We made it–to Timbuktu. In a sense it was inevitable–Timbuktu is the sort of place that most travelers aspire to have on their travel resume; even if there were nothing to see, tourists would flock here for the sheer cachet of its name alone. Timbuktu is a byword for distant, for remote, for that place to which, if you have been, perhaps you have been everywhere else as well. As a souvenir t-shirt on sale here puts it, “I’ve been to Timbuktu and back”–no other destination sounds like such an achievement. It is one of those places, like Zanzibar or Samarkand, that everyone has heard of, even if they’re not sure whether it really exists and don’t know its location. Well, the legendary city of the Mali empire, the city of Mansa Musa, the city so long closed to Western explorers, does exist, even if it has seen better days, deep in the Malian Sahel, a few miles from the Niger River.

But there are a couple of ugly truths about Timbuktu. The first is that, in some respects, it’s not so remote at all. Few places in this day and age are all that remote, and this is true even for Timbuktu, as infamous as it is for its remoteness. Timbuktu has an airport with regular flights to the city of Mopti, the second biggest city in Mali, and, believe it or not, Mopti has direct flights to Paris (not to mention connecting fights through Mali’s capital Bamako to various other destinations). I don’t know the actual schedules, or how good the connections are, but possibly you can fly in from Paris in the morning, change planes once, and be in Timbuktu by the afternoon. If you’re willing to fly, Timbuktu is just hours away, however unadventurous that may be. (Flying to Timbuktu, in my opinion, largely defeats the purpose of going.)

For that matter, we didn’t even have to get on a plane to arrive at Timbuktu in an unusually (for Africa) carefree and comfortable manner–we took a cruise. Well, perhaps cruise slightly overstates the situation, but COMANAV, Mali’s state boat company, operates a weekly boat service up and down the Niger, from Mali’s capital Bamako, through Mopti, Timbuktu and Gao, in the far east of the country, and back. The boat’s not a sure thing–it runs only when the river level is high enough and is sometimes subject to serious delays–but it offers a level of comfort that one doesn’t find too often in West African transport, let alone for a destination as exotic as Timbuktu. The fares are not cheap (about USD 100 from Mopti to Timbuktu, a 36 or so hour run, in a first class cabin for two with sink but shared bath), but the ride allows one to enjoy the traditional route to Timbuktu from the south–the Niger River–while maintaining a sense of journey and adventure and without having to shell out for a private pinasse (up to USD 1000) or suffering the conditions on a public pinasse (see post of 12.04).

There are many classes of service on the boat, but the most luxurious (which we did not take) includes your own spacious cabin with air conditioning, mini-fridge and bath, while a few of the classes include decent meals served in a basic but spacious dining room, complete with karaoke machine. A second class cabin, with four bunks.

And quite a journey the COMANAV is. Even if your immediate surroundings are almost luxurious, and out of keeping with general conditions in West Africa, I can think of few better ways to witness life on the Niger than from the comfortable deck of the COMANAV ship.

With ample deck space–the boat was surprisingly uncrowded, especially considering that fourth class tickets are actually quite affordable–you can peacefully survey the natural beauty of the Niger, as it expands into its inland delta and then contracts toward the top of its bend.

Villages passed en route provide glimpses of traditional Sudanese mud-brick architecture, with its elaborate ornamentations and textures. At some stops, there was enough time to take a short walk into town. Following the route on our map, we found ourselves chuckling as we described ports as “halfway to Timbuktu” or “three quarters of the way to Timbuktu.”

The voyage is especially notable for the amount of commerce that it facilitates. The first picture shows villagers selling prepared food to the passengers on board. While meals of decent local food were included in second class and above (the classes that most foreign tourists take), those in third and fourth classes either prepared their own food or bought food from ladies who rowed pirogues up to the boat with plates of (usually) dried or fried fish. We even saw a few live chickens change hands, but it was unclear whether passengers were actually slaughtering and cooking them onboard. The second picture shows a procession of women departing the ship with baskets of produce. The boat acts as a sort of moving market, and these women seemed to be riding not to go anywhere but to sell merchandise. At each stop, regardless of time of day (or night), the boat would play loud dance music, letting people know that the boat had arrived, and the ladies would set up a sort of market right in front of the boat, selling produce to the villagers. The third picture shows a sort of convenience store set up on the lower level of the boat. Apparently, in addition to certain fruits and vegetables, the villagers on the boat’s route lack pomades, matches, cigarettes, candy and toothpaste (some of these items may also have been for sale to the boat’s passengers). Villagers would board the ship, when in dock, to purchase items from these onboard stores.

When going to a destination such as Timbuktu, the journey should be at least half the fun, and our COMANAV trip did not disappoint. We arrived well-rested and well-entertained, having enjoyed the scenery, interactions on board and brief village stops, and even having gotten a little work done (as there was electricity on board).

What is the second ugly truth about Timbuktu? As the guidebooks warn you, there is actually very little here. The state of Timbuktu of today speaks more to its remote location and less to its past glory as the great city of a fabulously wealthy empire. Back in the 14th century, Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali Empire, was so rich from the gold mines of West Africa that on the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, his spendings depreciated gold prices in Cairo for over a decade. It was starting from those times that Timbuktu became, in the eyes of much of the rest of the world, a city of great exoticism and allure. Now? Yes, there are some ancient mosques, which have been lovingly restored and are fine examples of Sudanese mosque architecture, but the Great Mosque of Djenne [post to come] is far more impressive and, like the Djenne mosque, the mosques of Timbuktu are closed to non-Muslim tourists. Yes, there is something like an old city, but it is nothing compared to dozens of other old cities we have seen, and certainly far smaller and less interesting than, again, Djenne. How about the desert? Well, as any world atlas can tell you, Timbuktu is not located in the truth Sahara, but in the Sahel transition zone, a sandy area yes, but one with regular hardy vegetation and not too many of the high dunes of one’s childhood fantasies. Just as one would not go to Timbuktu for its architecture or a tangible sense of history, one would not go to Timbuktu solely for the desert scenery.

Foremost among the sights of Timbuktu are three ancient mosques (the Djingarey Berre mosque is pictured below), “explorers’ houses” said to be the buildings in which the first European explorers to Timbuktu stayed (that of Rene Caillie is pictured below)and libraries holding the medieval manuscripts for which Timbuktu is famous (the Ahmed Baba Institute is pictured below).

Typical Timbuktu street scene: more sewage than romance

So why go to Timbuktu at all? Is it even worthwhile? Well, our stay in Timbuktu was greatly enriched, perhaps even redeemed, by our choice of lodging: Sahara Passion (link). We saw the two proprietors, the unlikely husband-wife team of somewhat grizzly Touareg Shindouk and youthful Canadian Miranda Dodd, advertising their hotel at Timbuktu’s port when we arrived into town. They were embarrassed at trolling for customers at the port but due to recent and confusing changes in location, they needed the additional visibility despite being recommended in multiple guidebooks. The two drove us to their guesthouse-cum-family home, located on the northern outskirts of town. On the way there, we were afraid that the location might be inconvenient, as it was located a good kilometer or more from the “old city,” and at first sight we were concerned about the relatively spartan conditions (e.g., the city’s power grid does not reach their home, posing difficulties for travelers as electronically dependent as we (see post of 8.20), though they do have solar power for smaller items and can charge larger items in their town office on request). But if the charm of the two hosts and the insights they offered into life in Timbuktu weren’t enough, and they would have been (we were especially impressed by Shindouk’s wise and cosmopolitan worldview), we soon realized that their location was also a tremendous benefit, for it helped us to understand and appreciate what is special about Timbuktu.


The edge of town–to the north, the wilderness and the way to the Maghrib

As I mentioned in my post of 12.04, much of the strategic significance of Mali, the reason it played such an important role in medieval African history, is the bend in the Niger River, which facilitated communication between Arab/Berber North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa. The swoop of the Niger northward to Timbuktu allowed for camel caravans to relatively easily cross the Sahara to a sub-Saharan port, with access to goods such as gold, ivory and slaves. Timbuktu is, in other words, the gateway between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. From Sahara Passion, this is demonstrated more clearly, more plainly, than I thought possible.

Just south of us is Timbuktu, largely an African city, not dissimilar from the mudbrick town of Old Djenne or others in Mali. The residents are mostly black and dressed in colorful clothes, their markets (and behavior) also colorful. The heart of the city is surprisingly dense, crowded in the way that African cities can be.

To the north? Still the Sahel, yes, but mainly sandy desert, a wilderness of emptiness. We were told that a day’s drive away there were some settlements, but even there encampments are said to be scattered a great distance apart, so that there is essentially nothing in the way of dense neighborhoods. And the residents? Almost all Touareg, a fiercely independent and historically nomadic North African Berber group, in skin color tan and not black at all.

Nomad-style encampments on the edge of town. These were mostly populated by people who were ethnically/racially black but culturally Touareg, presumably the former (some would say current) slaves of the Touareg.

Touareg camel caravan on its way out of town

Even if the history of Timbuktu is not palpable in the city’s remaining monuments, the significance of its location, the role it has played as a transition or pivot point between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, is still very much tangible, especially from the northern edge of town. Topography, ecology, mode of living, race–everything seems to shift from the few miles south to the few miles north of Timbuktu, and the city, just as it has often switched hands from black African powers (the Mali Empire and the current state of Mali) to North African ones (the Touareg and the Moroccans), is truly halfway between the worlds of sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa.

Two of the many shades of TImbuktu’s residents

There are many other interesting points of interest surrounding Timbuktu, which make it a place far more fascinating than it superficially appears. One of the most intriguing is the 40-day salt camel caravan, which brings mined salt from Taoudenni in the Sahara to Timbuktu to be sold in other parts of Mali and beyond. Another is the status of the former slaves of the Touareg, black Africans who have been culturally integrated into Touareg society, with some clinging on to a familial/employee role, if not still outright chattel. We were told that, to this day, the people working at the Saharan salt mines are black in skin color. Then there are the famous manuscripts, thousands of volumes bearing evidence of Timbuktu’s past history as a center of education and culture (however hard it seems now to believe). But my knowledge on these topics is limited, and many websites touch on them, and so I encourage you to use google to learn more.

2 thoughts on “Timbuktu

  1. I appreciate your candor. Never been to Africa, only "soft" WEstern Euro cities! Practical Q's: do you bring your own toilet paper, bottled water, bread, mosquito nets? are the flies everywhere? WHich meds do you take with you; which shots/jabs before the trip? How often did you get sick? December/January the best temps? Thanks for your help. Could you respond to foolhardy10007 @ yahoo.com. ===>John

  2. Thanks for sharing this post. That's beautiful!! pics. Djenne is located in close proximity to the flood plain of Bani River, southwest of Timbuktu. Djenne is very famous place in mali. It is most visited place by the muslims. You can see the beautiful architecture in the mosque. The great mosque of djenne was built on an elevated platform of 62,500 square feet.

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