The call of Timbuktu

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Murder, mayhem, terrorism, Timbuktu, kidnappings, intrigue, diplomatic standoffs, Western anti-Islamic nonsense, lies and spies, neo-neo-African colonialism, a three-day music festival, and a whole bunch of oil wells in the middle of the Sahara Desert up for grabs.

No wonder the Americans and Brits have got their knickers in a tatty, twisted little knot.

What do you do when the British Foreign Office and US State Dept drop the equivalent of the atomic bomb on travellers in one of the most peaceful countries in Africa?

Don't go to Mali!!! screams a now-notorious worldwide warning.

"There is a high threat from terrorism. Terrorists have been involved in kidnaps in the region and we believe that further kidnap attacks are likely…..We advise against all travel to the provinces of Mali north of the River Niger from Mopti ... including Timbuktu."

Friends gasp and splutter, and plead against doomsday destinations.

“There have been reports of kidnap threats against Westerners attending music festivals in Mali. You should be aware that the 'Festival in the Desert’ at Timbuktu is in an area to which we currently advise against all travel.”

But the die has long been cast, the stanza scripted, much though its context might have been altered by Libyan obstructionism, amongst others.

The course, or curse, of this voyager’s keystone has carried the singsong “via Kathmandu and Timbuktu” for two years. Naught but surrender could avoid these waypoints. I succumb to the lure of the town at the edge of the world, the tug of the magical Tuareg twang.

Take a New Year’s holiday, a month’s excursion from the road ride south, and fly from Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, to Mali, to fulfill the second waypoint, and take in the legendary annual music festiva.

The warnings carry statistical proof: a Frenchman kidnapped in the greater Timbuktu area in November 2009, a group of tourists kidnapped on the Mali-Niger border in January, three Spanish nationals kidnapped in Mauritania, an Italian couple killed in Mauritania, and a couple kidnapped in Niger.

Around 10 people kidnapped in three countries over the space of a year.

Consider the statistics of bodily harm and horror in some of the more well-documented crime spots in the world.

I like the odds.

Into Bamako, Mali’s capital, after Kenyan Air announced that the quicker the passengers checked in, the quicker the flight would depart. Take-off around an hour early! Massive maintenance and catering questions. The day after a Nigerian tries to flash-bomb an airliner from Amsterdam to Detroit. Not a good day for flying.

Bamako stretches slow, wide, along a strip of the Niger River, the chief artery of Mali drifting into the country from the southwest, angling up northwards before the desert dunes force it into a massive arc eastwards then southwards towards Nigeria.

Catholic nuns offer hostelry. Stumble across the road into a shanty, and find a quirky Italian chef traveller quoting from a book of Michelangelo’s poetry, before signing the tome and gifting it to the establishment’s patriarch, himself a self-proclaimed poet.

Hustlers and hawkers crawl out of the woodwork. Offers pour in of guides to outlying districts, to the mystique of Dogon country (reknowned for its mystical animism and carving culture), up the Niger River to Mopti (Mali central) and on to Timbuktu and beyond.

Prices screech rip-off, theft, gouge, grift. 2,500 Euros for a 10 day excursion.

Excuse me? That is 6 months backpacking, a-hole!

An acquaintance feels the skim, making the crucial error of booking a guide 1,000km from the zone, coughing in advance, and discovering later to her distress that most of her hard-earned bee-keeping profits were being swigged down out of gin sachets and sucked up through ganja pipes.

A costly extraction procedure later rescues her from further pain.

Swing through New Year’s Eve to the tunes of funky Mali bands in the city’s main square, with at least 50,000 exceptionally-well attired residents in attendance.

Midnight falls, whoops rise, the president speaks, and speaks and speaks. The party dies, or moves away to smaller, drunker venues.

The 7am bus feels the lethargy of New Year’s Day, only managing to get going at 1pm. A 10-hour trip takes 14 hours, arriving in Mopti, Niger River/Mali central at 4am.

At least there is escape from the persistent tour hustlers.

Much chance.

Even at this hour derelicts drift up off the river bank, out of the full moon shadows offering slurred rides in their boats.

The festival will not wait, transport must be arranged out into the desert, into the land of camel salt trains, dust storm deaths, Islamic manuscripts and universities of old, hawk-eyed nomads.

Arrange passage on a pinasse, a river long-boat. A dozen or so passengers all having paid different rates, depending on their bargaining skills, or haste in purchase of access. Promises of service for the 3-day, 2-night ride range from mattresses to tents to food or part thereof. Most promises turn worthless.

“Where’s my tent, my mattress” shrieks a French damsel.

“Well, ummmmmm,” replies El Capitano after a few miles of river have flowed by.

“I am French, don’t fuck with me,” she says. She should have a T-shirt with that on the front.

Food comes in at a large bowl of rice and a small blob of boiled catfish atop.

Shades of a 2-week stint on an island in the mouth of the Amazon River, rice and beans and catfish for every meal, boiled, braised, steamed. A vow of ‘never again’ is broken.

River gypsies, of the Bozo clan, drift by. Nets dribbling out behind their pirogues and small chuggers, following the shoals of fish up and down the river.

Catfish, surprisingly tiger fish, a trumpet-mouthed species.

The latrine is a box precariously perched at the stern of the boat. A squat seat with hole below, from which to fertilize field and stream.

In the Zambezi, the chessa fish live downstream of hippo groups. What follows in the wake of these flushing machines?

Niafunke is not only the name of an album by deceased superstar Ali Farka Toure. It is the name of the town from which he came. The boat stops, picks up a scrawny desert chicken for the plucking and pot, and chugs along.

The early dusk of day three brings up a small dock area feeding Timbuktu (Tombouctou), 15km away.

Founded 999 years ago, legend carries the saga of one Mrs Bouctou digging a well (tom) to assist passing sojourners and salt merchants.

A crucial, central link for cross-desert travailers, the town is now impoverished, and seriously desert threatened, living mostly on the back of tourism, the allure of ‘from here to Timbuktu’, and recent interest in salvaging thousands of Islamic manuscripts and tomes lost, hidden and ill-kept since its 14th century heyday as a centre of Islamic academia with its Sankore University and 180 Quranic schools.

Via Kathmandu and Timbuktu.

Though the ride was not by road, as earlier imagined, the road having thrown up a few rules of its own, there is still a strange, almost unearthly satisfaction of having reached the town whose trills have teased a thousand tongues.

Dozens of foreigners drift along the sandy roads, brought by the looming 3-day music extravaganza.

Where is it? Ask all and sundry. Receive every lie in the book. It’s miles and miles away. You need to hire camels, 4x4s to get you there over hazardous and trackless dunes. Hundreds of Euros are bantered and bargained. Mali’s currency is pegged to the EU standard, leaving travellers riding on the US dollar sucking a somewhat cold teat

The truth becomes the town’s most expensive commodity, simply by the scarceness of the resource.

Every visitor is a walking dollar sign. This is the day for local traders, hawkers, guides, or shades  thereof to make their killing. Now or not for another year.

The terror warning had come home to roost two months before the concert date.

The festival is normally held in Essakane, some 70km north of Timbuktu, in a relatively remoter part of the desert.

Serious lack of foreign, online, interest (people book tours for between US$400 and US$1,000 for the event) force the government to persuade the Tuaregs, the local desert nomad people, to move the event closer to the big town, so that they can offer better protection.

Border niggles, rumours of Al-Qaeda on Algeria’s southern border, and Mali’s eastern frontier with Niger, a murder or two in Mauritania to the west, has spooked the money bags.

Mali refuses to sign an immigration policy with France, who attempt to curtail the movements of its old colony’s population. France pulls a plug or two, and the  diplomatic impasse sees Paris also desist from promoting Mali as any kind of desirable destination.

Finally get sold a ticket, by the hotel manager. It is a bracelet to be worn over the three days. Three acquaintances are arrested for wearing similar bracelets. They are fake, or at least last year’s model.

The manager, a fakir, charmer, bullshitter and slut does a backflip or two, spends hours in the police station trying to disentangle himself from his forgery (non-admitted) and eventually gives me a festival organiser’s badge.

So long as it works, who cares at this stage, and it does allow free access to shower and shitter, luxury in the very rough sandpit of the desert.

The festival is set up about 2km outside of town. A few hundred tents scatter themselves across the dunes, hidden in troughs, or pronounced, stark, on crests. Tuareg camel skin tents, circus style tents, travellers 1-man, 2-man, 3-man domes and triangles litter and filter into the landscape. Central is the stage, at the bottom end of a small bowl, that can fit around 10,000. Ranked nearby are the stalls, the knick-knack knucklers, souveneir swamis have come out to play.

Tuaregs and the camels roam around, dozens and dozens of them.

Tall, broad-shouldered men, wrapped in long robes of gleaming single colours, blue, white, green, brown, long, long turbans wrapped tight around their heads, sun-weathered skin and steely eyes glinting out between the folds.

Handsome, hard, stoic, still. Swords on hips. They sit on their magnificent beasts, who themselves barely twitch while hundreds jostle around their ankles, and drums, guitars and voices wail and rail around them.

The music rocks, kicking in around 5pm, band after band, following a broad Tuareg style. Bands from around Mali, Niger, Martenique, the US have their moment of funky glory.

Tinariwen, the most famous of the Tuareg sound, having won the world’s ‘best unplugged album’ of 2009, which most of the crowd have come specifically to see, take the stage at 1am.

It is cold, in the desert night, and one can only drink so many beers lest the cold creep from within as well as without.

A roar erupts, people rise from their huddled positions as the troupe launch into their rhythm and sound, magical and unique, like the con-rods on the side of an old steam train, rocking back and forth, looping at the end of each drive, arcing at the end of each note, the shunt and shift hauntingly covered with a thick, loosey, juicy sponge. Haunting, heavy footed camels running surely down the dunes, rhythm and groove. It is impossible not to get up and dance and dance and dance …

Timbuktu, the festival, Tinariwen, dreams fulfilled in a space dance under a hanging moon at the edge of the world.

Where to from here?

Drunken fatigue beckons. Sand fills nostrils and ears. The heat of the early sun forces one to rise, stumbling foggily around.

“I am Tuareg, do want to ride my camel? I have Tuareg jewellery, hand made, each piece with a tale of its own. You definitely want a piece.” Incessant, repeated at 15 minute intervals by an interminable queue of robes and rogues drifting through the dunes, sidling up, offering bangles, bracelets, earrings, swords, daggers, bits and bobs, indigo blankets, Dogon hats that would have me committed to a sponge-walled room if I wore one back home. I am tempted, what a challenge.

“Do you want to buy, buy, buyyyy ayeeeaaaaa.”

Resourceful and forceful as the local sellers are, somebody has to read them the riot act concerning oversell. Too many, too many times kills their golden goose.

Night two beckons, a fence is thrown up around the bowl, keeping the have-nots out, the haves in. A strange tension arises. Does the growing exhaustion of festival party breed a paranoia, or is there a feeder stream of itchiness among poverty-stricken fans kept at bay, forced into a small stipend to enter, for the first time in the 10 years of the festival?

Programmes seem quirkily skewed, The little bands play first, the biggies at 1am, 2am, 3am. How long can one stay awake in the cold. Waiting. I miss Ali Farka’s son, a budding star, and his homage to his father. So too Afel Bocoum.

Day 3 brings more pleasantly numbing exhaustion. Eat, find shade, turn down the now steady stream of joker salesman. They feel the global economic crunch. Exasperated, seeing the end of the game, they pull out the ‘liquidation sale’ line. It becomes a buyer’s market. Insistent, incessant. No, no, no.

Everybody speaks French. I can now ‘ca va’ with the best of them, Jean! Da’accord, monsieur. Of course it’s mad fun, what the hell else could it be.

Night 3 dawns rocks, music gets better and better. The compere proves his conceit with the love of his own voice. On and on he drones, like an extremely bad football referee that leaves viewers remembering him far more than the teams.

The last big act appears at 2am, the blind superstar couple Amadou & Miriam. It has been a long wait. They are worth it, exuding a class beyond all but Tinariwen.

Earlier Paul Simon’s son plays a set. So disappointing. Same style as papa, nothing new and not nearly as talented. He tries a song with Tinariwen, and retires quickly, completely outplayed, discovering there is a very different league in this game.

Head back to the hotel for a day or 2 of recovery and wind down.

The sluts of Timbuktu come out to play.

Guides and grifters target the middle-aged foreign women. “Want a ride on my camel into the desert? Want to go in my 4x4 and make a fire and look at the stars?”

Uncomfortably insistent, according to co-travellers.

One schmuck asks if an acquaintance would like to play. Ask her, I say. She says no. What’s the other ‘chick’s name’? He asks her, she says no. A third turns him down.

Here these are men on the make.

In Bangkok, women like this are called whores.
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Tracie on

Another interesting piece on your travels oh bearded one

Jean on

It seems to be a kick-ass festival, as you told me ! Sounds really nice and interesting in many ways ! I'm kind of jealous cause right now i'm stucked in Dahab (ok not the worst punishment). What's next Lance ? Asking a Tuareg to ride a Hippo ?? On your way to Ouaga ? Take care and have fun big-bearded-friendly-poet...

Steve Cray on

Another great piece Lance. Wish I'd been at the festival!!

Reiner on

Howzit Lunchi, I`ve read all your postings and really enjoy your style of writing, very informative, funny, interesting, cleverly written! Keep it up mate....looking forward to the next one. tsamaya sentle

mother faith on

The sands of the desert are getting under your skin.
Set your compass south
Unfold each day nad travel safe

Guy lankester on

Good piece especially on the security situation. Cry wolf is happening so much by travel advisory bodies that they are no becoming dangerous as no one is listening to them. View fits my experience running trips in the region -

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