The need to go to Timbuktu started at an early age. Like many small boys, I was fascinated by trains. So when I was 5 or 6 my parents gave me a record of train songs. One of the songs was “From Kalamazoo to Timbuktu”. As most children do with such things, I played it over and over. Since I lived in Kalamazoo, I had no problem believing that Timbuktu was also a real place. Over the years I began to wonder just where this Timbuktu place was. Eventually I was old enough to find it in an Atlas. To my disappointment it was in Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean where no railroad could possibly run. It is clear to me to this day that a railroad tunnel needs to be built under the Atlantic so that a direct rail connection can be made to Timbuktu.
Over the years I investigated the logistics of making the trek to Timbuktu or Tombouctou as the French misspell it. The price tag was going to be steep but I still put it on my life list of things to do. This past year the money came my way and I started planning in earnest. Timbuktu is located in the landlocked country of Mali in West Africa. A former French colony (a la French foreign legion) the official national language is French. French is Greek to me. When I researched the prices for travel in Mali it was hard to believe that it is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is like the cartoon of a kid and his lemonade stand with the $10,000 per cup sign. “All I need to do is sell one cup.” My nephew, Ben, had just graduated from Michigan this spring after spending two years in Israel studying Arabic. He had spent time touring Egypt, turkey and other countries, too. I decided to recruit him as traveling companion for the trip.
The capitol of Mali is Bamako. Since virtually all international flights to Mali terminate at Bamako, it seemed like a good idea to get tickets there first. With happy fingers I surfed the web to find the best flight to take. The choice came down to transferring at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C. or commuting between LaGuardia and Kennedy airports in New York. Ben’s girlfriend insisted that Dulles was a difficult airport to deal with, so the fateful choice was made to make the Manhattan Transfer. (Yeah, I know, it is actually Queens.) The plan was to get to Bamako, find a hotel, and figure out how to get to Timbuktu from there.
On October 4, 2003 plane tickets, money, and travel guide in hand, Ben and I started our excursion through downtown Kalamazoo. We drove past Bronson Hospital, where we were both born a generation apart, and then headed down I-94 to the Detroit Airport. Arriving at the airport ridiculously early, we caught our flight to La Guardia in New York.
In the hurry to transfer between New York airports, I managed to catch my watch in the frame of my backpack. One of the pins snaps loose from the watchband and disappears into the night. My watch is now flopping like a wounded chicken from my wrist. For some strange reason, people cannot resist pointing this out to me.
It is on to Paris, floppy watch and all. At DeGaul airport the insane plan is to transfer to Bamako, Mali rather than stay in Paris.
In the Paris terminal we get our first taste of Mali. While waiting for our flight, Malians gradually gather, many in brightly colored native style dress, others in western style clothing. It is the first time I see a woman carry a baby, papoose like, wrapped in a cloth behind her back.
Hitting Bamako in warm evening darkness, we are snared by a tour guide. After literally tripping our way across a dark field/parking lot, we are loaded into a station wagon with several other guide groupies and taken to a hotel where we find ourselves engaging tour guide and driver for 1,300,000 CFA plus $300 for bribes so we can take pictures. We find ourselves dealers in cola nuts and tobacco.
We drive off in morning with new driver and guide into the bright and colorful street life of Bamako. I am too stunned to take pictures. Women in bright clothes walking here and there with baskets of everything and anything on their heads. Push carts and motorcycles trundling about. The streets are organic and alive. And smelly.
Our driver heads out of town on the main road. The road is like a Michigan back road except with roadblocks. We buy water at first roadblock. At many roadblocks the bribes have been prepaid and our beaten-up SUV breezes though after the ubiquitous 55-gallon drums are rolled aside.
After a road rally of driving we smoke into djenne before the end of the market day. We visit a woman buried in the upper bowels of a mud building. Appropriately, she sells mud cloth. After totally bungling the delicate negotiation process, I bought four blankets. When I got home I found out that I didn’t get the same blankets I thought I bought. We moved on to Mopti where the hotel had electric outlets, but no toilet seats. So comfy!
Next day we head for Timbuktu with more high speed driving, averaging about 85 miles an hour, down the main road. The lunch is chicken ribs with the white meat removed. The dark meat has a tenderness that could be only acquired by Olympic Marathon running chickens. The price is only a little more than what Kentucky Fried Chicken charges.
After lunch, it is time to turn left by a massif or large mesa. The road is now gravel. Drainage ditches have dips in the road rather than bridges or pipes. Sometimes there is even a sign warning of the dip in the road.
The landscape turned to Sa’el, tall grass and occasional trees. Gravel road eventually turned to sand tract that required four-wheel drive. New roadway is being built with heavy equipment that seems to have magically appeared out of nowhere. Suddenly, the road ends at the Niger River in the middle of nowhere. A car ferry operates from this road end across the river to a port of Timbuktu. It is at the east end of the “Inland Delta” of the Niger River where rice paddies are next to the desert.
The wait for the ferry allowed us to learn the names of our guide and driver. Marmadu is our sort of English speaking guide and our driver Segou. Marmadu learned English from Peace Corps volunteers. Segou has hopes of one day buying his own SUV. While waiting for the ferry we have a chance to meet the beachhead encampment of local people. A young woman, dressed in brightly colored and frilly dress shows me her baby and asks for money. Judging by the high quality of her clothing, it must be a pretty good racket. I admire her baby and decline her request for cash. At last the ferry arrives and we make our way across the river. Part way over, a hippo breaks the surface and submerges again – our only sighting of big game during the entire trip. Arriving on the far side of the river we encounter a town built around the boat landing. With much discussion and maneuvering our guide and driver get us through the crowded one road town. We find ourselves speeding along a narrow tree lined causeway. I don’t know what I expected on the way to Timbuktu, but this was not it. The trees look like birch trees, and I am left with the feeling I am in the U.P. rather than sub-Saharan Africa fast approaching Timbuktu. I learn that these are the trees that are used to build the wooden boats seen all along the Niger. Soon we leave the “birch” trees and enter the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, or at least so it seems as we leave the riverbanks and enter the Sahara. Presently we are rewarded with a sign with an arrow labeled Tombouctou. I ask the driver to stop. After some discussion with our guide, he gets the idea that I want him to back up to the sign. The requisite photographs taken, we resume our journey.
Further down the road we encounter a police station of sorts. It is sort of a hut with motorcycles out front. After an inordinate amount of time with both our guide and driver entering the station from time to time and grumbles of “they were supposed to be paid for already” we are at last on our way past the last barrier to Timbuktu.
We enter the mud (Adobe if you’re from the Southwest) sand town. We pass a real honest-to-goodness with soldiers and everything fort and the post office on our way to our home for the next two days, the Hotel Bouctou. The air-conditioning sort of works and there is a working electric outlet for my Gonzo Machine. And the wood slat bed is marginal but sleepable. At this moment we have triumphed! Timbuktu! Reached at last! Two days of bouncing over dirt roads and dodging roadblocks has paid off. The next day, after a gritty breakfast that confirms the local bread is baked in on sand sprinkle in an oven, we head for the bank. Our guide is perhaps too eager to get the travel portion of the tour money, but I don’t care, we have made the main object of the trip. Next we head for the post office to send out post cards with the Timbuktu postmark, we get our passports stamped as well. We walk the town in the blazing heat of the day. I am melting, but my nephew loves the heat, or so he says. We see the homes of early European explorers, some of them survived the visit, others did not. In case you are wondering, we survived the visit. We stopped by the library with 14th century Arabic manuscripts and chatted with the librarian. Clearly major work needs to be done to preserve and classify the library. An air condition building seems to be a high priority. I can see why.
Just before returning for lunch a local boy runs up to me and asks if he can fix my floppy watch band for 1500 CFA. (Something less than $3) I figure what the heck and give him my watch.
Back to the room to wait out the heat of the afternoon. When I emerge from hibernation my watchband is repaired and I pay the fee. I had to travel to Timbuktu to get a $7 watch fixed!
After declining many offers of camel rides, our guide allows us to ride in the four-wheel drive out into evening the desert. We have picked up two additional local guides one of which tells us of the habits of the Tuareg native herdsmen. The Tuareg now mark their camels.
“How do they mark them?”
“With hot iron specially shaped for each owner.”
“Oh, They brand them.”
“No, The camels are marked.”
The Timbuktu region of the Sahara desert has caught up to the American West with a touch of class. The camels are marked rather than merely branded. We are rewarded with a herd of camels approaching the hand pumped well.
The next morning, my last ever in Timbuktu, we eat more gritty bread and enjoy a pastoral morning of goats bleating and bells clanking. A fascinating place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Our SUV is loaded and we head south down the tree-lined causeway back to the Niger River ferry to see the rest of Mali.
On the way home, while hurriedly transferring from Kennedy to LaGuardia Airport in New York I managed to hook my watch into my pack frame. The pin that I had replaced in Timbuktu popped free and disappeared into the street. My watch is floppy again.