Friday, 8 February 2013

Finding Timbuktu

Lindsay in Timbuktu
I wrote a little section of my first novel in Timbuktu...but this is a little travel piece about my journey to that far off city.

Timbuktu hit international headlines in March 2012 with news of a coup led by the (MNLA) National Movement for the Liberation of Asawad, the northern territory of Mali. The Tuareg have sought independence for this region since 1916 and now, achieving their aim, they declared independence in April 2012 although it was not recognized nationally or internationally. In July 2012, they lost control when the extremist Islamist group, MOJWA, invaded Timbuktu who have since destroyed many of the city's shrines and many of its treasured academic manuscripts. Peace in Timbuktu has long been fragile but for a few years, the fabled city was attainable.

Spotting the word ‘Timbuktu’ in my atlas was a revelation. I’d always thought it was a mythical city, so on my discovery at the age of 12, I determined that one day I would go there. Never mind that it seemed utterly inaccessible, nestled in the southern Sahara Desert, somehow I would find Timbuktu.

Djenne's Mosque and Monday market
It was forty years before I made the journey! From Mali’s capital Bamako, a small group of us travelled by road via Ségou to Djenné. An overnight stop here enabled us to see the famous Great Mosque, the world’s largest dried earth building and enjoy the vibrant Monday market. People travelled from miles away for the weekly market, selling and buying everything the Malian household could need. A spectacle of colour, we found dried gourds, woven baskets, gaudy plastic bowls and metal cooking pots alongside brooms made from leaves. Racks of patterned fabrics nestled against piles of every grain, spice, fruit and vegetable that Mali can offer.

We stuffed ourselves with delicious fried plantain and sugared dough balls from the market stalls, not worrying too much that the oil used for frying them looked as if it had been drained from the engine of an old bus. We stocked up on fruit for later.

Children approached us to ask where we were from.
‘England, Angleterre.’
‘Beckham!’ they replied kicking imaginary footballs.

On the road again we made a detour to Sangha and Dogon Country, where we spent a few fascinating days, and then doubled back to Mopti where the real purpose for my journey began.

Our home for three days
Pushing our way through the bustling crowds we found our home for the next three days waiting at the water’s edge with its crew of three and most importantly, our cook. We chugged off up the Niger in our pinasse, one among countless river craft: motorized barges piled with goods, sailing boats with voluminous patched sails, pirogues shunted by pole through the shallow waters, and the small boats of the Bozo fishermen. We passed villages where life took place at the river’s edge. Women washed clothes or pots and pans, young children played and swam, older ones led cattle to the water and everyone waved and greeted us, ‘Ca va?’

As the sun began to sink, our crew steered the pinasse to the banks of the river to moor it for the night. Down the precariously narrow gangplank we carried our tents, folding chairs, cooking utensils, oil lamps and, not to be forgotten, the shovel! (‘What did you do about a loo?’ I would be asked by people who couldn’t understand the concept of camping in a tent that doesn’t have rooms. ‘A handy dune and a shovel’.) By the time we had got our tents up, the sun had disappeared leaving a warm velvety darkness. Our cook produced a delicious meal from very few ingredients, followed by fresh fruit we had bought at one of the villages.

A billion stars shone overhead and I saw the bright arc of a shooting star. I fell asleep to the insistent croaking of bullfrogs.

Next day back on the river was much the same but there wasn’t a moment of boredom. Life on the banks of the Niger is vibrant, intense and ever changing. On board we sat three abreast with a plank table in front of us (one converting to the gangplank, the others to our campsite dining table) and here the only way to the loo - no shovel required - was an inelegant scramble on to the edge of the boat and shuffling along the six inch wide plank to the stern while hanging on to the roof for all you were worth if you wanted to avoid a dip in the water.

Cook bought supper’s main ingredient - two large Capitaine fish from a passing fisherman. A few hours later he produced yet another delectable evening meal as we pitched our tents for a second night beneath the eerie light of the enormous pale moon.

By mid afternoon of our third day on the Niger, the scenery became less green and more desert for we were now in the Sahel. We had seen hippos in the river and now spotted camels on the shore.

Disembarking was a transformation from the quiet lull of river travel to the bustle of the busy little port of Korioume. Transferring to battered Land Cruisers we drove through desert scrub. As buildings came into view we met three haughty Tuareg, immaculately dressed in sky-blue  robes, riding their camels at a smart gallop. We had arrived in Timbuktu.

Making my way down the main street, its sand pitted with tyre tracks and a thousand footprints that would be obliterated by morning, Timbuktu, fabled city of 333 saints, was everything I had dreamed of. It is not as grand as colonial Ségou - not as splendid as Djenné - not as colourful as busy Mopti - but is simply Timbuktu, a place of legend and the rich imaginings of a twelve year old, who forty years on, had achieved her dream.


Joanna said...

I'm so glad you realised your dream, Lindsay. This is a fascinating account. There is something so beautiful about those sky-blue robes and a great majesty in all the places you visited.

Anonymous said...

Lovely account!

Joe Lindsay - Targemaker said...

You wrote that beautifully, Lindsay.
I'm glad you are enjoying my account of my journey there. "Ticket to Timbuktu". I did it a slightly harder way though.
Us Lindsays are an adventurous breed!
Joe Lindsay
Targemaker (ret)

Anonymous said...

Great post and very cool photos. I always assumed it was a real place, but now I have proof! Kalamazoo, on the other hand...

Unknown said...

Fabulous! This is one of the places I most want to visit, but the current situation in the country makes it more difficult now.

Lindsay said...

Oh, JM, I hope you do get there one day, because that will fulfill your ambition and will also mean it is peaceful there again. We will follow each other's footsteps around the world!