Timbuktu isn’t the easiest place in the world to reach. On the southern boundary of the Sahara Desert, and at the northern extreme of the habitable part of Mali, it’s a city in the middle of nowhere.
There’s the overland option, which involves a day or so in the back of an overcrowded Landcruiser on shifting, ephemeral sandy tracks. Or there’s the maritime route. The Niger River flows right by the city’s doorstep, and a four day cruise through the Sahel sounded like my kind of travel.
In Mopti I found a Lebanese family and a couple of French girls who were thinking the same and together we hired a vessel, a long thin pinasse, and a couple of crew to take us there. With the small motor chugging, we set off north towards the desert and straight into the stiff harmattan wind which was blowing with a chill off the water.
Drifting into the grey unknown...the air was hazy with sand and the sun shone through a veil, the wind relentlessly bending the eucalypts which lined the river as we sailed through the barren landscape. The harmattan is the trade wind that blows from the Sahara southwards for several months of the year, blustering without reprieve, dropping temperatures down low. In this bleak no man’s land we occasionally passed another pinasse, with sails made of plastic or cloths pieced together, billowing in the wind – desert pirates who waved as they passed. The river cut through the harsh surroundings.
There were villages on the banks, the mud huts blending into the harsh grey scenery. Dusty children waded into the water to wave at us, goats scrambled on the banks, people sat and fished and worked. We pulled in at villages to buy fish and were surrounded by bubbling mobs of kids. They stared, they asked questions, they demanded gifts and they gave high fives as we left.
The days passed gradually. Talk a little, eat a little, doze a little. I sometimes climbed up onto the roof to escape the engine noise and splashing water. I was struck by the kindness and love the Lebanese family showed to each other, and the way this extended to me and the French girls and the skipper and deckhand. There was warmth and laughter on our little boat as we edged towards Timbuktu.
I was full of expectation for this mysterious place. For several hundred years from the 12th century, Timbuktu was a wealthy trading city. I envision scholars writing poetry in cloistered mud dwellings, merchants wandering the marketplaces checking on their produce and griots playing music to all who would listen. Before European ships sailed the coast of Africa, Timbuktu was the final link between West Africa and the Mediterranean. Gold, ivory, salt and slaves were marched across the desert in camel caravans. Even today, salt which comes from the mines of Taoudenni, 740km to the north, arrives in Timbuktu in large slabs carried by camels. The distance is covered in sixteen nights, with rest during the day.
We camped out at night, the crackling fire keeping us entertained into the evening, and on the afternoon of the fourth day we docked at the port in Korioume. We had arrived. The river had delivered us.