The Journey to Timbuktu…

Yes, Timbuktu really does exist – and what a journey it was to get there!

Our bad luck streak started before we even left Canada! Each airline we tried to book on went out of business, and when we finally found a solvent one, we weren’t sure that it would get us home, but we took our chances anyway. We had nothing to lose and we really wanted to get to Timbuktu!

We arrived in Dakar, Senegal, but our luggage did not! It finally showed up 48 hours later, after we had spent many hours and lots of money on clothing and essentials (underwear was $25.00 a pair!) Our tour leader then informed us that Air Mali was bankrupt and would not be flying us from Timbuktu to Bamako at the end of our trip. We would have to travel by land – a 2-day delay. Oh well!

Dakar, once a beautiful old French Colonial city, is now just full of deteriorated old buildings. The city is a music mecca, a “must see” if you are a fan of Senegalese music!

We departed Senegal on what we later nicknamed the “cockroach express”. The Dakar – Bamako train was scheduled to take 28 hours, but actually took 40! Among the many things one could purchase at the colourful stations along the way were lovely straw fans. These were as close as we came to air conditioning. The open window on the 25km/hour train just didn’t cut it! The dining car had a set menu comprising of one dish only! It wasn’t too bad considering the kitchen conditions. Sometimes we dined there, and other times we bought lovely French baguettes out of the train window, as we passed through mud/thatch villages.

We finally we arrived in Bamako and were met by our local tour guide, Telly. After 40 hours of hell, he was a welcome sight, as was our lovely air-conditioned bus and the clean air-conditioned hotel rooms. Refreshed and rejuvenated, we set off in our mini-van to Djenne (via Segou). Djenne is a UNESCO sight and one of the highlights of the trip. It houses the largest mud mosque in the world, which is very impressive. You should really try and make it there in time for the colourful Monday market which takes place in the square – backdropped by the beautiful mosque. The sights and sounds and colour really stand out against all the brown. We spent our time wandering through the alleyways, and over the rooftops, looking down on life below. We engaged a couple of local boys as our “personal shoppers”. They helped us bargain for mudcloth, batik, bangles, and organized a tailor for us too!

Our next stop was Dogon country. WOW! We were driven to the middle of the escarpment and descended on foot down the uneven, steep grade into the valley below. It was incredible watching our porters effortlessly snake down the rock-face, laden with boxes, cooking and camping gear on their heads, and only flip-flops on their feet! We finally made it down and arrived at our first night stop. We were promptly offered cold beer and coke (we thought they were kidding, but the Chief had a fridge in his mud hut!) Our cook whipped up a wonderful 3-course meal in one pot, over an open fire, in the middle of nowhere, for 14 people. He did this every day, 3 times a day. Incredible!

Our days in Dogon were spent walking to villages in the cool early morning hours, then lunching and having a little siesta before continuing on to our night stop. We constantly ran into inquisitive little kids or farmers as we wandered between villages. At the end of each day we erected our tents on the villagers’ roofs or in a nearby field. One of the highlights of our Dogon visit was when we were treated to some colourful and traditional masked dancing, performed by the young men of the village, and witnessed and blessed by their elders. A truly unique and unforgettable experience.

On day 4 we finally made the journey up and out of the valley. It was steep, and it was hot, but it was worth it, as it afforded us some truly magnificent views over Dogon country below.

From Dogon we made our way to Mopti where we spent the night before heading up the Niger River to Timbuktu. This was a 3 day/2 night cruise, although I use the term “cruise,” loosely! Our boat was a thatch covered pinasse (dugout canoe), with hard wooden bench seats. The life on the river was amazing. We passed fishing boats, crowded local ferries and lots of little fishing villages (bozo villages). As we docked at each of these, hundreds of kids ran out to greet us, shouting “ca va’, ‘cadeaux’ and ‘bon bon’ . We felt like explorers from a bygone era. The locals thought we were such a novelty and we had lots of fun with them! At night we camped along the desert shores. Beautiful and peaceful. We saw no other tourists for the whole 3 days.

We reached the end of our river journey and were welcomed by our drivers who brought us to Timbuktu by jeep. Timbuktu has the feel of a frontier town, right on the edge of something big, which it is! We enjoyed our day wandering the streets with our guide “Mohammed Ali” pointing out the mosques, Koran schools and the homes of the explorers that had first come there. It is dusty and brown, with the monotony only broken by the vibrant dress of the women strolling by. We did the touristy thing and rode a camel with the Tuaregs, out into the Sahara. It was beautiful looking back and seeing Timbuktu in the distance, blending into the desert.

After boarding our privately chartered Russian plane, (with Kazak pilots), we made our way back to Bamako, where we bid a sad farewell to the group and leaders. Over the weeks we had learned so much from Telly about Mali and it’s people, and had developed a lovely friendship with him. We had all experienced so much!

I departed West Africa with a range of mixed emotions. I was physically tired, and by the time we had finished with the Bamako airport beaurocracy, I was frustrated and truly happy to be heading home. We encountered even more difficulties than I have written about (we lost more luggage, hotel beds collapsed from under us and I was almost knocked unconscious when a mud brick fell out of the roof and onto my head while I slept). All of that certainly made for a challenging trip. Despite all of our bad luck, when I think about the smiles of the kids, the colour and sounds of the markets, and the warmth of the people of Mali, I am so glad that I made the remarkable journey to Timbuktu.

We got back to Canada only to discover that we had made it out on Sabena’s last flight to North America! I guess we really were meant to make the trip after all! Despite all of the difficulties we encountered and the bad luck we had along the way, this was an amazing trip and well worth doing!


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