating. Generally the route follows the Niger river.  Along the was the river divides into 100's of channels, there are villages, boats and agricultural projects and a lot of vastness.

Timbuktu has lost some of the hustle and bustle that it must have had in the 15th century when it had five universities, dozens mosques, several 100,000 inhabitants, and scholars from as far away as the Middle East and Europe.  As it past into obscurity for several centuries, so did it knowledge.  As mysterious as so much of Timbuktu, it is starting to give this out; in Ancient Arabic book from library in Timbuktu1999 a young man who knew of a visiting professors interest in African history invited the professor to his modest house.  There he took him to a small room that was the family library.  In the library he open an old chest filled with manuscripts. 3,000 manuscripts ranging from letters and fragments of works to complete books and covering a range of subjects that include theology, jurisprudence and history, and constituting the most extensive written history of sub-Saharan Africa every found.  Copies of these treasures are now periodically on display in Timbuktu, Bamako and in other exhibits around the world.

Timbuktu (Tombouctou) camel rideOn a day to day basis Timbuktu's most salient characteristic is sand.  The seems to be the dust on the desert everywhere, including the local bread.  You would think that one of the ingredients was a teaspoon of sand.

The sand also provides a good environment for camels.  And camels provide good amusement for the tourists.  And the tourist then provide a good income for the Tuaregs.  The Tuaregs being savvy about such things have figured out how to get the tourists on the camels and trot them out into the sand, where they serve them traditional tea, pose for a few pictures and then trot them back again.





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