The twist to Timbuktu

Time warp ... outside Timbuktu.
Time warp ... outside Timbuktu. Photo: Reuters

For Lee Atkinson, the legend of the fabled city lies in getting there — by boat, car, camel, cart and four days on foot.

It's one of travel's great conundrums. Everybody's heard of Timbuktu but few people actually know where it is and even fewer ever get there. Everyone knows that it's a long way from here to Timbuktu, wherever "here" might be. A town of some 30,000 hardy souls, Timbuktu sits, half covered by sand, not far from the big bend of the Niger River at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in Mali, a land-locked country in Western Africa.

To get there, we spent two days on a plane, several more in a four-wheel-drive, followed by a bone-jarring trip on the back of a donkey cart. There were four days on foot trekking through remote villages, where nothing much has changed in the past 300 years, three days up the Niger River aboard a leaky pinasse boat and one hour too many spent rocking against a very hard wooden saddle on the back of a camel.

Long the stuff of myth and legend, the fabled city of gold is, in fact, a city of mud: mud-brick houses, mud ovens and crumbling mud mosques studded with the sticky-out ends of tree trunks.

Threading through this sea of mud are rivers of sand, in lieu of streets, blown in from the ever-encroaching Sahara. Straggly herds of goats wander through the central marketplace, shooed away by women haggling over fruit and vegetables spread on mats on the sand. Brightly dressed girls laden with impossible loads on their heads struggle through the drifting sand, while groups of men sit by doing nothing.

It might well be one of the world's most well-known and most romantic cities but it's certainly not one of the grandest, even by West African standards. Thankfully, the getting to Timbuktu is reason enough to go there.

We had set out from Bamako, Mali's capital, bleary eyed from a late night of dancing to the local music the city is famous for. It's a blend of blues and rock, salsa and percussive tribal beats that has even the most reluctant dancer on their feet. Some of Mali's famous musicians, such as kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, own clubs in the city. If you're lucky, you'll get to hear them play - but not before 3am.

Leaving Bamako's urban sprawl behind, we head north-west on one of the few sealed roads in the country, roughly following the route of the Niger River as it skirts the southern edge of the Sahara. Travelling this road feels like travelling back in time, as trucks and buses are replaced by rickety carts pulled by diminutive donkeys. We're here in the dry season and the endless savannah plains are doused in dust, prickly acacias and baobab trees.

Fulani goatherds peer out at us from under their red conical hats as we drive past. Women, wrapped in brightly coloured sarongs with babies strapped to their backs and heavy bowls of grain or loads of firewood balanced on their heads, trudge along the roadside, walking goodness knows how far to village markets.

We stop at Segou Koro, the ancient capital of the Bambara Empire on the banks of the Niger. It is now not much more than a ghost town, the mud-brick houses slowly being swallowed by sand. We take a walk through dusty streets echoing with the rhythmic beat of women endlessly pounding millet with huge wooden pestles as raggedy, big-bellied children clamber to hold our hands, endlessly repeating "cadeaux, ca va", the ubiquitous plea for a gift that practically serves as a greeting. It's a soundtrack that follows us through Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Everything here is done by hand, pulled by donkey, carried on the head, covered by foot. There are few modern, labour-saving devices in this pre-industrial place. Most of the villages and towns we visit have no power, no TV, no refrigeration. Water is hauled from wells in rubber buckets, food is cooked outside over a fire or baked in beehive-shaped mud ovens, houses are made from mud and are little more than one tiny windowless room. Raw sewage seeps into the streets. Most people sleep on grass mats on the flat rooftops to escape the stifling heat.

We reach Djenne late on a Sunday night, just in time for the weekly Monday market, one of the largest and most colourful in West Africa. Here, thousands of vendors - many from as far away as Mopti and Bamako - lay out their wares in the sand in front of the mosque, buying and selling everything from colourful African-print fabrics to fragrant spices, calabashes (hollowed gourds used as bowls), fruit and dried fish, millet cakes, rice and millet-based cous cous, the much-adored kola nut (a caffeine-laced nut chewed ostensibly to reduce hunger pangs but also for the mild buzz), household wares and even billy goats. The market may well draw the locals but we're drawn to the incomparable mosque. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest mud-brick building in the world, its fantastic arrangement of adobe spires decorated with palm-tree sticks that double as scaffolding during the annual spring festival, when the whole town gets involved in applying new mud render to the building. Sadly, non-Muslims can't go inside, as a result of scantily clad models cavorting inside during a fashion shoot a few years ago - or so the rumour goes.

We continue ever northwards, ditching the four-wheel-drives and trekking for four days through the Pays Dogon, or Dogon country. Here, in the shadow of the Bandiagara Escarpment - a 150-kilometre line of cliffs that cuts through the Sahel eco-region - the Dogon live in tiny villages that cling to the rock faces. By day, we scramble up and down the escarpment, past circumcision sites richly decorated with rock art, curiously shaped mud granaries topped with cone-like hats of thatch and mysterious cave-like Tellem houses (the Tellem were a pygmy-like race that lived high in the clifftops long before the Dogon arrived), which are now used as burial chambers.

We visit the home of local medicine men, the exterior walls studded with fetishes and various parts of dead animals. At night, we sleep under the stars on the rooftops of campments - local houses that provide basic food and sleeping space for travellers - lulled to sleep by the braying of donkeys and waking to the sound of crowing roosters.

The animist Dogon are famous for their masks, worn during ceremonial funeral dances called Dama. Many of the masks depict animals, others represent hunters, some are purely abstract but all are utterly striking. In one village, we are treated to a stunning display of masked dancing that leaves us dumbstruck.

In Mopti, where we sidestep not-so-fresh fish laid out for sale in the dust along the river's edge and huge blocks of salt carried by camel across the Sahara from Timbuktu, we board a pinasse, the traditional transport of choice on the Niger. The next three days pass in a slow blur as we glide up the river wrapped in our sleeping bags as we battle a surprisingly icy headwind. We buy just-caught capitaine fish from Bozo fishermen, wave to giggling kids running along the shore, watch egrets and kingfishers fly by, stretch our legs in tiny mud-brick villages and drop in to tiny schools to give gifts of pens (and sometimes cash). Our hearts bleed for the tiny tots crammed into a dark, grass hut that serves as a school room, where they enthusiastically belt out loud renditions of the Malian national anthem for our pleasure. Our night-time accommodation is a tent in the dunes.

The final leg of our journey has us swaying into the sunset on a two-humped camel to spend the night with a family of Tuaregs, the desert nomads. As darkness falls, the darkly clad women, their foreheads covered in silver medallions, begin their rhythmic clapping and chanting, soon joined by men wearing turbans and flowing indigo robes who brandish swords as they twirl to the music. Unfortunately, dinner is not so enjoyable as we gamely try (but fail) to swallow chunks of grisly "mutton" (I suspect it was actually very old goat) and large lumps of doughy dumplings before escaping the freezing desert night in our "tent" - little more than a grass humpy covering a patch of swept sand - which had been hospitably vacated by the family and festooned with just-removed goat skins that I swear were still dripping.

After this, even the sandy streets of Timbuktu look good.

The writer was a guest of Peregrine Adventures.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Kenya Airways flies to Mali (Bamako) via Hong Kong. Air France flies to Bamako via South-East Asia and Paris.

GETTING AROUND

Local transport in Mali is haphazard and unreliable, particularly flights in and out of Timbuktu, and a guide is essential for any trekking trip through Dogon country.

Peregrine Adventures offers several itineraries in Mali, including a 13-day Road to Timbuktu tour, which costs $4925 a person. Phone 1300 854 500, see peregrineadventures.com.

WHEN TO GO

Best time to travel is between November and January, when it is dry and relatively cool. The rainy season is between June and September; July and August are the wettest months and it's hottest between April and June, when temperatures can be higher than 40 degrees.

FURTHER INFORMATION

You will need to arrange a visa before you leave Australia. Mali does not have a consulate in Australia, so apply through the Japanese embassy in Tokyo. See ambamali-jp.org.

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