Written by HELEN001 on 28 Mar, 2006
"Right, how about we go for a wander, have a cup of tea somewhere and then do the shopping OK?" We’d already been out in the morning and sampled the delights of the Post Office, the Internet and the Manuscript Museum but that hadn’t exactly…Read More
"Right, how about we go for a wander, have a cup of tea somewhere and then do the shopping OK?" We’d already been out in the morning and sampled the delights of the Post Office, the Internet and the Manuscript Museum but that hadn’t exactly involved much in the way of sight-seeing and we still had to go shopping for food so it sounded like a plan to me. As there were hardly any people around it was quite strange wandering the back alleys. We didn’t bother using a map, when we came to a choice of alleys we just went up the most interesting looking one. Occasionally there would be a glimpse through an open doorway to a courtyard beyond, usually crawling with small children and men, just sitting around.
I can only assume that it was the women who were responsible for the wonderful cooking smells coming from these houses. Eventually we came across what was described as Bouctou’s Well. Legend has it that Timbouctou was named after the woman who used to look after a Tuareg well. The Tuareg for well is tin hence Timbouctou. Other people will tell you that Timbouctou is actually the Tuareg word for "depression in the ground," and the name is therefore self-explanatory. So take your pick. I just hope Bouctou was paid well!! The unspectacular and very dry shallow hole in the ground that may or may not have been the original well if that had even existed was in a large walled area between buildings and there was a sign up saying that the space was being developed into a museum. Around the well were scattered a couple of different types of desert tent and a more permanent reed dwelling. Some small trees provided a bit of shade and there was an extremely over-priced souvenir stall. On the other side of the alley from this ambitious project was the front door of an explorer called Berky. If only he’d known what he’d be missing eh?It was actually quite good to be able to have a look at a bread oven or take photos of a pile of fresh-made mud bricks without someone looking at you as if you’re mad. The few local people we saw were usually female, dressed in their glad rags and all really friendly. At one point a highly excited middle-aged man in immaculate flowing robes came running towards us in the street with his arms outstretched shouting the most effusive greetings in French. For a wild moment I wondered if we’d met before because it was like he was greeting old friends. "You go to festival yes?" he asked. "You see my clothes yes?" At least that’s what we thought he asked us. The first part we could cope with but we had to get him to repeat the second bit."You see my clothes?" he repeated then turned and walked away from us. Except that he didn’t walk he flounced. It was bizarre, a short middle-aged bloke from Timbouctou was mincing up and down the street in front of us. We just stood and stared. He stopped in front of us threw open his arms again and the word "Fashion" exploded from his mouth. Then it clicked. "Fashion show," I said back to him, "at the Festival. You make clothes for the fashion show?""Yes yes," he replied, beaming " and you see my clothes yes?" He told us that this year, as in previous years, his clothes would be at the fashion show and he was so pleased that we would see the show. We told him that we had heard about the fashion show and were looking forward to it. He then abruptly turned and ran off shouting "Must go. Very busy. Much work many things. I go yes?" After that we decided it was time for tea. This is not always as easy as it sounds in Mali and it was becoming sort of obvious that Timbouctou was going to be a real challenge. A handful of shops selling mattresses, a few street traders selling piles of wilting green leaves, not a café in sight and we didn’t bring a map. Terrific! We asked about and when people could help they all seemed to point in the direction of the Grand Marché. We walked around that building I don’t know how many times before we realised it was the Grand Marché.
Although I knew it was less than 5 years old, I hadn’t really expected the market in Timbouctou to look like a derelict three-storey 1960s office block. So we were standing on the broad steps of this building when we noticed a piece of A4-sized paper stuck on the concrete wall with a bit of masking tape. Written in fluorescent green felt pen was the word CAFFE with an arrow pointing to the bottom of a concrete staircase. Inside the style was definitely of the concrete brutalism school of architecture.
The staircase had a twin on the other side of a large, high-ceilinged atrium overlooked by walkways running along the upper levels. Even though light entered through the atrium ceiling it was dark and gloomy. In short, it was like being in an uncompleted suburban shopping precinct but instead of builders material lying around it was full of rubbish. Not rotting rubbish, just stuff like boxes, sacks and planks of wood. That’s actually when we realised it was the market. Having seen the Manuscript Museum that morning I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect the market building to be, if not equally vernacular in design, then at least to have some aesthetic merit. The stairs led to two floors of small shop units, all shuttered and locked. Suddenly a small head appeared around a concrete wall and giggled. Another head appeared just above the first but immediately disappeared at the sound of a voice echoing behind them. There was another giggle from the first head then it too disappeared. The voice came again, Come. Come.’ So we did, up a small flight of rough concrete steps onto the roof. Timbouctou in magnificent disarray was spread all around us. Immediately in front of us were a few plastic tables and chairs shaded by reed matting. The giggling head and its companion were nowhere to be seen but standing gesturing us towards a table stood a young boy of about 15 years old. "Come come," he said gesturing again. The view was excellent and the toilets a pleasant surprise. This makeshift rooftop café was just the perfect and only place for afternoon tea in Timbouctou. Afterwards we came across the Maison des Artisan which gave us the opportunity for a bit of invigorating and intensive Tuareg Trader Dodging. Silver jewellery – maybe, an indigo dyed blanket – possibly, but do I look like someone who needs a Tuareg massage and just what is a Tuareg massage anyway? It was time to go. We passed a sign for the local driving school and wondered where you went once you’d learnt how to drive. Around town small shops and workshops had been set up in abandoned freight containers. How did they get to Timbouctou and why leave them? How come spaghetti seems to be more widely available than cous-cous in the shops and restaurants? Why did the army barracks have two armed sentries at the main gate of their camp when there was a huge hole in the wall round the corner? And just who was this guy Berky anyway? As we wandered back to the hotel we pondered these questions and although we had differing theories for each we did however, concur that Timbouctou may no longer be mysterious for reasons of inaccessibility but it was still deeply mysterious in other respects.
Written by Invicta73 on 30 Sep, 2003
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…Read More
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.
Well it’s not every day that you stand in line waiting for your cornflakes and you’re joined by a fully robed and armed Tuareg scratching his groin! The previous afternoon we’d spent a fair amount of time wandering around the festival site watching the magnificent…Read More
Well it’s not every day that you stand in line waiting for your cornflakes and you’re joined by a fully robed and armed Tuareg scratching his groin! The previous afternoon we’d spent a fair amount of time wandering around the festival site watching the magnificent Tuareg on their camels, round their tents, preparing and cooking food, making and selling crafts. It seemed perfectly reasonable to us that we too should be subject to a spot of reciprocal curiosity. He declined the offer of breakfast but stood leaning against the side of our truck and, girls, did he have eyelashes to die for! God only knows what he thought watching us though.
A group of about 25 mixed gender adults of varying ages, some sitting in a circle eating, others waited for food. In the centre of the circle were two females stretched out comatose on plastic rugs. The empty beer bottles from the previous evening’s pre-performance aperitifs were clustered between the camping stools. Were we a tribe? What was that warm brownish liquid we were drinking that was obviously quite unpleasant? Where were our children? Why did we, after eating, rub sand on our plates, dip them in water and then walk around waving them in the air?* Did he find us inoffensive or did he consider us a brief unpleasant encounter? Or was he just wondering which poor sod had the job of cleaning the scrambled egg pan? I’ve no idea.
Nevertheless he stood watching for about ten minutes or so then nodded, turned and walked away over the sand. We shouted goodbye. His visit had been neither expected nor unexpected. Beyond the obvious elements such as music, a stage, camels, tents, Tuareg, and the desert there were few expectations about the festival. If you are the sort of person who finds uncertainty difficult to deal with then the Festival of the Desert is not for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy the slightly surreal and are unfazed by the absence of any particular order in your life for a few days then this is the place. The place in question is an oasis called Essakane, that could be anywhere between 60 and 85km NW of Timbouctou depending on which guide book you read, who you talk to, your mode of transport or which particular sand trap of a route you take once off the hardtop road. You’ve also got to factor in how many times you have to stop and dig yourselves out of the sand. The first Festival au Desert was in 2001 and Essakane has been the fixed site since 2003. Hosted by the Malian Government, all the elements of a traditional Tuareg gathering have developed into a successful fusion of both Tuareg and Malian culture and music. A number of international musicians have performed at the festival since 2003, some well known, some obscure, some excellent and some frankly embarrassingly abysmal. The musician perhaps most closely associated with the festival is the recently deceased Ali Farka Touré.
Over the weekend many tributes were made to the then seriously unwell musician by both officials and performers. Foreign visitors, more familiar with the "western" style of festival may find the organisation and management at Essakane to be a bit of a shambles. It’s not really though, because it seems to manage itself. So what if the order and times of performances shown in the programme bear absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the actual reality of events? Does it really matter if, after dragging yourself through miles of inhospitable terrain at great peril to yourself in order to worship at the feet of your favourite calebasse player you end up listening to some Nirvana tribute band from Sweden? Do you think you might have a problem listening to an opening speech nearly 3 hours long and seems to involve thanking everybody in the Malian telephone directory for their support? Again, if the answer is yes, then forget it. Go to WOMAD. The reality of the festival was spectacle, theatre, drama, intense colour, the unfamiliar sitting side by side with the familiar. The rich bronze leather of a Tuareg tent contrasting with the metallic silver paint of the showroom gleaming Toyota 4x4 parked outside. A statuesque Tuareg standing on the ridge of a dune, satellite phone held to his ear. The space on both sides of the stage was taken up by rows of Tuareg on camels watching the performers. Pedestrians had the front of the stage where at night, between your feet sat vendors with small charcoal stoves selling steaming hot tea and coffee.
But it wasn’t just the performers who provided the spectacle – so too did a few of the audience. One afternoon a group of us were sitting on the ridge of the dune opposite the stage listening to the music when someone said, ‘I see Colonel Gadhafi managed to make it this year!’ Sure enough, there was this man standing alone ramrod straight staring intently at the stage wearing a uniform identical to the one Gadhafi wears on formal military occasions. Dollops of gold braid on the epaulettes and on the rim of his cap, aviator sun glasses – a dead ringer! Someone told us he was actually the local mayor but it did seem a slightly unusual mayoral outfit. So what about the music? Well the two comatose females on the plastic rugs could attest that staying up until 4am to hear Baba Salah on the Friday night had been worth the effort. Only 3 hours late but still sticking to the programme. At some point on the Saturday afternoon it became apparent that the best course of action was to forget the programme, relax and take the music as it came. OK, so you might miss your favourite Mauritanian kora player but you could discover you have a passion for the chants guerriers of NE Mali instead. On a personal level, if you ever get a chance to go and see a South African/Brazilian act called Ktah Keya then go.
Unusual is probably the best word to describe this group of, to quote the programme, musicians, dancers, cameramen and translators(!). I’m still not quite sure what I was listening to and watching, or even if I liked it, but it was definitely different. Sadly I have to report that we were unanimous in our verdict on the lead guitar wielding American lassie and her banshee-like wailing dedicated to the people of Essakane. The people of Essakane were for the most part of the same opinion and left in their droves for the dance tent which was excellent. If you ever wonder what happened to rave music, well with the added element of numerous modes of national dress it’s alive and kicking in Mali.
On the whole though the music was fine especially some of the chanced upon small, impromptu, acoustic sessions that took place round the site over the weekend. When not effusively thanking the sponsors yet again, in between acts, there was a good deal of reference to the festival being a platform for world peace and cultural exchange from the highly excitable MC. My personal favourite cultural exchange was listening to some of our lot sitting round our campfire one night with some Malian army guys comparing the difference between animal sounds in English and West African! And as for world peace well, why not? The Festival au Desert is an extraordinary but somewhat problematic event to write about. Although still in the minority, the number of tourists has been increasing steadily since its inception. Logic dictates that the more word spreads about the festival the more tourists will attend in future and so the essence of the experience will change. There is rumour of a proposed hardtop road over the last 30km or so over the dunes which would make the journey from Timbouctou considerably shorter than the 5 hours it took us and infinitely more accessible to larger numbers of visitors.
It will then just be a matter of time before it will no longer be possible to wander round the VIP tents and hobnob with the performers or the Minister for Culture and Tourism or wander onto the stage and sit in the corner during a performance. It remains to be seen whether the organisers can or even want to prevent the commercialisation that seems to have been the way with larger established festivals in Europe and the US. Having been to the festival and had a brilliant time I can’t help wondering if I am contributing to the erosion of authenticity by recommending it to other travellers? On the other hand, why shouldn’t everyone have the chance to sit on a sand dune, wrapped in blankets, under a full moon while listening to some excellent music drinking mint tea? * best way to dry them!
Written by drumzspace on 29 Apr, 2005
Just about anywhere you go in Mali, you'll find people who know people who have a camel or who are musicians or "silversmiths" or whatever. Basically, they're selling something, and you'll have no trouble finding a souvenir trinket or experience. In fact, the…Read More
Just about anywhere you go in Mali, you'll find people who know people who have a camel or who are musicians or "silversmiths" or whatever. Basically, they're selling something, and you'll have no trouble finding a souvenir trinket or experience. In fact, the only trouble you'll have is figuring out how to haggle properly.
Malians have a "three stage" method of haggling. The first price you're given is never supposed to be the right one. You counter with your incredibly low price (figure about 25% of what you really want to pay). They'll scoff and tell you that they have a family to feed, etc., and then they'll start again.
You counter their second offer with about 50% to 75% of what you want to pay, and then they'll freak out, saying that there's no way they can sell it to you for that little.
Round three begins with their third price barely creeping much lower, but you offer 100% of what you're willing to pay. They'll complain that you're ripping them off and refuse to sell... until you get up to leave, then they'll gladly sell you the item/service. Once you figure, "Hey, I got a GREAT deal on this," you'll find that they now have lots more stuff to sell you, and that your "deal" ended up being more of a deal for THEM than it was for YOU. But that's the fun of haggling. You can afford paying a little more for the trinkets, and when you consider how much they actually make in a year, you don't feel all that bad about getting "ripped off" for an extra $2.
Written by jurgen on 09 Aug, 2001
There are several ways to get to Tombouctou, and none of them is easy. Of course you can fly to the city with Air Mali, but this airline's nickname (Air Maybe) makes you think twice. The two best alternatives are the boat or the 4WD.…Read More
There are several ways to get to Tombouctou, and none of them is easy. Of course you can fly to the city with Air Mali, but this airline's nickname (Air Maybe) makes you think twice. The two best alternatives are the boat or the 4WD. By boat you can reach Tombouctou from Mopti, it will take about 3 days to get there. But most large pinasses have a toilet, so you'll survive.I went there by 4WD from Mopti. The first 200km you'll drive over a good road to Douentza. The last 200km are through the desert. It is a tough ride, but this can also be fun. We were lucky it had not rained much. One week later this would have been another story. We reached the ferry to Tombouctou at 17.30. After a short ride over the dyke we reached town. Of course, if you like adventures, it is also possible to reach Tombouctou by camel. From Marrakech (Morocco) it takes about a month, from Douentza a week. But trust me...a 4WD is better...
Before you make a trip to Tombouctou, make sure you have also arranged the trip back. Getting there is easy, but getting back is another story. The easiest way to do this is to just rent a 4WD for the whole week.
After having visited Tombouctou we left for Gao, in the east of Mali. There is no road between Tombouctou and Gao so it takes some time. We got there in two days. The drive is spectacular. You will pass high sand dunes and big plains. When you arrive in Gao you will feel like you've just driven the Paris-Dakar rally. Close