The Sahara has always been crucial to life in Timbuktu. The past wealth and almost fantastic reputation of the city was built around the unloading of salt caravans ready for transport down the Niger, which made it a vital point on the trading network that linked the Mediterranean with equatorial Africa. Nowadays, the sands tend to bring more problems than riches, but do continue to provide an exotic backdrop for the almost uniquely alluring destination. Meanwhile, the traditional nomadic life of the Tuareg still has a huge cultural influence. Therefore, it seemed to me that in order to better understand the city, venturing out into the beautiful desert for the first ever time was essential.
Fortunately, doing so is not actually difficult, because the sandy streets soon give way to dunes. In fact, taking a walk out is very pleasant, particularly because finding a lovely, calming feeling of solitude amidst attractive scenery is really fairly easy. It is probably best to go later in the day, when the intense heat has subsided and the visibility of the settled area's lights make finding the way back simple.
However, a much better way to experience the terrain is on the back of a camel, even if, as is sometimes said, the area is not as spectacular as parts of North Africa. There are generally guides in and around the Hôtel le Bouctou, with whom arranging journeys of various distances and durations is possible. It is possible to take a short ride to the so-called Gateway to the Desert, or spend a longer period out. Excursions that stretch into the evening are popular, not only due to the cooler temperatures, but also because there are quite differing visions of beauty during the day, at sunset and by moonlight. Overnight stays can be included, and usually food and tourist orientated entertainments, such as acted sword fights, traditional music and dance are part of the deal. To give a rough idea of cost, the latter kind of package should be somewhere in the region of 25,000 francs. Caution is definitely required when negotiating, as the initially requested fee will probably be too high, whilst one traveller that I met insisted on a low price, and much to her disappointment, got what she paid for, which was very little indeed!
Meanwhile, another thing to be wary of when making plans is the danger that the itinerary will revolve around a visit to a camp that is seemingly home only to determined souvenir sellers. However, there are some cameleers that have an excellent reputation, and they are well worth seeking out in order to avoid any problems, particularly Jiddou ag Almoustapha, who is commonly nicknamed Sandy.
Personally, I was fortunate enough to organise a trip with the friendly and informative Tuareg called Mohammed ag Ahmed, which involved riding out to his small camp, spending the night with the family and returning in the morning. At first, the combination of the camel's rocking gait and the hard saddle made me feel terribly uncomfortable and unsteady. For a while, my hands held the reins tightly, and it was a struggle to make the most of the available views, although a stop at a particularly picturesque spot was scheduled and very much enjoyed. Eventually, after night had fallen, we reached our destination, and once the animals had been unloaded, we settled down to the first of many cups of tea. Spending time sitting with my host and his kin around the fire and enjoying a simple but enjoyable meal proved to be a wonderfully relaxing experience. Although less obviously exciting than the alternative staged activities found elsewhere, it provided a much more insightful glimpse into the basic but dignified way of life of the Blue Men of the Desert, as they are known. Having slept under the stars, we returned to the city in the morning following breakfast, via a larger encampment. Surprisingly, by the time that the return leg was underway, I had relaxed, loosening the grip and going more with the motion, and consequently was much more at ease.