Timbuktu and the Sahara Desert

Dr. Watson E. Mills (here riding a camel in the Sahara) retired from his professorship at Mercer University in 2002 and from his role as senior minister at Sharpsburg Baptist Church in mid-2008. Since those retirements he has traveled overseas more than 80 times. The trip to Timbuktu, he says, “is one of the most challenging journeys I have ever undertaken, but also one of the most rewarding!”

The “jumping-off” point from which I began my overland trek to Timbuktu was Mopti, Mali, about seven hours south of Paris. When I stepped off the plane that December afternoon, I was met by the scorching heat, a stark reminder of where I was. A driver from the hotel was there just beyond the barrier waving a cardboard sign with my name (misspelled!), written crudely on it with a marker pen. I got into his “vehicle” which was a 20-something year old Chevy held together by various pieces of bailing wire and duct tape. It sported oddly colored replacement fenders and bumpers from various other models and makes of cars.

Mills with a sign translating to “Welcome to Timbuktu.”

Mopti has been called the “Venice of Mali” and is its eighth-largest city with a population of about 120,000. It is situated near the point where the Bani and Niger Rivers converge. Many of its houses are constructed of sun-dried mud bricks, just like they have been for centuries. Rice fields are prevalent and herds of cattle are visible grazing in the lush fields that belie Mopti’s proximity to the Sahara. Along the river bank, fish are sold, and for the really adventurous, there are flat boats that take the water route to Timbuktu–a very slow journey requiring several days.

Hotels in Mopti have colorful names. Mine was “Y’a Pas de Probleme” (English = no problem). This small hotel is very atmospheric, with many Mali-style cloths, paintings, and masks that are displayed in the lobby areas and along the hallways. A rooftop restaurant offers a cool breeze at night and is a welcome change from the deadly heat of the day.

The hotel’s lively and flamboyant owner had arranged my excursion to Timbuktu for next day, having negotiated a Land Rover to take me there and back. Joining me were two Canadian university students – one was fluent in French and that was helpful since the driver spoke no English. We set out at 8:30 a.m. for the eight-hour, 250-mile journey to Timbuktu. The first two hours were along a paved road, of sorts, until we reached Douentza on the Bamako–Gao highway. From there to the ferry at Korioumé was rough – a washboard! For the final two hours there was no “road” per se, and I wondered just how the driver was able to navigate amidst a sea of sand! It took almost a further five hours to arrive at the Niger River. I learned only later that this area we had just crossed south of the Niger River is not “technically” the Sahara Desert at all, but rather a huge flat, sandy area that leads to it. The Sahara “proper” begins just north of Timbuktu.

When we finally reached the tiny village where the ferry docks were located, we encountered children from the village who clearly reflected the abject poverty of this land-locked country. They congregated around the few cars waiting for the ferry with their tiny hands stretched out for food. They clearly wanted (and needed) far more than we had to offer. Nevertheless, we gladly gave them the cookies and candies we had. Unfortunately, their frail appearance, though tragic, was not an uncommon sight in this part of the world.

After crossing the Niger, it was only 30 minutes before I entered Timbuktu, whose very name indicates “remoteness.” In West Africa and other parts of the world, Timbuktu holds an image that has been compared to a European’s view of Athens. As such, the image of this place is the epitome of distance and mystery. In the stage play Oliver! (1960), the title character sings “I’d do anything for you, dear.” The response of the leading lady is a question: “Go to Timbuktu?” Similar uses of the town’s name may be found in movies where it indicates a place to which one can go and never be found. Timbuktu provided the main setting for two films entitled simply “Timbuktu” (1940, 2014).

A mud mosque in Mali.

Remnants from Timbuktu’s storied past include one of the oldest currently-functioning, universities in the world. The town is also noted for its colorful street markets and mud mosques. Three hundred and thirty three saints were entombed here, and during WWII there was a Nazi POW camp there. In December 1988, Timbuktu’s historic center was designated as a World Heritage site.

The driver dropped me at my hotel where I met Halis whom I had e-mailed many times. He was resplendent in his multi-colored, flowing robes, speaking alternatively in his native tongue and halting, heavily-accented English. At around 5 p.m. he and his assistant drove me out in the Sahara proper. It took me a beat or two to begin to realize where I was. Somehow I had made it to Timbuktu and now I was roaming around the most famous desert in the world. What a sight it was – complete silence and not another living soul to be seen in any direction. As dusk approached, I was able to make out a few flickering lights on the far horizon which were coming from Tuareg camps. I watched the sun disappear to a beautiful quarter moon as Halis’ assistant made a charcoal fire and served hot tea.

The 3.6 million square mile Sahara is the third largest desert in world behind Antarctica and the Arctic. In size it is comparable to the area of China or of the United States. It is also known as the “Great Desert” and engulfs most of North Africa, covering large sections of 10 countries, including Mali. During the day the temperature may reach 120+ degrees and then during the night of the same day it may fall to well below zero.

Thoughts of the Sahara invariably conjure up images of endless, giant sand dunes, but, in many places, the sand comprises only a thin layer atop a gravel substrata. In a few spots the shifting winds have laid bare the gravel base. It is estimated that, overall, the Sahara is just 30 percent sand and 70 percent gravel. The magnitude of the Sahara was overwhelming. It was like being on a cruise ship “out of the sight of land,” but here it was sand that reflected the sun’s rays as far as I could see in all directions. I did not see much of the underlying gravel, and there were some sand dunes, some tiny, others larger. Gone were the goats and other animals I had seen earlier, now replaced with a few random camels. I counted myself very fortunate to witness such a stunning sunset in such a famous desert.

A market in Timbuktu.

The next morning I toured the “historic center” of Timbuktu mostly on foot once we reached the center. I saw the 14th century Dijinguerber Mosque made from mud. We strolled down a maze of narrow streets passing some of the houses where the early explorers once lived. We visited what used to be a famous library and also a museum containing artifacts from the centuries-old history of Timbuktu. We ambled around the main square which is a center for buying and selling food and sundries. The sun was merciless and ever so bright. It was well over 100 degrees. I went to the police station and had my passport stamped “I reached Timbuktu.” Finally, we stopped at the famous well, called Tim, as the story goes, where a woman named Buktou….well, you get the idea.

In the late morning I returned to the hotel for rest-time during the hottest part of the day. Then around 3 p.m. Halis again drove me out deep into the Sahara where I boarded a camel for an hour-long ride. A young Bedouin boy led my camel along a route enjoyed by many tourists. It was a wonderful, unique experience. Then I visited a Tuareg camp where I bought a carefully crafted, wooden bowl that had been made by the artisans there.

The Tuareg tribal folk are an interesting lot. The life they live is simple, not cluttered with technology. I think any westerner’s first thought is to want to socialize these people, bring them up to 21st century speed. On reflection, I believe these people are in many ways like those in Iran and Iraq. Most are not the least bit interested, nor do they even want, western culture and customs. They are quite content as they are and have been for centuries. Life for them is good, simple, and uncomplicated. No need to update.

The next morning I arose very early and retraced the long, arduous route to Mopti. I stopped to visit a huge mud mosque there before retiring for the night. A few days later I will fly to Paris and then on to Atlanta marking the end of a trip which, in my heart of hearts, I doubted I would ever make. A truly difficult journey to one of the most remote locations in the world!

Next time: “The Bridge over the River Kwai”

 

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